Don’t Let The Bastards Grind You Down: Achtung Baby At 30
U2 kicked off their 90s with a landmark album they have yet to top
While there might have been some people out there tired of U2 by the end of 1989, it’s likely nobody was more tired U2 than themselves.
They’d burst on to the scene with 1980’s Boy and within a few years, had become arena stars, which was really cemented with 1987’s classic The Joshua Tree, where the band weren’t just anthemic rock mainstays but pop superstars with number 1 singles in the U.S. (“With Or Without You” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
Ah, yes, America. There’s where things take a turn. U2 had taken an interest in the country and it was an inspiration for its next album, an exploration of styles of music and of the country itself. If only it had been just an album. Unfortunately for U2, they got the idea to also turn it into a feature length documentary with the same title: U2: Rattle and Hum.
The album turned out to be a mixed bag, not every genre experiment among the new studio tracks worked, even though there were some standouts — the U2-does-Bo Diddley “Desire”, the respectful, loving soul tribute ‘”Angel of Harlem” and the closing ballad “All I Want Is You.”
The live material killed the momentum. The band sounded tired. It didn’t help that they also featured Bono’s hammy stage patter — telling Edge to “play the blues” (as believable an exhortation as if it had been uttered on a Bananarama record) and pronouncing before their leaden “Helter Skelter” cover that “this is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles. We’re stealing it back.”
If the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, it ended at the Rattle and Hum movie. U2 wanted it to reflect their fandom and sense of discovery, but at that point, they came off on film as jaded white rock stars seemingly unaware that music and things they were “discovering” had been there. It was less a film of exploration and one of tourism, a documentation of ego instead of a celebration.
VIDEO: U2 “Desire”
U2’s heart-on-its-sleeve honesty had, at some point, morphed into EARNESTNESS (in all caps because it was VERY important to be earnest, you know) and pomposity.
By the time the band had finished its roughly three-month LoveTown tour in support of the album/movie in Australia, New Zealand, Japan and parts of Europe, they were ready for a bit of a break and a new direction. They just didn’t know what.
In the 2011 documentary From the Sky Down, Bono said of the time, “Couldn’t make corrective adjustments to put it right. The limb had to come off, you know? Let’s get a big fuckin’ chainsaw and cut down the Joshua Tree,” Bono said in the 2011 documentary. “Great. Good. Thank God for that. So, now let’s go and figure it out. However, that was end of the conversation. Bono made that statement. That was it. Next time, we met, I think was not long before we turned up in Berlin ,” Edge said in the documentary.
The group decided to record at Hansa Studios in Berlin, where Bowie had started his Berlin Trilogy, where Iggy had recorded Lust For Life and Marillion had recorded its classic Misplaced Childhood.
Bono and Edge had gotten together a little bit before Berlin to record some ideas, but didn’t really have anything concrete. Bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr., basically coming in cold, had no idea what awaited.
Still, when focused just on making an album, U2 had a pretty good track record. Throw in recording at a respected studio and things should come together, right?
“There’s an environment out of which music grows. There’s a kind of faith that’s necessary to move from one note to the other. That wasn’t the environment we were in. We felt as we walked into this place, well, you know, it’s so full of greatness. That greatness will visit with us. So we’re there and greatness is nowhere to be seen.
“Greatness has left the building, it seems, years ago,” Bono said with a chuckle in the 2011 documentary.
Having flown into Berlin on the last flight before the Berlin Wall came down, the band’s creative wall remained. Ideas were there, but nothing was coalescing. There were frustrations aplenty. At one point, Clayton reversed George Harrison’s “I’ll play, you know, whatever you want me to play. Or I won’t play at all, if you don’t want me to play. Whatever it is that will please you, I’ll do it” moment from the original Let It Be movie, reportedly handing Bono his bass and telling him to play the part he wanted him to play.
A couple of things changed that. The first, and biggest, came about while they were working on a song called “Sick Puppy,” which would later become “Mysterious Ways.” One day, Edge tried a couple of different chord progressions for bridges in the song, which didn’t really fit. However, at another session not long after, co-producer suggested Edge try putting those two note sequences together, not in “Sick Puppy”, but to just play them. Those two bridge attempts would soon evolve into what became one of the album’s centerpieces and its biggest hit – “One.”
VIDEO: U2 “One”
Even though they were intent on shaking things up, one couldn’t ask U2 to not be anthemic and “One” delivers, although it’s not quite the hand-holding, roses everywhere uplift its reputation suggests. It’s the contradiction that lights the spark that lifts the song.
Listen to the lyrics in that bridge again — “You say love is a temple, love a higher law/Love is a temple, love the higher law/You ask me to enter, but then you make me crawl/And I can’t be holding on to what you got/When all you got is hurt”
Good luck finding THAT on a Hallmark card.
