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My bottom line on any sexuality is that love is the most important thing. . . . Any way people want to love each other is OK by me. -- Bono

Lanois looks back on U2's 'Baby'

Toronto Sun

There's an adage: If you can fake sincerity, you've got it made. 

To their credit, the young U2 never went that route. Their emotions were genuine, their motives pure. And in the '80s, their earnest anthems made them the most vital, relevant band in rock. 

But by 1990, even U2 were tired of U2. The grim B&W photos, the giant white flags, the rhetoric; it reached its zenith with 1987's Grammy-winning Joshua Tree. After that, they could only go down. And they did, pushed and pursued by charges of megalomania for the Americana-obsessed Rattle and Hum, which critically crashed and burned. Finally, during a New Year's Eve gig in Dublin, Bono announced it was "the end of something" for U2, and that they were off "to dream it all up again." 

What they dreamed up was Achtung Baby, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this month. It was their seventh album. Some say it's their best. It was certainly pivotal. It was here they reinvented their sound. They reinvented their band. And with the help of The Fly and MacPhisto, they finally figured out how to fake it. But they weren't faking sincerity, they were faking insincerity. "I'm learning to lie," claims a mischievous Bono in a vintage documentary in the new Achtung Baby box set reissue. Truer words were never spoken.

U2's sonic and stylistic rebirth began in an unlikely setting: Post-unification East Berlin. They holed up in Hansa, birthplace of albums like Bowie's Heroes and Iggy's Lust for Life. They rounded up the usual suspects -- producers Brian Eno, Flood and Hamilton's Daniel Lanois. They began chopping down The Joshua Tree

"It was very stark," recalls Lanois. "It was cold and the food was bad. We had no windows in the studio; it was an orchestral room with a control room down the hall. We were communicating by camera ... But that's Bono; he tries to place everybody in an unfamiliar environment so they don't fall into the same old habits. And I think his instinct was right." 

By all accounts -- except Lanois, who recalls "a lot of cuddling" -- early sessions were tense and unproductive, as the band tinkered with synths and beatboxes, exploring dance and funk grooves. "We were starting to go a little more -- for the lack of another term -- industrial with our sounds," Lanois says. "There was a certain kind of aggression in the air." 

The break came when guitarist Edge stumbled on the chords for "One." 

Much of the song was penned on the spot. Others followed: "Even Better Than the Real Thing," "Until the End of the World," "Mysterious Ways" and more. Lyrically, the tone was deeper and darker, more personal than political. Musically, says Lanois, it balanced past and future, humanity and technology. 

"I like the fact that we were able to mix flesh and machine successfully. I listened to it from beginning to end a couple of months back, and as I hear the record now, the rhythm section is pretty much rock 'n' roll. The sounds of the rhythm section are not the futuristic sounds. The toppings are the futuristic sounds. So it's very rooted in tradition, and looking toward the future." 


For its postmodern innovation, Achtung Baby was still a U2 album in many ways: Sincere, serious, spiritual. But U2 wouldn't be caught looking serious again. To distract fans, they gave it a goofy title cribbed from The Producers. To complete the look, they traded cowboy hats and vests for sequined pants and gowns. To bring it to life, they took those charges of megalomania and ran with them. Bono conceived alter egos: The Fly (a leather-clad rocker in Lou Reed's wraparound shades), MacPhisto (a devil in gold lamé) and Mirror Ball Man (a televangelist). They built a giant multi-level stage festooned with video screens, hung German Trabant cars as lighting rigs, hired a belly dancer and hit the road with their Zoo TV Tour -- a piece of multi-media sensory-overload performance art that found Bono channel-surfing, throwing money into the crowd and prank-calling the White House. There were no giant white flags. 


Two decades later, Achtung Baby stands as one of U2's most successful and acclaimed works. It sold 18 million copies and won a Grammy. No wonder it's getting the 20th anniversary reissue treatment. The original tapes have been repolished by Edge and augmented with B-sides, outtakes, remixes and demos. Old videos, concert films and documentaries have been dusted off and updated with a new 75-minute film partly shot in Winnipeg on the band's latest Canadian tour. The legacy has been cemented. The torch relit. 

For Lanois, Achtung Baby's true genius lies in its risk. "The heart is racing in that album. It's the sound of people at the extreme end of their expression. It's as much as they could do at that time. It's a lovely feeling when you're in the presence of risk-taking -- there's something exhilarating about it." 

And now that even Bono himself has begun to question U2's relevance, maybe it's time for them to take a few lessons from Achtung Baby and dream it all up again. 



Achtung Baby: Super Deluxe Edition

Attention, U2 fans: The 20th anniversary edition of Achtung Baby arrived in stores this week. I got the first Canadian review copy of the 10-disc Super Deluxe Edition. Is it better than the real thing? 

Here's the deal: 

DATES: 1990 - 2011. 

DISCS: 6 CDs, 4 DVDs. 

DETAILS: U2 don't do things by half-measures. This included. The six CDs include repolished versions of Achtung Baby and 1993 followup Zooropa; two discs of vintage remixes; a disc of B-sides and bonus cuts, including the previously unreleased "Blow Your House Down"; and a disc titled Kindergarten, which contains "baby" versions of the songs (mostly rough mixes with different lyrics). The four DVDs contain Davis Guggenheim's From the Sky Down, a new 75-minute doc shot in London, Berlin and Winnipeg; 18 video clips; three hours of vintage doc and TV footage; and the previously released Zoo TV Live From Sydney concert. They bookend an 84-page hardcover tome of photos, lyrics and essays by producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, photographer Anton Corbijn and more. Also included in the LP-sized box: Art prints of the 16 pictures from the album cover. 

DECISION: It's certainly a complete inventory of the Achtung era, but for a set with 10 discs, it still feels light on actual rarities. 

DAMAGE: $130. Not what you're looking for? You have options: A single-disc reissue of the original album; a double-disc with bonus cuts; a four-LP box ($110) and the limited-edition Uber Deluxe Edition, which has all the Super Deluxe content plus vinyl singles, stickers, badges, a magazine and Bono's Fly sunglasses. 

RATING: 4 (out of 5)

© Toronto Sun, 2011.