Remembering Achtung Baby, 20 Years On


I remember Achtung Baby as the record where it was not just about what and who U2 were as it was about what and who they weren’t. At the time, people weren’t just U2 fans, you were either fans of the Joshua Tree– era U2 who didn’t love what was perceived as this sudden change, or you were the people who were starting to — not so much lose interest towards the end of that particular phase (including, by all accounts, the band themselves), but might have tired of some of it just a tad, and you loved Achtung Baby not because it was U2’s next album but because it was Achtung Baby. To me, it was closer to the era where they made their bones. For all of the insistence on noise rock influences and Einsturzende and their ilk, I heard the Stones at Nellcote, I heard Marc Bolan’s gold lame pants, I heard the Silver Factory, I heard the Bowie of Heroes, the Lou Reed of Transformer, the Dolls at the Mercer Arts Center. It was Manchester meets Motown.

It was iconic, it was ridiculous, it was groundbreaking. It was overwhelming and exciting – if you wanted to be overwhelmed and excited by all of the above, which I most certainly did.

“The Fly” flooded MTV and after years of gritty black and white earnestness there was a pulse, there was rhythm, there was Edge’s guitar shimmering around the edges like runway lights, reminding us that this was still U2. The video or the promo for the video or the ad for the album was on MTV once every fifteen minutes, and I am not sure that is an exaggeration of any kind. It’s no wonder that by the time that ZooTV went live on tour that the iconography was already so comfortable and familiar to everyone when this was burned into your brain nonstop for so long.

When the record was finally in our hands – and oh, this was still the day of the record – the cover was Robert Frank in technicolor, and the music did not disappoint. It opened with a one-two punch and it closed with a triad taking you in the other emotional direction. “Zoo Station” was a clarion call, chanting “I’m ready” every line. “Even Better Than The Real Thing” felt and sounded like the sun rising. “Ultraviolet” was liquid hope (“baby baby baby, light my way”) anchored by the rhythm section, “Acrobat” was despair set to 6-8 time, “Love Is Blindness” was quicksilver anguish channeled through Edge’s guitar strings.

The sounds and the spaces were colossal. It was big and brash and loud and dark and shiny. It was huge. It wasn’t what we had expected, it was more than we needed, it was what we dearly wanted. It walked that edge between dark and light and between heaven and hell. This record wasn’t about being in God’s country, these were songs about walking the planet every day.

It is a record of anthems, of battle cries, of hymns. After 20 years of hearing “One” in grocery stores and while shopping for jeans at the Gap, it’s hard to remember that you could ever listen to that song and find it evil, haunting and too close to the bone, but the first listen of that song had me on the floor the first time I heard it. I used to sing it at karaoke with my best friend and we’d piss everyone off. We pissed off the guys we dated, who knew we were trying to tell them something but couldn’t figure out what. It pissed off other women in the crowd because we were reminding them of things they didn’t want to think about. It pissed off the other guys in the crowd because our anguish was hot and we always leaned into each other when we sang, which gave them ideas that had no basis in reality. Of course, we sang the song and put on the performance because we wanted to piss everybody off. We sang “One” to each other over the phone. We sang “One” to each other on our answering machines. I marvel that now “One” is a song during which I take a break during a show, and certainly wouldn’t stop the car and turn up the radio if it came on, but back then, it rated that kind of reverence.

I got into the most trouble with the “Ultraviolet”/”Acrobat” axis at the end of the record. I would walk to the beach at sunset with the record on tape or I would sit in my living room with headphones on at sunrise, usually coming home after being out all night, back when that was something I would do. “Oh, sugar, don’t you cry,” Bono would sing, but I would usually be doing just that, exactly. “You I need you to be strong,” he would sing, and I would shake my head to myself in assent. It was the anti-“One,” it wasn’t about regret, it was about moving up and on: “light my way,” over and over again. I would listen to the song grow and expand and open itself up into the bridge, where Larry and Adam were right up front in a giant cavern that filled my heart with sound, and Edge was in the back scratching and Bono singing, pleading, begging, with a voice that sounded like it had been dragged through sandpaper or whiskey or both.

