Saturday, November 19, 2011

achtung baby

U2 reinvented themselves, emerged from their darkest days, and seized the zeitgeist with the industrial dance pop of this landmark album. After the poor critical response to 'Rattle and Hum', the band was in the midst of a crisis over the direction their music would take. Edge was in the midst of a divorce from his wife Aislinn: "There is a process of osmosis when you work so closely together. What I was going through was obviously written all over my face and I think it focused Bono's mind. There were other parallel stories woven into some of the songs, because other people were going through something similar. Love, and love gone bad, is the eternal subject matter; so it was inevitable that it would become a big part of that record."

Bono remembers: "I was enjoying my new baby and writing 'Achtung Baby'. We had never allowed the band to use the word 'baby' in a lyric. It did not exist in the U2 vocabulary. It is on 'Achtung Baby' twenty-seven times, which is one of the reasons for the title. No one has ever made this connection although it is obvious from my point of view: enter the child! Life had changed utterly. Ali was pregnant again and our second daughter was born during the making of 'Achtung Baby'.

The band decided to return to the same production team that worked on 'The Joshua Tree': Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno with Mark "Flood" Ellis as engineer. To break from their increasingly domestic roles, the band went to record at the historic Hansa Studios in West Berlin where David Bowie and Iggy Pop had made great albums. It was just after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany and there were lots of demonstrations in the streets. Larry says: "Berlin was starting to make Los Angeles look like a holiday camp. It was particularly depressing because of the separation within the band. It felt confrontational. It seemed like I was out of the loop and I was having difficulty getting back in. There was some alarm, on my part, at the extensive use of drumming machines. I felt my imput was being diminished. Even before we went to Berlin, there were tensions. It was the start of the chopping down of 'The Joshua Tree' but it was also the dismantling of U2 as we knew it."

They almost broke up over the divisions. Bono and the Edge were pushing to experiment with new sounds while Lanois and Mullens wanted to hold onto recognizable song structures. Brian Eno intervened and helped them find common ground. When the song 'One' came together during a largely improvisational session, the band was revitalized. Adam calls the sessions in Berlin a "baptism of fire": "It was a bloody difficult album to make but a lot less difficult than the alternative. If we hadn't done something we were exited about, that made us apprehensive and challenged everything we stood for, then there would really have been no reason to carry on. We were at a watershed. If it hadn't been a great album by our standards, the existence of the band would have been threatened."

Recording continued in the seaside manor Elsinore in Dublin, as well as at the Edge's home studio with several engineers Robbie Adams, Paul Barrett, Joe O'Herlihy helping out. Finally things were moved to Windmill Lane Studios where tracks were mixed by Eno, Flood, Lanois, and previous U2 producer Steve Lillywhite. Each producer came up with their own version and the band picked the ones that they liked best and combined others.

'Achtung Baby' took on a much darker perspective for the band both lyrically and musically; but it also showed them loosening up. The tour was setup as a satirical multimedia event with ironic characters and numerous television screens to achieve a feeling of sensory overload for the audience. Edge recalls: "We had become glum rock's leading lights. Zoo TV opened up all the possibilities of theatre; role playing, irony, satire and farce, and finally killed off the old idea that we were a band of painfully earnest people who didn't know how to have a good time." Larry elaborates: "I think a lot of people had been afraid that U2 had lost it's conscience, because it was dressed up to be flippant and kitsch with all this rock star flamboyance. People thought we had abandoned the past. Really, we had abandoned our won insecurities. This was maybe the most political thing we'd ever done."

'Achtung Baby' topped album charts in Australia, Canada, France, the Netherlands, and the US; was nominated for Grammy Album of the Year, and eventually sold more than eighteen million copies worldwide.

'Zoo Station' starts the album out with a staggering crash of distorted rhythms and distortion, making the band's transformation very clear.

"I'm ready, I'm ready for the laughing gas
I'm ready, I'm ready for what's next
I'm ready to duck - I'm ready to dive
I'm ready to say I'm glad to be alive
I'm ready, I'm ready for the push"

The sleek and sensual 'Even Better Than the Real Thing' peaked at number three in Ireland and Canada.

You're honey, child, to a swarm of bees
Gonna blow right through you like a breeze
Give me one last dance
We'll slide down the surface of things

'Until the End of the World' takes its title from the film by German filmmaker Wim Wenders for which they originally composed the song. It describes a conversation between Jesus Christ and Judas Iscariot.

"I took the money - I spiked your drink
You miss too much these days if you stop to think
You led me on with those innocent eyes
You know I love the element of surprise
In the garden I was playing the tart
I kissed your lips and broke your heart
You - you were acting like it was the end of the world"

'Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses' peaked at number four in Ireland.

"Ah, the deeper I spin
Ah, the hunter will sin for your ivory skin
Took a drive in the dirty rain
To a place where the wind calls your name
Under the trees, the river laughing at you and me
Hallelujah, heaven's white rose
The doors you open I just can't close"

'So Cruel' describes the pain of separation.

"She wears my love like a see-through dress
Her lips say one thing, her movements something else
Oh, love, like a screaming flower
Love - dying every hour
You don't know if it's fear or desire
Danger the drug that takes you higher
Head in heaven - fingers in the mire
Her heart is racing - you can't keep up
The night is bleeding like a cut
Between the horses of love and lust
We are trampled under foot"

Bono describes 'The Fly' as "the sound of four men chopping down the Joshua Tree." He says it is about a phone call from Hell by someone who likes it down there. The single went to number one in Australia, Ireland, and the UK.

"Love, we shine like a burning star
We're falling from the sky tonight
A man will beg - a man will crawl
On the sheer face of love like a fly on the wall
It's no secret at all
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"

The danceable desire of 'Mysterious Ways' was saved by a new effects pedal. It was a number one hit in Ireland.

"Johnny, take a dive with your sister in the rain
Let her talk about the things you can't explain
To touch is to heal - to hurt is to steal
If you want to kiss the sky, better learn how to kneel
On your knees, boy!
She's the wave - she turns the tide
She sees the man inside the child"

'Ultraviolet (Light My Way)' echoes the book of Job.

"You bury your treasure where it can't be found
But your love is like a secret that's been passed around
There is a silence that comes to our house when no-one can sleep
I guess it's the price of love - I know it's not cheap"

'Achtung Baby'
full album:

All lyrics written by Bono; all music composed by U2.  All tracks produced by Daniel Lanois except where noted.

1. "Zoo Station"   4:36
2. "Even Better Than the Real Thing"   Steve Lillywhite, with Brian Eno and Lanois 3:41
3. "One"   Lanois with Eno 4:36
4. "Until the End of the World"   Lanois with Eno 4:39
5. "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses"   Lillywhite, Lanois, and Eno 5:16
6. "So Cruel"   5:49
7. "The Fly"   4:29
8. "Mysterious Ways"   Lanois with Eno 4:04
9. "Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World"   Lanois with Eno 3:53
10. "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)"   Lanois with Eno 5:31
11. "Acrobat"   4:30
12. "Love Is Blindness"   4:23

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