The Unforgettable Fire by U2

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The Unforgettable Fire by U2 U2 decided to take a bit of a turn following their initial mainstream success. They brought in producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois to forge the ambient sound of The Unforgettable Fire. Much of the album was recorded in a castle in the group’s native Ireland, with the live acoustic of the various rooms lending much to the unique final sound. Led by the layered and effects-laden guitar of The Edge and the introspective and philosophical poetic lyrics of Bono, this album brought the group to a higher artistic level, while still carrying enough pop/rock punch to make this a mainstream success and solidify U2’s new found standing as the eighties top rock group.

Steve Lillywhite had produced U2’s initial three albums, culminating with the UK chart topper, War, in 1983. However, both the producer and the band agreed that they did not want to create the “son of War” on the next album and amicably parted ways. The Edge was a longtime fan of Eno’s “weird works”, but Eno was also initially reluctant to work with the band and suggested Lanois, his engineer, instead. However, Bono’s vision for the band won Eno over and both Eno and Lanois agreed to produce the record.

In May 1984 the band moved into Slane Castle where they wrote and recorded much of the material. Bassist Adam Clayton said they were “looking for something that was a bit more serious, more arty”, and the castle offered much inspiration on that front. The group took the album’s title from an art exhibit about the bombing of Hiroshima that they saw while on tour in Japan.


The Unforgettable Fire by U2
Released: October 1, 1984 (Island)
Produced by: Brian Eno & Daniel Lanois
Recorded: Slane Castle & Windmill Lane Studios, Ireland, May–August 1984
Side One Side Two
A Sort of Homecoming
Pride (In the Name of Love)
Wire
The Unforgettable Fire
Promenade
4th of July
Bad
Indian Summer Sky
Elvis Presley and America
MLK
Group Musicians
Bono – Lead Vocals  |  The Edge – Guitars, Keyboards, Vocals
Adam Clayton – Bass  |  Larry Mullen Jr – Drums

The rolling drums of Larry Mullen Jr introduce the album opener “A Sort of Homecoming”. The rhythm is soon crowded out by a bucket of treated guitar phrases, all of which seem pretty cool by themselves but kind of saturate the atmosphere as produced on this album. This recording of the fine song suffers in comparison to the later, superior and simpler live version on the 1985 EP, Wide Awake in America, where the vocals and rhythm are much better defined and the song’s true beauty shines through.

“Pride (In the Name of Love)” is the most brilliant early career track by U2. Here is the quintessential U2 sound displayed at its height with the steady and shuffling rhythm section of Mullen and Clayton, the alternating arpeggios, chord strums and textures of The Edge, and Bono’s vocals soaring above all else. The first of two songs written about Martin Luther King, Jr, it was released as the album’s lead single in September 1984 and became a popular radio hit.

 
“Wire” could easily be a pre-cursor to the later, dance-oriented Manchester sound, as the opening spastic guitar is joined by even more frenzied rhythms, including some strong funk elements. Clayton puts down some slap bass and Bono’s vocals are near screams at times, harkening back to U2’s post punk roots. “The Unforgettable Fire” is an upbeat, but deep and most philosophical track on side one. This title song has at once a pop feel along with something darker and more foreboding. It was released as the album’s second and final single and includes a string arrangement by Irish musician Noel Kelehan. “Promenade” is a short and incomplete song, seemingly built as a studio experiment in capturing sound.

The second side begins with the Eno-influenced atmospheric instrumental piece “4th of July” before launching into “Bad”, the highlight of side two. This song continually builds as it goes, with Bono’s voice getting ever more animated and Mullen and Clayton getting more intense, while The Edge stays pretty consistent throughout. It began with an improvised guitar riff during a jam session at Slane Castle, with Bono adding lyrics about heroin addicts in Dublin.

“Indian Summer Sky” is another fine, upbeat track with multiple sections of vocal and musical motifs. “Elvis Presley and America” is a unique but odd and questionable acoustic, with long, improvised lyrics. This song was almost entirely a spur of the moment creation with rhythm borrowed from an altered backing track of “A Sort of Homecoming”. The closer “MLK” is all synth and vocals, but with a brilliant melody and lyrics that serve as a lullaby to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. Unlike much of the other experimental tracks, this brief closer gives the album a real classic feel to end the album on a high note.

