Since coming out of Dublin in the late '70s, U2 has released 12 studio albums, the majority of which are great, and a handful of which are even greater -- which is to say, sharper, deeper, tighter, and more adventurous and all-consuming. Near the top of that list is 1991's Achtung Baby, a dark record birthed during a series of fraught sessions at Hansa Studios in Berlin in late 1990, and one that's as important for the succession of dirty, experimental, and indelible songs that it spawned -- "The Fly," "One," "Mysterious Ways" -- as it is for the radical and willful break from the past that it came to represent.
By the time the members of U2 -- Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen Jr. -- decamped to Hansa with producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois to begin work on what would become Achtung Baby, they were already the biggest band in the world. But as work on the album progressed in Berlin, and later back in Dublin, the widescreen romance and earnestness of earlier records like The Unforgettable Fire (1984) and The Joshua Tree (1987) gave way to a noisy meld of Manchester-dance and German-electronic influences shot through with a mix of irony, ecstasy, and high-modernist wit. For the tour in support of the album, the band's previously stripped-down road show was supplanted by the elaborate Blade Runner-esque stage-set and oversize video screens of Zoo TV, with its between-song channel surfing, audience confessional videos, in-show satellite hook-ups, and theatrical flourishes. Then there was Bono, decked out in Jim Morrison's pants, Elvis's jacket, and, of course, Lou Reed's bug-eye sunglasses—the rock star remixed. It was at once like nothing anyone had ever seen or heard before—at least on purpose, in one place, from a rock band—and, at the same time, all too much like everything that everyone was seeing everywhere at a moment when the map of the world was being redrawn, a media revolution was afoot, and the culture itself was in the midst of a tectonic shift.
From The Sky Down, Davis Guggenheim's new documentary about U2's struggle to find a new direction -- and to stay together -- during the making of Achtung Baby, delves into the genesis of the album through the lens of a return trip to Hansa that the band made earlier this year. (The film is airing right now on Showtime.) This month, U2 is also releasing a special 20th anniversary edition of Achtung Baby that includes both the full original album and 1993's Zooropa, as well as an array of B-sides, outtakes, and alternate versions of songs.
I spoke with Guggenheim, The Edge, and Bono in early September in Toronto, hours before From The Sky Down was set to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. — STEPHEN MOOALLEM
STEPHEN MOOALLEM: So I know we're in reflective mode right now, but I don't want us to get too nostalgic because I think, in many ways, this record we're talking about, Achtung Baby, is really about the opposite of nostalgia.
BONO: That's a very good point. How can you be nostalgic about something that really doesn't want to be?
MOOALLEM: And yet now we're looking back at it...
DAVIS GUGGENHEIM: Well, let's start there. U2 is a band that has always been about looking forward and reinventing yourselves -- a band that, I think, has always been allergic to even the notion of looking back. So why are you choosing to look back now?
THE EDGE: Well, I don't know... It seemed like a very good idea at the time. I'm still not convinced it was the right call.
BONO: I think allergic is a good word to describe it. I regularly break out in a rash when I hear one of our songs on the radio. I don't find it a very pleasant experience. There are some exceptions to that, but when we were assembling our greatest-hits collections a few years ago, I actually had to be physically held down to listen to the best of the '80s…. Of course, I think those songs are much better live, and Edge thought that it was important for me to hear it through at least once, but I hadn't really listened to those recordings since we made them…. I think it sounds like I sing like a girl. Singing is an exaggeration -- I shout like a girl on those songs. I love girls, by the way, but I don't want to shout like one…. So I find it intensely difficult to look back at our work. I don't have time for it.
MOOALLEM: So then why now?
BONO: The reason for doing this now is that it was explained to us that you have to fight for your work. If you believe in the work, then you have to fight for its place -- and I don't mean just in the making of it, but in the curating of it. You have to be mindful of where your pictures hang, of how they hang…. We no longer live in naïve times. Everybody in the world knows that in the world of media there are lists, and you can be at the top of those lists or at the bottom of those lists, and we knew that there was something special about Achtung Baby and the period around that album, so we thought, "Well, maybe here's a chance to actually remind a world, which may or may not be interested at this point, of this album that we did." Then the film came up, and to make a film is really excruciating to me -- particularly because I find it very hard to let go of things. I wouldn't say that we as a band are or that I am very controlling about most things, but when it comes to our music, we are controlling, so it was going to be impossible for us to let go—unless we could find somebody we really respected to make this film…. And we couldn't find Wim Wenders, so, you know, we have Davis.
