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"I think this record is just as innovative as Pop, it's just that the thing we're pushing to the forefront is the chemistry of the band playing together, and I think that is why people are referring back to earlier projects."

-- Edge, on All That You Can't Leave Behind

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10 Years of Turmoil Inside U2

Q magazine, October 10, 2002
By: By Tom Doyle

 

Edge had a good time, Larry didn't, Adam stayed in bed and Bono phoned the President. Their upcoming Best of 1990-2000 soundtracks an era of warring factions, wayward experimentation, supermodel-assisted hedonism and, finally, a kind of peace. So just what happened?

U2 Stopped Worrying and Learned How to Be the Ultimate Rock 'n' Roll Band.

Watery Dublin sunlight leaks through the windows of the dining-cum-operations room of U2's Hanover Quay studio. Bono leans over to speak: "This is the one that I sang at my old man's funeral."

Behind him, guitarist Edge presses play on a work-in-progress mix of "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own," one of the raft of new tunes that U2 have been working up in the months since their Elevation tour came to a close at the end of 2001.

There's a second or two where the silence hangs heavy in the air. Drummer Larry Mullen, busy eating, raises his eyes up from his knife and fork -- as if to lighten the emotional weight of his bandmate's last statement -- and bluntly adds, "This sound system's crap, by the way."

Then a skyscraping rocker, replete with "drunk bass" and glammy fringes, explodes. The lavender-shaded Bono begins belting out his vocal directly into Q's right ear. He pauses only to elaborate on certain lyrical couplets ("See, my dad, he was a big opera fan...that's what I'm getting at there"), before reaching an impassioned crescendo with the line, "You're the reason I sing..."

It's affecting stuff. And there's more to come. Edge buries his navy blue skull-capped head into a bulging slip-case of CD-Rs and locates his favourite mix of "Original of the Species," a slinky pop song built around a primitive riff, with shades of Bowie's "Aladdin Sane." Bono is on his feet in an instant and monkey-stepping to the loping groove, singing away and proudly declaring, "This one's about Edge's daughter."

Then, when the guitarist cues up another new track called "All Because of You," things get physical. It's the rawest song U2 have ever recorded: the quartet recast as an abrasive garage band.

"It's the Who!" Bono howls, windmilling Pete Townshend-like and landing light(ish) blows on Q's arm to emphasise musical accents. It's clear that, re-energised by the creative and commercial rebirth of 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind, progress on the band's latest studio album (expected arrival: summer 2003) is cracking along apace.

"We're on a roll," Edge nods. "It's getting more like early U2 records. Really simple, stripped-down arrangements. That's what we're hungry for -- music with that life-force."

Of course, U2 haven't always had it this easy, as spotlit by an airing of a meaty remix of "Staring at the Sun," a song from 1997's troubled Pop album -- still the high watermark of Bono's frustration. Suffering from what Bono describes as "death by mid-tempo," it's the one tune that the band could never get to work. Tellingly, it's one of four new "revisionist" remixes (along with "Discotheque," "Numb" and "Gone") that appear on Best Of 1990-2000, their second collection of hits and key album tracks due in November.

For U2, the years 1990 to 2000 represent a troubled era in the group's history. It was a decade of wild experimentation, intra-band friction, ambitiously realised stage shows, and skin-of-their-teeth live performances, of partied-out bass players and rush-released albums.

As soon as the talk turns to the new compilation, Bono -- perhaps so dazzled by the future that he can't bear to look at the past -- legs it out of the door, leaving Edge and Mullen to pick through the dramatic thrills and spills and creative headaches of U2's previous 10 years.

"It's difficult for us because you're trying to listen to the material with a bit of a distance," says Edge. "There's a few tracks on there that I never thought would've made it, like 'The First Time' from Zooropa. And then on the other hand, there's something like 'The Fly' from Achtung Baby, which I'm not sure about anymore. I'm not sure whether it's really stood the test of time.

"But that's why I'm excited about this collection," he continues, his lips curling into a sly grin. "We're all in favour of revisionism..."

