Achtung Birthday

[So this is a little different update-wise, as what follows is a revised and updated version of  a two-part piece I first wrote back in 2010. Nobody in their right mind will want to delve back 11 years into the past to find them, so what we have below is a combined and revised piece about one of my favorite albums of all time, which turned 30 this past week.]

30 years ago this very week (November 18th for those keeping count) I ducked out of school on my lunch break, drove to the local record store, and bought this:

I have a confession to make – I am a U2 fan. I realize that’s an un-cool statement to make, given that U2 are not cool by the normal standard. The only thing cool about U2 is to viscerally hate their pompous, earnest stadium rock (the same grief Coldplay gets – and another band I quite like, so there). Somehow, Radiohead gets a pass because they’re all arty and serious, but their fans are the biggest shitheads around and worse than people who constantly berate you for buying a Mac instead of a PC, because these things supposedly matter. But I am a U2 fan; I have all their albums, saw them in concert several times, and even liked Songs of Innocence, the free album they released in 2014 that everyone else seems to hate despite it being a pretty solid collection of songs.

This all has to do, I realize, with the age I discovered them.

I discovered them in 1987 when The Joshua Tree was released and you couldn’t walk the street without tripping over “With or Without You.”  For an impressionable early teenager, the great thing about U2 was that they weren’t what was clogging the airwaves at the time – Bon Jovi and Warrant and “Unskinny Bop” – they were serious, they had a conscience, they were all about Amnesty International and Greenpeace.

UNITED KINGDOM – MARCH 16: Photo of U2; L-R: The Edge, Bono (waving flag), Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jnr performing live on The Tube TV Show (Photo by Erica Echenberg/Redferns)

Another reason I responded to them was, by this point, I was still the “new kid” at my school and at my new hometown. We’d moved in August 1986 and while I made friends, I still felt like something of an outsider. And as so much of The Joshua Tree is about alienation, and fear, and desire, it was like handing a glass of ice water to a man dying of thirst. So I dug U2, but not in a huge way. I didn’t get The Joshua Tree until Christmas 1987 (on Vinyl), and had to make a cassette copy to listen to on my walkman. Of course, the U2 steamroller had just got going when they dropped Rattle and Hum – the album and the movie, and went from “cool, serious band” to “overexposed” in a heartbeat. I saw Rattle and Hum in the theater, and as it was my first exposure to the band in something of a live setting, my appreciation for them deepened. The only concerts I’d been to by that point were Jan and Dean, Donny and Marie Osmond, and a pre-Private Dancer Tina Turner, so seeing Bono’s ego projected larger than life was a sight to behold. But more important, the theater sound system was the best stereo one could imagine – the walls were shaking. Needless to say after the experience I was a full-on fan, no longer just a casual one. I bought up their back catalog and nearly wore the cassettes out. The fact that R&H is not a good album by U2 (or anyone else’s) standards is beside the point – it was the right album, and the right movie, at the right time. I was a fan now, and I anxiously awaited their next album.

And waited. And waited. And waited …

B0W1XG Iconic graffiti on Berlin Wall at East Side Gallery

1988 became 1989, which became 1990 and then 1991 and there was no sign of a new album. Unlike this internet age where you have that information at your fingertips (true or rumored), in the early 1990s you either read about it in Rolling Stone or Spin, or you heard nothing. One advantage of the wait was I filled the gap by discovering other bands who would become as important to me as U2 – Midnight Oil, INXS, REM, The Pixies, Jane’s Addiction, and many more. Summer 1991 saw the first Lollapalooza festival, Pearl Jam’s Ten, and by September the Pixies released Trompe Le Monde, and Nirvana released Nevermind.

Think of that: 1987 was The Joshua Tree, Bon Jovi, Warrant and Unskinny Bop; 4 years later was Pearl Jam, Lollapalooza and Nirvana. The Berlin Wall had come down, the Soviet Union was on the way out, and still nothing new from U2. A lot can change in four years, but an even bigger change was coming.

In late September of 1991 I picked up the newest issue of Rolling Stone (with Guns n’ Roses on the cover – remember Use Your Illusion?). And in the news section there was a small blurb about U2’s new studio album being readied for release. The title was Achtung Baby, with the first single “The Fly” set for release in October.

