Facebook has just reminded me that U2s Acthung Baby LP is 29 years old. As of today. Or yesterday. It really depends where you are in the world. But enough silliness – colour me gobsmacked at how old this album is. I can scarcely believe it’s true. As I commented on my Facebook feed, I remember when Achtung Baby came out and U2s first album – Boy – was 11 years old. That seemed a million miles away from where the band was in 1991, yet here we are with Achtung Baby now almost three times that figure. Crazy! Still, I guess all time is relative and someone half my age would see it differently.
It’s quite interesting to look back now and realise that, at the time, there was a lot of confusion and worry from fans. Bono and the lads had indeed gone away to dream it all up again, as they promised at the end of 1989. Later, Bono would even go on to say that the sound of Achtung Baby, or more specifically its debut single, The Fly, was the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree.
It’s no big deal, it’s just — we have to go away and…and dream it all up again.
Bono, December 30, 1989
I thought this was incredibly exciting. The band had all had haircuts, wore better clothes, were acting less pious and humble and finally seemed to have given up pretending they were from somewhere in Minnesota. As the ZooTV tour kicked off and we started seeing a stadium show like nothing ever seen before, it was clear to me that the band had succeeded in their goal to escape what they’d been for a good five years previously and were now something new, funny, sexy, dark, ironic and a bit odd. This is everything rock and roll music should be in any era and, as a 16 year old who hadn’t quite tipped over into an indie phase, I was happy to eat it all up. How many times did I play the album? 100s? Easily.
So, with that all said and done, perhaps it’s time I penned a few lines on each of the tracks?
If you’re going to change your band’s whole look and feel, nothing says it better than a track where the drum and bass sound like they’ve never sounded before, the guitar is shrieking over the top, and your singer’s vocal is slightly distorted. Could this be U2? Yes! It just drives you. It’s exciting. And it’s also no wonder this is how they opened the ZooTV concerts. It’s absolutely perfect for that, hands down.
Even Better Than the Real Thing
When I first got the LP, this was one of the songs I liked the least. I can’t explain why exactly – perhaps 29 years has something to do with it – but I vividly remember seeing it done on a concert video sometime in the year afterward and Edge’s slide guitar work really won me over. And it’s notable how such an old style of guitar playing (even at home with “the old U2”), could be repackaged like this!
This is another track that I didn’t warm to at first, even though it’s possibly one of the greatest songs ever written. But I remember sitting in my friend’s father’s car (he and I had borrowed it to get takeaway), and while I sat in the car waiting for my friend to come out of the store, this came on the radio. It was hitting dusk, the light was right, and I just heard the song. It blew my mind. It’s fantastic.
Until the End of the World
Now this… this is the song I latched onto first with this LP. “In the garden I was playing the tart; I kissed your lips and broke your heart…” The band was still using religious imagery (clue: it’s about Judas and Jesus Christ), but in such a way that the music didn’t feel pious or “not for me” as an atheist. I think the lyric is beautiful. I think the music is wild. It’s just a very, very good song. Still a favourite today.
Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses
Another track that, on first listen, was good but didn’t jump out at me. During the ZooTV tour, however, a remix of the song was issued with a radically cut back sound and a video with Bono in his full “Fly” ensemble from the tour and suddenly it felt right. I still like the remix version the most, but it gave me pause to go back to the LP version and appreciate it a lot more than I previously had done.
This is the track where the album really slows down, but the lyrics carry it for me. 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; Underfoot. It’s just poetry. It may even be a better lyric – but not a better song – than One. I mean it. I could happily reproduce several other verses here, all as beautiful, stinging, and poignant.
What is effectively Side Two of the LP kicks off with this track, and it’s not a million miles away from what Zoo Station did on the other side. Thundering bass and drums. A super dirty guitar playing a chunky riff. Distorted vocal. It’s massive. No wonder it scared the pants off some fans when it was the debut single from the album. It’s wallpaper now, but at the time it was nothing like “the old U2”.
Another track that grew for me when I saw the ZooTV performance, and again specifically thanks to Edge’s slide playing. While his playing soared into the stratosphere, you had Bono reaching out, but never quite touching, a belly dancer – who later became Mrs Edge in real life, I believe! – and with the thumping rhythm section behind it all, made a standard album track suddenly very sensual to me.
Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World
Probably the most throwaway track on the LP for me, even today, and yet it’s a song I will still happily listen to. And I guess there’s an indication of how much I like the album! Some nice lyrics, and a gentle vibe. To talk of ZooTV again – as the tour and the LP are really so intertwined – this was often a good spot for Bono to fool around with a member of the audience and his camcorder. Happy days.
Ultraviolet (Light My Way)
You bury your treasure; Where it can’t be found; But your love is like a secret; That’s been passed around… There’s a real melancholy feel to this track – even though the music is quite fast and upbeat – that I always tap into when I hear it. There’s a cleverness in the lyric, too. Ultraviolet can illuminate things that the naked eye can’t see. So there’s an underlying sense of unease; something is going on.
Another track that I latched onto quickly with the album. The bass roars in. Don’t believe what you hear; Don’t believe what you see. Yes, 16 year-old me was onboard with this. After the previous track, there’s also a sense of being uplifted here. You know that you’re time is coming ’round; So don’t let the bastards grind you down. There’s a triumphal feel here, just before we reach a funereal ending.
Love Is Blindness
Even before I saw this conveyed in concert, I just got it. I knew exactly what this was. I knew exactly how it made me feel. The sparse percussion, the bass, the melancholy lyric. The big, sad guitar solo. I thought this was extraordinary from the start. Seeing it in concert, meanwhile, kicked it into orbit. The lyric is beautiful, the band play together perfectly. It’s perfection committed to tape. No more, no less.
After writing all of that, I feel I have some takeaways which weren’t immediately obvious to me even after nearly 30 years, but writing about the LP has brought them into sharp focus. The first is how important the ZooTV tour was for me to contextualise and even get into some of the songs. The second is how the band are actually still pulling out tricks from “the old U2” but presenting them in a new way. I’d never fully dwelt on that at all, yet it seems obvious to me now that I reflect on it. This makes it even funnier/stranger that some fans were so resistant to this version of the band yet, underneath, it was doing a lot of the things it has always done and they just weren’t hearing it.