GUGGENHEIM: I'm always following Wim Wenders. [all laugh] As a music fan, though, nostalgia is one of the most wonderful feelings. You hear a song, and you remember the first time that you heard it, where you were, how you were feeling. But in looking at your own work, why is nostalgia a thing to avoid?
THE EDGE: For me, looking back is akin to being on a tightrope and looking down. It doesn't help you in the present moment to deal with what you have to deal with in order to move forward.
THE EDGE: Yeah, it sets up a kind of self-consciousness, and self-consciousness is the enemy. You can get thrown off by thinking about the work you've done in the past.
BONO: You know, though, the thing is this: I think Achtung Baby was a get-out-of-jail-free card for a band like us, who were in a sort of prison of our own making back then.
GUGGENHEIM: Thanks for not saying that while we were making the movie, by the way.
THE EDGE: He says that now...
BONO: And the reason that we've probably tricked ourselves into doing this project is because we are in that same jail right now. At the end of the '80s, we were number one on the pop charts. We were everywhere -- we were all over you -- and things were just about to get unpleasant both for the band and for the audience. We were in a jail -- you know, where do you go from there? And I think that we're probably in that same place right now, so understanding how we kind of cracked the lock…. It's probably the right moment to think about that.
MOOALLEM: What kind of jail do you think you're in now?
BONO: Well, for about 20 years, I think U2 has been on the verge of irrelevance. I think that we have ducked and dived and skirted on the edge of that. We've made some great work along the way, and occasionally some not-so-great work, but mostly great work, I think. But this time right now, to me, feels like… Why does anybody need a new U2 album? Everybody's got one -- I mean, there are 150 million of them out there. And if we need to find a new audience, then let's go to China or something. But this band should really just fuck off and die. [all laugh] That would be my advice to myself -- unless we can find a way to be both relevant and successful. Being successful is a lot easier for us at this point. We can play very large places, probably, for the rest of our lives. We can do the big music. But can we do small music? Can we still make music that will be played on the radio or in the clubs? That's a big question. I'm not sure that we can... I want to give it a shot. I think Edge, Larry, Adam, and I all feel the same way about that. But it's not a given that we can do it. So we are in a very similar situation right now.
GUGGENHEIM: You've talked about how, at the end of the '80s, the band needed to "chop down" The Joshua Tree in order to move forward, and Achtung Baby represents the new sound that you created in order to do that. The fans wanted "With or Without You," or "Where the Streets Have No Name," but you gave them something completely different.
BONO: It's the sex. Because Joshua Tree was quite ascetic. I mean, it had "With or Without You," and there were moments of eroticism on it, but essentially there were these Anton Corbijn photographs of people who looked like pilgrims -- and we very much saw ourselves as pilgrims. We had an interest in religion. We were sort of Bible–reading students, but we were interested in all religions -- if not the larger idea of surrender in all religions. But, you know, that was the '80s, and you could feel the punches coming, because the hail of blows when people found out that you were materialistic, or that you were a flirt, or that you wanted to go to a club and dance…. So with Achtung Baby, we had to up the ante ourselves. We were saying, "Yes, you can be interested in the real world as well as the otherworldliness of spiritual life."
GUGGENHEIM: It wasn't just sex, though. It was also about letting go of sincerity.
THE EDGE: Well, earnestness more than sincerity. Earnestness is the thing that we started to get allergic to at the end of the Lovetown tour behind Rattle and Hum . I think the pressure of being in that position of becoming hugely successful for the first time, this feeling that we were being robbed of an important component of what we were personally….
BONO: The importance of not being earnest.