I thought it was a joke. Really? They’re calling it Achtung Baby? They’re releasing a song called The Fly? This, from the band behind the painfully earnest Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum? It had to be a misprint. They couldn’t be serious.

Could they?

I began to wonder … by now I was well into the left of the dial music that was slowly sweeping across the land. By the time AB dropped on November 19, 1991, would I even be interested? Would I even care? This was not a new phenomenon; in years since I’ve fallen in love and then out of love with lots of bands. Some were just brief affairs of an album or two, some lasted years before fizzling entirely. Some I still listen to and buy their new releases, but it still feels like a sense of duty more than something I genuinely want to hear.

Late October, “The Fly” was released. I didn’t so much hear it as see the tail end of the video on Much Music when I got home from school. It was a good 30 seconds before I realized it was even U2. Bono was wearing these goofy wrap-around shades; The Edge was wearing his soon to be ubiquitous knit cap and (gasp) bell bottoms. This wasn’t the U2 of The Joshua Tree, and the music wasn’t like anything U2 had done before. I was intrigued, but after the low-fi sonic assault of Nevermind, this slick, studio stuff seemed more self-indulgent than anything else.

There was still a month before releaseon a trip to the record store to grab Badmotorfinger by Soundgarden, I happened upon a cassette single (a.k.a. “cassingle”) for The Fly.

I picked it up too and on the way home gave The Fly a listen.  I listened to it several times, along with an included remix, and an instrumental track they did for a Royal Shakespeare Co. production of A Clockwork Orange.  It was all very … different, but as is the case with anything, the more you listen, the more it tends to grow on you. So everything was in flux come November 21 when I left school at lunch to hit the record store. You see, this was THE DAY Achtung Baby hit shelves. To risk restating the experience of buying it, click HERE if you haven’t already. Done? Good.

When I walked into the record store, the owner was playing what I would later learn was “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” but I was all eyes at that point, and not ears. I looked for the new release rack and finally found what I was looking for. It took me a minute, because the first thing you notice about Achtung Baby is its cover.

It was off-putting, coming from a band who had up to that point selected a single image for their cover art:

So right away it didn’t look like U2, but that didn’t discourage me, obviously, because I threw down for the cassette copy, as I didn’t own a CD player at this point, yet had a Walkman, a boom box and a car stereo with tape deck. I paid for it, declined the bag, and ripped the cellophane off the case on the way back to my car. I slid behind the wheel, fired it up and popped in Achtung Baby. The test signal rolled first and I set levels, and then, music …

ZOO STATION

When it started, it sounded like my stereo speakers were broken, and it wasn’t until Bono started singing that I realized that was the entire point. Given the last U2 song released was the melodic All I Want Is You (well, that and a cover of Cole Porter’s Night and Day” from the Red Hot + Blue compilation), it was music from a different planet, but still very much U2. I really wasn’t crazy about it to be honest, but now I can’t imagine the album without it.

EVEN BETTER THAN THE REAL THING

Now this was more like the U2 I knew – a sweeping rock anthem, blending the old and the new. The “rhythm and blues” influence of The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum was gone, and it harkened back to The Unforgettable Fire in its “European feel” but by this point it was clear that AB was a totally different beast.

ONE

Here we go. Some songs take several listens to “get” but “One” was one I got the moment I heard it, and is probably their best known, best loved song. It’s apparently a popular song at weddings too, which blows my mind because if you listen to the lyrics, you realize pretty damn quickly it’s not a love song. With lyrics like “You ask me to enter/ but then you make me crawl/ and I can’t keep holding on / when all you got is hurt,” it is ironic their most popular song is also their most misunderstood. It’s hard to think of this era in music and with U2 to be “Classic Rock” but One is a classic and now recognized in roch circles as one of thegreatest songs ever written. Even people who hate U2 will couple that hatred with the admission that “One” is pretty good.

UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD

It’s about Judas, and his betrayal of Jesus, told from Iscariot’s perspective, but for me, it seemed to speak to what I was going through at that time in my life; an on-again-off-again relationship with a girl who was much more into me than I was into her, being stupidly into someone else who I had no chance with. And by the time I realized I had made a big mistake it was too late. She’d moved on, and told me it would be the end of the world before she reconsidered.

