This article was originally published on November 15, 2016 and then slightly updated for the record’s 30th anniversary five years later.
Sometimes one tends to forget about the historical importance of Berlin, aside from the political aspects who still seem to be present today. My first apartment in the city was close to the former border that once divided the city for forty years until 1989. A small but ongoing stripe on the street reminded me about the wall and the self-conception of living in a united and free city. You tend to forget about that, you take things for granted but they are not. There was a special magic in the divided city back then, especially in West Berlin which felt like a small island in the socialistic sea that was the GDR; one that attracted outsiders, restless and creative minds. There’s a reason why David Bowie and Iggy Pop came here in the 70s, why Depeche Mode recorded back here in the 1980s and why even a band like U2 found new artistic spirit after running out of creative energy for a while.
The recordings of Achtung Baby started back in 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall but the vibe was still pretty close to the years before it but somehow even more adventurous. The four Irishmen ended up in wild setting of a freshly freed city that still needed time to grow together.
Berlin in those days was defined by open spaces, a lack of boarders and the sweet sense of uncertainty.
Something fresh and exciting filled the air and it was that spirit that U2 desperately needed, following the whole hype behind 1987’s The Joshua Tree album. Don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware that U2 never felt pretty cool to younger generations and the last time they might have been a hip band was probably around the War album in 1983 when the post-punk/ wave rock spirit was still sensible. Than Brian Eno and Co. took over, polished their sound, became bigger and bigger, broke the American market and were suddenly the world’s biggest band. Following all the Grammys, a the flopped attempt of a concert movie (1988’s Rattle & Hum) and countless touring Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. were officially burned out, exhausted and tired of themselves – just like the rest of the world have been fed up with them as well.
For a long time they weren’t sure how or whether they should carry on. There’s a really good documentary called From The Sky Down which was released back in 2011 and really documents the story behind the recordings and songs pretty good. Yes, it’s also up on YouTube. There’s a key phrase in that film where Bono explains: ‘You have to reject one impression of the band first before you get to the next. And in-between you are nothing.’ and that basically defines the special and brave nature of the album and everything surrounded it. When U2 got back to public in the late summer of 1991 with The Fly, the world witnessed a totally different band which sounded hard, metallic, full of energy and looked entirely different. Gone was the cowboy/folk singer look of The Joshua Tree. The Irishmen dyed their hair, dressed up in leather and especially Bono started putting on his iconic sunglasses while also creating his famous ‘Fly’ alter ego. Second single Mysterious Ways surprised with grooving beats that were clearly inspired by the psychedelic Madchester grooves of bands like Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses. And the public was like: ‘Wait a second? Did U2 just release a sexy song?’
The importance of change
Achtung Baby itself is packed with plenty of these surprises – while also delivering big anthems like One and Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses, the group constantly experiments with new ideas. The industrial opener Zoo Station is an exclamation mark that really wants to cut down the Joshua Tree while the furious Acrobat sees the band losing itself in psychedelic twists and desperation before Love Is Blindness closes the album with a brutally honest anti love song that sees The Edge, affected by his marriage falling apart during sessions, giving everything and even more into the track, creating a surprisingly dark and hopeless closing of the record.
Those of you aren’t that familiar with U2‘s discography and only know them as the dull stadium rockers they’ve unfortunately come to be might not sense the difference. Yes, indeed, Achtung Baby is still pretty much a U2 record and the highly recommended follow-ups Zooropa (1993) and Pop (1997) were even more progressive in their attempt to break with expectations, but this one from 1991 just got the best songs. And it’s really hard to ignore that.
Aside from all the historic importance due to the point in band’s personal biography and the city itself, Achtung Baby teaches an important lesson to young artists that is still as relevant as it was 25 years ago. It’s a lesson about being brave, risky, break with your own artistic expectations and explore unknown territory. U2 saw no point in sticking to their all-pleasing stadium rock (please ignore the fact that they are already back at it by now) so they changed it. They changed their look, their stage presence.
The whole Zoo TV tour was an over-the-top media spectacle, packed with irony and crazy entertainment ideas. It helped them to gather a bigger audience although they might have lost a few fans in their experimental phase throughout the 90s. But, hey, they won me and many others and that’s the point of it. Those who are willing to change and challenge themselves might ultimately succeed. It’s the reason why many of the bigger bands are still active these days, because they embraced change. But the line to ‘sellout’ is thin and it’s about more than changing your musical style. It’s the whole package, the ‘Fuck it, we’re doing this our way’ thing. You might say it’s easier to do this when you are in the position of Bono but there was a lot at risk back then.
Change lies within the nature of art and that should be more important than keeping your Instagram followers or fall for the boredom of predictability. It’s getting harder and harder to see it these days in our digitalized and accelerated society which is filled with opinions, thoughts, information and a certain feeling of hypersensitivity. U2 might not had to fight a social media shitstorm back then but that shouldn’t stop creative minds in general, right? Whether its the creative folks in Berlin right here or anywhere else. A bit more self-reflection isn’t the worst idea these days. And maybe, just maybe, the band would also take a moment to reflect on that following pretty medicore material lately. It’s important to challenge the world and yourself. I’m pretty sure, Bono would agree.
Just in time for the 30th anniversary the band has also announced a special edition of the album which you can purchase right here.