THE EDGE: Yeah. Suddenly, we felt hemmed in…. So it was important for us to carve out the freedom to take the piss out of ourselves -- or just to be who we are. We'd just come through the Joshua Tree period where we couldn't really be any more kind of it. The album was massive all over the world. We were playing the biggest venues available to people who do what we do. We had all of the signifiers of great success. Yet, at the end of that tour, we all had a sense that rather than having finally crossed the finishing line, there was something more important to us than what we'd just achieved. We just began to realize that the success we'd achieved wasn't success for us.
GUGGENHEIM: Is it only achieving a certain level of success that reveals that?
THE EDGE: Well, until you get there, you don't know. I think Bob Dylan once said, "When you reach the top, you discover you're at the bottom."
GUGGENHEIM: And Berlin was the bottom.
THE EDGE: The end of the Lovetown tour was the bottom. In Berlin, we were in the process of starting from scratch again.
BONO: Digging into it more. [laughs]
MOOALLEM: Beyond what was on the record itself, there seemed to be this conspiracy of events and forces around it -- whether it was what was happening in music or in the media or in the world politically -- that amplified the entire thing and made it feel not only new, but relevant and zeitgeisty. Did you feel any of that as it was happening at the time?
BONO: Well, the context is important. While we were on the Zoo TV tour, the siege of Sarajevo was happening. Europe had become sort of impotent in the face of this genocide that was happening on the outskirts, and the United States was bailing out the people of the Balkans. The record that followed Achtung Baby was called Zooropa, which is very much of and in that time. And it's important to remember that at that very moment in the early '90s, there were a lot of people making kind of a new punk-rock music in short pants and plaid shirts. The grunge movement was just getting off the ground. Nirvana had just released "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Pearl Jam were coming through with Ten . Primal Scream had done something similar with Screamadelica . Then Radiohead was coming through. Oasis. Massive Attack. Björk. It was a very fertile period, the early '90s. But I do still think that Achtung Baby was pretty shocking for a kind of white rock audience at that moment. When we started the tour, we would open the show by playing eight songs in a row from the new album. I remember playing in Miami the following March, when we had just opened the tour. Even though people had had the album for a while, seeing the tour, and just the relentlessness of it…. People were white as sheets. Then, later, it sort of became the zeitgeist -- and I think that zeitgeist is the right word to use, because it's the word that sort of defines our band. The things that shape the world, be they pop cultural or political or economic or technological—artists just want to be there, you know? You want to be wherever the proverbial "it" is. You know, there are people who loathe our band… I mean, we are loathed. And when I ask certain people why they loathe us -- which I try not to do -- they very often say, "Well, it's because you did this," or "It's because you did that." But I think, to us, intellectual curiosity always seemed to be part of the reason why people became artists. What I always loved about the '60s was that bands were getting up to all kinds of mischief -- walking in marches with Martin Luther King Jr., or bed-ins for peace. The Beatles started a record company -- that's what their label, Apple, was -- and were interested in commerce. They also went to India to study with the Maharishi. The Grateful Dead were amongst the first investors in the Internet. So it's that sort of sprawling curiosity in artists that I've always found interesting.
THE EDGE: It was also a time when television had started to go into a different place altogether, with all the cable channels and the invention of news as a form of entertainment. We were overwhelmed -- as everyone else was -- by where people were going for programming, and how, rather than the competition of all these channels becoming a route to higher-quality programming, it actually pitted all these different topics against one another. The History Channel had to compete with the Discovery Channel versus Sky or CNN news, and everything had to be as sensational or eye-catching as possible. So it became this thing where people were trying to outdo each other in terms of sensationalism, and we just grabbed that and ran with it and turned it around. One of the strange twists is when we tried to broadcast linkups to Sarajevo in the middle of the Zoo TV shows. Suddenly we were offering up this link through our TV screens at the venue to a friend in Sarajevo providing this kind of uneditorialized coverage of what was going on inside the siege of Sarajevo in front of 30,000 to 50,000 people every night.
BONO: Without the action music that was being played on CNN.
THE EDGE: Yeah, without the entertainment. I have to say, it was really tough sometimes to cope with, because it was so raw. It was really like one person talking directly to another, even though there were 50,000 of us there in the venue.
