'Achtung Baby' was the making of U2. As the album is rereleased after 20 years, alongside a film about the band, Bono and
Edge recall the turmoil that surrounded the recording and talk about their future
IT'S WHEN THREE glasses are raised to toast "12-step programmes" that you realise perhaps one too many cocktails has been taken. It's a bar in Toronto and the caipirinhas were Bono's idea, with Edge not slow to get his round in. "If we don't come up with a very good reason to make a new album, we should just f*** off," says Bono. "Why does anyone need a new U2 album?"
For the first time in their 35-year career the notoriously "faster, stronger, higher" band have put the brakes on and taken a long look in the rear-view mirror. A new film about the band, From the Sky Down , documents how their huge success in the 1980s provoked a bout of self-loathing and almost broke up the band as they struggled to stay true to their vision of a band forged in the white heat of Dublin's punk/new wave movement.
To mark the 20th-anniversary rerelease of their key Achtung Baby album, U2 had a rush of blood to the head. They decided to open their archives and cede editorial control to the Oscar-winning director Davis Guggenheim to make a film ostensibly about the troubled gestation period of Achtung Baby . The result was something very different.
"Watching From the Sky Down the first time made for painful viewing. I hated it," says Bono. "U2 never look back. It's never been what this band is about. Edge will tell you that when we put together our best-of collections he forced me – actually had to physically force me – to listen to them before they went out. I've never been interested in what we have done. I'm interested only in what we're about to do. But I think there comes a time when it actually becomes dysfunctional not to look into the past, and for the Achtung Baby album we made an exception.
"The film is not about us per se. It's about how bands function – or, in this case, don't function. But when I saw it first I just saw these four people talking intensely about their music, and, really, does the world need that at this time? Davis didn't tell us he was going into our past to put a context on what really happened to the band after the success of The Joshua Tree and how bad things were in Berlin when we started to make Achtung Baby . He didn't tell us because we wouldn't have agreed. Now that I've seen it a few times I realise it is actually about the creative process. Let's face it, the era of rock music is going to end soon, and if you are interested in rock music and rock bands you'll be interested in their internal dynamics: what makes a rock band tick, the tribal aspect, the idea of the clan. The irony for me now is that we made Achtung Baby to set fire to our earnestness and now here's this very earnest film about the making of the album.
"We held back nothing from Davis. We opened up our archives to him and he really had carte blanche. The first time I saw it I was going, 'Oh no, no, no,' and I went to him and made a few suggestions as to the changes I wanted. There was no battle of wills. He just didn't even get into a discussion with me. He didn't change anything. But I was looking at it, going, 'Why is this film talking about Cedarwood Road [where he grew up], the Baggot Inn and my grandmother? I thought we were making a film about the Achtung Baby album. What is going on here?' "
What is going on in the film is a look at how a band who shared musical DNA with Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire ended up sitting at music's high table alongside Elton John and Dire Straits – but without the AOR table manners. A generation before Nirvana dragged alt-rock into the musical and media mainstream, this punk-theatric band ended up on the cover of Time magazine, in April 1987, as "Rock's Hottest Ticket" and selling out arenas around the world.
Disgusted with the idea of being rock idols and disillusioned by their stadium-rock billing, they were at breaking point. "We were carrying Catholic guilt around – the sin of success," says Bono. "We had emerged from playing with The [Virgin] Prunes and hanging around the Project Arts Centre getting mime lessons from Mannix Flynn. And the context here is that the musical scene we came from had this very Maoist music press. There were certain canon laws: thou shalt not go platinum; thou shalt not play in a stadium or an arena; thou shalt not go to America; thou shalt not be careerist. If you even thought about those things you had committed a sin."
DESPERATE NOT TO turn into a cigarette-lighter-in-the-air stadium-rock band, U2 boarded the last flight to East Berlin just before Germany reunified, in 1990. It was one of the harshest Berlin winters, their recording studio, Hansa, was a former SS ballroom, their hotel was rubbish and they had no songs. "On a scale of one to 10 we were at a nine for breaking up," says Bono.
For Edge, U2 were over the moment they walked into Hansa – or, at least, Rattle and Hum U2 were over. "It would have been insanity for us to have stayed in Rattle and Hum mode; that was a wonderful, great little aside, but it was never who we really were," says the guitarist. "Who we really are is all about the future and innovation. We were getting a bit purist and a bit 'disciplist' about roots music, but we needed to become disciples of what is coming next. I arrived in Berlin with drum machines and loops, telling everyone what was happening in Manchester," he says, referring to the Hacienda nightclub and to The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, among other bands. "I was also big into industrial music, but the producer of the album, Danny Lanois, was going, 'Okay, this all sounds interesting, but show us where it's going musically.' And I couldn't."
