The Rolling Stone Blog

U2 Revisit ‘Achtung Baby’ – and Question Their Future

The Rolling Stone Blog

Ask Bono a tough question and you might get a tougher answer. U2 are
about to release their most expansive reissue project yet, for 1991's Achtung Baby
- the album where they traded in earnest uplift for funk, noise, sex,
irony and self-doubt. So how does this lavish look back square with the
band's old lyric "You glorify the past when the future dries up"?

"I'm not so sure the future hasn't dried up," says Bono,
who's been irritating his bandmates lately by publicly questioning U2's
relevance - despite the fact that they just finished the
highest-grossing tour of all time. "The band are like, 'Will you shut up
about being irrelevant?'" he says. But Bono can't help himself - even
though U2 have been in and out of the studio with various producers
recently, he raises the possibility that the band may have released its
final album. "We'd be very pleased to end on No Line on the Horizon," he says, before acknowledging the unlikelihood of that scenario: "I doubt that."

Bono concedes that revisiting the album where U2 punched themselves out of a tight corner - after 1988's Rattle and Hum
movie and album helped convince some music fans they were hopelessly
solemn and pompous - suggested a way forward. "Ironically, being forced
to look back at this period reminds me of how we might re-emerge for the
next phase," says Bono. "And that doesn't mean that you have to wear
some mad welder's goggles or dress up in women's clothing. Reinvention
is much deeper than that."

Moving forward has never been easy for U2, as chronicled in the outtakes, B sides and early versions of Achtung songs unearthed for a new box set - and set forth in moving detail in From the Sky Down, a documentary about Achtung Baby's genesis by It Might Get Loud
director Davis Guggenheim. The movie, which opened the Toronto
International Film Festival, makes it clear that trying to find a new
sound led to what the Edge calls "a potentially career-ending series of
difficulties." In tracing the creation of "One," the film also reveals
that lyrics such as "We're one, but we're not the same" are as much
about the band's fraught brotherhood as anything else. "I thought [Achtung Baby]
was a really supercool moment in a not always supercool life," Bono
says with a laugh, "and [Guggenheim] goes and makes an uncool film about
us!"

Rattle and Hum, and the
horn-section-and-B.B.-King-accompanied Lovetown Tour that followed, were
U2's rootsiest moment. But for a band whose actual roots were in
late-Seventies post-punk, the cowboy hats and denim were starting to
chafe. The Edge was listening to My Bloody Valentine, Nine Inch Nails
and Einstürzende Neubauten, while also noting the fusion of rock and
dance coming out of Manchester, with groups like the Stone Roses. "I
always remember the intense embarrassment when I happened to be in a
club and a generous-spirited DJ would put on one of our tunes from the War
album," the Edge says. "It was so evident we had never been thinking
about how it would go down in clubs. So we just wanted to stretch
ourselves in the area of rhythm and backbeat and groove."

The band recorded the bulk of the album in Berlin's Hansa Studios,
just as Germany was reunifying - and as co-producer Brian Eno wrote,
aesthetic guidelines soon emerged: "Buzzwords on this record were
trashy, throwaway, dark, sexy and industrial." "We found it was more
interesting to start from an extreme place," says the Edge.

Hence the buzz-saw guitars that kick off the opening track, "Zoo
Station," followed by a blast of Larry Mullen Jr.'s drums distorted
almost beyond recognition. "Some of the extreme sounds weren't achieved
with sophisticated, outboard equipment, dialed in carefully," says the
Edge. Instead, they simply overloaded their vintage recording console.
"It was literally, 'What happens if you try to go to 11?'" says the
guitarist.

For the band, rediscovering the wildly different lyrics and
arrangements on the early "kindergarten" versions of the songs was
revelatory - "Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World," for instance,
sounds like an Irish folk tune. "The first time the paint goes on the
canvas is a very, very exciting moment," says Bono. He was intrigued by a
line in the early "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses" that recasts its
story as a "parasitic" love affair ("Your innocence I've experienced"),
while the Edge is convinced the more restrained vocal melody on that
version is superior to the released track.

One of the more intriguing outtakes, "Down All the Days," has the same backing track as "Numb," from U2's 1993 follow-up, Zooropa,
with Bono singing an entirely different song. "It's this quite unhinged
electronic backing track with a very traditional melody and lyrics,"
says the Edge. "It almost worked."

Meanwhile, U2's future plans are not set. "It's quite likely you
might hear from us next year, but it's equally possible that you won't,"
says the Edge. Adds Bono, "We have so many [new] songs, some of our
best. But I'm putting some time aside to just go and get lost in the
music. I want to take my young boys and my wife and just disappear with
my iPod Nano and some books and an acoustic guitar."

Related

This story is from the November 10, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone. Photo by George Pimentel/WireImage

View Comments