Yet, despite lyrics that could play like recrimination, it’s played and sung in such a heartfelt manner (one of Bono’s best-ever vocals) that coupled with how the lyrics finish (with lines about carrying each other and hope about reaching higher together), make it easy to understand how it became a U2 standard.
The other was Bono’s creation of The Fly persona.
“I took Lou Reed’s glasses and Jim Morrison’s pants and Elvis’s jacket and a little bit of his hair and just, a little bit like an Identi-kit Rock star, you know, and assemble one yourself and actually, it was incredibly freeing,” Bono said in 2011. “A whole new vocabulary opened up,” he added. “I was going to there, but I couldn’t do it without some armor. If I was going to expose my heart, I needed the right kind of armor to protect the rest of me.”
While it freed Bono, it was also an ironic pose as rock star deconstruction, as he sings in “The Fly,” “It’s no secret that a conscience can sometimes be a pest/It’s no secret ambition bites the nails of success/Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief/All kill their inspiration and sing about the grief.”
VIDEO: U2 “The Fly’
Bono’s almost talk-sung croon plays off the distorted guitar and dance-influenced rhythm section while dropping a falsetto over the top of the choruses.
As a first single, it was definitely a statement that there were limbs of the Joshua Tree on the ground somewhere.
While the album might have been thought of as a Berlin album, the reality is that the sessions didn’t ultimately yield a lot of full songs that made it to the album.
It would ultimately be salvaged and forged back in Dublin with help from co-producers Brian Eno and Lanois and engineer Flood. The group did realize there was more to salvage and use from what they recorded in Berlin, reconvening with a renewed sense of confidence and unity.
Clayton and Mullen Jr., who entered the sessions expecting something a little more traditional in U2 approach to creating only to find themselves playing catch-up to a Bono and Edge who’d been listening to KFMDM, Young Gods, Einstürzende Neubauten and Kraftwerk — found it easier to be on the same page when they knew what the page was.
It still took until September for the album to be finished. At one point, Brian Eno, who co-produced the album with Daniel Lanois, feeling the band had become to close to the material it had most recently recorded, stripped out much of the overdubbing, a move that proved to the right choice.
Two months after some final tweaks to a few songs and the last day selection of a running order, the album was released.
The opening track — “Zoo Station”, signaled that while this was still recognizable as U2, it was not going to be more of the same.
There was that opening guitar, sounding like it was going to slice through the speakers like a serrated blade, Mullen Jr’s drums distorted, and Bono’s vocals, sounding as if he’s singing using his hands as a would-be megaphone, opens it with, “I’m ready. Ready for the laughing gas.”
Having given up on “discovering” America, this was European U2 — darker, at turns more honest and ironic, trading their po-faced solemn garb for a more vivid and rhythmic post-modern musical wardrobe.
“Mysterious Ways” wasn’t the only song to yield another. In fact, outtake “Lady With the Spinning Head”, at first a bootleg and then an official b-side, sounds now like the result of someone doing an Achtung Baby soundalike, a track from someone doing to U2 what the Rutles did to the Beatles.
One hears elements that turned up in “The Fly”, “Ultra Violet (Light My Way)” and “Zoo Station.”
“Ultra Violet (Light My Way)”, musically playing like prior U2 turned up to 11, is as much about matters below the belt as it is about matters of the heart, as the dysfunction has crept into the physical.
When all that’s left is lying in whispers and moans, but the euphemistic “treasure” is buried where it can’t be found. “Funky” and “sexy” are two words that would not have shown up in a “Describe U2’s Music” Jeopardy category, but “Mysterious Ways” is both.
VIDEO: U2 “Mysterious Ways”
The song isn’t R&B in the traditional sense, but it is a slinky groove. The rewards of breaking through that creative wall are in full evidence, both in Edge’s funky wah-wah and Mullen Jr’s drumming incorporating different rhythms than usual.
Edge was going through a divorce at the time, which crept into the music. With the studios being an escape (for the good and bad that entails), he explored deep er, turning up new sounds — funkier, louder, to add to the tried-and-true Edgeisms on guitar. While it’s not a guitar-and-nothing-but album (although “Acrobat” would argue otherwise), it’s arguably THE Edge guitar album.
“Until the End of the World”, written for the 1991 Wim Wenders film of the same title, showcases plenty of Edge, from that squawling opening to the trademark riffage to the solo, but it’s the locked-in propulsion of Clayton and Mullen Jr. that holds the song together and makes it work.
Indeed, as much as it might have been a pain in the ass for U2 to record, it wasn’t because of disinterested parties. Everyone’s in top form, including Bono who’s able to shift moods and deliver the contrasts to the lyrics that much of the album needs. Even when more direct, as on “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses”, he delivers an empathetic vocal to a song that remains engaging, even though the band itself felt it never got quite right in the studio (perhaps because it’s the closest to ’80s U2, especially in the chorus).