Things deteriorated rapidly. As Bono has it, while outside they were tearing down the Berlin Wall, U2 were building their own wall inside Hansa. On one side were the so-called traditionalists: Adam, Larry and Lanois; on the other, Bono and Edge were throwing club- culture and dance-rhythm shapes. Bono had always felt aggrieved that whenever a club DJ would play a U2 song, it would empty the dance floor. He wanted to make U2's music sexy.
"To Danny Lanois, from his perspective, we were kindred spirits to his love of roots music," says Edge. "He loved the organic feel to our music, the material that was on The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree . But no one knew how to make the bits of new material we had into U2 songs. The first two weeks were a nightmare. Everything we tried would just nosedive. It got to the stage where we lost trust in each other . . . and there was a clear dilemma.
"There were options: one was to see whether U2 could absorb new material and make it their own, or whether U2 as a band were inflexible and couldn't stretch. The other option was to throw out all the material, start again and . . . extend the line-up or bring in other musicians."
With the band having to take some very hard decisions about continuing to flail around in the studio or just cancelling everything, a deus ex machina arrived in the shape of the discarded second bridge from a song called Sick Puppy (later renamed Mysterious Ways ). That bridge was shaped into the intro for a new song, One . "As soon as One came into that room it stabilised everything," says Bono. "Everyone just sort of surrendered after we had that. By surrendering, we got over the hump."
With a song to anchor the album, they returned to Dublin for Christmas and finished off the album in a rented house in Dalkey, in south Co Dublin.
Released in 1991, and hailed as a triumphant reinvention, Achtung Baby sold more than 20 million copies. It remains their most important album, and the resulting tour, Zoo TV, changed how live rock music would be presented and experienced.
It's dark outside in Toronto now, and an interview that began in sunshine has gone way over time. There's just one more thing. It may well be an act of lese-majesty, but here goes: one possible interpretation of the film, Bono, is that, without Edge, you'd still be in the Baggot Inn. "Sure," he says, nodding.
"That's a lovely thing to say," says Edge. "But I don't think that's true. It's symbiotic. I wouldn't be able to do what I do without Bono, and I think that's reciprocal. He makes me great. I help him to be great."
Before they descend into you're-my-best-friend territory, we slip away. Bono is saying, "Being in U2 is like being in the priesthood. There's only one way out. And that's in a coffin."
Achtung Baby is rereleased next Friday in five formats, including a remastered CD and a six-CD, four-DVD edition that includes the film From the Sky Down.
Bono's line on the horizon
U2's most recent album, No Line on the Horizon , was widely perceived as a poor seller. But Bono has a different take. "We're just about to come to five million sales on No Line on the Horizon , and that, these days, is the equivalent of selling 12 million records," he says, referring to the pre-Napster and pre-illegal download era.
"You can actually do the figures on that. So when you look at it like that, it has the same sales as All That You Can't Leave Behind [their hit 2000 album]. That's despite the fact that No Line doesn't have a Beautiful Day and doesn't have a Stuck in a Moment. There's no pop song on No Line , but it's still sold that amount. It's been an amazing success for an album which is quite a complex piece of work and doesn't have one pop song on it.
"People say Get on Your Boots was the wrong single, but it's great live. Unfortunately, in the last few weeks of finishing the album, we didn't have the objectivity. We figured out Get on Your Boots later, when we were on the road, and it became a much better song.
"I think Unknown Caller is a classic, as are Moment of Surrender and the live version of Get on Your Boots."
Back to the future: 'The app format brings you back to that world of gatefold sleeves'
Looking back at the trauma of getting Achtung Baby on its legs and having to forge a new sound and identity, Bono says, "It's actually worse for us now than it was when we went to Berlin."
He shrugs off the fact that the band have just recorded the biggest-grossing live tour in the history of popular music and wonders whether U2 can still be relevant. "We can play the big music in big places. But whether we can play the small music, meaning for the small speakers of the radio or clubs, where people are living, remains to be seen," he says. "I think we have to go to that place again if we're to survive.
"There are so many U2 albums out there. We need a reason for another one. The whole point of being in U2 is that we're not here to be an art-house band. Our job, as we see it, is to bring the art house to the mainstream; our job is to puncture the mainstream."
Earlier, he was using an iPad with the Achtung Baby songs and videos on it. "That's probably what our new album will look like," he says. "I've been talking about this for the past four years.
"Our last album was the first album to be made available as an app with BlackBerry devices, but it didn't work: the functionality was not what it could have been. New formats are going to happen. I'm always banging on about this. The app format brings you back to that world of gatefold sleeves, of being able to read lyrics – and [now of] being able to play the album at home on your plasma TV."
(c) Irish Times, 2011.