WHO’S GONNA RIDE YOUR WILD HORSES

A nice salve after the bitterness of the previous tunes, it’s one of the lesser tunes on the album, at least for me. I think it is for U2 also, given how the fact it was a single, it really isn’t remembered. It’s the closest to a Joshua Tree-era tune on the album and stands out for it.

SO CRUEL

For some strange reason, the song that becomes before the side break on pretty much every U2 album becomes my favorite on that album, and So Cruel fits that bill. It’s simple and melodic, and sets up the two songs that follow. One of the things we lost with the rise of the CD is that “act break,” the song that holds its spell on you as you flip the cassette or album over; something to linger while you wait for the next track. So Cruel still does that.

THE FLY

If you hear any U2 on the radio these days, The Fly is going to be one of them. No 90s compilation or playlist is complete with this roaring beast of distorted guitars and distorted voice. It was U2’s firs new music in three years and it sounded unlike anything they’d ever done. I didn’t realize at the time how this song and that video would be the blueprint for what was to follow. U2 had long wanted to “redefine” the concert experience and what the subsequently pulled off did just that and that influence can be seen and felt to this very day.

MYSTERIOUS WAYS

The first time I listened to Mysterious Ways, I didn’t like it. It was too “dance” too “House”, and as a self-import and, self-involved 18 year old, those things were just wrong. Now, it’s my favorite song on the album after So Cruel, and best played loud. Go figure.

TRYING TO THROW YOUR ARMS AROUND THE WORLD

To this day, every time I hear it, I think of a very particular scene; me, driving the streets of my town after dark. It’s winter, the ground is covered with snow and every street feels abandoned. There are no people out and fewer cars, but the music coming from the stereo is warm and soothing.

ULTRAVIOLET (LIGHT MY WAY)

There’s a scene in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly where Jean-Dominique Bauby, paralyzed by a stroke, is remembering a trip he took with a mistress, and as we segue into the flashback, the first strings of Ultraviolet can be heard, before BLASTING into the big intro. The image, of the mistress from behind as she sits in the passenger seat of a convertible, her hair whipping in the wind, is now forever associated with this song, but it remains one of my favorite tracks on the album. U2 resurrected it from limbo for U2 360 tour as an encore, as a throw to their fans, who by all accounts were thrilled to see some lesser-known known songs make the playlist.

ACROBAT

Its refrain of “don’t let the bastards grind you down” has become my personal mantra. They try their best, and sometimes it looks like they’ll win, but I always bounce back and am still here when so many of them have gone.

LOVE IS BLINDNESS

The somber closing to a joyous and yet bitter collection of songs. A downbeat song they closed shows on their tour with and didn’t diminish the high everyone felt coming out of it.

So despite Nirvana and Pearl Jam, RHCP, Ministry, Soundgarden and countless others occupying the sonic landscape of 1991 – surely the last great year in music we’ve seen – AB remained lodged in my tape deck for months, it seems, and remains my favorite “winter album” — yes Achtung Baby makes me think of snow and chilly air. A lot of stuff happened in those remaining weeks of 1991 and AB was the soundtrack to it. Hell, when I started college the following fall it was still out there, still playing in record stores, still blasting from dorm rooms – albums had a longevity then that they don’t have now. In fact, in the 30 years since then I don’t think I ever stopped listening to it.

In March 1992 I got to realize a dream of the previous five years and saw U2 on their now legendary Zoo TV tour. I cut afternoon classes and drove the three hours with three friends, spent a good part of the day wandering the city near the venue, and got to see The Pixies (my still-favorite band, and people behind what was and remains my all-time favorite album, 1990s’ Bossanova) open for U2.

I was at this show, though sadly not this close to stage.

It was, of course, an amazing show and an amazing experience – but I realized much later that seeing U2 live represented the climactic moment of my love for that band. I’m still a fan, and will be until I die, even though they’re not the pinnacle of my musical taste like they were. Seeing Zoo TV was the conclusion of that period of my life, which was changing quickly. I graduated High School three months later, I moved away to College five months after that (and ended up living down the street from where I saw U2 barely half a year before). I saw them again in August of that year, and then thirteen years passed before I saw them once more, on their Vertigo Tour, general admission, right up front. That was the last time I them perform, live, because nothing could top that experience outside of being their personal guest or something.

People change and music changes, and 30 years can seem like 30 years, and can also seem like just last week or last year. The agonizing wait for an album is gone – music gets leaked, officially or unofficially – in the case of Songs of Innocence it can appear, wanted or not, in your iTunes downloads.

