21 Years Ago: U2′s ‘Achtung Baby’ Album Released
‘Achtung Baby’ was a total game changer. Not just for U2, but in a way for modern music in general. When the album was released 21 years ago today, it didn’t sound like any of the U2 albums that preceded it. And it didn’t have to. After more than a decade of playing rock ‘n’ roll saviors with their stadium-sweeping anthems that wanted to change the world, the band put the focus on their own needs and desires. And they did it by completely mixing up their game plan.
Following the world-domination trek that accompanied the group’s first No. 1 album, 1987’s ‘The Joshua Tree,’ U2 issued ‘Rattle and Hum,’ a tour souvenir sprinkled with several new songs. Three years later, and after some reflection on their messianic reputation as a self-serious group with no sense of humor, the quartet unleashed a record that drowned out the world-saving hymns with brash bits of electronica, dance music and blistering alt-rock.
Working once again with producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, U2 headed to Berlin, where industrial music, a major signpost for the sessions, first took shape in the ‘70s. The German city was also the birthplace of David Bowie’s influential trio of electronic records made with Eno in the late ‘70s. Their impact on U2’s seventh album can’t be understated.
And, in turn, ‘Achtung Baby’’s significance marked a major turn for the band — and for music — in the ‘90s. Songs like ‘Zoo Station,’ ‘Even Better Than the Real Thing,’ ‘The Fly’ and ‘Mysterious Ways’ shake conventions. The Edge’s shimmering guitar and Bono’s earnest vocals were no longer the centerpieces of the songs – the abrasive electronic elements that guided them were.
There were some familiar-sounding cuts on ‘Achtung Baby,’ most notably ‘One,’ a rafters-shaking ballad that became another kind of anthem. (The song is open to multiple interpretations – a key to its massive success.) But mostly the album opened up a decade of experimentation for U2, with similarly ambitious records (‘Zooropa,’ an album of ‘Achtung’ leftovers, and ‘Pop’) following.
‘Achtung Baby’ debuted at No. 1 in pretty much every country on the planet. Besides ‘The Joshua Tree,’ it’s the band’s biggest-selling album, with sales topping 18 million worldwide. Five singles were released; all but one hit the Top 40 (‘Mysterious Ways,’ which reached No. 9, was the biggest). And its legacy was sealed from the start (no surprise that a 10-disc 20th anniversary edition was released in 2011). It was an instant classic, and it’s since become U2’s most revolutionary record, a filler-free album that freed them from their past and opened up their future.
Watch U2′s Video for ‘One’