November 18, 2016 marked the 25th anniversary of what many consider U2’s best album, Achtung Baby. The album and the following multimedia-intensive Zoo TV Tour were vital to the group’s 1990’s reinvention, by which they abandoned their serious public image for a more jovial and humble one. Thematically, Achtung Baby is darker, more meditative, and more lighthearted than their previous work, and U2’s entry into the alternative rock 90’s. Producer Daniel Lanois’ strategy was to record in houses, mansions, or castles, as he believed it brought atmosphere to the recordings. U2 began recording in Berlin in October 1990. The sessions were strained, with the band battling over the direction and the quality of their material. Tensions and slow progress nearly driven the band to split, however, they made a breakthrough with the unplanned development of the song “One”. Sparked by the confidence of the track, the band then moved the recording sessions to Dublin, where the album was finished in 1991.
Achtung Baby later became one of U2’s most successful records, debuting at number one on the US Billboard 200 and topping the charts in many other countries. U2 released five singles from the album which all garnered commercial success. It has since sold 18 million copies to date and won a Grammy Award in 1993 for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group. Furthermore, Achtung Baby has since been declared by many music critics and journalists as one of the greatest albums of all time.
Here is a track by track look at the album that is considered by many as U2’s best.
1. “Zoo Station”
The song’s lyrics were inspired by a bizarre story from World War II, when overnight bombing damaged the Berlin Zoo and allowed animals to escape and meander around the city’s rubble. Lead Singer Bono was also inspired by the city’s Berlin Zoologischer Garten railway station and used it as a symbol for a reuniting Germany. “Zoo Station” was performed as the opening song at every concert on U2’s Zoo TV Tour. The song got positive reviews from critics, many of whom interpreted the song as a representation of the band’s reinvention.
According to the official biography U2 by U2 by Neil McCormick, the band struggled with the song “Lady With the Spinning Head” (later released as a B-side), but three separate tracks, “Zoo Station”, “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” and “The Fly”, were derived from it. With the band ultimately deciding to take “Zoo Station” in a more industrial direction than “Lady with the Spinning Head.” “Zoo Station” came together near the end of the recording sessions when audio engineer Flood was mixing the song and incorporated distortion to the drums. The song’s direction was largely influenced by the production team of Daniel Lanois, Brian Eno, and Flood.
Bono had been disappointed with his vocals from early recording sessions for the album and told the production team “Let’s just try something that’s gonna put me in a completely different place”. After they distorted his voice to make it sound as if it were coming from a megaphone, Bono was inspired to sing in a persona, as the effect gave his vocals a different “emotional feel”.
2. “Even Better Than the Real Thing”
A track that originated from a chorus guitar riff that guitarist The Edge composed in Los Angeles during the Rattle and Hum sessions, was a demo of the song called “The Real Thing,” which was recorded at STS Studios during the same session in which “Desire” was recorded. In the book U2: Into the Heart: The Story Behind Every U2 Song by Niall Stokes, the band remarked that the song’s guitar riff reminded them of the Rolling Stones, but that it sounded “deeply traditional.” Consequently, it was shelved until the Achtung Baby recording sessions, when the band took the multitrack recording of the demo to Berlin. When the band returned to Dublin to record the song, it turned around after The Edge purchased a DigiTech Whammy effects pedal, which created a “double octave sweep” on the guitar riff. The band revived their sense of fun and incorporated that into the writing of the song.
Producer Brian Eno initially argued against the song’s addition to the album because it contained the lyric “There ain’t nothing like the real thing”, claiming the song had to be “more ironic.” After the lyric was revised to “Even better than the real thing,” Eno changed his stance and supported the song’s inclusion. Bono explained the song’s lyrics, as well as why the title was lengthened to “Even Better Than the Real Thing” because “It was reflective of the times [the band] were living in, when people were no longer looking for the truth, [they] were all looking for instant gratification.”
