U2‘s Achtung Baby was released on Nov. 18, 1991, as a counterargument to whatever you thought you knew about the band. They almost broke up trying to chop down The Joshua Tree but ultimately emerged from a period of internal strife with another landmark album.
Uncertainty, and the strange environs of a reuniting post-Cold War Berlin, had fueled their sense of musical derring-do. A group that once demanded we care about sometimes esoteric things descended into dim ruminations on sex and loss. Ultimately, Achtung Baby was about surrendering – to uncertainty, to decay, to desire. “We objected to being portrayed as stony-faced and ultraserious and Quaker-like,” the Edge told the Tampa Bay Times in 1992. “It just wasn’t true. We were kind of into the idea of balancing out the picture.”
Principal recording took place in a studio that once served as a Nazi ballroom, amid the groans of an industrial town. Metallic dance music leaked out of every discotheque and passing car. The Edge‘s marriage was failing, and Bono was having a crisis of faith in the band’s penchant for songs with big riffs and even bigger ideas. All of it shaped the dark and distorted music they’d make with producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. “We spent a lot of the ’80s ducking and bobbing and weaving, running from the ghosts of things that really weren’t so scary after all,” Bono told The New York Times in 1992.
“We were scared the business would overtake us; we were scared of the nonsense. I think we held on to the music too tightly. But now we’ve learned to laugh at it all and find fun in everything, because there is a ridiculous side to rock ‘n’ roll, and you just have to learn to live with it.”
Achtung Baby produced four Top 40 Billboard hits, including the Top 10 smashes “Mysterious Ways” and “One.” It’s lowest-charting U.K. single was “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses,” which went to No. 14. But even deep cuts like “So Cruel” and “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” as the track-by-track guide below shows, held sweeping musical intrigues.
1. “Zoo Station”
“Zoo Station” represents the jagged line between the U2 of the past and the U2 of an exciting new future, announcing itself with smeared guitar and vocals that sound like they’ve been run through a megaphone. Gone were the grand statements of purpose, the calls to action, the sometimes mockable earnestness. Instead, Bono built a theme of dangerous escapism from pieces of a World War II-era tale where animals escaped from the Berlin Zoo after an overnight bombing. (Patrons arrived via the nearby Zoologischer Garten railway station.) This is the first of three tracks that grew out of U2’s failed attempts to complete a song called “Lady With the Spinning Head,” followed by “The Fly” and “Ultraviolet (Light My Way).” Though it opened Achtung Baby, “Zoo Station” was actually one of the last tracks completed, primarily because Bono was unhappy with his initial pass on the vocal. In a sign of how freeing these sessions became, Bono encouraged the producers to “just try something that’s gonna put me in a completely different place.”
2. “Even Better Than the Real Thing”
“Even Better Than the Real Thing” began life as a leftover idea from the self-serious Rattle and Hum era and sounded like it – at least at first. Bono originally included the decidedly unironic lyric “ain’t nothing like the real thing,” earning a thumbs down from producer Brian Eno. He changed his mind after a minor but important edit: “Even Better Than the Real Thing” still sounded a bit too stodgy, though, until the Edge applied a new DigiTech Whammy effects pedal to the Stones-y main riff. The results, Bono said in Neil McCormick’s U2 by U2, were “much more reflective of the times we were living in, when people were no longer looking for the truth. We are all looking for instant gratification. It’s not substantial as a lyric, but it suggests a certain sexual tension and desire to have some fun playing in the shallows.” A Top 40 hit in both the U.S. and the U.K., “Even Better Than the Real Thing” marked U2’s first video collaboration with Kevin Godley, who went on to direct clips for “Stuck In a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of,” “Sweetest Thing,” “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” and “Numb.”
In some ways, this is U2’s most important song. They’d arrived in Germany on the eve of the nation’s post-Cold War reunification, expecting to be inspired. Instead, sessions dissolved into arguments over the band’s musical direction. Stuck on an early version of what would become “Mysterious Ways,” the Edge started rearranging the chord progressions while another fractious argument took place. Producer Daniel Lanois heard something that caught his attention and suggested the Edge play two different sections in a sequence. “Suddenly, something very powerful was happening in the room,” the guitarist said in Davis Guggenheim’s From the Sky Down documentary. Appropriately enough, the completed transatlantic Top 10 smash seems to be both about breaking apart and coming together again. “They take that bridge section out of ‘Mysterious Ways’ and they go back into the room at Hansa [Studios in Berlin],” Guggenheim told CNN in 2011. “They write a song on the fly in a matter of minutes. ‘One’ is written, and the band is saved.”