The Unforgettable Fire was re-packaged in 1985 along with a VHS documentary of the making-of the album. and a remastered 25th Anniversary edition was in 2009 with several bonus tracks. U2 launched a worldwide The Unforgettable Fire Tour, further increasing the band’s massive popularity.

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Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 30th anniversary of 1984 albums.

1984 Images

 

War by U2

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War by U2With their third album War in early 1983, U2 fully arrived on the international music scene and has remained on the top echelon ever since. A commercial success for the band, the album topped the U.K. charts and reached #12 in the U.S. Further, it found the band forging their definitive sound for the first time under the guidance of producer Steve Lillywhite, who introduced the band some new recording techniques. Among these was the incorporation of a “click track” to keep perfect time, an idea that drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. was initially against. However, he did relent and the album ended up being a real showcase for Mullen.

The album got its title from the band’s perception of the world at the time, or as lead vocalist Bono put it; “War seemed to be the motif for 1982.” The title was also a concerted effort by the band to branch out into “heavier” theme, as they felt that critics had taken the music from their first two albums, Boy and October, lightly. Being an Irish band, U2 was in a unique position to address the troubles in Northern Ireland, and hit that head on with this album. Still, U2 was cognizant that such heavy themes could backfire with mainstream listeners, so they also worked hard to compose melodic and more direct tunes.

Lead guitarist The Edge uses far less delay and echo than previously and experiments with differing guitar textures throughout, adding to the overall sonic atmosphere of passion. As a counter-balance, bassist Adam Clayton provides the “glue” musically with simple, strong, and direct bass lines. With these carefully balanced dynamics, U2 found their formula for success throughout the rest of the decade.


War by U2
Released: February 28, 1983 (Island)
Produced by: Steve Lillywhite
Recorded: Windmill Lane Studios, Dublin, May 17–August 20, 1982
Side One Side Two
Sunday, Bloody Sunday
Seconds
New Year’s Day
Like a Song…
Drowning Man
The Refugee
Two Hearts Beat As One
Red Light
Surrender
“40”
Band Musicians
Bono – Lead Vocals
The Edge – Guitars, Piano, Vocals
Adam Clayton – Bass
Larry Mullen, Jr. – Drums

 

Although all songs on War are credited to the entire group, in reality certain tunes were largely composed by individuals. “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” was composed by The Edge, and has remained one of the most indelible tunes of the band’s career. From its opening martial drumbeat, featuring a heavy hat and beat by Mullen to the simple, raw guitar variations accompanied by some strategic violin by guest Steve Wickham, the song is a unique musical experience. Add the passionate vocals (including some great backing vocals by The Edge), which describe the Bloody Sunday events of 1972, and you have a rock and roll classic.

The other popular “hit” from the first side, “New Year’s Day”, was originally written by Bono as a love song to his new bride but later morphed into an ode to the Polish Solidarity movement. Clayton’s distinctive bass line drives the song while The Edge alternates between the signature piano line and several guitar textures, including an actual rock guitar lead. Overall, the song portrays a great atmosphere with the optimistic fantasy of unity and theme of starting over, and became the group’s first Top Ten single in England.

The rest of side one contains solid tracks which compliment each other nicely. “Seconds” contains another wild beat by Mullin above a strummed acoustic guitar. Although a little unfocused and a bit busy, the song is original and entertaining. “Like a Song…” sticks to the formula on the first side, although it does get pretty intense as it progresses. “Drowning Man” is acoustic and haunting – almost jazzy – with trance electric guitars above strummed acoustic and deeper sounding vocals by Bono.

 
The best pure pop song on album (and perhaps of any early-era U2) is “Two Hearts Beat as One”. While still just slightly unfocused and edgy, this tune is held together by the superior composition and pure performance by the whole band, especially Bono on vocals. A propulsive bass line by Clayton and a fantastic counter-melody by The Edge during the chorus push this song to the top level of any U2 classic. The song became a hit in several nations as well as a rare staple of the dance floor for U2. “The Refugee”, on its surface is a new wave motif, almost to the point of absurdity. Yet it is still oddly entertaining based mainly on the odd guitar textures by The Edge.

