"I find it to be an ongoing challenge to keep the guitar from becoming too traditional."
20 Years of Achtung Baby: Evolution of 'The Fly'
November 04, 2011
"The Fly" has had the most interesting evolution of any live Achtung Baby song, to my ear. The other Achtung Baby perennials in the concert setting have stayed largely the same. Songs like "One," "Mysterious Ways" or "Until The End Of The World" might get some impressive extra verses or guitar riffs added at their ends, but "The Fly" has had some very distinct incarnations that have changed its flavor live.
Speaking of flavor, let's start off with the larval stages of "The Fly": the version on Achtung Baby and "The Lounge Fly Mix," which we now know to be a mix of the early version of "The Fly" found on Baby Achtung Baby. The "Baby Fly" version of the song still has very obvious ties to the prototype song on the stolen Achtung Baby outtakes that spawned "The Fly," "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)" and "Lady With The Spinning Head." It's got the trademark drums, the angelic falsettos in the midst of the trash, and perhaps the best guitars The Edge has ever done, but it hasn't found the sleazy, contaminating persona that the Achtung Baby release had. It's more concerned with the fat lady falsettos than the black oil slick it would come to leave behind wherever it landed.
The final mix that showed up on Achtung Baby was the insect finally out of its molting stage, wings spread. Bono wasn't just whispering, he was whispering through a distorter to give the song its "phone call from hell" persona. Edge's guitars rattle and jangle like a motorbike in a tin can through the verses and chorus, but suddenly become an object flying through the sky at night in the bridge. Bono's angelic fat lady falsetto soars in over the guitars, offering a bit of hope in hell but serving more of a reminder of what was lost after the fall. Larry's drums are brilliant, with his cymbals giving this little insect rattle throughout the song and his rhythmic cowbell counting the seconds through the four and a half minutes. Adam's bass, especially between the choruses and verses when it works its way down an octave, performs an amazing feat of both sounding like a musical obstacle in the song and helping to propel it forward. His bass is utterly vital to "The Fly," yet it feels like he's fighting the rest of the song the whole time. It's one of my favorite U2 songs of all time, and is definitely my favorite track off of Achtung Baby.
By the time it made it to Zoo TV (as heard on the Zoo TV Live From Sydney concert video), "The Fly" was very much buzzing around people's heads, but it had lost a bit of its style in my opinion. The Edge's guitar and Adam's bass were all there, but Bono and Larry messed it up a bit. The song was played in a higher register, perhaps to accommodate Bono's voice. Bono didn't use any sort of vocal distortion. There was no interference in the phone call from hell. Instead, he sang in a put-on voice that took a lot of the menace from his performance. He also started playing that vexing rhythm guitar in a key that technically works with the song, I guess, but really makes the whole track seem much more light-hearted than it should be. It's amazing how, to my ear at least, that damn rhythm guitar completely removes the song from hell. Larry's drums sound too big and thumping, but at least the tittering of the cymbals is still there. By the end of the performance it's pretty darned tight, but the start of the Zoo TV version takes away a lot of gravity from "The Fly."
What saves this version are the visuals that go along with the live performance. Massive television screens sit over and around the band, blasting out slogans, curses, hate speech, love speech and catch phrases. Many phrases are too fast to truly register, but you can always get the gist of what they're trying to say. It's too much and almost nothing at the same time. The live version in Zoo TV transformed the song into the conceptual, multimedia barrage we think of it as today. It was U2's subliminal message that they decided not to sublimate.
There is a live version out there on various acoustic bootlegs featuring Bono and his rhythm guitar. One of the new lyrics in it is, "It's no secret that there's no rhyme for 'orange.'" The song stops after that. No more need be said.
"The Fly" buzz-buzz-buzzed away for PopMart, but came back with a vengeance for the Elevation tour. As evidenced on the Elevation 2001 Live From Boston DVD, this is the gold standard version of the song that all others are to be compared with. This is the version that sits in your potato salad and cleans itself without shame. This is the version that won't stop trying to land on the back of your neck on that sweaty, sunny day. This is the version that decides to drown itself just to ruin your lemonade.
Bono gets rid of the rhythm guitar and the falsettos and the song soars without the added weight. The Edge repeats his brilliant riff throughout the verses rather than just at the start, giving the song a much heavier, angrier vibe. He also repeats the mantra "love, love, love" in the backing vocals during the chorus, giving the song a sinister memory of what has been lost. Bono has decided not to do any sort of vocal distortion, which gives the song a much more immediate, weary, pitiful aspect.
This isn't a phone call from hell. This is a quick visit you're paying a man in hell. They abandon the redemption of the falsetto in the chorus (another wise choice) and move the memory of salvation to the start of the song. Edge plays his heavenly guitars, Bono sings of burning stars and falling from the sky in quiet tones, and then it all ends with Bono's "shwooooosh" down to the pit. Adam's bass hasn't changed much, but why fudge with perfection? Combined with Edge's ripping guitars is Larry's brilliant drum work. Gone are the tom-tom sounds from Zoo TV. Instead, we get the perfect interpretation of what he played on Achtung Baby. At the end, when Bono is saying "Gotta go, gotta go, gotta go," it's not because he has run out of change. It's because the demons found him. This is my favorite live version of any U2 song ever. I can't help but wonder if it didn't shine brighter due to being in the middle of the stripped down, happy-vibing Elevation tour.
The most recent incarnation peeked its multi-faceted eyes over the Vertigo and U2360 tours. As played on the Vertigo Live From Chicago DVD, Larry and The Edge have added a funky guitar/drum intro at the beginning of the song. The Edge has brought back his Zoo TV-era falsetto and verses, Larry has changed his percussion to become more cymbal-focused, Bono has started using vocal distortion and that darned rhythm guitar again, and Adam...well, Adam played the same bass line as always. It's still one of the crown jewels in U2's live catalog, but it's not as good as the Elevation version, plain and simple. It has lost a lot of its menace, it's a bit more poppy, and it's not as energetic. However, with the Vertigo version, it has got its visual message back. The live backdrop is a series of needy phrases, begging questions and co-dependent fill-in-the-blanks. Interpreted through the 3D vision of the U23D movie, they become a series of assaultive letters raining down and bouncing away towards the audience. At the end of the Vertigo performance though, the screens transform into massive TVs of green and purple static. "The Fly" is no longer a phone call from hell; it is a TV broadcast from hell and the feed has just been cut.
Regardless of how many different versions there are of this song, it refuses to be swatted away from U2's live shows. It's not one of the band's biggest hits -- it was the introduction to the new U2 of the 1990s, but it wasn't a particularly high-charting single in the U.S. -- and it's not very well known to the public at large. Still, it keeps on showing up at live shows, re-inventing itself for new tours. I have visions of the band dressed as centaurs calling it "The Horse Fly Mix," or dressed in drag calling it "The Fruit Fly Mix," or ... um, anyway ... The song's real draw, regardless of its musical shifts, is the truth of its words. In "Love Is Blindness," Bono sings about "All the secrets and no one to tell." This song is narrated by someone who has seen behind the curtain, gone into the dreadful mire, and found a way to get back in contact so he can tell us what he's seen. If I have it my way, he'll keep on whispering his dirty little secrets for as long as the band is touring.
(c) @U2/Ryan, 2011.