While researching Walk On; The Spiritual Journey of U2 I stumbled across something I hadn’t realised before. Writing such books gives you the opportunity for self indulgence, some days listening and watching the same song for hours upon hours and being able to tell your wife that it is “research.” During my time on the Achtung Baby chapter it hit me, probably for the first time, just how great this record is; how it is indeed the band’s greatest moment. Most would cite Joshua Tree as U2’s definitive album, as I would have before this discovery, but Achtung Baby is simply astounding, perhaps even because it comes in the slipstream of Joshua Tree. I remember buying it, midnight Sunday as Ireland’s U2 album release tradition was, at Virgin Records on The Quays in Dublin. I had just moved to Dublin two months earlier, probably inspired by U2, and when I got back to the car and put it in my portable CD player and through the car stereo I was dumfounded and confused. What is this? Where did this come from? What have they done? I can still remember that first sound of Edge’s guitar riff on Zoo Station, like pneumatic drills bouncing off the Berlin wall. Of course we’d already heard The Fly, and were slightly bemused already, but that first listen to Zoo Station was and still is something other.
It was as if Achtung Baby sat up, out of the pack, raised by its originality onto a new plateau, and it still remains there twenty years later. In some of the presentations I have given on U2 I play a piece of the Rattle and Hum movie and then move straight into the video for The Fly. My word! The transformation in mood, in colour, in sound, in image, in every kind of way. No rock band has ever reinvented with such a quantum shift and to do that and make an even better album than what was considered your life’s work is even more astonishing.
To get another visual glimpse of the change just look at the panoramic scenes from the Joshua Tree packaging and then the disc label on Achtung Baby where Anton Corbijn focuses in on graffiti on some door somewhere; from widescreen to as close in as possible. It is a reflection of the content. Joshua Tree had songs about justice issues that spanned the world but Achtung Baby zoomed in on a band wrestling with art and identity and one of its members going through a heartbreaking divorce. U2 had only dabbled ever so briefly with love songs in their first decade but here they were starting their second ten years with a whole record on the subject. That the sounds of Achtung Baby are massive and the topic of the material microscopic adds to the fascinating, brilliance and utter originality.
Twenty years after that night in Dublin I have just opened the Twentieth Anniversary Super Deluxe Box Set. It is expensive and hefty with 6 CDs and 4 DVDs. The cover, the book of photos and the art prints remind you of the sensory bombardment that the album still is. Inside the value for the longterm nerdlike fans is scant reward for their £75. They’ll have the record and it’s follow up. They’ll also have most of the b-sides and remixes. Also with the DVDs. Most of it has already been available. Having said that it will probably be the fans who have the stuff that will purchase this beast and the scant will thrill. The recent documentary From The Sky Down that tells the story of the record’s uneasy birth is fresh. On CD there are a few unreleased tracks and what is called Kindergarten; The Alternative Achtung Baby. Like The Beatles Anthology the Kindergarten mixes give a new template to rediscover the over familiar and there are very interesting moments like on So Cruel where the song’s protagonist gets trampled under the feet of the horses that own the space between love and lust; that doesn’t make the final cut. Of the new songs Oh Berlin reveals the place in the process where the band were stuck in the sound of Joshua Tree b-sides but there are some lovely moments particularly the instrumental Near The Island and hearing Maria McKee’s voice on Everybody Loves A Winner.
What these newly released recordings do is give the story of the album’s evolving in early takes and other song experiments. At times you see how they are not making it through, in other songs you are asking who suggested that they keep moving on from some reasonable places they had found, because some of these songs would have done but they wouldn’t have been great. Bono needed stretched more in his writing and in the finding of his voice. It gives yet another reason to marvel at the finished product. Since Achtung Baby U2 have spoken of two albums unfinished in Pop and No Line On The Horizon and hinted that Bono could have worked harder on the songs of All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Achtung Baby stands as the complete work, perfect in its form and this box reminds us of that fact and gives us hints of the blood, sweat and tears of its construction.