“One” was written after the band members were inspired by a chord progression that guitarist The Edge was playing in the studio. In the book U2: An Irish Phenomenon by Višnja Cogan, the lyrics, written by Bono, were inspired by the band members’ fractured relationships and the German reunification. Although the lyrics ostensibly describe “disunity”, they have been interpreted in other ways. While jamming on a song called “Sick Puppy”, an early version of “Mysterious Ways”, the band tried different chord progressions for the bridge. The jam stopped and The Edge tried playing them alone on an acoustic guitar, as “everyone was trying to decide if they were any good.” In the book U2 at the End of the World by Bill Flannegan, producer Daniel Lanois suggested The Edge play two separate sections in sequence. The band liked the way it flowed and decided to try and play it together. Speaking of the improvisation, The Edge said, “suddenly something very powerful [was] happening in the room.” He added, “Everyone recognized it was a special piece. It was like we’d caught a glimpse of what the song could be.” Soon afterwards, the band had developed the piece of music into “One”. In the VH1 documentary Legends, Bono recalls that “the melody, the structure—the whole thing was done in 15 minutes”. He also stated that the lyrics “just fell out of the sky, a gift”. The concept was inspired by the band members’ fracturing relationships, the German reunification, and Bono’s skepticism of the hippie idea of “oneness”. Bono later sent a note to the Dalai Lama declining an invitation to a festival called Oneness, incorporating a line from the song: “One—but not the same”.
The song’s writing inspired the band and changed their outlook on the recording sessions. Mullen Jr. said the song reaffirmed the band’s “blank page approach” to recording and reassured the band that all was not lost.
The band continued to work on the song there, adding various overdubs, but not finding a mix they were satisfied with. The Edge thought that they had the foundation for the song, but that it needed “foreground”. Eno interceded, explaining to the group that “One” was among the sessions’ tracks in which “The song has gone, whatever it is you liked about this song is not there anymore”, and that the track had “disappeared under layers of overdubs”. He created his own mix, which gave the band a better idea of an arrangement they liked. Eno wanted the band to remove the melancholy elements of the song and persuaded them to remove the acoustic guitar from the song. He also worked with Lanois and The Edge to “undermine the ‘too beautiful’ feeling”, which is why they added the “crying guitar parts that have an aggression to them”.
Flood, the sessions’ engineer, was unconvinced by the song’s mix, saying he “was the nagging doubter. I always felt it was a bit straight, until we did the final mix.”
The final mix was completed at Windmill Lane Studios in September 1991 on the last night of the album’s recording sessions, when some last-minute additions were made. Bono did not like a line in the vocals and spent most of the day re-recording it. Later, after the song’s mix had just been completed by the production team, The Edge came up with a guitar part he wanted to add to the song’s end near the lyric “Love is a temple”. After convincing the production team to allow the addition, The Edge played the part once and had it mixed in ten minutes later.
Following the song’s initial improvisation, tapes of the recording sessions were delivered to assisting producer Brian Eno to for his input; Eno spent extended periods of time away from the sessions before visiting to review songs, and he believed that distancing himself from the work allowed him to provide the band with a fresh perspective on their material each time he rejoined them. The band were rather anxious about the quality of their material, but when Eno arrived in Berlin, they were surprised to hear that he liked most of the tapes. However, as Bono recalls, Eno said, “There’s just one song I really despise, and that’s ‘One’.” Eno felt that they needed to deconstruct the song.
The song was acclaimed by critics upon its release, and it has since been featured in polls of the greatest songs of all time. U2 has performed “One” at most of their tour concerts since the song’s live debut in 1992, and it has appeared in many of the band’s concert films.
In a live setting, “One” is often used by the group to promote human rights or social justice causes, and the song lends its namesake to Bono’s charitable organization, the ONE Campaign.
4. “Until the End of the World”
The song began as a guitar riff composed by Bono from a demo called “Fat Boy”, which the band revisited with success after talking with German filmmaker Wim Wenders about providing music for his film Until the End of the World. The song’s lyrics describe a fictional conversation between Jesus Christ and Judas Iscariot. The first verse discusses The Last Supper; the second is about Judas identifying Jesus with a kiss on the cheek in the Garden of Gethsemane; and the final is about Judas’ suicide after being overwhelmed with guilt and sadness. Later, The Edge was inspired to revisit the “Fat Boy” demo. In Dublin, he used the riff to assemble a backing track with bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen, Jr., while Bono contributed other ideas. The composition excited the band so much, they decided to include it on the album. They told Wenders, “You can have it but we want it, too”, while also informing him that they were using the film title for the song.
