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25 Years Ago: U2 Struggles Mightily Before Finding a New Path on ‘Achtung Baby’

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U2‘s Achtung Baby opens with frontman Bono confiding that he’s “ready to let go of the steering wheel,” and it’s no hyperbole.

After a period of chasing Americana dreams, the band had earned superstar status – but they’d also risked becoming an over-earnest stereotype. Bono felt a change in direction looming. Speaking to the audience after a Dec. 30, 1989 show, he promised just that. “It’s just we have to go away and – just dream it all up again,” he told Dublin fans.

Achtung Baby made good on that promise. Released on Nov. 18, 1991, the album’s crunchy industrial sound and grim examination of emotional landscapes seemed to arrive like a bolt out of the blue. In actuality, the roots of it grew from a forgotten London theater production.

Bono and guitarist the Edge collaborated on the score for a musical called A Clockwork Orange: 2004, just after the close of U2’s Lovetown tour in early 1990 – and the setting opened up an experimental vein. The production quickly disappeared from even the most ardent fan’s radar, but the inspiration – keyed off industrial bands like Einstürzende Neubauten and KMFDM – remained.

In fact, the entire DNA of U2’s next album can be found in moments like “Alex Descends Into Hell for a Bottle of Milk / Korova 1” – a song from A Clockwork Orange: 2004 that later appeared as the b-side for the Achtung Baby single “The Fly.” They did another test run of this new approach for a 1990 compilation of Cole Porter songs called Red Hot + Blue, turning “Night and Day” into an ultra-modern, strikingly raw entreaty.

Still, dreaming up an entirely new approach to music-making wouldn’t come easily. The initial sessions for Achtung Baby broke down in Berlin, as U2 and producer Daniel Lanois struggled to get on the same page.

“Berlin was difficult,” the Edge told Rolling Stone in 1992. “I had quite a strong feel where I thought it should go. Bono was with me. [Bassist] Adam [Clayton] and [drummer] Larry [Mullen Jr.] were a little unsure. It took time for them to see how they fit into this. I also think Danny didn’t fully understand where we were headed.”

Lanois had, with co-producer Brian Eno, helped U2 coalesce around a rootsy, yet broadly cinematic sound that added new depth to Bono’s often politically charged lyrics – beginning with The Unforgettable Fire in 1984 and continuing into 1987’s The Joshua Tree. But much had changed since then, something the band was coming to terms with in real time as Germany began its post-Cold War transformation right outside U2’s studio.

“The day we arrived, the border officially came down. It was Reunification Day,” Clayton told In the Studio. “It was like Berlin was opening up; the East was bleeding into the West.”

Listen to U2 Perform ‘Zoo Station’

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Suddenly, writing about political issues seemed impossible, with history being rewritten before their very eyes. Bono turned inward, even as U2 finally found their way musically.

The breakthrough came when the Edge stumbled upon an idea that ultimately became “One,” Achtung Baby‘s best-known song. “It was one of those hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck moments,” he later remembered. “It was such a pivotal moment. We’d been going through this hard time and nothing seemed to be going right. And suddenly, we were presented with this gift. It just kind of arrived.”

U2 returned to Ireland to finish Achtung Baby but, even in the comfort of home, challenges remained. First, there was the Edge’s disintegrating marriage – a heartbreaking situation that filtered into songs like “So Cruel” and “Love is Blindness.” At one point, the early demos were also stolen, leading to the threat of legal action over widely boot-legged pirate copies of the project. Still furiously creating, U2 continued working until (almost literally) the last moment: Their label head arrived in September, expecting to attend a wrap party; instead, he found U2 hadn’t finished mixing the songs. They hadn’t even finalized the running order.

Somehow, U2 willed their way to a new creative plateau. Achtung Baby, powered along by a free-wheeling musical approach and these remarkably dark, fin de siècle narratives, debuted at No. 1 in the U.S.

Even the cover represented a notable shift, as U2 employed a multi-image collage for the first time ever. “We all began to realize that no single image is ever going to express the large change that [U2] made in the music and their approach to recording it,” designer Steve Averill later said.

Achtung Baby eventually went eight-times platinum, rewriting U2’s musical profile along the way. That led Bono to memorably describe this album as “the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree.” The Edge, for his part, couldn’t have been happier with the way that tree so thunderously fell.

“I just think that when you have the kind of profile we had during Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum, it’s inevitable that you end up becoming a flat caricature of yourself,” he told the New York Times in 1992. “I’m not saying we had no part in that, because we did. We wrote those songs; we gave those concerts. It represented part of what we were about, but it was not the full picture.”

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