BONO: I remember during one of the linkups a Muslim girl we were speaking to said, "Why don't you go back to your rock show now. We're probably gonna die -- and let's hope it's sooner rather than later." Then we had to go into a song…. It was just very hardcore and surreal. But what was interesting about Sarajevo was the way the people there were using surrealism themselves as an act of defiance. In middle of the siege, they had a beauty pageant in the town square where the girls walked out in their bathing suits with signs saying things like, "Do you really want to kill us?" We wrote a song about it called "Miss Sarajevo." We found this musician, a beautiful pianist, who refused to hide in the bomb shelter during the mortar fire, and she would just play through all the shelling…. I mean, surrealism was very much a part of that era. The first Gulf War was on the BBC, and I forget the anchor, but he was in Baghdad, and I think at one point a cruise missile just came by down the high street and turned left…. It was the most extraordinary thing. But I think that kind of surrealism found its way into Achtung Baby. You know, some of the black humor that these people in Sarajevo had was astonishing! Some of their jokes were so off….
THE EDGE: Like, "What's the difference between Sarajevo and Belsen? Well, at least in Belsen they had gas."
BONO: "Zoo Station" is the first song on Achtung Baby, and, interestingly enough, there is a U2 line that runs into the actual Zoo Station subway stop in Berlin. The station is called that because there's an actual zoo there, and during the war, when the Allies were bombing, they couldn't put the animals in underground shelters. There are all these stories about how the vibrations from the bombing unlocked the cages, so people would come out of the bunkers in the morning in Berlin, and there'd be a rhinoceros or a tiger walking down the road, or pelicans and flamingos walking in the rubble. Just mad stuff. Berlin has always had this relationship with Dada and surrealism and using humor as a weapon of self-defense. So we decided to call our sort of modus operandi in making the record judo, which is to use the force that is coming at you to protect yourself—which, for us, meant taking the media and all the stuff that we felt had turned us into caricatures, and transforming it into another kind of force and having fun with it. Making the album was a struggle, but after we made it, we had more fun than should be allowed. I remember we first did an indoor tour for Achtung Baby, and then did an outdoor tour called "Outside Broadcast," where we took this giant TV station setup on the road. It was costing us about $250,000 a day -- and this was before Live Nation was around to foot the bill and take a risk on our dreamscapes, so it was our money that we were spending. Our accountants and business people were coming to us and saying, "Look, if 10 percent less people come to the shows than you imagine, then you're bankrupt. Everything that you have will be lost. In material terms, you'll all be broke." And we sort of sat there, the four of us, and we all had our serious faces on. But then those other people left the room, and we all just started laughing… And then we ordered up a spaceship. [laughs] I don't know -- what's the opposite of a bonfire of the vanities? We were warming our hands on the vanities, like, "We want more." It was just the delightful fun of being set free from all that stuff that we carried with us in the '80s.
GUGGENHEIM: We talked about this before, but there's a law of physics that at some point a rock band has to either implode or explode -- or worse: stay together but die inside. How have you guys managed to defy that law of rock-band physics?
BONO: Well, rock 'n' roll bands are like street gangs, and there's a sort of thing about them that makes sense when you're 18 or 19. But most rock 'n' roll bands don't survive because as people get older, they start to need a different kind of life and to carve out their own space. I also think it has a lot to do with the male ego, and how it sort of calcifies and becomes more brittle as it gets older. It is less likely to want to be around something -- or someone -- that will bump up against it, or the kind of friction that can come with having close relationships with people. You know, especially when you're successful and you're a self-made man, you can be a big shot in pretty much any room except for the one called "being in a rock band." In a lot of cases, ego will also drive people to persuade themselves that they could do better out on their own. But I don't think any of us have ever really bought into that idea. I think all of us intuitively want U2 to be our creative home. It's where we all thrive. And fortunately, we've been able to grow individually in ways that don't prevent us from moving forward with this thing we started when we were 18 years old -- this band of brothers we've got here.
THE EDGE: I think it's also about being lucky enough to be around people who will not allow you to believe your own bullshit. The problem for most people as they get older is that they start to buy into their own bullshit to the extent that they just have to eliminate from their inner sanctum anyone who is going to really challenge it. But I think we were lucky enough to have the four of us respect and regard each other to the extent that we're kind of always looking out for one another, so none of us can get away with buying into the bullshit.
