Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The Archivist: U2 - Achtung Baby

Baby, Baby, Baby, light my way.
U2 have always had a touch of the Grandiose about them. From their early punk beginnings, Bono & the boys have always gone for the jugular with huge chords and even bigger vocals.
After Queen, U2 were the biggest surprise of Live Aid in that hot day of July 25th 1985. They performed a set which would launch them to Mega Stardom. Extended a version of Bad to such an extent they lost their last song, Pride. But the gamble paid off and they were handsomely rewarded. Following The Unforgettable Fire album, in which they worked with Brian Eno & Daniel Lanois for the first time, they went off to discover THEIR America. The result was the decade defining album, The Joshua Tree. With this album and the subsequent movie soundtrack/new album Rattle & Hum - released in 1988 - they explored their American Dreams just as millions of Irish have before them. Widescreen, panoramic music that encompassed the American landscape and huge ideas. They reached a point where their fame could not be surpassed. Just as Dire Straits had before them. It seemed that U2 would also follow in the same path as the Straits and disband at the top of their game. Where else could they go?
In a space of 3 years - to the end of 1991 - U2 set about reinventing themselves, both in sound, visuals and attitude. The result was the career defining album Achtung Baby. Indeed, when other bands try the same sort of reinvention, which is pretty rare, the subsequent album is often referred to as their 'Achtung Baby'.
The band decided to decamp to the Hansa Studio in Berlin. To say it was an fraught recording process is an understatement. The band had constant arguments about the new direction the band were taking and the quality of the material they were recording. But they stuck at it and produced one of the best albums ever committed to vinyl, or cd. 
The opening track of the album, Zoo Station, although proceeded by the single The Fly, sets the tone for the album. Bold, Experimental and Direct. U2 had dispatched their American influences for a totally European feel. Hansa Studios had given birth and inspired some of the best albums in recording history, including Bowie's Low & Heroes albums, Iggy's Lust For Life and albums by Tangerine Dream & Depeche Mode amongst others.

The opening single The Fly was totally unexpected. I remember the reaction when it was released. People couldn't believe it was U2.
The Achtung Baby Tour was a landmark of live performance. I was lucky enough to catch them at the very first indoor gigs where they hung Trabant Cars from the ceiling of the venue. The band were dressed totally different in sequins, leathers and colour. It was dark, dangerous, moody, introspective, exceptionally camp and totally brilliant. An experience I will never forget.
The album lit the touchpaper for what was to become a new career for U2. They went on to have the fabulous ZOO TV tour and release albums that were challenging and new. 
Probably the best known song from the album and the one that has turned into a classic was the song ONE.
From the disappointing response to their previous album Rattle & Hum, the new Achtung Baby garnered terrific reviews, as can be seen in the Rolling Stone review in the link below.
It is ironic now that U2 find themselves in the same position as they did following Rattle & Hum. I don't expect we'll see another  Achtung Baby moment in the history of U2 - but wouldn't it be just totally fabulous Darling.
Twitter - @U2

1 comment:

  1. Hi Nick. Just wanted to let you know you're doing a great job with the new blog. I've been meaning to weigh in on some of your entries, but it's a bit of a challenge picking up internet here in our Florida winter cottage. Nice neighbours letting us "borrow" their connection, but it's weak and inconsistent.

    However, after two consecutive bold confessions (Coldplay & U2), I just had too back you up and admit that I too am a fan of both bands. I even came out of the closet, placing U2 at #12 during our "Top 125 Favorite Albums" over at "Cathedrals Of Sound" blog
    I took some heat, as U2 appear to be unanimously loathed by just about every record snob. Even my normally diplomatic mate Trevor Jones seems to relish firing random pot-shots at poor old Bono...

    Anyway, I can only echo your unapologetic respect for Achtung Baby & U2. What you've written here kinda reflects what I wrote in a long-winded defense of the band's Joshua Tree at #12 on my list. Here's what I wrote...

    #12 - U2 - "THE JOSHUA TREE" (1987)

    - Love U2... Hate U2... Love U2... Hate U2... I've been the most unloyal follower of these wee leprechauns. I was quite a massive fan for years, right up until shortly after Joshua Tree's release, when the band became massive with the entire bloody universe. Naturally, it was time to mutiny... So I pretty much ignored their bombastic "ironic" period of giant lemons, hovering Trabants, MacPhisto, Popmart, blah, blah, blah... pretentious BS as far as I could see.

    It wasn't until over a decade later, when they ditched all the glam & sham with 'All That You Can't Leave Behind' that I took notice again. A great pop-rock record. Then one night a broadcast of the "Elevation Tour - Live from Boston" came on TV. I was completely blown away. Intense, emotional, breathtaking stuff. Crap, they really were the world's best rock band! Until The End Of the World, Bad, I Will Follow, Elevation, Stay, The Fly, Desire, Kite etc... all absolutely electrifying performances. The highlight without a doubt, Where The Streets Have No Name... simply a transcendental experience. I'd been oblivious to a ton of great music in that "lost" decade. I was reluctantly back on board with a popular band. Fickle as I am, of course that would change!

    U2 are a polarizing band, mostly thanks to Bono. No doubt he's a cocky, loudmouth rockstar, but I believe he's well-intentioned. I've seen film of him out helping with the lowest of the low, holding malnourished kids with festering wounds, snot, flies & excrement. Putting on a show? I think not. More of a man than I could ever be...

    You've gotta to give them an "A" for effort, vision, ambition and longevity. And say what you will, talented as well. Larry & Adam are as solid a rhythm section as you can get, Edge's minimalistic echo-laden guitar work has been seminal, and Bono the charismatic showman does have the pipes. I think we forget how courageous they've been with some of their choices. Eno/Lanois' complex, obscure experimentalism after an album like War? The challenging sonics of Achtung Baby after Rattle & Hum? Giant cojones...

    When I began compiling my Top 125 I wasn't sure about U2, since I've been scorning them again since laying their worst cowplop ever, No Line On The Horizon. However, I knew that there would certainly be a U2 record on the list, part of my history...

    I know most of you will beg to differ big-time with me on this one. I'm not likely to change minds, but I believe Joshua Tree is a dark, powerful, uncompromising record. Even now, it sounds unlike anything else ever recorded, and deserves a top spot on my list...

    PS: Keep up the good work MF. Really enjoying your pieces...