Rewind to Berlin, late autumn 1990, the onset of U2's winter of discontent. In the wake of Bono's announcement at Dublin's Point Depot on 31 December, 1989, that the group -- bruised by the critical pummelling that followed '88's Rattle and Hum -- were going to "go away and dream it all up again," it was clear that U2 were floundering.

They'd decamped to Hansa Studios in the former West Berlin in the hope that the Bowie and Iggy Pop albums made there in the '70s would provide inspiration for what would become Achtung Baby. In reality, U2 found themselves in a draughty, dilapidated studio, while outside the ecstatic mood of a Germany reunified less than 12 months before was souring.

One night, their studio accomplice, producer Daniel Lanois, went out to make field recordings of trains and found himself being tailed by a carload of drunken skinheads. All over the city, the hotel bars were crawling with what U2 manager Paul McGuinness describes as "hustlers of every kind selling stuff into the east -- transport systems, bridges, whatever."

"There seemed to be this dark cloud hanging over the whole session," co-producer Flood remembers. "Sometimes it would flare up in the most peculiar ways -- not fights, but people jibing. It was very tense."

The divisions within U2 were clear. On one side, there was Bono and the Edge, intent on modernising the band by way of contemporary beats and listening to new music (the studio playlist at the time included My Bloody Valentine, the Butthole Surfers, even Ozric Tentacles). On the other side, there was Mullen (who'd spent his downtime revisiting Cream and Hendrix) and Adam Clayton (worried that the band were in danger of strapping on dance beats purely for effect), both proving resistant to the change.

Famously, during one heated jam, Clayton whipped off his bass and angrily thrust it into Bono's hands barking, "You fucking play it, then!"

"That's not the first time or last time that's happened," laughs Edge. "We actually do get very heated at times. No one was gonna give up without a major fight. There's four evil motherfuckers in U2. I think we would've broken up years ago if there'd been any pansies in the band."

"We were out of sync, no doubt about that," Mullen adds. "There were tensions because it wasn't working. The environment of Hansa wasn't a creative one. But I think I'd accept one hundred per cent that I was out of sync."

While focus was brought to the proceedings by the arrival of producer Brian Eno -- on what Flood calls his "sonic charger" -- progress was still slow. Then, in an incident that was to further shake their confidence, rough tapes of the work to date were stolen (culprit unknown) and swiftly pressed onto two double album vinyl bootlegs.

"It was very disturbing," recalls Daniel Lanois, "because nobody knew how it happened. They might've gone walking in the studio or it might've been at the hotel. But it created a bad scene for a few weeks."

"As far as we could tell, it'd been manufactured in a nearly defunct East German printing plant," says Paul McGuinness. "It was all a bit Third Man-ish, the idea of people lurking around in the fogs of Berlin with contraband tapes."

"Actually I had a copy of it," Edge smiles, quietly amused. "There's probably a few tunes on it that we could revisit in the future."

When the breakthrough of the Achtung Baby sessions came with a one-take recording of One (Flood: "They'd been running over and over it, then suddenly the chords just fell together and the melody followed"). It arrived not a second too soon. However, after three months of solid work, U2 came home with little more than a bassline (for "Mysterious Ways") and vague notions of "The Fly" and "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses."

Bizzarely, the band reconvened in the pool room of a hired house on the outskirts of Dublin, in proximity to a building site where a fleet of grinding JCBs were in operation for most of the day. In spite of this, within weeks, the album began to take shape, although perversely, it was the most typically U2-ish tracks that were proving the most difficult. Producer Steve Lillywhite remembers the mixing of "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses" (notably absent from the forthcoming Best of) as being especially testing.

"They hated that song," he says. "I spent a month on it and I still don't think it was as realised 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. It's almost like a covers band doing a U2 moment. Maybe we tried too hard."

