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20 Years of Achtung Baby: 5 Questions with Willie Williams

@U2, November 21, 2011
By: Matt McGee / @mattmcgee

 

He's been working with U2 since their stage design consisted of little more than a few white flags and a blowup of the album cover. His job is to take the music that U2 make and develop concert ideas that match the sound, the message and the overall vibe of what U2 mean and where they are at that moment in time.

"He" is Willie Williams and he had an inside view on the changes that U2 went through between the 1980s and 1990s. So, as we continue to celebrate the 20th anniversary of U2's Achtung Baby album, who better to ask about Zoo TV as a representation of the changes that were manifest on Achtung Baby? Our "five questions" turned into six, and here's the scoop on what he saw and what he heard 20 years ago.

Matt McGee: After the "dream it all up again" moment in Dublin in late 1989, when did you really become aware of how strongly the winds of change were flowing through the U2 camp with the new material?

Willie Williams: I was keenly aware of a desire for change a good while prior to the Point Depot moment, though at the time I'm not sure I really understood why the desire was there.

During all the previous tours, it felt to me like we were commandos charging up the hill making our assault on the music industry. During The Joshua Tree tour, though, it felt like every time a major milestone we passed (first U.S. No. 1, first stadium shows, cover of Time magazine, etc.) amid the rejoicing there was an undercurrent of "Woah. Hold on, hold on…" The gigs were absolutely stellar and yet some nights after the show you'd have thought someone's dog had died. For those of us not in the band, it was confusing.

I eventually came to realize that some of the continual self-questioning of this period came from a feeling of being out on their own, without any peers. I remember Bono saying that he wasn't at all surprised that, 10 years on, U2 had become a world-conquering force in rock music. What surprised him was that U2's early contemporaries weren't there with them. Many of the bands that had also been playing the club, college and theater circuit of the early '80s had split up (Echo & The Bunnymen, The Smiths, The Clash) and the bands still together had drunk the arena rock Kool-Aid and were in danger of becoming caricatures of themselves (Simple Minds, The Alarm). It never occurred to me that U2 might be in danger of either fate, but in hindsight it was a very clear and present danger on their radar.

This was exacerbated greatly by the mixed press reaction to Rattle And Hum and the multiple-night, big-band format of the LoveTown tour, culminating in the announcement from the stage that this chapter of U2 was now over.

When did you first hear the new material, and what was your initial reaction?

I spent most of the time between The Joshua Tree and Zoo TV tours working with David Bowie. I would check in periodically with camp U2 but in those days that consisted of the occasional phone call. Bono and Gavin Friday came to a Bowie show in Cleveland in the spring of 1990, Bono still in his biker phase with hair down to his arse, but aside from that I didn't set eyes on any of them for nearly two years.

Once they emerged from the bunker and I was done with Bowie, I got a call from Paul McGuinness asking if I could join them all in Tenerife. They had gone there for Carnival, and when I arrived it was immediately obvious that a major page had turned in their creative journey. The new music was intoxicatingly immediate and incredibly exciting, but their whole demeanor had changed. There was a kind of giddiness in the air; they had shipped a small, highly painted and completely rubbish little East German car to the island (a "Trabant" they told me it was called), Bono had taken to wearing huge, rhinestone-studded, wraparound sunglasses and, of an evening, they would slip out of their shades and leathers and experiment with dressing up in women's clothing. It was like they'd been in black and white for 10 years and now, suddenly, there they were in full color.

Without the music, though, all the window dressing would have been meaningless but the music, too, even in its unfinished state, was clearly coming from equally uncharted territory. Bono told me that a likely title for the album was "69" and the first piece I heard was a rock epic called "You Turn My World Upside Down." I listened to it about a thousand times in the two days I was there, and let my imagination run riot. (The closest surviving version to this piece is the extended mix of "Lady With The Spinning Head," but I can still hear the original chorus lyric.)

How did the Achtung Baby songs and sound influence your planning and ideas for the Zoo TV tour?

Given the time scales of rock 'n' roll, a show generally needs to be designed some time before the accompanying album is finished. Consequently, it's more the mood of the early versions and, more particularly, the way any given band talks about their new music that I find most informative when putting a show together.

The first meeting we had about the Zoo TV tour was also in Tenerife. During my time with Bowie I had worked with large-scale projection for the first time. On some of the Joshua Tree stadium shows we'd had a very basic kind of video reinforcement but I was fast realizing that rock 'n' roll hadn't even scraped the surface of what might be possible in combining live shows with video art. Joining the dots between Bowie, Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson, I talked about the possibility of performing amid a giant video installation, to which Bono replied, "No, what we should do is announce to the world that U2 are taking a TV station on the road."

