There are moments that are never forgotten. Such was the initial shock from the sound of The Edge's guitar moaning in the opening of "Zoo Station", the sound of the industrial drums emerging right behind it and Bono's distorted voice informing us "I'm Ready ..", but caught us really "not ready". As the years go by we increasingly realize the magnitude of the change "U2" made at the time, and the courage it took for it to step out of its comfort zone, and out of a conscious choice to go as far as possible from the meteoric album "The Joshua Tree," which bought it world fame.
On November 18, 1991, "U2" made the biggest turnaround in its history, with the release of its seventh studio album, "Achtung Baby". Stay tuned for more coverage in the "Class of 91' Albums" series.
It was a year we thought we had heard almost everything. A year that drove us crazy in the good sense of the word. A year that played with our musical taste, one that broadened our horizons and even changed our look. But with all the positive upheavals we went through on that meteoric year, we really were not ready for this thing. The sounds that came from the speakers did not remind us at all of the band that a few years earlier had released one of the great albums of the 1980s. We later learned that the band had gone through a long and painful creative process with this album. A process that began with a self-search, but very quickly caused frictions and crises that threatened its future and almost led to the disintegration of the so cohesive Irish gang.
After the release of "The Joshua Tree" in 1987, "U2" was on the top of the world. It was their most commercially successful album, with sales of over 25 million copies worldwide. It gave the band great critical acclaim, it conquered the tops of the charts and won a Grammy Award for Best Album in 1988. It brought them world fame and turned them from a band of medium venues into a formidable stadium monster. But after the high tide, came the low. In 1988 "U2" released the double album and movie "Rattle and Hum" and received less sympathetic criticism and accusation that they lost their direction and became pretentious and bombastic. In retrospect, this ambitious project was not properly understood by the crowd and some of the criticism it got did it no justice. The fact that the album sold a nice amount of 14 million copies did not sweeten the bitter pill and the members of "U2" felt a huge emptiness. They felt they had everything but still something essential was missing. Drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. was even later quoted as saying in an interview with "Rolling Stone" magazine "We were the greatest, but we were not the best". The big question that was written on the wall was "Where do they go from here?"
During the "Lovetown" tour to promote the album "Rattle and Hum", the band began to get bored of performing their big hits. The feeling was of musical stagnation. At the end of the tour, during a performance in front of a local audience in Dublin, on December 30, 1989, Bono noted the following: it was "the end of something for U2", and that "we have to go away and ... dream it all up again"
And indeed it was. After the tour, the band took its longest break to date. It was already clear to everyone that things were going to look different and that they needed to reinvent themselves. The band members realized that in order to do so they had to, first and foremost, change old habits. They believed that working on the album close to home was their "enemy", and that if they wanted to do it different this time, they should distance themselves from the usual "family" routine. The four members wandered following the "winds of change" that heralded the new post-Cold War in Europe, choosing the city of Berlin as their source of inspiration. On the recommendation of Brian Eno, they sought to record at the mythical "Hansa" studios in West Berlin, right next to the recently fallen Berlin wall. Quite a few acclaimed albums were recorded in these studios, including two of David Bowie's "Berlin Trilogy" in which Brian Eno was involved in and the members of the band hoped to draw inspiration for writing the material for the album there.
The band members arrived in East Berlin on the very last flight, on the eve of the city's reunion, on October 3, 1990. But instead of being inspired by the "winds of change" and the festive atmosphere that brought with it the fall of the Berlin wall, "U2" members found the city cold, alienated and depressing. The hotel where they stayed in, in East Berlin was gloomy and dark and the winter was not welcoming. They discovered that Studio 2 of the "Hansa" studios where they plan to work served as the "SS" ballroom, and in addition they find that it was neglected for years, forcing producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois to rebuild it. To these logistical difficulties one can add the emotional difficulties experienced by the band members including the fact that The Edge had just divorced his wife and mother of three children as well as the immense mental pressure on the band to reinvent itself.
And if you thought it could not be more difficult, then came the frictions that almost led to the disbandment of "U2". The band worked in the studio for long days but could not agree on a musical direction. The Edge listened at the time to electronic music and industrial rock with influences from bands like "Einstürzende Neubautenu" and "Nine Inch Nails". Bono was also connected to the new musical directions and was influenced by the Manchester club scene, but that was not the case with Larry and Adam. At the time they preferred "classic rock" such as "Blind Faith", "Cream" and Jimi Hendrix. The gaps between the two "groups" were abysmal. While Bono and The Edge looked ahead and turned to innovation, Larry and Adam were stuck in the past and preferred to focus on music that was from the same family of materials the band had previously recorded. This disagreement caused Bono and The Edge to distant themselves from the other two and start writing on their own. The situation worsened when they returned to the studio with preliminary sketches, as The Edge's growing interest in industrial and electronic music and club mixes, established the beat on drum machines and it made Larry Mullen, Jr. feel that his contribution as a drummer was diminishing.