It's remarkable, then, that Achtung Baby emerged from amid this turmoil as the most startling album of U2's career: from the broken hi-fi rumblings of "Zoo Station" to the bleak confessions of "Love is Blindness." More surprising still was its front cover, featuring shots of the band in drag and -- notoriously -- pictorial proof of why Adam Clayton was a big hit with the ladies. There was even a surreal plan hatched at the time that this nude shot should be the main image on the sleeve.

Looking back, are they glad that they didn't have Clayton with his pecker out bigger on the cover?

Edge: "Well, it's big enough...But I suppose we may have had a completely different career path if we had. Achtung Baby, it turned out, was itself a very controversial title, particularly in America..."

Mullen: "And in Germany."

Edge: "Yeah. Initially it didn't sell well in Germany. The Germans thought we must have been taking the piss somehow. But titles don't really matter in the end. Some of my favourite bands have the worst names. Y'know, the Beatles, for God's sake."

Mullen: "U2's not a particularly great name."

Edge: "No, U2's not great and I don't think Achtung Baby's a good name either."

Having delivered their most challenging album yet, U2 followed through with Zoo TV, still the most spectacular rock tour staged by any band. There was the lighting rig of Trabants, and the video confessional booth (recording fan messages to be relayed onto the screens during the show). There were Bono's nightly phone calls from the stage, harassing George Bush Sr. or a host of European politicians and celebrities. Then there were the over-sized TV screens beaming a barrage of mixed visual messages at the audiences.

Meanwhile, in this time of transformations, U2 -- until this point regarded as the rock band embodiment of Christian good-living -- began to party hard, with photos circulating of the group boozing long into the night with a bevy of supermodels. But still, the details of these activities -- as always with U2 -- remain strictly guarded.

So, as a band, did you pop a communal E?

Edge: "What? Like, as a sort of ritual? No...We used to sniff napalm before each gig, but apart from that..."

The first casualty of U2's hedonism was Adam Clayton. Scheduled to play two nights at Sydney Football Stadium in November 1993, Clayton claimed he was too ill to perform. His bass roadie took his place, with Clayton returning for the second night.

"It'd been simmering for a while," says Mullen. "So it wasn't unexpected. It was inevitable. For a band like U2, being onstage is like the sacred moment, so it was strange to be without your mate. It was also being filmed, which added to the excitement...for want of a better word."

Meanwhile, the band were busy falling out over aspects of the tour. In the middle of shows, U2 would incorporate satellite link-ups to a TV studio in Sarajevo. Mullen, in particular, looks back on the latter as a toe-curling experience.

"I can't remember anything more excruciating than those Sarajevo link-ups. It was like throwing a bucket of cold water over everybody. You could see your audience going, What the fuck are these guys doing? But I'm proud to have been a part of a group who were trying to do something."

"At the end of it all," Paul McGuinness notes, "I got this huge bill from the European Broadcasting Union, saying, You owe us hundreds of thousands of pounds for using our satellite. I never paid it. I'm probably still on the EBU's bad debts list. We were trying to tell the rest of the world what was going on in Sarajevo and the EBU was trying to make us pay for the privilege. I thought it was outrageous."

Despite their disagreements, U2 were charged up on the energy they'd tapped into on tour, and began work on an EP of new material. Soon the tracks multiplied into a new album. Zooropa was an even more daring record, and the product of a work schedule of insane intensity.

"That's when the madness kicked in," says Flood, "because they were touring and making a record at the same time. They'd fly off, do their gig, fly back to the studio at midnight, then work 'til two or three in the morning."

"It did get messy," says Edge, "but we wouldn't have that record if we didn't put in that extra effort. The highlight was Johnny Cash on 'The Wanderer.' That was a piece of U2 opportunism. We were working on this tune and Bono says, 'Hey, Johnny Cash is in town playing a show, I think we should get him to sing it.' We all thought, 'You're off your rocker,' but we met him after the show and he was mad for it."

So, what do you think when you listen to Zooropa now?

Mullen pauses for 33 seconds.

Edge: "He never listens to it!"