And then, just when you’d recovered, you’d be thrown into “Acrobat.” I should not like “Acrobat.” I do not like 6/8 time, not in a rock song. If you had told me “U2 have a song on this record that’s in 6/8 time” I would have dismissed it out of hand as being entirely too precious. But it works, that’s the thing, it works here without being pretentious. It is the perfect device to give the feeling of being on edge, the manic madness that takes you into another perfectly orchestrated break where the drums parry the guitar and Adam is holding them all down so they don’t swirl into the ether. “You can dream/so dream out loud/and you can find/your own way out, and the Delmore Schwartz reference (which once woke me up in the middle of the night as I was falling asleep to the record and finally placed the line), it’s another rung in the ladder to climb up or out, whatever you need at the time.

You think you’re going to be able to relax by the time “Love Is Blindness” shudders into your ears, and that’s just what they want you to think. They want you to be off-guard, they want you to take a breath or two and listen, and that’s where they get you. They get you with those initial guitar licks in the background, glowing, glimmering, before taking over and shrieking into your brain and your heart at the end.

And then you would start it all over again.

This record stayed with me. I never needed to put it away or give it a break and even with every very specific, very raw, very emotional association I had with it, the music trumped the memories and I never had to give it up. I would drive late at night with the roof open and it ringing in my ears, I would walk through the rain with the volume up just enough to not overshadow the raindrops, I would lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling and look for an epiphany. Nowadays I walk with it, I let it take me through the streets of New York City at twilight, for comfort or strength or solace or all three. I let it power me up when I have something to do or somewhere to be. I decided that if I was a Major League Baseball player, I would choose “Even Better Than The Real Thing” as my walk-up music. When I am facing the public or giving a reading, I will have listened to side one at some point before I got there.

So on the 20th anniversary of this record, it is being revisited and re-examined and re-explored, and I am at a loss at all of this RE-ing because it was the second or third album that went onto my first iPod in 2003 and I have never stopped listening to it long enough to be able to re-anything when it comes to Achtung Baby. It’s hard for me to revisit that which has never left.

In 1993, I was living overseas, and had been there for over five years already. I was living this odd no-man’s land of not being quite American but not being quite European either. In a way, Achtung Baby also occupies that emotional space, the band still being who they were, despite the previous few years of pursuing their Kerouac-like On The Road fantasy through the USA. Joshua Tree was white lights and cowboy hats, Achtung Baby was strobe lights and leather pants. When the tour rolled out in the US, despite being thousands of miles away, the magic of MTV made you feel like you were there. We knew everything that was going on, we knew about the calls to the White House and the pizzas and the video confessional as well as if it was in our backyard. I wanted to see it live but I didn’t know how I was going to make it happen – until my sister’s wedding in August of 93 required my presence back on the East Coast. I could route myself home via London just in time for Zooropa at Wembley Stadium.

I will tell you that nothing, not a damn thing, not a MTV News report or a photo essay in Rolling Stone or in-depth Q Magazine coverage prepared me for the sheer size of things. Part of it probably had to do with the fact that I had been living in a country that would neatly fit inside the state of New Jersey, everything was going to be massive by comparison. I had seats in the stands, about 1/3 back, halfway up. I looked at the mass of humanity on the pitch and wished I was there. I was by myself; despite the obsession my particular circle of friends had over this record, I don’t remember why I ended up traveling solo. It was an odd, disjointed time in my life, where I didn’t know what was going to happen next. Everyone around me streamed into the stadium in large, laughing groups, and I found my way to my seat by myself, feeling like a country bumpkin.

I was utterly not prepared for this. I was a girl who didn’t do stadium shows, who had sworn them off after surviving the Who and the Stones at the beginning of the 80s, who skipped her beloved Bruce Springsteen by the time Born In The USA got to the blimp nests because it wasn’t about watching the show, it was about spending some time in the same physical space as an artist and I wanted more from my music than that.

And then the lights went on, Edge hit the intro riff, Larry smashed the drums, and every single person at Wembley got to their feet. There was Bono, silhouetted against the blue, the fly against the TV screen. There were the leg kicks, there he was, humping the microphone stand. The music reached out across the enormity and pulled me in like I was standing at the edge of the stage.

