"The last one had a kind of poet's head on him. This guy looks more like a bouncer."
-- Bono, on the birth of his second son, 2001
Bringing Up Baby
A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Making of U2's New Album
November 18, 1991
Cool, the definitive Eighties compliment, sums up just about everything that U2 isn't. The band is positive where cool is cynical, involved where it is detached, open where it is evasive. When you think about it, in fact, cool isn't a notion that you'd often apply to the Irish, a people who easily and brilliantly satirize, elaborate and haggle and generally make short stories very long but who rarely exhibit the appetite for cultivated disdain -- deliberate noninvolvement -- for which the English pride themselves. The Irish are storytellers, pattern makers, great salesmen and inspired fantasists, and they remake their world by describing it -- several times a day. Temperamentally, they aren't inclined to remain spectators to someone else's idea of how things are: They'll jump right in and make it up for themselves. Reality, that arid bottleneck of European thought, comes to seem much more relative and negotiable -- something to be continually reinvented, even at the cost of occasionally losing touch with it completely. It is this reckless involvement that makes the Irish terminally uncool: Cool people stay 'round the edges and observe the mistakes and triumphs of uncool people (and then write about them).
So here I am, writing about this record with which I had a tangential involvement, still hopefully warm from the experience. U2 had asked Dan [Lanois] and myself to produce this album with them, but I'd already made plans for much of the period. The role I thus ended up with was luxurious: I came in now and again for a week at a time, listened to what had been going on and made comments and suggestions. I could point to something and say, "This doesn't do much for me," and suggest how it could be done otherwise without being made aware that I was casually dismissing three weeks' work. On the other hand, I could come in and try to re-excite everyone about something that had, for whatever reasons, fallen out of favor. I can think of worse jobs than hearing something you like and then telling the people who made it why they ought to like it, too. But the solid backbone of the producing work was down to Dan and [engineer] Flood, who stayed with it through months of ups and downs and twists and turns and maintained their concentration and good humor. And, of course, the band members themselves, whose dogged optimism and good-natured perseverance infect everyone who works with them.
Which is just as well, for working on a U2 record is a long and demanding process. The pattern seems to go like this: A couple of weeks of recording throws up dozens of promising beginnings. A big list goes up on the blackboard, songs with strange names that no one can remember ("Is that the one with the slidy bass or the sheet-of-ice guitar?"). These are wheeled out, looked at, replayed, worked on, sung to, put away, bootlegged and wheeled out again, until they start to either consolidate into something or fall away into oblivion. The list on the blackboard begins to thin down, although Bono, the Mother Teresa of abandoned songs, compassionately continues arguing the case for every single idea that has ever experienced even the most transitory existence: "We have to have a song like this on the record." "This will be fantastic live." "Imagine this coming out of your car radio." But as the weeks pass, and the seasons turn outside the studio windows, some things seem to start holding a shape while others get passed over.
And a language starts to evolve. It's a language of praise and criticism, the first flagpoles marking out the landscape within which this new music is being made. Buzzwords on this record were trashy, throwaway, dark, sexy and industrial (all good) and earnest, polite, sweet, righteous, rockist and linear (all bad). It was good if a song took you on a journey or made you think your hi-fi was broken, bad if it reminded you of recording studios or U2. Sly Stone, T. Rex, Scott Walker, My Bloody Valentine, KMFDM, the Young Gods, Alan Vega, Al Green and Insekt were all in favor. And Berlin itself, where much of the early recording was done (nostalgically, for me -- we were in the same room where Bowie's Heroes was made), became a conceptual backdrop for the record. The Berlin of the Thirties -- decadent, sensual and dark -- resonating against the Berlin of the Nineties -- reborn, chaotic and optimistic -- suggested an image of culture at a crossroads. In the same way, the record came to be seen as a place where incongruous strands would be allowed to weave together and where a probably disunified (but definitely European) picture would be allowed to emerge.