Bono wrote the lyrics relatively quickly at his father-in-law’s house in Wexford, having woken up with the idea of a conversation between Jesus Christ and Judas Iscariot. Bono did not feel comfortable trying to find a particular key to sing in, as he remarked that he sings most songs “a little bit too high or a little bit too low”. Consequently, the only melody he felt comfortable singing was conversational. Reading poetry by John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and George Gordon Byron inspired Bono to introduce the theme of temptation into his lyrics.
U2 and the production team had to expend a great effort to finalize the song. The band added various overdubs during the recording sessions, including percussion loops by Mullen, as well as a sweeping guitar sound created by engineer Flood that sounded like it went “between the speakers”.
5. “Who’s Going to Ride Your Wild Horses”
In an October 2002 Q Magazine article 10 Years of Turmoil Inside U2, “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” began as a demo that the band recorded at STS Studios in 1990. The band worked on it during the formal Achtung Baby sessions, including several failed attempts at Hansa Studios in Berlin. This produced several versions of the song and about a dozen mixes. However, the original demo remained their preferred version. During the group’s time recording in Dublin in 1991, producer Steve Lillywhite was brought on to provide a “fresh pair of ears” and mix the song. The album version most closely resembles the original demo.
Lillywhite recalls that, “They hated that song. I spent a month on it and I still don’t think it was as realized as it could’ve been. The Americans had heard it and said, ‘That’s your radio song there’, because they were having trouble with some of the more industrial elements [of the album]. It’s almost like a covers band doing a U2 moment. Maybe we tried too hard.” Bono said, “It’s a song I feel we didn’t quite nail on the record because there was another whole set of lyrics that were dumped and I wrote those quickly and off we went.” The band later released an alternately arranged “Temple Bar Remix” as the single, the version of the song they most prefer. The band also has claimed they find the song difficult to perform in concert. Clayton said, “It’s a great torch song, with melody and emotion, but I don’t think we ever captured it again and we have never really been able to play the song live.”
6. “So Cruel”
While audio engineer Flood changed reels to listen to a demo of another song, Bono began to improvise a song on guitar. The rest of the band quickly joined in, creating the first take of the song. It was developed as an acoustic track, with Flood adding overdubs and additional elements later. Flood said, “All of a sudden, almost in the time it had taken for me to wind off the reel and wind the next reel on, it was quite obvious that there was a song about to pop out, and if I wasn’t suddenly taking the reel off and getting a new piece of tape on, and changing from monitoring a backing track downstairs to everybody’s in the control room wanting to record now, it would never have happened.”
Clayton and Flood noted that the technology in the studio was crucial in transforming the acoustic song into the final mix.
During the recording sessions for Achtung Baby, The Edge separated from his wife, Aislinn O’Sullivan. The separation had a major effect on the development of the song, as Bono channeled their pain into the lyrics. Bono said “there were lots of other things going on internally within the band and outside it, and I was working through all of that”, noting that The Edge’s separation from Aislinn was just one component of that. Thematically the song is about unrequited love, jealousy, obsession, and possessiveness. Bono said that “People thought it was too traditional, one more attempt at writing a song for Roy Orbison”. Lyrically, it was also inspired by Scott Walker. Bono said, “His is a very delicate mode of expression on the outside, though too often it is laced underneath with a lot of pain and rage.”
According to Clayton, Flood “did a couple of treatments to the track that utterly transformed it.” He keyed Clayton’s bass with the bodhrán, which “gave it a much more bubbly, off-beat feel”. This was followed by some overdubbing and the laying down of a full drum track. Flood said, “I think the way we shifted around the rhythm was very important… The bass is played, but in the studio we doctored it to change the emphasis of where the bass line lay. That turned it into something that had a more unique feel about it, meshed against the song.” Duchess Nell Catchpole was brought in to play violin and viola for the song. The strings were arranged by The Edge and producer Brian Eno. Clayton explained that while the original acoustic version “wasn’t something one could imagine being on the record”, it “was lifted up by studio trickery.”