U2 in 1983

The album’s closing tracks include a couple featuring the background chorus from the group The Coconuts. “Red Light” is the closest to a pure rock song on this album, with Bono singing in more contemporary manner and more rock-oriented guitar riffing, a sound that U2 would morph towards in the future, starting with Achtung Baby in the early 1990s. “Surrender” is danceable, almost post-disco and could be a decent pop song in its own right with rapid verse lyrics and sustained chorus. The album concludes with “40”, which was written and recorded right at the end of the sessions, allegedly in less than an hour. With Clayton having already left the studio, The Edge plays both the electric and bass guitar, while Bono based the lyrics on Psalm 40 from the Bible.

U2 toured relentlessly in support of War, starting in December 1982 (prior to the album’s release) through most of 1983. The tour spawned a concert film Live at Red Rocks and an accompanying EP, Under a Blood Red Sky, which further increased the band’s exposure and live appeal.

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1983 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 30th anniversary of 1983 albums.

Classic Rock Christmas Songs

Classic Christmas Rock SongsNearly from its inception, rock and roll and Christmas songs have made for a potent mixture of holiday-flavored punch. This marriage dates back to 1957 with the first Elvis Presley Christmas Album and Bobby Helms’s timeless “Jingle Bell Rock”, a rockabilly Christmas classic which was actually written by an advertising executive and a publicist, joining together the overt commercialism with these early anthems. However, it wasn’t all about dollars and cents, as demonstrated in 1963 when major Christmas initiatives by producer Phil Spector and The Beach Boys were pulled off the shelf after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Below we review our favorite songs during the classic rock era. Please be sure to let us know which ones you like best, including those that we omit.

Christmas by The Who, 1969“Christmas” by The Who, 1969

This is a truly fantastic song from the rock opera Tommy but, as such, this song is only about Christmas for a short period of the song, the rest of the song is spent pondering whether the aforementioned Tommy’s soul can be saved as he is deaf, dumb and blind – lacking the capacity to accept Jesus Christ. This aspect of the song works exceptionally well in the scheme of the album, but not so much in the scheme of it being a Christmas song. That said, no song captures the majesty of children on Christmas day as well as this one.

Happy Xmas by John Lennon, 1971“Happy Christmas (War Is Over)” by John Lennon, 1971

John Lennon’s voice is fantastic and the song itself evokes the kind of melancholy Christmas spirit I find in great Christmas songs. The backing vocals work very well and the bass guitar, sleigh bells, chimes, glockenspiel all play their part as well, a testament to the excellent production by Phil Spector. It does sound a little dated with the overt political correctness and, of course ant-war sentiment. Then there is a bit of irony, foe, although the song advocates “War is Over”, the personal war between Lennon and Paul McCartney was at a fevered pitch with Lennon poaching McCartney’s lead guitarist for this very song just to stick him in the eye a bit. So, in that sense, I guess war was not quite over.

I Believe In Father Christmas, 1975“I Believe In Father Christmas” by Greg Lake, 1975

You really do learn something new every day. In fact while doing research into this song’s origin I discovered that this is actually a Greg Lake solo song and not an Emerson, Lake, and Palmer song which I had always believed because of its inclusion on their 1977 Works compilation album. This new revelation does not diminish my love of the song one iota. The song was written by Lake with lyrics by Peter Sinfield. Lake says the song was written in protest at the commercialization of Christmas, while Sinfield says it is more about a loss of innocence and childhood belief. I tend to believe them both, as I’ve always found the melancholy song to be much too complex to be written about any single subject or incident. Musically and melodically, the song is a masterpiece, with Lake’s finger-picked acoustic ballad complemented by ever-increasing orchestration and choral arrangements. Each verse is more intense than the last and the arrangement elicits all kinds of emotions, far deeper than the typical “feel good” Christmas song.