GUGGENHEIM: I remember, Edge, you and I once talking about another rock star, who shall remain nameless, who got into fish farming and had chosen to focus on that. You've never wanted to learn to farm fish, Edge?
THE EDGE: I think we've all gone into fish farming at various stages, and if you're left to it on your own at the critical moment when you do that, things can go horribly wrong. But if you've got three guys just saying, "You're an idiot. Get your fucking head out of the fish farm…." Well, those people are called friends.
BONO: I am tall, skinny, with a sense of humor, though, aren't I, Edge?
THE EDGE: Occasionally...
GUGGENHEIM: There's a moment in the movie where you say, "Have we become the enemy?" That was 20 years ago. Most rock bands start out having a very simple enemy -- for bands like the Sex Pistols and The Clash, it was being angry at The Man. But how do you maintain that? Who's your enemy today?
BONO: You know, your enemies define you, so you better make sure they're interesting. If your enemy is something as corny as The Man... Well, I don't know if it's really worth spending your life fighting The Man. But a much more interesting enemy to me is the obstacle between you and your potential. Now, there's an enemy: The person inside of you who won't let you be the person that you were born to be. That's the epic struggle, and I think that our art uncovers that. It uncovers the hypocrisies and the contradictions of who you are and makes you deal with them. And that's really fucking hard—and I think, for us, it's getting harder.
THE EDGE: The big cop-out would be to accept popularity rather than opting to try to create potent work. It's so easy to do the popular thing, the expected thing, and that's where you start to cheat yourself -- and your fans, in the end -- because there's an inherent dishonesty in pandering and dishing up what everyone's expecting.
GUGGENHEIM: So one of your enemies is the one that compromises, the one that will lie down.
THE EDGE: It's so easy to fall into that trap -- especially if you have had some success. Everybody is saying, "That thing that we all loved last time -- just do that again!" But if you've gotten to where you are in the first place by taking risks, and being in the moment that you were in, then you can't recreate that, so it all becomes a hollow rehash of something that's lost its context and its value. You've got to search for the things that mean something to you here and now -- and it's hard to find that.
GUGGENHEIM: Well, that's another law of rock-band physics. When you're 17, it feels like you have nothing to lose. But every year you live on this planet --
THE EDGE: You've got a lot more to lose.
BONO: It's interesting, though, because it seems like we're coming towards the end of what will be seen as the era of the rock band -- and it's an amazing phenomenon, going back to The Beatles, through The Clash, the Pixies, Nirvana, Arcade Fire. So I do hope that this film that you've made, Davis, does have some usefulness if people one day want to understand why people once made art together in a collaborative medium, because most artists don't work like that. It's not like being on a football team. You know, you get up in the morning if you're Julian Schnabel, and you paint. If you're Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons, you make extraordinarily beautiful objects -- and Jeff Koons has got teams of people who work with him, but it's always him and his point of view. You, Davis, work in a collaborative medium, but it's your point of view. And you can't write books or poetry as four people. But four people get together in the context of a rock band, and you have out of that some of the richest veins of culture -- The Beatles, I'm convinced, are as important as Bach or Beethoven or Picasso. So I think there is something to this thing…. I am very concerned about this film, though, because I see it as solipsistic -- there's wars going on, you know? There are Arab revolts, there are fucking famines in East Africa, and here are four men talking about their creative process.
GUGGENHEIM: I could have filmed you fish farming.
BONO: Yeah, and here's the story of the album where they supposedly jettisoned some their moral values, and here they are just agonizing over it, and definitely not sliding down the surface of things… I mean, we were, but just in a very serious way. So I struggle with the film a bit. But the way I've convinced myself into it is… Well, look, even if you're not interested in U2 or what we do, the creative process is a subject worth exploring, and the rock band is a thing worth taking a look at and giving it a bit of a poke. Is that why you did this? I'm curious. Why did you do this? You fool...
GUGGENHEIM: Well, the four of you are a mystery to me -- and continue to be a mystery to me. We've talked before about how other musicians do it on their own, and how horrible that must be to be alone, and how wonderful it is to collaborate with other people, and yet how hard it is to continue to keep that alive. It's like the mystery of a great marriage. You see a great marriage, and you say, "Wow. What they're doing over there is fantastic. I don't know how they do it."