7. “The Fly”
The writing of “The Fly” began during recording sessions for Achtung Baby at Berlin’s Hansa Studios in 1990. The song’s origins can be traced to a demo recorded there, which eventually evolved into the B-side “Lady With the Spinning Head.”
In 1991, the album’s recording sessions moved to the seaside mansion “Elsinore” in Dalkey, where the group continued to work on the demo. Lead vocalist Bono stated, “One day, Flood had a different look in his eye. It started to feel good. We recorded ‘The Fly’. Edge’s guitar sound was literally like a fly had broken into your brain and was buzzing around.”
While recording the song, Bono devised a persona he called “The Fly,” and it is from this character’s perspective that Bono wrote the lyrics. He recalls that during the recording sessions, Fintan Fitzgerald, in charge of the band’s wardrobe, found a 1970s pair of wraparound blaxploitation sunglasses. Bono would put them on and make everyone laugh whenever they faced a problem or disagreement. He recalls, “I became very interested in these single-line aphorisms. I had been writing them, so I got this character who could say them all, from ‘A liar won’t believe anybody else’ to ‘A friend is someone who lets you down,’ and that’s where ‘The Fly’ was coming from.”
Towards the end of the sessions, the band decided that they were unhappy with the mix to “The Fly,” which was selected well in advance of the album’s release to be the first single. The band ended up taking the song’s mix, placing it on a two-inch multi-track tape, and adding additional vocals and guitars. The Edge and producer Daniel Lanois mixed on top of the previous mix live in the studio, an unusual practice. The Edge says the technique would “make studio professionals laugh” and believes “part of the reason why [the song] sounds so dynamic is because it was a real hands-on performance mix.” The guitar sounds in the opening were created by mixing additional guitar on top of the existing guitar, creating a “really crazy natural phasing effect.”
Clayton mentioned that “at that time, it was impossible to know whether U2 fans would follow Bono down this particular path, so [the song] was a real leap of faith. The whole track is a high-energy sonic barrage but with an angelic chorus. It’s a classic example of U2 and Eno interfacing.”
8. “Mysterious Ways”
“Mysterious Ways” began as an improvisation called “Sick Puppy,” with the band only liking the bass part that Clayton composed. The band struggled to build a song from it. As U2 continued to struggle with the song, the tense atmosphere of the recording sessions at Hansa Studios in Berlin took its toll. Producer Daniel Lanois arrived at the studios early one morning before the band to work on ideas he had for the song. When Bono arrived, he began singing and contributing vocal ideas, but this conflicted with what Lanois had in mind for the track. Bono and a frustrated Lanois proceeded to argue intensely for over two hours, worrying sound engineer Joe O’Herlihy that a physical altercation would ensue. Bono looks back on the episode with a sense of humor: “That’s why I love Danny so much. He cares about the record he’s making as much and more than any band or artist he’s working with.”
The song “One,” which proved to be breakthrough in the difficult recording sessions for Achtung Baby, began after a moment of inspiration as the band worked on “Mysterious Ways.” After moving the sessions to Dublin, the band made progress after the Edge began experimenting with the “Funk Wah” setting on a Korg A3 guitar effects unit and Bono told him to use it for the song.
The end product has “Mysterious Ways” featuring a danceable beat, funky guitar hook, and conga-laden percussion, as well as mystical lyrics by Bono about romance and women. Several different verses were written, but the Edge advocated those with a “nursery rhyme feel”, such as “Johnny, take a walk with your sister in the moon / Let her pale light in to fill up the room.” Much like they did for other songs from Achtung Baby, U2 continued to work on “Mysterious Ways” up to the recording deadline, adding a guitar overdub after the mix was already finished.
9. “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World”
A tongue in cheek song about stumbling home drunk from a night out on the town, is dedicated to the Flaming Colossus nightclub in Los Angeles. The album version includes keyboard playing by producer Brian Eno. The line “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” is a quotation from Irina Dunn.