Mullen: "I haven't listened to it in a while. It was in the middle of the longest tour that we've ever done and it's hard to remember what happened. I love the record. But I got confused there for a second, I'll admit, because...what's the other record we made?"

Edge: "Passengers!"

Mullen: "Passengers! They all started to merge."

When U2 arrived in Japan in December 1993 for the final gigs of the two-year-long Zoo TV/Zooropa jaunt, they felt as if they'd landed on the moon.

"You can begin a tour in Japan, you can have the middle of a tour in Japan, but don't end a tour in Japan," Mullen advises, sagely. "It was, like, I am going mad and here's the proof. I'd only been home for two days and I had to book a flight to New York, I just couldn't be at home."

Do you think in hindsight the tour went on too long?

Edge: "When you come off a tour that long you're certifiable. You come back and you're having Sunday lunch with your family and somebody asks you to pass the salt and you're thinking, What the fuck are they on about? But had it been six months shorter, I don't know if we'd actually have been in any less of a demented state."

"Do you remember what you said to me on the last couple of days when we were in Japan?" asks Mullen. "We were in this hotel in the suburbs of Tokyo for a week and it felt like months. One of the last nights me and Edge were sitting there and he said, How about you and me just buy a bus and continue on?"

Edge: "It's like, Yeah, we've just got Siberia to do..."

Mullen: "And for a split second, I thought, That's not a bad idea."

Brains duly unscrambled, U2 set themselves another challenge. Regrouping in London in summer 1994 with Brian Eno and DJ/mixer Howie B., their remit was to create film music -- and then find a film for it. When this idea was scrapped, the project emerged under the moniker of Passengers. The album, Original Soundtracks 1, largely comprised instrumentals and was closer to Eno's solo work than U2.

The last time Q broached the subject of Passengers with Edge and Mullen in 1997, it provoked an argument, which ended with the former telling the latter, "It's a grower, Larry. Give it a few years."

It's been a few years now, so?

"It hasn't grown on me," Mullen smirks. "However, 'Miss Sarajevo' is a classic. At the time I just thought, Leave your audience alone, you've already given them Achtung Baby and Zooropa, give it a rest."

The album also tested the relationship between U2 and producer Brian Eno, and the accusations lingers that with Passengers, U2 went "too Eno."

"At that moment in time, both Brian and the band felt that it would be good to have a break from each other," says Edge, a little cagily. "But it was more a case of, Let's try to make a different kind of record now."

And so began the most turbulent period in U2's history. The quartet built a team comprising Flood, Howie B. and Massive Attack producer Nellee Hooper. While the initial exploratory sessions for the Pop album -- which kicked off in summer 1995, with loops employed as a replacement for Mullen (who was recovering from a back injury) -- proved interesting, it wasn't long before U2 realised they'd dug themselves into a hole.

Edge: "We were in a position where Larry had to take time off and it seemed like, Hey, here we have bunch of people who..."

Mullen: "... know how to use drum machines."

Edge: "...who generally use samples, so let's start the project like that. But when we got to the mixes using the loops, it was like the heart and soul was missing. I remember turning round to Flood and saying,' Why is this sounding so flat and lifeless?' And he said, 'The band!' And it was suddenly like, 'Ah...right...OK.' He sussed it before anyone else."

Flood: "All of the records that I've worked with them on, it doesn't matter how much experimentation's been involved, the core has always been the four of them playing together in a room. That was one of the things that threw the album off on a tangent that it never managed to get back from.

"It was the band at their most fractured," he continues. "You've got Larry who's struggling with his health, then Adam and Nellee weren't seeing eye to eye, and then Edge wanting to rediscover guitar and finding it difficult, then Bono's tendency to come in and vibe things up."

Factor in the added pressure of scheduling a tour that would top Zoo TV, and the atmosphere built to dangerously stormy levels. Then U2 committed a cardinal sin.

Mullen: "We did that thing we always tell younger bands not to do. Which is book a tour before the record's finished."

"How about never put out the record 'til you've finished the record," Paul McGuinness notes, wryly.