BONO: Mmm... So you haven't unraveled us.
GUGGENHEIM: Not at all. But maybe we've described the mystery a little bit with this movie.
MOOALLEM: So with Achtung Baby, you were keying into things that were happening in that moment. Now, in 2011, what do you key into?
BONO: Well, now that I'm off the road, what I'm personally excited about is the chance to be in a place where I'm still enough to actually get a feeling for what is real. We were moving so fast for the last two and a half years that it was really hard to get a sense of what means enough to me to go and write a piece of music or some lyrics about it. So now I'm relishing the possibility of just listening and absorbing and taking it all in to find the answer to that question. It's gonna take a little while. I'm really enjoying pop music at the moment. The burst of color that is a record like the Foster the People record, that sort of burst of daylight -- that, to me, is punk rock right now. That's defiance: to find joy in these angry, melancholic times. But where you drop your well and drill is very important. For our last album [2009's No Line on the Horizon], we went to Fez in Morocco, and that was kind of remarkable, because you're in this holy city, but it's a city famed for tolerance of both Christians and Jews. The Fez music festival is really worth going to. It's a festival of sacred music. But I think locations are important to us. I don't know where we're gonna go now…. Even finding the desert for The Joshua Tree, which actually happened after we finished the album, when we found the image…. Location seems to be important to us, geography. I don't know where we're gonna go next.
MOOALLEM: Everybody seems to be trying to answer that question right now: the question of where to go next. We're in one of those confused moments -- not unlike the early '90s.
BONO: It is exactly that kind of moment. I mean, we're talking about a time 20 years ago when the Iron Curtain was being drawn and torn down. That's exactly what's happening in North Africa right now. People are out on the streets, and they're searching for themselves. It's all about a kind of liberation in the end -- whether it's sexual, spiritual, political. If you don't have a job right now, then materialism is not a joke. But these are exciting times, when the foundations are being shaken, and new stuff is gonna come out of it -- new art, new artists, new ideas, new voices. I actually believe in innovation and freethinking, so I still believe there's life in Western civilization -- and yet, this is sort of the end of it. The world is shifting on its axis to the East, and, by the way, these things happen quickly -- you know, a dollar is not the heart of the world's commerce, and the world is changed forever. That hasn't happened yet -- and I hope it doesn't -- but that's the sort of era we're living in…. And, yeah, god, we'd better make a good album.
THE EDGE: There's certainly enough material.
GUGGENHEIM: There's the famous cliché about feeling pressure to write the second album after the first album was a success. But how does the pressure to do a great second album compare to the pressure to do an album now?
BONO: Nothing comes close to this. Nothing. We've never been up against the stuff like what we're up against now.
THE EDGE: Maybe this is the most.
BONO: I don't know... I just feel it. You know, we want to have a really good reason to exist, and that's all.
THE EDGE: A reason to exist.
THE EDGE: Looking for a reason to exist….
BONO: I'd just like to go to Vegas… I just think that'd be great. I'm tired of going to the gym, eating healthy. I could go to Vegas -- I've got a hairy chest.
GUGGENHEIM: You just want to be able to wear those clothes.
BONO: Tom Jones -- I don't know if you know this, Edge, but he's one of my heroes.
THE EDGE: See, whenever I start to get a little nervous about what's essential, I just put on Patti Smith's Horses  or Television's Marquee Moon  and that kind of sorts me out.
BONO: What about [singing] "It's not unusual to be loved by anyone..."?
THE EDGE: It has its place. You know, weddings and family celebrations...
BONO: One of my favorite books is Learning From Las Vegas. It's an architectural manual. I think when we say the word Vegas what we mean is people go to Vegas to lighten up, to be silly, but actually… It's an extraordinary place. I think I would just walk in and out of the fucking desert, you know, and there's people around, and just sing the songs… I love Vegas.
THE EDGE: See, this is when it's important for Bono's friends to step in.
Davis Guggenheim is the Director of the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and Waiting for Superman. Stephen Mooallem is Interview's Editor in Chief.
(c) Interview, 2011.