Father Christmas by The Kinks, 1977“Father Christmas” by The Kinks, 1977

Just listen to the first fifteen seconds of this song and you will see, it’s amazing! Starting with a Christmas-y happy piano melody and sleigh bells before punk-influenced guitar and drums crash in with the impact of a meteor. Lead singer Ray Davies sings as two characters in the song; the first is a department store Santa (“Father Christmas”), the second is a gang of poor kids. Davies makes his vocals more forceful for their demands, “Father Christmas give us some money!” I have long thought Davies is probably the most underrated singer in Rock, and the Kinks may be the most underrated band in rock history. What other band appeared in the British invasion did a few concept albums and then practically invented punk rock!? Dave Davies lead guitar is fantastic, definitely the most entertaining work in any of the Christmas songs on this list. The drums are also a huge high point as they roll franticly between verses. If you needed a definition of it, this IS Christmas Rock!

Peace On Earth / Little Drummer Boy, 1977“Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy”
by David Bowie & Bing Crosby, 1977

This partial cover (Bowie’s “Peace On Earth” part was original, while Crosby sang the traditional “Little Drummer Boy”) was actually as about as original a compositions as any Christmas song with a rock theme to it. So why does this song make the cut? Well it is fantastic! It’s DAVID BOWIE and BING CROSBY! It’s a great little song that feels like Christmas. Two totally different artists from different genres and eras coming together to sing a song for a television special, only around Christmas could this happen. Well, in fact it was recorded in London in August of 1977 for an upcoming Christmas special and Crosby passed away in October, before it aired, making it even more special.

A Wonderful Christmas Time, 1979“A Wonderful Christmas Time” by Paul McCartney, 1979

Not to be out done by his former Beatle mate turned musical rival (see above), Paul McCartney launched the post-Wings phase of his solo career with “Wonderful Christmas Time”. A song with an uncanny ability to instantly put one into the Christmas spirit, this synth-driven, new-wave ballad showcased McCartney’s mastery at writing pleasant pop songs in just about any sub-genre. Unfortunately, his “wonderful Christmas” was interrupted soon after the new year of 1980, when he got busted In Japan for marijuana possession and spent ten days in prison before he was released.

Christmas Wrapping, 1981“Christmas Wrapping” by The Waitresses, 1981

“Christmas Wrapping” is a really fun new-wave style song that jives musically by an otherwise obscure group. The song goes through quite a few little progressions – a little guitar rift and some jolly percussion instruments introduce the listener to the song’s primary beat of guitar and drums. Lead singer Patty Donahue flirts with actually rapping through the song which comes out really cool despite my less than enthused relationship to that genre. The interlude of horns really makes this song fun as they bridge the gap between verses.

2000 Miles, 1983“2000 Miles” by The Pretenders, 1983

Not really intended to be so much a Christmas song as a lament about missing someone with the hope they return at Christmas. It was nevertheless released in 1983 in advance of the band’s 1984 album Learning To Crawl because of its holiday season potential. The vivid lyrics which paint the Christmas landscape and activity, along with the masterful delivery by lead vocalist Chrissie Hynde above the simple folk-guitar riff, makes this one for the ages.

Thank God Its Christmas, 1984“Thank God It’s Christmas” by Queen, 1984

This is a Christmas rock song that often gets overlooked but is virtually impossible to ignore due to Freddie Mercury’s singing. Co-written by drummer Roger Taylor, the drums have a smooth grooving feeling, albeit very processed. Mercury’s backing keyboards and occasional Christmas bells give the song that holiday feeling it needs. The addition of the guitar later in the song by the other co-writer, Brian May adds some earthiness, but the song would benefit from more of it. The piece never quite transcends the mellowness or the karaoke-like quality of the song, but is still a Christmas classic.

Do They Know Its Christmas, 1984Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Band Aid, 1984

Sure, it is outrageously corny, especially when you are watching Boy George and other eighties has-beens singing next to the likes of Bono and Sting. But underneath all the silliness lies a pretty good song, written in a decent style of British pop. This song is the brainchild of Bob Geldof, lead singer of the Boomtown Rats, who co-wrote this song along with Midge Ure, and then they brought together these top-notch English musicians to perform under the name Band Aid as all proceeds went to relief for the Ethiopian famine of 1984-1985. The success of this single eventually lead to the worldwide benefit concert Live Aid, the following summer.

Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, 1985“Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”
by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, 1985

The only true cover of a “traditional” Christmas song on this list, this song was actually recorded in December 1975, but was not released for a solid decade when Bruce Springsteen began putting together his triple live album 1975-1985. It was put out as the B-Side to his single “My Hometown” in 1985 and has since become a holiday staple and rock and pop stations worldwide.

Another Christmas Song, 1989“Another Christmas Song” by Jethro Tull, 1989

We conclude with a beautiful and elegant song put out by Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull during their leaner years, this May be one that many do not know. From the 1989 album Rock Island, this is actually a sequel to “A Christmas Song” put out by Jethro Tull on their 1968 debut album two decades earlier, but is far superior in beauty elegance than the original. With some light flute, drums, and the occasional wood block sound and other percussive effects, the song features Tull’s traditional guitarist Martin Barre who nicely accents the flute line from Anderson in the interweaving musical passages. Lyrically, it describes an old man who is calling his children home to him for Christmas and subtly drawing their attention to other parts of the world and other people;

Everyone is from somewhere, even if you’ve never been there
So take a minute to remember the part of you that might be the old man calling me…”

Through the 1990s and early 2000s, the Christmas rock tradition continued with fine originals such as “Christmas All Over Again” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, a rendition of “Heat Miser” by The Badlees, “Don’t Shoot Me Santa Clause” by The Killers, and Coldplay’s “Christmas Lights”. It is likely this tradition will continue for years to come.

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J.D. Cook and Ric Albano

                

The Joshua Tree by U2

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1987 Album of the Year

The Joshua Tree by U2The Joshua Tree was the long-awaited fifth studio album by U2, released in the spring of 1987. Although not a true “concept” album, it was uniformly inspired by the United States and the geography, literature, and politics and the nation the band so often toured in the early part of their career. U2 released four studio albums in the relatively short period of 1980-1984, culminating with The Unforgettable Fire, their widespread commercial breakthrough. They began writing new material in mid-1985 and began recording in Ireland at the start of 1986. However, this fifth album took a long time to formulate and produce, building much anticipation among fans.

The Joshua Tree was produced by Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, who both worked with the band on the band on The Unforgettable Fire and whose goal was a harder rocking sound for the band while still exploring unconventional song structures. Throughout the 1986 sessions, U2 strove for a “cinematic” quality for the record, embedding American scenery as a backdrop to the soaring sound scapes and lyrics. Many of those lyrics were influenced by American writers that lead vocalist Bono had been reading at the time. Musically, although all the group members had different ideas on how to approach this album, they all agreed that they felt disconnected from the dominant synth pop and other musical trends of the time. Most of the recording was done in a Georgian house, with the dining room and drawing room used for recording and performing.

After completing the album, Bono said he thought that The Joshua Tree was their most complete record since their first. This opinion was born out with its commercial and critical success as the album became the fastest-selling album in British history to date, selling over a quarter million copies in two days. It reached number one within two weeks of release and spent over three years on the album charts. The Joshua Tree topped the albums charts in 20 total countries. Ultimately, the album sold over 25 million copies worldwide and topped several publication’s lists of album of the year for 1987 including, of course, our’s.


The Joshua Tree by U2
Released: March 9, 1987 (Island)
Produced by: Daniel Lanois & Brian Eno
Recorded: Various Studios, Ireland, January 1986–January 1987
Side One Side Two
Where the Streets Have No Name
Still Haven’t Found What Looking For
With Or Without You
Bullet the Blue Sky
Running to Stand Still
Red Hill Mining Town
In God’s Country
Trip Through Your Wires
One Tree Hill
Exit
Mothers of the Disappeared
Band Musicians
Bono – Lead Vocals, Harmonica
The Edge – Guitars, Piano, Vocals
Adam Clayton – Bass
Larry Mullen, Jr. – Drums

The album starts out with a great, nearly two minute, anticipation building intro to “Where the Streets Have No Name”, a top twenty hit worldwide. The intro provides a smooth synth pad rise that gives way to the hyper arpeggio riff by guitarist The Edge, who joined by an equally intense rhythm section throughout the song. Due to its multiple time signature shifts, Lanois called this “the science project song”, while Eno estimated that half of the album sessions were spent trying to record a suitable version of the song. Bono wrote the lyrics while on a visit to Ethiopia, which at the time was devastated by famine.