The emotional scope of the record was prefigured in the scope of its inspirations: psychedelia, glam, R&B and soul. These earlier eras of pop music, however, were characterized not by the search for perfection but by bizarre, enthusiasms, small budgets, erratic technique, crummy equipment and wild abandon. The dichotomy between that and the way in which we were working gave rise to a lot of questions. Given the choice, how much do you allow a record to exhibit warts-and-all spontaneity, and how much do you repair? Are you really making a record that's recorded in a garage, or are you making a record that reminds you of the feeling of records that are made in garages (the way a filmmaker might use a handheld camera to give the impression of a documentary urgency)? Does it make a difference if people hearing the record say, "That record sounds like trash," rather than, "They've deliberately chosen to make a record that sounds like trash?" Can you use that kind of detached, craftful irony and yet come over as emotionally sincere at the same time? On the other hand, is "sincerity" important, or are we here as actors, purveying credible impressions of sincerity? Should a record be a picture of where you are now or of all the places you could just as likely be?
And then another crop of questions: If you know you're probably going to sell several million albums on the strength of your track record, should you remain consistent to that track record? Are you deceiving people by moving off in new directions? Do people value you for your consistency or your surprises? It's easy for a theorist (normally someone who isn't selling 20 million records) to answer these questions. Naturally, he or she will recommend the supposedly riskier choice, releasing the weirdest and most extreme album possible. But this apparently heroic stance is based on a romantic view of what artists do: the idea that they drag benighted publics into shocking new worlds for their own good. There's a certain medicinal note to the whole process -- if you don't like it, it must be doing you good. Pop music has never really been like this: Its practitioners don't usually shield themselves behind the shimmery veils of High Art, dividing the world into insiders and outsiders; they expect to be liked (or at least talked about) by significant numbers of people. They want to be part of a world that excites them, not way out beyond it. Actually, I can't think of any artist I know who is not concerned about the reactions of his or her listeners: not with a view to pandering to them, but with a view to not disappointing their trust.
So now you start to get the picture: We left the songs in Berlin three long paragraphs ago and digressed into a series of "What are we actually doing?" discussions. This is quite normal. It can take four or five hours a day, two or three days a week. U2's records take a long time to make not because the band members are stuck for ideas but because they never stop talking about them.
Records that are made over an extended period (this album, Achtung Baby, took about a year), however, court the curse that I call Hollywoodization. This is the process where things are evened out, rationalized, nicely lit from all sides, carefully balanced, studiously tested against all known formulas, referred to several committees and finally made triumphantly noticeable. It's the Dunhill-lighter approach to culture, grafting a miserable concept of polish onto a conceptually croaky frame, where deficits of nerve, verve and imagination meet surfeits of glitz and gloss. The only reason that pop hasn't fallen completely into this trap is that few investors -- and thus, few opinions -- have traditionally been involved in the making of a record. Compared with the returns that a big-selling band like U2 can expect, the actual cost of recording is traditionally quite small. And compared with film, music is technically relatively simple: A record is usually the result of a small, tightly knit team working in very close contact and with a continuity of attention. Thus "big" records still keep appearing that are generally surprising, that haven't been whittled down to normalcy, kitsched out or democratically neutered.
I have a feeling that whatever else people accuse this record of, it won't be those things. It's a long step taken with confidence. U2's state of mind going into this record was similar to that before The Unforgettable Fire: ready for something bigger, rebelling against its own stereotypes. When you listen to the result, it all makes sense, sounds coherent. You might be forgiven for thinking that the band members knew just what they wanted before they began, but I don't think that's true. I doubt anyone ever does until they run into it, and even then it might take a while to recognize. There's a very general compass bearing when you start out, a few pointers and code words that get you going, some musical oases that you'll hope to visit on the way. But those are just hints: They don't tell you where you're headed, just what you're likely to pass. On the other hand, though, you can know what you don't want, and a lot of the process of making a record comes to be the task of finding a cultural space that isn't already ringing with unwanted resonances and overtones. This can be a new space, one that no one had identified before, or it can be an old one that suddenly sounds fresh again. Pop is a lot to do with reevaluation, tapping into the periodic cycles of energy that things radiate as they recede into history. Occasionally there are memorable moments of vision, powerful lights to head boldly toward, and when they happen, they supply the drive for a whole new slew of work. Although no one sits around waiting for them (nothing comes to him who waits), if your attention is somewhere else, you can miss them. That's why rough mixes are so important: They allow you to postpone your attentiveness.
