U2’S AUSTERE image was knocked out by a technicolour uppercut when Achtung Baby was released 25 years ago today.
The monochromatic earnestness that became symbolic of the band’s image during the 1980s was spectacularly terminated when the album was issued on November 18, 1991.
Five of U2’s first seven album covers were dominated by a black and white image.
Perhaps it was a deliberate protest against the sheen of the plastic decade that gave us huge hair, enormous shoulder pads, and money to burn.
Whatever the reason, U2 carved a niche big enough to accommodate the disaffected masses who wanted little to no part of the decadence on offer.
The approach led to a spot on the cover of Time magazine, the title of Band of the Eighties, a world-wide No.1 hit in The Joshua Tree, and the semi-live album and movie Rattle and Hum.
U2, by the end of the decade, had accomplished what they set out to achieve.
But success usually breeds contempt.
The Rattle and Hum experience was interpreted by some as U2’s attempt to elevate themselves on the same pedestal as Elvis, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and The Beatles.
The red carpet that had been laid at their feet was being pulled from under them by a long line of critics.
By the time the band hit the stage in Dublin in late December 1989, the giddiness of global domination and the resulting backlash had taken its toll. Bono famously told the audience, and the world, it was time to “dream it all up again”.
The world around them was changing dramatically too.
George W Bush succeeded Ronald Regan as the 41st president of the US.
Student protests in Beijing resulted in the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
Rumblings in East Germany planted the seeds of freedom which tore down the Berlin Wall.
The winds of change also were howling in the inner U2 sanctum. It was time for a shift in musical direction.
Making the decision was the easy part. Navigating the uncharted course almost sunk the band.
They landed in Berlin towards the end of 1990 on the eve of reunification between Germany’s east and west. The location and historical events were supposed to feed inspiration.
Instead, Adam, Larry, Bono and The Edge found themselves unable to agree on the music, and eventually turned on each other.
But what they were chasing became their salvation.
A chord progression arrived.
The melody morphed into the anthemic One.
U2 were on their way.
Having finished the album back home in Dublin, its first single The Fly buzzed out of speakers worldwide in October 1991.
The first listen confused the hell out of me. I honestly didn’t know if I loved it, or hated it. I bought myself some blank TDK cassettes (remember them?) and patiently waited for radio station Triple-M to play it.
That cassette copped a thrashing. Once the lyrics came into focus, I was sold.
It sounded very different to anything we’d heard from U2 before.
The drums took on a metallic resonance.
The guitar sounded as if it floated across a timber hall before squeezing through a pinhole and out into a wide underwater cavern.
Adam’s bass lines boldly stood at the front of the musical layers, rather than somewhere up the back.
Bono sang into a coffee cup on Zoo Station and The Fly.
In announcing a new direction, U2 inadvertently created a line that many fans just couldn’t cross.
For them, Rattle and Hum was the end of the love affair.
For others, Achtung Baby was U2 at the peak of its power.
Weeks later Triple-M played the entire album. There I sat in my bedroom waiting to press REC and PLAY at the same time on my tape deck to capture my own pirated copy.
Boy did that tape cop a thrashing.
Within days I was going on a car rally with my brother, his girlfriend (today his wife) and some friends that began in the Melbourne suburb of Glen Waverley and ended in Mansfield many hours later.
We hired a car for the occasion, and in slipped that tape.
It still is one of the greatest records to listen to during a long trip on a highway.
The rhythm and energy of the songs somehow connects with the scenery rolling along at 100km/h.
Achtung Baby was supported by the Zoo TV (US), Zooropa (Europe), Zoomerang (Australia) and New Zooland (New Zealand) tours during 1992 and 1993.
It was the first big concert production of any kind that used video not just as a medium for the people in the nosebleeds to see what was happening on stage, but to also provide a canvas on which images and slogans enhanced the songs and gave them broader meaning.
It was a feast for the eyes, a sonic smorgasbord, and a mind-bending experience that left each concert goer with a different take on what it all meant.
It was also the last time we saw Bono take on the guise of different characters:
The Fly – created when wardrobe manager Fintan Fitzgerald gave Bono a pair of blaxploitation sunglasses to lighten the mood in the studio when U2 was recording the song. The character became a contradiction in terms, from the rock star black leather get up, which was a huge change in the singer’s demeanour, to the deep and witty one liners coming out of his mouth.
Mirrorball Man – a parody of TV evangelists, here was a man whose love of money knew no bounds. And he had a vision…television, a platform to get your name out there and ask people to put their hands in their pockets and contribute some hard-earned greenbacks.
Mr Macphisto – the devil never looked more glitzy. Adorned with a red shirt and gold lame suit, Mr Macphisto embraced kitsch and made it an artform. He was also a thorn in the side of George W Bush, phoning the White House almost every night from the Zoo TV stage, asking to speak with the President. He never got through.
The combination of cover art, lyrics, sounds, song order and tour was a conceptual nirvana. We’ll never see a version of U2 like that again.