Similar to the previous two albums "The Joshua Tree" and "The Unforgettable Fire" the band preferred to continue with the duo Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois as the ones who would accompany them in producing the album. They saw the two and especially Brian as a formidable source of knowledge, literally a "school of music." He was the one who pushed them to explore and develop musically and he was also the one who taught them to use the studio and effects as creative tools for anything and everything. For this reason "U2" members have realized that they are simply not allowed to give up on the duo, especially in circumstances where they seek to reinvent themselves. Eno took on the role assigned to him very seriously. He deliberately distanced himself from the band and came to the studio from time to time, went over the materials, advised and gave the band a different and fresher perspective aimed at innovation. He noted that his said his role was "to come in and erase anything that sounded too much like U2". But even that did not help the band overcome its external and internal difficulties. After many hours in the studio and repeated attempts with drum machines, electronic sounds and effects, they felt stuck and frustrated.
But just then, out of desperation during a repetitive musical work on "Sick Puppy" which is an early version of the song "Mysterious Ways", a breakthrough suddenly came. The Edge played a new chord sequence that simply grabbed Lanois's ear. He suggested taking this sequence out and using it for a new song. The band found in this chord sequence the inspiration and enthusiasm they needed and they quickly improvised a new song on it, that became the third single from the album "One". Bono noted that this song just fell from the sky. His core was written in 30 minutes as he improvised words that were influenced, among other things, by the crumbling relationship between them, the divorce of The Edge and the union of Berlin. This song breathed new spirit into the band morally and creatively, it gave them the confidence they needed and most of all united them and restored their faith in themselves. The Edge later said: "It was a pivotal song in the recording of the album, the first breakthrough in what was an extremely difficult set of sessions."
This song completely did not match the musical direction the band was aiming for. On the contrary! It was closer in spirit to what the band had created on the previous album "The Joshua Tree" and maybe that's why Brian Eno did not really like it at first. But this song was exactly what the band needed for saving itself, what's more, it eventually became their anthem, which among all its titles and achievements become the "Song of the Decade" of the 90s of "Galgalatz" radio station charts held in Israel in the year 2000 .
The big change that "U2" underwent on "Achtung Baby" can be heard from the first notes on the album. The metallic sound of the moaning guitar at the opening of "Zoo Station", which we mentioned at the beginning of the review, heralds the arrival of a new band. One that was born on the ruins of the previous band. Anyone who accompanied "U2" in the 1980s and listened to their albums in real time, will surely tell you about the total shock he experienced while listening to the first sounds of the album, which were light years away from those produced by the band on the previous album "The Joshua Tree". Bono would later define the sound of this album as the "the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree" and he was so right !!! There is no doubt that the choice to open the album with "Zoo Station" was not accidental. It is meant to shake and shock the listener and make him ponder and wonder if he is indeed listening to "U2". The lyrics were inspired by a surrealist story about the Berlin Zoo that was bombed during World War II and the animals fled from it and wandered through the ruins of the city.
But the total turnaround that "U2" made with "Achtung Baby" was not just musical. It was also expressed in look & appearance, dress, attitude and the way they refer to live performances from that moment on. The song (or rather the clip) that best presents this makeover is of the song "The Fly", which is a showcase to "The Fly" persona that Bono adopted in the form of a stereotypical, pretentious, megalomaniacal rock star, wearing leather and big black sunglasses that look Like insect eyes. This character was undoubtedly a central part of the band's transformation and it among other things came as an answer to all those critics who claimed that the band was pretentious and full of itself, just like the character created by Bono. Based on this character, "U2" will build the concept of the "Zoo TV" tour that will accompany the album, as well as the idea for the album cover. In this case, too, the band made a conscious choice to release this song as the first music video and single from the album, with the clear aim of introducing the world to the new "U2" and its updated sound. The lyrics were written based on an imaginary idea of a phone call going on between the character of the "Fly" from hell and a man on the other end of the line. "The Fly" enjoys being in hell and is telling that person what he learned and experienced there, but in the end his got to hang up since he is "running outta change... There's a lot of things if I could I'd rearrange".
