Bono and The Edge are enjoying vodka martinis at the inveterate Musso & Frank Grill, a celebrated time capsule of bygone Hollywood and the former haunt of Charlie Chaplin, Raymond Chandler and Rudolph Valentino. The dark booth seems a fitting spot for the singer and guitarist to ponder U2's newest project: a dusky catalog jewel.
Reissuing 1991's Achtung Baby with a new companion documentary wasn't an easy decision for a forward-looking band averse to rearview glances, says Edge, 50. "How big a deal do we make of an anniversary when we're in the middle of what we're doing now? We had a hard time figuring that out. We're not a heritage act. We're still very active. But this record was so pivotal that we felt it was OK to revisit it."
The Irish quartet doesn't just drop by. This is an extravagant homecoming. The refurbished album arrives Tuesday in five versions: the original CD ($14), a double CD loaded with extras ($30), a four-disc vinyl box ($120), a super deluxe set with six CDs, four DVDs, 16 art prints and hardbound book ($168), and the wallet-busting "Uber" edition in a magnetic-puzzle tiled box that adds such bonuses as vinyl singles and Bono's "The Fly" sunglasses ($470).
Extras include B-sides, demos and remixes, "kindergarten" early versions plus such previously unreleased songs as minimalistic Oh Berlin, emotional ballad Heaven and Hell and tense waltz Everybody Loves a Winner.
Recorded over six months in Berlin and Dublin, U2's seventh studio album found the passionate, rootsy rockers of The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum confounding expectations with daring leaps into irony and sex, wrenching emotional candor, intoxicating dance rhythms and industrial clatter, delivering the iconic One and such classics as Mysterious Ways and Even Better Than the Real Thing.
"We had become very earnest by the late '80s," says Bono, 51. "We were carrying quite heavy moral baggage, and the strain was showing. When you write a song about Martin Luther King, people think you must have aspirations to be like him. You can never live up to these songs. So the '80s put us in this situation where the songs and our actual selves were very different."
He laughs. "We finally owned up to the shallow people we are in Achtung Baby."
The album sold 18 million copies worldwide, but not before the bold transition's creative impasses and internal friction nearly derailed U2.
"Early on, clearly there was disharmony," Edge says. "There was a lot at stake. Things almost did go horribly wrong. Somehow we managed to scrape through and, in the process, maybe made our best album."
They went to Berlin in 1990 on the eve of Germany's reunification. After crafting soundtrack A Clockwork Orange for London's Royal Shakespeare Company, Bono and Edge were eager to mine club culture. Drummer Larry Mullen Jr. and bassist Adam Clayton were leery.
"Larry and Adam were portrayed as (whining) rock stars," Bono says. "Actually, they were pointing out the solid fact that we had no songs. Edge and myself were tuned into dramatic sonic landscapes. They were probably right to protest. Perhaps we would have liked them to be a little more encouraging."
Rather than rushing to Berlin, U2 "should have done an arrangement workshop in Dublin, where there was no pressure," Edge says. "It was a little frustrating. We would come out after a few days with so little to show for it."
The band recoiled under the obnoxious gaze of Hansa Studios' red recording light.
"We don't respond well to the red light," Edge says. "It's great if you absolutely know what you're doing. But it can be debilitating. When the light comes on, we clam up. We do our best work when everybody is in a state of relaxation and natural creativity bubbles up."
Reinvention was a struggle
The Achtung saga unfolds in From the Sky Down, a 90-minute documentary that opened the Toronto Film Festival and premieres Saturday on Showtime (8 p.m. ET/PT). Fresh interviews and performances cut with candid archival footage reveal the band struggling to reinvent itself at Hansa, a former SS ballroom. Documentarian Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for Superman), enlisted after his 2009 guitar-driven It Might Get Loud with Edge, Jimmy Page and Jack White, captures Achtung's intimate and thorny evolution. A stunning segment traces the construction of One, built from the shelved second bridge of Sick Puppy (a tune that later morphed into Mysterious Ways).
"I find it impossible to watch," Bono says. "It's a little solipsistic. There are wars going on, a famine in East Africa. And here are these four men working like their lives depended on it, which they do.
"I shouldn't be embarrassed by our creative process. I don't think people thought we were the Waltons, but I'm not sure I wanted them to know how dysfunctional a family we are."
Edge grins. "Bono, I think it's out."
'I probed too deeply'
Expecting a less personal treatment, U2 granted Guggenheim final say and access to its vaults. The filmmaker dug deep.
"They call it mission creep," Edge says. "We felt uncomfortable with where Davis went, but it's all there on the album. He just did a bit of delving."
Bono adds, "Davis put together a forensic team. He goes right to the bone and wants to know every angle. You don't realize he's robbing your life savings while he's talking to your sister. If he wasn't such a gentleman and fine intellect, you'd have some thugs work him over."
Bono's threat may be a bluff, but he clearly wasn't ready for this close-up.
"We have never, ever had as little to do with a U2 project," he says, noting that no changes were requested by the band, though Guggenheim agreed to cut the length. "We begged him to make it shorter. There may be a lesson in that, which I'm not sure I like!"
Guggenheim laughs at Bono's tough talk and says, "From their point of view, I probed too deeply. Bono told me, 'You made us look uncool during our only cool period.' I tell the story that's in front of me, warts and all. In the rock 'n' roll business, it's about adding layers. My process strips layers away. Rock stars are more comfortable creating an aura and mystique."
Yet U2 has defied rock physics by remaining productive and interesting instead of self-destructing, he says.
"They could have become the cliché," Guggenheim says of U2's Achtung gridlock. He insisted the band return to Berlin, "the scene of the crime. That's where it all fell apart. It was a raw, exposed, traumatic time for them. They're underplaying it in the movie. They were sitting in that studio and nothing was working. There was a moment: Maybe it's over."
Examining buried footage from the Joshua/Rattle era, Guggenheim discovered "four Irish guys frozen in the headlights of success."
Achtung's critical and commercial success sprang from sweat and commitment.
"I'm obsessed with the magic of songwriting," says Guggenheim, 47. "That happened with One, when they were completely despondent and almost breaking up. You think rock stars are godlike. These guys are devoted to the creative collective beyond everything else."
Edge cherishes Achtung as a painful but enriching rebirth.
"My natural inclination is to make something coherent," he says. "With Achtung, we started so far outside of our comfort zone, and in the process of making those things coherent for us, we didn't lose the groundbreaking quality of the work. If you start out traditional, organized, it's very difficult to make it sound intriguing and different. It's better to start somewhere much weirder."
Still ahead: More creativity
At last count, U2 has had three albums in the pipeline since 2009's No Line on the Horizon. Edge says the band will rifle through its "embarrassment of riches" possibly by year's end. "There's still work to be done, but it's a great place to start."
Bono's in no hurry.
"We don't know what we want to do next," he says. "It feels a bit like 1990, where we have to dig a very deep well. I'm very proud of our last album. It was very rich. I want to go airborne on the next one. But we have to have very good reasons to put out a new U2 album. There are 150 million of them out there. Why would anyone want another one? I don't know if it will be a year or five years."
They may be overdue for a hiatus after a year bulging with the expansive reissue and documentary, Broadway's knotty Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and the end of a massive two-year stadium trek. The sold-out U2 360 tour ended in July with records for history's highest gross ($736 million) and attendance (7.2 million tickets).
Don't expect an encore, Edge says: "We can't do anything bigger than 360. You can't top it for sheer size and audacity."
Bono predicts the band will head indoors next time. "I wouldn't be surprised if we go out with one light bulb."
(c) USA Today, 2011.