This was the crux of the problem: U2 had run out of time and were now forced into releasing an incomplete album.

"By the end, it was just becoming a blind panic," Flood remembers. "I felt I'd let the band and myself down. Unfortunately when you're making a record with U2, it's a very high-profile place to make a mistake."

"It was like, Oh my God, this record isn't very good," Mullen confesses. "But that was because of the time constraints. If we'd had an extra month, we'd have been able to do a lot more with some of the songs."

In the end, it seems the trouble spots on Pop are production details that wouldn't alarm the majority of listeners.

"It's stuff that a lot of people probably wouldn't appreciate," Edge concedes, "but it's a huge thing to let something go that you know you're not one-hundred percent with."

To compound the anxiety, U2 had also left themselves little time to rehearse for the upcoming PopMart tour. Then, after the horrors of the opening night show in Las Vegas on 25 April, 1997, where an under-rehearsed U2 struggled to play even their best-known tunes, it became clear that Pop wasn't selling in the quantities that the band had come to expect.

When the sales figures started coming in, were you worried?

Mullen: "Yeah."

Edge: "It was a success, with the exception of the United States. It sold eight million, so it was by no means a failure. There was a sense on the record company's part that this was going to be an enormous record for us in America. And when it wasn't, we took it in our stride. It sold faster than The Joshua Tree in America, but it stopped at a certain point."

Mullen: "To be fair, we had a situation in America where the tour was not being received well. So our kick-off in the United States was not good."

Even if U.S. audiences were finding it hard to understand PopMart's stage props -- the McDonald's arch, olive-topped cocktail stick and mirrorball lemon -- the tour recovered in terms of both box office receipts and the band's performances. All except for the night that the motorised lemon broke down in Scandinavia, with the band locked inside.

"We pissed ourselves," Edge says.

"But I have to say," Mullen adds, dryly, "if I was to choose my mode of transport, I'm not sure it would be a mirrorball lemon. I think I'll take the bus next time."

Come the end of the decade, having spent the '90s trying to be less like U2, the band discovered that, in fact, they should go back to trying to sound more like U2. The result: All That You Can't Leave Behind.

"We realised that there's only a certain amount of Joshua Trees you can chop down," says Mullen.

As a band, U2 are now less self-conscious than at any point in their 24-year history. They're even, it seems, comfortable with Bono throwing his political weight around again.

"He's done incredible work with the debt cancellation and the AIDS problem in Africa," Edge says, "but we wince sometimes when we see him with politicians in the newspaper. It's worth it, but sometimes you realise how some people are going, 'Wanker!' Intellectually, we don't do these things thinking it's hip. We do it despite the fact that it's really unhip."

McGuinness: "When Bono goes off and does those things, it fulfils a part of him that is not finding expression within U2. If he weren't doing that, he would feel that he wasn't living a full life. For the band, it's not a bad bargain. In a way, he's renewed creatively by what he does politically."

Later that night, the errant frontman turns up unannounced at Dublin's U2-owned Clarence Hotel, in the middle of dinner. He skirts around the issue of his campaigning ("It's just about having the faith and the thinking, If I can understand music than maybe I can understand economics"). This is probably because he has other, more liquid matters on his mind. Bono orders Q a Tom Collins, his chosen cocktail of the moment.

"It's vodka and..." he begins to say, before the waiter politely points out that it's actually gin he's been drinking these past months.

Soon the conversation begins to pinball from one unrelated topic to another: their chosen dcor for the hotel ("Look in the cupboards, it's all Catholic colours") to a film script that he's written about a preacher on an Indian reservation ("I couldn't believe it, I did it in a week and I was just...floating").

Eventually talk gravitates back to the ongoing sessions for the next U2 record.

"You know," he decides, arching an eyebrow, "we've got a great opportunity here. They're playing us on the radio again."

Looking back over the decade, it's hard to work out exactly when he thinks they ever stopped.



© Q, 2002. All rights reserved.

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