“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” originated from a rhythm pattern by drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. with lyrics influenced by American gospel music. Nominated for Song of the Year, a the 1988 Grammy Awards, its lyrics describe spiritual yearning, accented by Bono’s vocal soul desperation and accompanied by The Edge’s guitar chime riff. The song’s title was influenced by Bob Dylan’s line from the song “Idiot Wind”; “You’ll find out when you reach the top you’re on the bottom…”, suggesting the recurrence of life and the infinite quest for happiness.

“With or Without You” was the band’s first single release and one of the oldest compositions on the album, dating back to 1985. Bassist Adam Clayton provided a pulsating bass line as a canvas to slowly developing, ambient guitar notes and dynamic vocals. The song was originally rejected by the band and producers but Bono reworked an arrangement with friend Gavin Friday and gave the song a second life. The lyrics address marriage from the perspective of a popular musician and the contrast between life on the road and domestic life. “Bullet the Blue Sky” is an equally simple song but with an entirely different, intense approach. Written about American involvement in the El Salvador Civil War of the 1980s, with aggressive and growly vocals and an intense rhythm. Latin America was also the subject of the album’s closing song “Mothers of the Disappeared”, written about the “Madres de Plaza de Mayo”, a group of women whose children had been “disappeared” under various dictatorships.

Some of the lesser known songs on the album explore various sub-genres of American music. “Running to Stand Still” is influenced by acoustic blues with a lyric that looks back at the band’s native Dublin, Ireland. “Red Hill Mining Town” is a blue-collar folk song, directly influenced by Bob Dylan, who Bono met for the first time in 1984. “Trip Through Your Wires” contains a definite nod towards blue-eyed soul, while “Exit” captured the band in a live studio jam with lyrics influenced by Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song.

The western desert was greatly symbolic on The Joshua Tree (which itself is a national monument in the Mohave Desert) and “In God’s Country” puts that image to music beautifully. It was the band’s most overt attempt at a contemporary rock song on the album while still containing some trademark guitar licks and rhythms. The up-tempo song was difficult to records musically and early versions of the song were written about Ireland before the shift was made to America.

“One Tree Hill” was the fifth and final overall single from the album and was written in dedication to the band’s former roadie Greg Carroll, who was killed in a motorcycle accident in Dublin in 1986. Following the funeral in New Zealand, Bono wrote the lyrics to “One Tree Hill”, which he dedicated to Carroll. This song has been described it as “a soft, haunting benediction” and describes a volcano near Auckland, New Zealand, where Carroll was a native and where the band first worked with him in 1984.

U2 in 1987

U2 has had a long and storied career which continues into its fourth decade. The Joshua Tree has been the apex of this long career and has held up excellently a quarter century later. In our 15 reviews of 1987 albums, re elected 25 years later, we’ve featured several that marked an artist’s commercial and creative peak. However, unlike any of those others, U2 has persevered over the subsequent decades and continued to release quality and relevant material right up through the present day.

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1987 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1987 albums.

 

Achtung Baby by U2

Achtung Baby by U2“The sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree.” This is how lead singer and lyricist Bono described the radical new approach that the established and successful band U2 took when putting together their 1991 album Achtung Baby. The album was produced following the group’s first extended break from touring and recording and it marked a distinct milestone in the evolution of U2’s sound.

This was the first full studio album since the blockbuster The Joshua Tree in 1987 and Bono felt that they were creatively unprepared for the phenomenal success of The Joshua Tree, which resulted in the critically panned soundtrack album Rattle and Hum in 1988. In October 1990, the group headed to Berlin to start work on this new album. On the eve of German reunification the band felt that recording there would be uplifting and inspiring. Instead, they found the vibe to be depressing (the studio was located in a former SS ballroom). Further, there was division growing within the band itself over the musical direction. Bono and lead guitarist The Edge were becoming influenced by recent fads such as the Madchester scene in England and the industrial rock movement in America. However, these dance-oriented beats and rhythms did not sit well with bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen, who felt their roles were being diminished within the band. The fact that Bono and The Edge were also writing the material in more isolation did not help matters.