4. “Until the End of the World”
U2 were interested when director Wim Wenders asked about contributing to the soundtrack for his pending film Until the End of the World. They just didn’t have a song to give. The Edge ended up returning to a recent riff from a demo called “Fat Boy,” completing a basic backing track with bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. Bono, meanwhile, had become intrigued by the idea of a mythical conversation between Jesus Christ and his betrayer, Judas Iscariot. (“We ate the food, we drank the wine,” Bono sings, bringing to mind the biblical Last Supper. “Everybody having a good time – except you.”) The idea had come to him in a dream at his father-in-law’s Wexford home during a brief falling out with the Edge. Bono quickly scribbled down the lyrics while the band and Lanois continued fiddling with the music. They became more and more excited with the sweeping, deeply cathartic results, even after a very lengthy period of overdubs. U2 ultimately informed Wenders that he could still use the song, but that they’d decided to put it on Achtung Baby as well. They also told him that they’d stolen his title.
5. “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses”
Fixer Steve Lillywhite, who also did some late-production work on “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” returned to help this song get back to where it once belonged. U2 originally demoed it at STS Studios in 1990 then went through a number of failed passes at Hansa Studios. “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” was in danger of falling by the wayside. That is until Lillywhite’s final mix, which ended up sounding most like … their original demo. U2’s label management, wary about the album’s more industrial-sounding experiments, immediately pegged it as a potential single. But despite all of their efforts, neither Lillywhite nor the band came away completely satisfied. “I spent a month on it, and I still don’t think it was as realized as it could’ve been,” Lillywhite later told Q magazine’s Tom Doyle. “It’s almost like a covers band doing a U2 moment. Maybe we tried too hard.” The single did, in fact, reach a respectable No. 14 in the U.K. but barely sneaked into the Top 40 on the Billboard chart. By then, U2 had settled on still another version, dubbed the “Temple Bar Remix.” “It’s a great torch song, with melody and emotion,” Clayton said in U2 on U2, “but I don’t think we ever captured it again.”
6. “So Cruel”
“So Cruel” came together through a combination of grief and happenstance. Bono was improvising on his guitar while audio engineer Flood changed reels, and the rest of U2 caught the groove. With a rough first take in hand, Bono then began work on lyrics that touch on the heartbroken themes of divorce, among other things. The Edge had recently separated from his wife, Aislinn O’Sullivan, and it hung like a cloud over the sessions. “That was one of the saddest things,” Bono later told Rolling Stone. “But that was only part of it. There were lots of other things going on internally within the band and outside it, and I was working through all of that.” Flood built the rest of the track onto the first pass in an extended overdubbing process that utterly transformed what had originally been an acoustic performance. Oddly, U2 have played “So Cruel” only a handful of times, with all of the performances in 1992 during the Zoo TV Tour.
7. “The Fly”
“The Fly” advanced Achtung Baby by about a month, and let’s just say Americans didn’t seem thrilled with U2’s change in musical direction. This is where we first meet Bono’s new leather-clad, wraparound-sunglass-wearing persona. Every new verse brings with another awful truth, until the verses arrive like shafts of heaven-sent light. “I became very interested in these single-line aphorisms,” Bono said in Jon Kutner and Spencer Leigh’s 1000 U.K. Number One Hits. “I had been writing them, so I got this character who could say them all, from ‘A liar won’t believe anybody else‘ to ‘A friend is someone who lets you down‘ – and that’s where ‘The Fly’ was coming from.” Meanwhile, the Edge buzzes around like the title character, twisting his guitar to the breaking point. Stateside listeners who liked their U2 more jangly and sincere stayed away in droves. The song shot to No. 1 in the U.K. but could get no further than No. 61 on the Billboard chart.
