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"The key to his appeal: humanness." — Bono, on former U.S. President Bill Clinton

Not Quite Better Than the Real Thing

'Achtung Baby' had a troubled birth. Stuart Bailie should know: he owns the mythical bootleg version.
Q Magazine
In May 1991, Island Records took out an ad in the trade mag Music Week, threatening to "take legal proceedings against any person who infringes their sound recording copyrights." Apparently European bootleggers were in receipt of U2 tapes which captured the band in session for what would emerge that year as Achtung Baby.

Many British bootleg traders refused to stock the recordings. Eventually, a few copies of the Silver and Gold double albums surfaced, each titled The New U2: Rehearsels [sic] & Full Versions. The pressing quality was poor and the tracks themselves were far from finished. Bono could be heard ad-libbing and calling out chord changes as songs spluttered to a close or crashed in confusion. This was the standard U2 style of composition, but previously the process was kept private. The singer later remarked, "it's like having your diary read in public."

The tapes were apparently stolen from Hansa Studios in Berlin. The band had spent three months there, starting in October 1990, though there's a suggestion that some of the recordings may have dated back further to sessions at Dublin's STS Studios from July '90. Either way, the DAT recordings had been taken to a German pressing plant where the bootlegs had been made. Subsequent investigations involved the BPI's anti-piracy unit, the U.K. police and the FBI.

On the bootlegs, U2 can be heard working on songs such as "Salome" (later the B-side of "Even Better Than the Real Thing") and "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses." On several takes you can hear the latter taking shape from what starts as complete chaos. The only player who sounds assured is Edge, who kept many of his guitar lines right through to the finished version. In contrast, the singer is in the throes of his notorious "Bongolese" method: looking for the mood of a song before using words that actually mean anything. Importantly, though, Achtung Baby's themes of betrayal, loss of faith and sexual intrigue were already taking shape.

U2 are notorious for cannibalising themselves, and included here is a rough version of "The Lady with the Spinning Head" -- a song that was later broken up to form "The Fly" and "Until the End of the World." There's also a prototype "Acrobat" which wails, "Don't let the demons drag you down." Meanwhile, a sketch of "Wake Up Dead Man" -- a song that finally surfaced on the Pop album six years later -- adds credence to producer Brian Eno's description of Bono as "the Mother Theresa of lost songs."

Whether recorded in Dublin's STS or Berlin's Hansa, the progress was slow. It was only when U2 stumbled on to what would later become the song "One" that Achtung Baby's heart was revealed, and with another move back to Dublin, the creative juices truly started to flow.

© Q Magazine, 2001. All rights released.