But while part of Achtung Baby was about U2 deconstructing, then reassembling what they’d become while embracing the ridiculousness of it, there was also a beating heart throughout, even if that heart sometimes pumped dark blood.
“So Cruel” sounds like a patented love ballad, but the lyrics are anything but, Bono sings the accusations of an unreliable narrator, leaving no doubt that, at least, the accuser is at least as capable of cruelty as the accusee.
Album closer “Love Is Blindness” offers no uplift, leaving no doubt that the relationship it’s about is dead, even if the coroner hasn’t been called in. The self-inflicted wounds and obsession have killed it.
It’s not all darkness. “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World” uses the album’s approach to contrast in different fashion. It may also sound musically like it’s the pretty love song that “So Cruel” isn’t, but it’s about trying to walk home drunk after a long night out.
As Bono said, “We’d spent the ’80s throwing stones at other people. Now, we started throwing the stones at ourselves.”
The Fly had stones in hand for “Even Better than the Real Thing” — about recognizing the shallowness in a relationship or in, well, anything and, sometimes embracing it (but not too much, they did later turn down an offer to lend it to a soda commercial).
The album, more personal than political, came out to positive critical and audience reaction, to be followed by the massive Zoo TV tour.
There is irony in that U2’s response to becoming a somewhat overblown stadium act was to become a more overblown stadium act, complete with a massive multimedia presentation and Bono adding characters like the Mirror Ball Man and the devlish McPhisto. The difference was that the band was operating with looseness and self-deprecation instead of self-consciousness, trading in desaturation for vivid doses of irony and humor.
U2 playfully embraced the chaos of mass information in a way that seems both prescient and almost quaint now, given the access to what they put into a stage show can be found in a smartphone. Not to mention the mass misinformation that the band didn’t picture taking over as much as of the mass information.
The band spent the rest its studio time in the ’90s exploring farther down the roads they’d staked out in Achtung Baby with 1993’s Zooropa, which provided ample rewards with even further experimentations and the track that might be at the top of their best love songs in “Stay (Faraway, So Close!),” the warmer sibling to its evil twin “So Cruel.”
Then came 1997’s inconsistent Pop, where there were further explorations into electronic music while the the rock deconstruction turned arch. On the Pop tour, the band unintentionally re-enacted “This Is Spinal Tap” by getting stuck inside a giant lemon.
At least they stopped before reaching the U2 Mk. II Adam Clayton’s Jazz Odyssey moment.
After that, it’s understandable that they traveled somewhat went back time with 2000’s quite solid All That You Can’t Leave Behind. It was the closest they’ve come to ’80s U2 post-Achtung, albeit clearly made not made by a U2 with pre-Achtung sensibilities.
Recent years have seen them put out albums that, while not terrible, generally haven’t made most U2 fan’s best-of lists.
2014’s Songs of Innocence is sadly remembered more for the punchline-inducing snafu of it being downloaded to a number of people’s IPhones without their consent (prompting snark about it being a shoo-in for a Best Malware Grammy) as it did for its songs.
They do still remain a reliable-as-ever-concert act.
One wonders if U2 might have another reinvigoration/reinvention in it again.
The most recent thing released under the band’s name is a one-off soundtrck single that sounds less like U2 than Bono solo. “Your Song Saved My Life” is from the upcoming animated film Sing 2, where Bono plays a lion who’s a retired, tired rock star.
VIDEO: U2 “Your Song Saved My Life”
Talk about casting against type.
It would be foolish to completely bet against them, though.
Achtung Baby exists as proof. It may be one of the most ’90s of ’90s albums, but underneath the postmodern ironic garb, it’s also still fresh, living, breathing technicolor proof of what U2 is capable of.
Thirty years later it holds up as the best thing they’ve ever done — a fully alive document of them, hopeful and dark with tongue in cheek and hearts on sleeves.
VIDEO: Edge performs a solo rendition of “Love Is Blindness”
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3 thoughts on “Don’t Let The Bastards Grind You Down: Achtung Baby At 30”
On Point! And I always learn new info about bands from Kara Tucker. Thank You, for a great article.
y’know, this is one of those albs that got the zeitgeist right. alt-headline could be “top rank rockstars party with the grunge punks”. nirvana, jane’s addiction, metallica, soundgarden, de la soul–could’a been on the same bill. how i know and knew i liked it so well? i enjoy hearing it BETTER when i put it on random play; then i never know what blast is next.
‘Play the blues!’ as credible as if it was uttered on a Banarama record?! Bananarama-level commentary right there!! 🤭