Spotlight: U2 – ‘Achtung Baby’

30 years since...

The birth of the 1990s brought about changes that were scarcely imaginable a mere decade before: Thatcherism, the revitalising force behind the resurgent Conservative party was coming to an end; The Berlin Wall, a defining image that exemplified a fractured Europe, had been torn down. And U2, the biggest band in the world during an era when bands only came in sizes "big" and "bigger", were on the verge of implosion. 

When their 1987 record 'The Joshua Tree' took them out of arenas and into stadiums, the former post-punks from Dublin found themselves with the world at their feet and not a single clue on how to deal with it. Their first decade as an outfit worth paying attention to had seen them become more intense, more solemn and more earnest, an attitude that forced them into a dead end with !989's disastrous 'Rattle And Hum'. 

In seeking to pay tribute to the sounds and artists of America who had largely been their guiding light during 'The Joshua Tree's' conception and subsequent success, they'd turned themselves into a laughing stock, as their audience merely saw arrogance and self-aggrandisement where only naivety and self-doubt actually lurked. 

Forced into a corner, they sought to go away for a while and, as Bono said on stage during a New Year's Eve concert in 1989: "dream it all up again". During this time, the band's frontman discovered his affinity for German music, in particular Kraftwerk. Seeking inspiration for the band's new era, they descended upon the newly unified Berlin and the iconic Hansa Studios, birthplace of Bowie's 'Low', Iggy Pop's 'The Idiot', and Tangerine Dream's 'Force Majeure'. 

In the seven months that U2 spent there, they'd emerge with the bare bones of just two songs. The final lesson left from the 'Rattle And Hum' era for them to learn, it seemed, was to stop seeking an opportunity to repackage the past. Their impending success would rely on this shift in perspective; where they'd spent so much time looking behind them, they hadn't realised the opportunities that awaited them on the horizon. 

The key to unlocking this potential was twofold. Firstly, they had to reunite with Brian Eno, the glue behind everything they'd done between 'The Unforgettable Fire' and 'The Joshua Tree'. And secondly, they had to learn to have fun. Building his new look from the iconography of past cultural icons, Bono created a character that he and the band could poke fun at. 

They'd finally come to embody the excessive infrastructure of the decade that made them, and at a time when everyone was lining up to poke fun at that very thing, who was better positioned to pull that off than U2? 

'Achtung Baby', now celebrating it's 30th anniversary, was the result. The most fully-realised record of their catalogue (there may be better songs on 'The Joshua Tree', but if you can't hear the drop off after 'Bullet The Blue Sky', then a trip to get your ears examined may be on the cards) it floods their world with light where only monochrome and sepia tones had previously been allowed in; it combines the rhythms of "Madchester", the sonic experiments of shoegaze, the knowing lyricism of grunge, and the beauty of U2's unique take on the world. 

Even today, songs like 'Mysterious Ways', 'Even Better Than The Real Thing and 'The Fly', embody a freshness that very few eras in the band's catalogue can lay claim to. If you need evidence of their self-awareness at a time when their brash bombast led some to believe they were leaning too much into their excess, centrepiece 'Whose Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses' is on hand to deliver it. 

– – –

– – –

The beating heart of the record, it also enscapsulates everything that the overall album and subsequent tour are about: A punk attitude to heritage acts (it can be no coincidence that 'Wild Horses' is a Rolling Stones song) that has enough knowing grandeur to keep pace with the album around it. 

'Achtung Baby's' most renowned song, 'One', would go on to become (arguably) the band's signature. Wrestled from a proposed bridge in 'Mysterious Ways', the simplicity of the instrumental allowed Bono to lay bare his renewed soul, and the effect was mesmerising. 

The birth of the 1990s had brought about the death of U2's first era: The ashes of that titanic failure would provide the building blocks for the reinvention which remains the most completely realised in all of rock history. It also laid the blueprint for the band's next three decades. And whilst further success may exist with 'Zooropa' and 'Pop', they'd never again achieve the overwhelming cohesion of 'Achtung Baby', which is why it remains crucial to celebrate it in all it's glorious magnificence. 

– – – 

– – –

Words: Mike Watkins @mdwatkins_


Join the Clash mailing list for up to the minute music, fashion and film news.