Many (many) discussions later when we had figured out what form said TV station should take, the construction of the show could begin on a song-by-song basis. Some songs would have very specific imagery ("One," "The Fly"), some more abstract ("Zoo Station," "Wild Horses") and some entirely random ("Real Thing"). It was a huge job and initially all of the material was made by myself, Mark Pellington and Brian Eno, but we always saw it as something that would be ongoing, with more and more material being added by a whole host of video makers over the two years of the tour.

Starting the shows with eight songs from Achtung Baby was a hell of a gambit. What do you recall about the discussions and decision to do that?

To be honest, I have no specific recollection of how the set list came together. I do, however, clearly remember that it always seemed like exactly the right thing to do and there was no resistance whatsoever.

With U2's sensational reinvention being less than six months old, the vibe around the album and the tour was absolutely immense. Prior to the first show there was a feeling in the air that U2 were set to do something extraordinary but of course only we inside the city walls had any idea what that was going to be.

It's impossible now to imagine a time when rock and pop shows weren't awash with hyperactive video screens, but when we set out on Zoo TV this style of presentation was absolutely brand-new. A band that had always prided themselves on no-bulls**t authenticity and lack of artifice was about to step into a situation where for the first 15 minutes of the show it was impossible to look at the performers. The soul-roots pilgrimage of Rattle And Hum had crash-landed at the altar of industrial noise, the singer had gone from biker to dead Elvis apparently overnight, the lighting system was made of cars and there was absolutely no Plan B. 

Frankly, opening with half an hour of new hit songs seemed relatively uncontroversial, given everything else that was going on.

How did the idea come up to revive more Achtung Baby songs into the 360 tour this year?

It really came about because of Glastonbury. Well, that and the fact that the tour went on for three summers, which gave us endless opportunity to mess with everything.

Had U2 played Glastonbury in 2010 the set list would have been quite different. In May of 2010, we spent a week in New York rehearsing the original Glastonbury set. My master plan was that U2 would walk onto the stage before dark and play half an hour of the biggest hits from their first incarnation: "Streets," "I Will Follow," "New Year's Day," "Still Haven't Found," "Pride" and "Bad." Most of these songs weren't in the 360 show at that time.

At the end of "Bad," by which time the audience would be lying on the floor unable to believe what they'd just witnessed, the stage would go dark, strange noises would happen and, as if blowing in from some other stage on the other side of the festival, the strains of The Ronnettes' "Be My Baby" would phase in and out. At which point, the industrial whine of the extended live intro of "Zoo Station" would kick in, followed by the first half hour of the Zoo TV show, including all the original video visuals playing on a host of video screens which had apparently appeared out of nowhere: "Zoo Station," "The Fly," "Real Thing," "Mysterious Ways" and "One."

At the end of "One," by which time the audience would be lying on the floor unable to believe what they'd just witnessed, there'd be a chunk of the big rave part of the 360 show: "City Of Blinding Lights," "Vertigo," "I'll Go Crazy" and "Sunday," before rounding out the main set by casually throwing in "Beautiful Day" and "Elevation."

I seriously thought it was my best set list ever and it's what would have happened had U2 played Glasto in 2010. However, due to the entirely unforeseen circumstances of the tour postponement, another whole year had to roll around before this could come about. As time passed I began to realize that the Glastonbury show as first imagined would never happen, because having got all these great songs rehearsed and ready to play, it seemed unlikely that they'd be left to lie fallow for such a long time.

By the time we embarked on the third summer of the 360 tour, the desire to keep the 360 show fresh and alive outranked the preservation of a festival set list that perhaps was starting to seem like less of a good idea after all. It was now the anniversary year of Achtung Baby, so it suddenly seemed far more logical to open the Glastonbury show with Zoo TV and once Declan Gaffney's extraordinary remix of "Real Thing" had become the opener, it seemed like madness not to open the tour the same way.

Part of me will always mourn not seeing that original set at Glasto but the benefit to the 360 tour was so enormous that I can see it was a sacrifice to the greater good. It really wasn't a hardship to hear those songs every night rather than just once at Glastonbury!

Where does Achtung Baby rank for you among U2's albums?

It's their best record, their single greatest contribution to the sum of happiness of the human race.

(c) @U2, 2011.



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