Attention is noticing where you are, as opposed to where you thought you'd be. It's easy to get stuck in the detailed work of overdubbing, fiddling and tweaking, but it often doesn't get you far from where you started. Bigger jumps take a type of nimbleness, the agility to switch back and forth from detail to big picture, from zoom to wide angle. The advantage of working in company is that you don't have to do both yourself. With U2 it's very rare that everyone in the room is using the same lens at the same time. Larry [Mullen] and Adam [Clayton] are reliable wide anglers when things start to lose perspective or become too narrowly focused: They become the voice of musical conscience. Edge, the archaeologist of the rough mix, delves back through earlier strata of the song's development, emerging triumphantly with a different version on a battered cassette. Steve Lillywhite, a welcome addition at the mixing stage, comes in fresh and enthusiastic, free of history, and trusts his gifted ears. Dan listens to feel, to the skeleton of the song, and draws attention to things that everybody else has stopped noticing. Flood reawakens sleeping songs with brilliantly original mixes after we've all gone home. I trust my instincts, wax doubtful or enthusiastic, grumble Englishly and liberally contradict myself. All these shifts of perspective make the development of a song very nonlinear: From the inside, the process often feels chaotic, jumping from one identity to another, stretching the song this way and that, until it falls apart, then picking up the bits and starting over.
But the bottleneck (in most records, probably) is lyric writing. Why? It's because the lyricist assumes the really specific job of focusing the music, of pointing it somewhere. Words are very sharp objects. On a vocal day Bono appears with numerous written sheets that he fans out over the floor of the control room. Dan, as always, will have made the situation as conducive as possible: usually no headphones, a handheld mike, loud monitors, nice reverb, good lighting -- and regards the ensuing technical difficulties as his problem, not the musician's. Bono gets singing, jumping physically and conceptually through the emerging song, weaving lyrical threads into bigger patterns. The vocal glides gracefully between recognizable language and fluent Bongolese -- semilinguistic scat forming temporary bridges over lyrical gaps. Meaning is chiseled out bit by bit, polished, broadened, inverted, discarded, revived. Close attention is paid to subtle shifts of vocal tone and emphasis. Homeless lines wander hopefully from verse to verse. A single ill-fitting word chokes progress for half an hour. Flood smokes sympathetically. Dan keeps careful notes. Shannon [Strong, assistant] and Robbie [Adams, assistant engineer] keep all the many logs up to date. Work continues in this way until several vocal tracks are recorded. The picture becomes more detailed.
Later, Dan and Flood work through the tracks, "comping" a line-by-line best-of from that evening's work and making a rough mix. Bono listens to and studies this comp over the next few days, changes a word or a line or a verse, re-phrases and re-sings, and the process takes place again. In this way, he begins to home in on a performance, an attitude, a persona. He discovers who is singing the song and what kind of world that person inhabits. Who and where.
In the meantime, someone will come in with an old rough mix he's just rediscovered that for all its shortcomings has something. What is it? Can we get it back without abandoning everything that's happened since? Can we get the best of both of them? When it fails, the outcome is diluted, compromised, homogenized. When it succeeds and a hybrid comes into being, there is a synergy of feelings and nuances that nobody ever foresaw. If that happens, it's news. There's a lot of that kind of news on this record: "So Cruel" is epic and intimate, passionate and chill; "Zoo Station," perkily manic, industrially jovial; "Ultra Violet (Light My Way)" has a helicopterish melancholy; "Mysterious Ways" is heavy bottomed and lightheaded. To find a single adjective for any song proves difficult: It's an album of musical oxymorons, of feelings that shouldn't exist together but that are somehow credible.
And this is exactly what I've always liked about pop music: its ability to create crazy emotional landscapes and then invite you to come and dance in them.
© Rolling Stone, 1991. All rights reserved.