During live performances on 1992-93’s Zoo TV Tour, Bono would spray a bottle of champagne towards the audience. It was played 136 times out of the 159 times on the tour, but has not been performed since then. However, it was used as a snippet at three concerts during the final leg of the U2 360 Tour in July 2011.
10. “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)”
The lyrics of “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” are addressed to a lover, and imply that their relationship is threatened by some sort of personal or spiritual crisis, coupled with a sense of unease over obligations.
Flood, who engineered and mixed the recording, noted that there was considerable laughter and debate during the sessions about whether Bono could get away with singing the repeated “baby”s, one of the most heavily used clichés in pop songs and one that he had avoided up to that point in his songwriting; Flood later commented that “he got away with it alright.”ad vocalist Bono has called the song “a little disturbed”.
“Ultraviolet” is also one of several songs Bono has written on the theme of woman as spirit, and it echoes the band’s 1980 song “Shadows and Tall Trees” by juxtaposing love with the image of ceilings. A line in Raymond Carver’s late 1980s poem “Suspenders”, about the quiet that comes into a house where no one can sleep, was subconsciously recycled by Bono into the lyric.
In an NME article entitled “Rock and Roll Should be This Big” by Bailie Stewart, Bono was influenced by the work of Delmore Schwartz when writing the lyrics of “Acrobat”, to whom the song is dedicated. The title of one of his short stories, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, is quoted in the final verse. Bono noted the book “was on my mind when I was writing the words… It’s hard to wrap the book up in a few lines, but Delmore Schwartz is kind of a formalist… I’m the opposite. I’m in the mud as a writer, so I could do with a bit of [Schwartz], and that’s why I enjoy him. “The song was developed from a riff The Edge developed during a soundcheck in Auckland, New Zealand, on the Lovetown Tour in 1989. He noted that the beat is unusual for a U2 song, saying it “was the jumping off point, to try and do something with an unusual beat.”
Lanois became disoriented with the direction U2 took “Acrobat” during its recording. Bono noted “Daniel had such a hard time on that… he was trying to get us to play to our strengths and I didn’t want to. I wanted to play to our weaknesses. I wanted to experiment.” Bono noted that the end product “doesn’t quite get off the ground the way I’d hoped it would.”
12. “Love Is Blindness”
“Love Is Blindness” was developed by Bono during the recording sessions for U2’s 1988 album Rattle and Hum. He wrote the song on a piano, which the Edge said is “not an instrument he is noted for playing.” The torch songs of Jacques Brel influenced Bono’s songwriting. His initial plan was to send it to Nina Simone, one of his favorite singers, although after playing the song together, the band decided to keep it for themselves. They did not include the song on Rattle and Hum because they believed it was not “U2 enough”.
During the recording sessions for Achtung Baby, “Love is Blindness” was greatly influenced from The Edge’s separation from his wife, Aislinn O’Sullivan. Reflecting on the impact it had on U2, Bono said, “We’re a really tight community. This is not like somebody’s, you know, girlfriend’s left. We’ve grown up with these people, this our family, our community. This was really hard for us… It was like the first cracks on the beautiful porcelain jug with those beautiful flowers in it that was our music and our community, starting to go ‘crack'”. “The Edge explained that traveling to Berlin to write and record provided him with an escape from his failing marriage: “I was disappearing into the music for a different reason. It was a refuge in a way. That approach didn’t completely work. You know, I wasn’t really… in a good positive headspace. I was running away, I suppose.” While recording the guitar solo that concludes the song, the Edge “put everything into it, all the feeling, all the hurt, all the angst, everything went into that solo.” Bono said, “his whole life came out of him when he played… when we went for the take, one string broke and he just kept playing harder and harder. Another string broke. And he has such a light touch, ordinarily, he’s so gentle. All that left him for a kind of rage. And yet there’s not one bum note in there.” According to a July 1995 Guitar Player article entitled Flood, Audio engineer Flood said the “bold, unadulterated, naked [guitar solo] sound was a combination of the part, the moment, a good guitar, a small amp, a simple mic. Edge just got an idea, tried it, and it worked straightaway.”
Hear all the best from U2 on Alternative Nation Radio