Friday, November 25, 2011

#20YRSAGO: U2 - ACHTUNG BABY (+ boxset review!)

The first post in my #20yrsago series -- celebrating some classic albums that came out in (or around) 1991 - was Chris Whitley's debut Living With The Law. Now, I'm going to write about an LP that is a little more well known (but both albums have involvement from Daniel Lanois, so there is a common thread).

I don't know that my mind has ever been as blown as it was when I first turned on U2's Achtung Baby. Yeah, I've been knocked out by many artists the first time I heard them... but by an artist who I had been following for years?  I have never been so surprised by a group's "new direction" as I was when I put Achtung Baby into my CD player.

This was, of course, before the web, and I don't think that I knew too much about what U2's "new direction" would be like.  In the years since, The Edge has often talked about performing encores on U2's last '80s tour with opener B.B. King and then going back to his dressing room and listening to KMFDM. But I didn't know about any of that at the time.

There were hints.  On the 12" of Rattle and Hum's "When Love Comes To Town," their collab with B.B. (a song which marked the peak of their explorations into American roots music), the B-side was a cover of Patti Smith's "Dancing Barefoot" as if to remind us of their post punk roots.

But the next new release by the band was a cover of Cole Porter's "Night and Day," from the Red Hot & Blue collection, the first CD compiled by the Red Hot organization.  I saw the video on MTV.  U2 still looked like their Joshua Tree selves - Bono with no shades, no makeup, long hair, The Edge with long hair and the doo-rag.  But they didn't really sound like U2.  It was darker, funkier, and synth-ier.  It reminded me a bit of Depeche Mode.

Then, a few weeks before Achtung Baby came out, I picked up the "cassingle" (how '90s) of "The Fly."  Their graphic sensibility seemed totally different from what it used to be.  And the song: a funky guitar riff, Bono duetting with himself (one voice featured a very disco-ish falsetto, although I guess that could be The Edge), and Larry Mullen's drums seemingly garnished by samples.  This was *not* "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For."

I picked up the album from Tower Records on Old Country Road in Long Island on release day (of course), November 19, 1991, I went right back to my dorm at Hofstra University and listened to it.  And I looked at it.  These guys were U2? U2's album covers used to have a a focal point, they were clear, somber, sober, stark and organized.  I remember being shocked just by Achtung Baby's cover. Bono with eyeliner?  Adam Clayton smiling? The band partying?  Lots of small images.  Some of them with bright colors.  What the hell!

And then I put it in the CD player. It's not an exaggeration to say I thought something was wrong with my stereo.  I didn't have much "industrial" music in my collection, and when I heard the guitar and distorted drums at the beginning of "Zoo Station," I thought I'd blown something in my speakers.

But I listened to the whole thing, and I couldn't believe it. Every song was incredible. I heard in "Until The End of The World" and "Even Better Than The Real Thing" songs that didn't remind me of U2 at all.  They created a new U2 sound. I heard in "Mysterious Ways" a song that could pack the floor at my occasional gig DJing at a bar. "Zoo Station" and "The Fly" were nasty, funky and fun.  And "Love Is Blindness" was more of a blues song than their collaboration with B.B. King.  They gambled everything on this album - it could have been a Spinal Tap level disaster - and instead hit the jackpot. I can't think of anything that any major artist has done that's been as surprising at this.  Maybe Bob Dylan going electric.   Maybe - maybe - The Beastie Boys picking up their instruments.  Achtung Baby may be U2's finest moment. I never get tired of it, and I still get excited when I hear the first few seconds to "Zoo Station."

So, anyway, there's a huge reissue program around it.  You can buy a reissue of the album as-is (I don't really see the point of that, as it hasn't been remastered, nor does it need to be).  You can buy a 2 CD version, which includes a bunch of B-sides ("Night And Day," the great non-album track "Lady With The Spinning Head," covers of The Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black" and Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son"), a bunch of remixes and some songs I'd never heard before ("Blow Your House Down" and "Where Did It All Go Wrong?"). That's a satisfying package.

But I had to go for the "Super Deluxe" version, which lists for over $100.  Like Achtung Baby, it's a bit over the top and gives me a lot of things I don't really need.  The folder filled with prints of images from the Achtung Baby cover is cool, but not super necessary.  A not-remastered Zooropa doesn't add anything to the experience of listening to that album - which I think is classic in its own right, and should get it's own enhanced reissue. There are two discs of remixes, which is a bit much.  But the B-sides disc has some stuff that I didn't have and wanted. A real highlight is "Everybody Loves A Winner" (featuring Maria McKee of Lone Justice, who also sings on "Fortunate Son") which isn't on the 2 CD version.  But what sold me was the disc of "Baby" Achtung  Baby songs - the demos.  It's really interesting to hear how much they changed (especially Bono's lyrics) between the demo stage and the final versions. The "Super Deluxe" version also includes 4 DVDs: one is Zoo TV Live From Sydney, which I already have on DVD. But I did want From The Sky Down, a documentary on Achtung Baby by Davis Guggenheim, who directed It Might Get Loud (which also featured The Edge) and An Inconvenient Truth.  Another disc features the videos from the era, and another has "bonus material," including the Zoo TV documentary, an MTV Rockumentary and some other stuff.

I never really considered the $400+ "Uber Deluxe" version, which includes the same 6 CDs and 4 DVDs as the "Super Deluxe," but comes in a Achtung themed file cabinet-looking thing, has a couple of vinyl singles (nice touch), a copy of Propaganda (the semi-endorsed U2 fanzine from the era), plus badges, stickers and a replica of Bono's "Fly" shades.  ("Band members sold separately," the Amazon listing offers helpfully). Sounds fun to have, but only if you have the money for it, and the room to keep it in.

Still, no matter what version you get, make sure you at least have one version of Achtung Baby in your collection.

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