The band was actually close to breaking up in Germany as ideas stagnated and disagreements escalated. But they were all brought back together by the nearly totally improvised “One”, where each member contributed on the spot to this excellent new composition. The band returned home to Dublin for Christmas 1990 where they all recommitted to a future with U2. The bulk of the rest of the album would be recorded in Dublin starting in February 1991.


Achtung Baby by U2
Released: November 19, 1991 (Island)
Produced by: Daniel Lanois & Brian Eno
Recorded: Hansa Ton Studios, Berlin, STS & Windmill Lane Studios, Dublin, October 1990 – September 1991
Track Listing Band Musicians
Zoo Station
Even Better Than the Real Thing
One
Until the End of the World
Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?
So Cruel
The Fly
Mysterious Ways
Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around the World
Ultraviolet (Light My Way)
Acrobat
Love Is Blindness
Bono – Lead Vocals, Guitar
The Edge – Guitar, Keyboards, Vocals
Adam Clayton – Bass
Larry Mullin, Jr. – Drums & Percussion

Achtung Baby by U2

The album’s title, “Achtung Baby”, is German for “Attention, baby!” or “Watch out, baby!”, and it was adopted by sound engineer Joe O’Herlihy during recording in the early Berlin sessions. Later in the process, the band decided on this as the title over more “serious sounding” titles that they were considering. The album was co-produced by Daniel Lanois, who was hands-on from start to finish and Brian Eno, who would work on the project intensely for several days straight and then take three or four weeks off in order to be able to come back and listen with “fresh ears”.

Upon listening to the album, the first thing you’re struck by is the sound – steady, almost techno beats, processed vocals, and very judicious use of the band’s previous biggest asset, The Edge’s signature riffs. For this album, the inventive guitarist used many different techniques and processing, most with stellar success, some with less.

Some of the most inventive guitars appear on the songs “Zoo Station”, “Love Is Blindness”, and the first hit from the album “Mysterious Ways”, which introduced the pop world to the “new U2”. Other songs used various inovative techniques as well. “Even Better Than the Real Thing” starts with wild synths and then uses doubled up, octave vocals. “So Cruel” uses a simple piano riff with a modern dance beat. “The Fly” experiments with alternate personalities of Bono, each portrayed by distinctive vocals built by cadence and effect. While the music fluctuates between alternative and R&B. “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” starts as a piece of doomy, space age, psychedelia then morphs into a decent pop song that really hits a sweet note during the bridge with the high-pitched Bono vocals.

Other song highlights include the cleaver and inventive “Until the End of the World”, which portrays an imagined conversation between Jesus Christ and his betrayer, Judas Iscariot, while moving towards the traditional U2 sound musically. “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World” contains a calm R&B beat with just enough musical decor to make it really moody under the somber vocals.

The true great from this album, on a level with anything U2 has done before or since is “One” . This is a gem that really deviates from much of the rest of the album. It starts with a traditionally strummed acoustic guitar coupled with a nice, overdubbed electric riff and then kicks in with perfect rhythm accompaniment. Calm vocals become more agitated as the verses proceed until we reach a climatic banshee scream at the close. Further, this is the song that really saved the album and possibly the band. As The Edge recalls;

“At the instant we were recording it, I got a very strong sense of its power. We were all playing together in the big recording room, a huge, eerie ballroom full of ghosts of the war, and everything fell into place. It was a reassuring moment, when everyone finally went, ‘oh great, this album has started.’ It’s the reason you’re in a band…”

As the release date drew near, rumors of U2’s new direction leaked out and certain critics and members of the press began to preemptively trash the new album on hearsay alone. On the eve of Achtung Baby’s release in November 1991, U2 was more unsure and less confident than they had been for any previous work. However, once the actual music was heard, the reception nearly all positive by critics and fans alike, with Achtung Baby topping most “album of the year” polls and winning a Grammy.

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Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1991 albums.

1991 Images