8. “Mysterious Ways”
U2’s best charting U.S. single from Achtung Baby wasn’t the now-ubiquitous “One.” “Mysterious Ways” crept one spot higher, to No. 9, but only after Bono and Lanois had perhaps their most intense argument over how to move forward. Everyone agreed that Adam Clayton’s performance on the early demo was outstanding, but Bono said it remained “a bass line in search of a song.” They took a break to complete “One” then returned to “Mysterious Ways” in a more adventurous mood. The Edge broke the logjam through continued experiments with a Korg A3 effects unit, eventually settling on a funky riff that launched the song forward. Larry Mullen Jr. added his parts last, giving the song a heavier presence than anything on the drum machine-propelled demo. In the end, the unremitting darkness of “So Cruel” is replaced here by a kind of idol worship, as an ardent Bono cries out for his love interest to “lift my days, light up my nights.”
9. “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World”
“Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World” joined a teetering pile of sorry-babe songs from Bono, who we find stumbling home after a night of over-imbibing. Dedicated to Los Angeles’ Flaming Colossus nightclub, the track was reportedly inspired by a late-period “lost weekend” when U2 were finally able to blow off steam after years of working so hard to emerge from Ireland, earn a recording contract, sell out stadiums and rule MTV. They later simply referred to it as a drinking song, but “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World” often pauses to make an outsized call for love. (There’s also some suitably boozy dream-sequence stuff involving Dali.) Bono acted it all out during the subsequent Zoo TV Tour, spraying champagne into the crowd and then serenading some lucky audience member on the Handycam.
10. “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)”
Like much of Achtung Baby, the epic “Ultraviolet” was pieced together – this time from two different demos, “Ultraviolet” and “Light My Way.” (“Ultraviolet” was the last of three songs that evolved from the eventual B side “Lady With the Spinning Head.”) Light was most definitely needed in a song that finds its hopelessly dependent main character “in the black” where he “can’t see or be seen.” There are religious undertones to this journey, as Bono references baptism and the Book of Job’s image of God serving as a lamp as he walked through darkness. He also remembers Raymond Carver’s rumination on the quiet that surrounds a house full of the sleepless. Ultimately, Bono is left to simply call out, “baby, baby, baby” over the surging track. There was some debate about turning to this rock ‘n’ roll cliche, which U2 had avoided up to this point. Engineer Flood later argued that “he got away with it all right.” U2 must have thought so, too, as they later closed their 2009-11 world tour with “Ultraviolet.” They hadn’t played it since the Zoo TV dates.
U2 had a riff, courtesy of a soundcheck from the Auckland, New Zealand, stop on 1989’s Lovetown Tour. They had a super-weird time signature, which presented its own math problem. They also had plenty of rage at the ready. The resulting track, as producer Daniel Lanois pointed out, didn’t really sound like U2 – but Bono argued this was the point. “Daniel had such a hard time on that,” Bono said in Niall Stokes’ U2: Into the Heart. “He was trying to get us to play to our strengths, and I didn’t want to. I wanted to play to our weaknesses. I wanted to experiment.” They ended up with the most venomous moment on Achtung Baby and perhaps all of their discography: “I’d join the movement,” Bono seethes at one point, “if there was one I could believe in.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, “Acrobat” doesn’t make many of their playlists. “Maybe because I don’t think that is what people come to U2 for,” the Edge noted in 2006.
12. “Love Is Blindness”
As with “Until the End of the World,” this song was originally intended for someone else – specifically, singer Nina Simone – before U2 decided to keep it for themselves. It had been part of their lives since Rattle and Hum but took on a new resonance when the Edge’s marriage ended. “This is not like somebody’s, you know, girlfriend’s left. We’ve grown up with these people, this our family, our community. This was really hard for us,” Bono said in the From the Sky Down documentary. “It was like the first cracks on the beautiful porcelain jug with those beautiful flowers in it that was our music and our community.” Larry Mullen Jr. reworked the drum pattern from 1987’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” slowing it down to a grief-stricken pace. Then the Edge’s exorcizing solo put everything in context for a song about acts of terrorism, emotional and otherwise. “When we went for the take, one string broke and he just kept playing harder and harder,” Bono said in U2 by U2. “Another string broke … and yet there’s not one bum note in there.”
The Most Shocking Rock Star Fashion Reinventions
From David Bowie to Metallica, these are the most shocking rock star fashion reinventions.