I’m a U2 fan, but will probably never be as into U2 as I was in 1988-1992 and probably will never be into any band that much again. Music obsession is a young man’s game and it has to be, because that music will be with you for the rest of your  life. When Generation X hits retirement age, rest homes across the world will have Grunge nights, and arguments will break out in the lunch room over the merits of Nirvana over Pearl Jam, just like High School with more wrinkles, more grey hair and less of it. The rec room will be filled with the music of Ministry and Nine Inch nails, and especially U2. I’Il still listen to Achtung Baby regularly, like Doolittle, like Nevermind, like so many other albums that stood the test of time. And, like every memory I have of that year and time of my life, I’ll never stop listening to it.


14 thoughts on “Achtung Birthday

  1. Funny enough I actually only really discovered U2 with Achtung Baby and their 90s output remins my favorite era for the band. I doubt we’ll see that kind of radical jump from one style of music to another in an artist nowadays.

  2. Yes! I love Achtung Baby and U2! Great writing in this as always, Brad. I think some albums just stay with you through the years. You should consider yourself lucky one if your favorites is such a classic. I don’t think it’s aged a day.

  3. Well they certainly didn’t make a leap as big anywhere after, Matt. All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000) seemed like a return to form but if you listen to that album next to The Joshua Tree or The Unforgettable Fire they do have distinctly different sounds. As far as contemporary artists you could argue Coldplay does some pretty big leaps from genre to genre while remaining essentially the same (though with Coldplay one’s mileage does vary).

  4. Leanne – I go back and forth on how “dated” AB sounds. Some of the distortion in vocals and guitar feels early 90s to me, that Happy Mondays/Stone Roses Manchester vibe. But songs like One and So Cruel and Until The End Of The World feel like they could have come from their later albums. AT the time listening to it in those weeks I knew it was an all-timer and a future classic. Glad to see and hear that’s pretty much the concensus.

  5. Their last great album, IMO. I’ve liked their work since, but not as much as AB. They still kill it live though.

  6. I was never a big fan of theirs but every time I hear a song from Achtung Baby on the radio I do turn it up.

  7. Joe – I think that’s a problem/challenge with every band with a long career. Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan – legacy acts still releasing albums but nowhere near as essential as Born in the USA, Begger’s Banquet, or Highway 61 Revisited. I did like their last two albums a lot more than a lot of others did though.

  8. Martyn – It’s weird hearing songs from AB on the radio and realizing that it’s technically “Classic Rock” in the way hearing Bobby Vinton or Buddy Holly on the radio back in 1991 would have been.

  9. Add me to the list of Achtung Baby fans. I think that was their pinnacle as a band, Not that they’ve gone downhill since but just the period in history, in music, was so ripe for experimentation, for boldness. Things seem to be in a stasis since the early 200os. Culturally, musically. Glad they’ve carried on and are still making music but really, is music today anywhere near where it once was? I don’t think so.

  10. Nick – I go back and forth. Whila fact the bulk of my music collection and interest pre-dates 2000 I still try and listen to newer bands and music. But I doubt I’ll ever have the same emotional connection to current music, even from legacy acts like U2 simply because I’m no longer a teenager. The teenage brain’s developement generally coincides with an interest inmusic – the music you love when you’re 16-21 is the music that sticks with you for the rest of your life because so many memories of that era are tied to those songs. It’s why Mixtape exists – I wanted to celebrate that time in your life that’s so brief, where the music you love and the friends you listen to that music with forms an indelible portrait of who you were.

  11. Wow. Love Achtung Baby but also LOVE this look back at it. I was a big U2 fan back then – still am in fact – and I remember counting down the days until I could lay my hands on this album. I must have worn out my cassette single of “The Fly” while waiting for it. And to think back on what an amazing year for music 1991 was, we were really spoiled for choice!

  12. Jenny – 1991 was a great year for music and I think even at the time all my friends and I knew it. When you look at the music from that year and realize that everything from Ten, Nevermind, Trompe Le Monde, Screamadelica, Badmotorfinger, Use Your Illusion I & II, Gish, and Achtung Baby were released within three months of each other, yeah, something was in the water.

  13. Oh, this album still resides in my heart thirty years on. I haven’t listened to it in a while – rectifying that now!

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