I knew what “Zoo Station” was going to be like because I had seen it so many times, it was almost familiar, the first number had been in countless tv broadcasts. I even knew small details, like that last song before the band came out was going to be “Television, the Drug of a Nation” by the Disposable Heroes of Hiphopiacy (just like I’d known that John Lennon’s version of “Stand By Me” was the last song before the band came out on Joshua Tree). But nothing was going to prepare me for being there, and even being so far away from the stage – I didn’t! Do! Stadium! Shows!- it was overwhelming, even from where I was. I was glad I wasn’t closer because it would have swallowed me whole if I had. I held my breath through “Zoo Station” and “The Fly” because I was in shock. I was physically, mentally, emotionally unprepared for the spectacle, the power of the music live, the energy generated in such a large space. For London greeting U2 at Wembley fucking Stadium. 

And then the trabants went up and the lights flashed on and “Even Better Than the Real Thing” roared out of the speakers and into the center of my chest and it was like I had just woken up, like I had been frozen and had thawed out, that moment in the WIzard of Oz where everything goes from black and white to color. It was so big, so bright, so all-encompassing. It’s going to seem stupid when I tell you that that was the moment that I realized that I was moving back to America, that I had been heading in the wrong direction, that I thought I was doing the right thing with my life but that I had been doing anything but. Even at the time I said something to myself about being so cliche as to having a catharsis at a stadium rock show but there was something about the loop being closed, the circuits being opened, seeing this record live. It was the size, it was the sound, it was the power, it was something shaking you upside down until you came back to your senses.

I laid awake in bed that night staring at the ceiling and not believing I was going to do it again the next night.

There was a problem with my tickets the second night. They were legit, but they had been given to someone else more important than me, so a security guard took me to the production office to find another place to sit. Apparently I was the only person who didn’t walk in there ready for a fight – to be fair, would you want to find out there was a problem with your U2 ticket? – but I was just so happy to be there, to be able to be part of the circus one more time that as long as I had a ticket, I would be okay, which is what I told them. That’s when they noticed the accent, and asked me if I’d come just to see the show, and I said yes, and before I knew it I found myself on the same side of the stadium (Adam’s side, stage left) and a much much lower row. This was still Wembley, so I was still miles away, but after the previous night, I knew it wasn’t going to matter.

I got to my seat and noticed the entire row behind me were wearing MacPhisto horns. No sooner did I sit down than I felt someone tapping me on the shoulder and proffering a set of horns.
“What’s this?” I said.
“You have to get into the spirit of things,” he said.
“Don’t worry, I’m in the spirit of things.”
“You’re American!”
I nodded.
“I brought enough for everyone,” he said, “But you have to wear them.”
I put them on my head immediately.
“Now, that’s the spirit!” he said, standing up and waving at the people behind him who were not wearing devil horns. “Look, the girl from America put them on.”

This was the best possible section of people to be with for this show, people who stood up and danced and sang and shouted all night long. Tonight was participatory, yelling comments at Bono as though he could hear them, my new friend imitating every single one of Bono’s moves onstage with gusto (especially the crotch-in-camera ones, to much hilarity). You haven’t quite lived until you’re imitating belly dancing moves during “Mysterious Ways” with a motley group of kids from the London suburbs, all wearing devil horns. Everyone knew all the lines because they had been watching and listening and paying attention for the past year or so: “You didn’t come here to watch TV, now have ya??” we yelled with Bono as though we had heard it every night of our life.

In a way, of course, we had.

When the show was over, I walked out of Wembley with my new friends, several of them insisting on getting me back to the tube station even though I kept telling them I knew where I was going just fine. I didn’t realize I was still wearing my MacPhisto horns until I got off at my stop and walked into the off license to buy a drink. The elderly shop clerk looked up at me, saw the horns, did a double-take and I caught my reflection in the window just as a big smile broke across his face.

He said, “So, who did Bono ring up tonight, then?”

I wish I knew what happened to those devil horns.

(For the record: the first night was — I believe — the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Bono and the crowd sang “I Just Called To Say I Love You” and the second night was the coach of a football team whose name I have long since forgotten, but understood enough about UK sport to get why we were singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” I am hoping a kind commenter will fill in that gap.)