The change in "U2"'s sound was not only reflected in The Edge' guitar effects. This is the band's first album with a drum machine. The fact that Edge brought it into the studio, initially created great frustration for drummer Larry Mullen, Jr., who felt that his contribution to the band was diminishing. But Larry learned to get used to the new situation and at one point even started having fun with the drum machine and learning to operate it. He later began recording himself playing short drumming parts and looping them through the drum machine. This gave the drum machine a more lively and authentic sound. The turning point in Mullen's attitude towards the drum machine is related to the song "Mysterious Ways" which was released as the second single from the album. The song started as a jam of Bono, Edge and Adam Clayton on a drum machine. The friends really liked Adam's amazing baseline but they had a very hard time developing the song. The breakthrough came after The Edge began experimenting with the effects unit of "Korg A3". He played the funky riff with the familiar effect on the drum machine and then it worked. Towards the end of the session drummer Larry Mullen recorded a much more groovy beat into the drum machine and this is already what made the difference between the mechanical sound of a drum machine and the live sound of a real drummer.
The fourth single released from the album was "Even Better Than the Real Thing". It originated in a guitar riff that The Edge composed in Los Angeles during the "Rattle and Hum" sessions. It was even recorded during the same session in which the song "Desire" from the same album was recorded. The band thought the song's guitar riff reminded them to much of "the Rolling Stones", and the song was shelved until the "Achtung Baby" recording session. Also in this case the band made very little progress in the first sessions in Berlin, which were full of conflicts. The turnaround came after The Edge acquired a "DigiTech Whammy Pitch Shift" effect, through which he created a double octave sound on the guitar riff. This excited the band and made them rediscover the song and finally finish its writing.
The fifth single "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses", is in our opinion one of the most beautiful and special of it, but the band does not really think so. It started as a demo the band recorded in 1990. They worked on it endlessly and recorded a variety of versions for it and some say about ten mixes, but failed to reach a satisfactory result. In desperation they invited producer Steve Lillywhite who produced the band's first three albums, to experience his opinion and try to help as a third party who had not heard the song yet. Lillywhite said the band just hated the song. He worked on it for about a month and he is still sure that the song did not fulfil it's potential and he noted that probably the band just tried too hard. Maybe that’s also the reason why the band said they had a hard time playing it on stage.
The five singles released from the album certainly do not sum up all the good that is in this mighty album, which does not have even one weak moment.
The band began writing the song "Until the End of the World" back in 1990. It was then called "Fat Boy" and originated in a guitar riff written by the lead singer Bono. Even though The Edge loved the riff, the band had a hard time finish writing it until they met with German filmmaker Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire), who was looking for music for the soundtrack to the film "Until the End of the World". The Edge was re-inspired to use the riff that Bono wrote and this time the band managed to finish writing the song. It moved them so much that they decided to include it on the album as well. They informed Wenders that he could get the song for the soundtrack, but that they were also going to include it on the album and use the name of the film as its title.
This album is darker and gloomier than its predecessors. There is no denying that this is due to the musical influences on the band during the writing process and the general atmosphere in Berlin at the time. But it is mostly so in light of the divorce proceedings that The Edge went through at the time. The four friends knew each other from childhood and the difficult breakup that Edge went through had a significant impact on them as well and from there on the writing topics that recounted the pain and hardships experienced by The Edge. These songs are mostly (and probably intentionally) concentrated in the second part of the album, and you can even find a loose connection between them, which can even be interpreted as a kind of mini-concept that describes a relationship between him and her. It starts with the exciting "So Cruel" which talks about disappointed in love, obsession and possessiveness, it continues with "Tryin 'to Throw Your Arms Around the World" which presents a character of a drunk man stumbling home to his partner and it ends with a sequence of songs describing how the couple dealing with the suffering they forced on each other. "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)" describes a strained relationship and the discomfort that comes with commitment, "Acrobat" the betrayal, weakness and hypocrisy in the relationship and the mighty ending song "Love Is Blindness" is a bleak description of a failed relationship led by the moaning and howling guitar of The Edge, mourning the bitter fate of the one who holds it. The Edge will later admit that he was actually crying while constructing the solo.
"Achtung Baby" may not be U2's biggest album, but it's probably it's most important one. This is the album that saved the band from disbanding. The album that saved them from a painful dying process, experienced by a large part of the eighties bands, who were unable to adapt to the changing musical reality. But more than that, it's the album that made "U2" one of the greatest bands in history. A band that, at least until the beginning of the 2000s, will continue to reinvent itself time and time again, in order to maintain its relevance at the top of the music world.
This album, released in one of the greatest years ever in music history, won a Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal. This is not a trivial matter, especially when it comes to a year in which so many masterpieces have been released in, a year in which Grunge has exploded into the music market. It is therefore no wonder that "Achtung Baby" is still considered today, by many, to be one of the greatest albums of the 90's and one of the most important of all time.