U2’s “Achtung Baby” Turns 20: It’s Legacy

by on January 8th, 2010
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It’s difficult to define “Achtung Baby”. It is akin to defining a zeitgeist, a generation, to someone who was not yet alive or too young to remember clearly. It is a culture, a world view, a need, a belief, the news, television, and art. It is a love song and an anthem for Generation X that has profoundly affected everything after. (I could say that it would be equally difficult to define who I am without understanding “Achtung Baby”.)

But that is exactly what the world is trying to do. November 2011 marks the 20th anniversary of this unique, extraordinary album. All across the world of music, artists, producers, journalists, photographers and more are attempting to explain just why this little album is so important to world and personal histories- and all are aware the effort is falling short.

It has been an amazing year of anniversaries in music. 1991 was the year the world changed. It was the year synth ’80s pop all but disappeared. It was the year that saw the mainstreaming of grunge and the underground Seattle scene. It was the year that often showy and always painfully relevant ’80s alternative from the likes of U2, The Cure, The Smiths, The Cult, etc., itself a descendant of late ’70s post-punk, matured into a real force. Already, 2011 has seen extensive celebrations for iconic albums like Pearl Jam’s “Ten” and Nirvana’s “Nevermind”.

Indeed, these two albums have in many respects overshadowed the anniversary of “Achtung Baby” for the American public. “Spin” magazine devoted almost an entire issue to “Nevermind” and really to everything that was the early 1990’s. It is essential reading for those who may find it difficult to understand just why everything was so ripe for the grunge point-of-view, to explain the zeitgeist that these albums stood on the back of. (“Spin’s” online coverage of “Nevermind” is at http://www.spin.com/nevermind.) “Rolling Stone” magazine has attempted to play neutral by catering equally to all these albums, and as a result has ultimately failed to fully honor any of them. But in the U.K. and other parts of the world the story is quite different.

British music magazine “Q” has put together the most beautiful and fitting tribute, out-doing all others. Their December issue (which is also their 25th anniversary issue) includes a four or five page interview in which each of the four members of U2 are given equal opportunity to answer every question, a full page review of the 20th anniversary box-set rerelease packages, the cover image, an attempt to highlight how the album has influenced various popular bands today like Coldplay, The Killers, and Florence and the Machine, and a free tribute CD of covers of all the songs on “Achtung Baby” (titled “Ahk-toong Bay-bi”) by various artists who themselves influenced U2 or have been influenced by them and even one cover by a childhood friend of the band.

But why was it so important? There are the obvious explanations: “Achtung Baby” nearly tore U2 apart and yet saved the band from collecting dust in the back of people’s closets. As long-time friend of U2 and music journalist Bill Flanagan put it in his contribution to the anniversary box-sets: “People will always argue over which one was their best album, but there is no doubt that “Achtung Baby” was their most important.” “Achtung Baby” changed our perception of what music is, what it should be, and there is not a single song on the radio today, regardless of genre, that does not bear its mark.

Then there are the not-so-obvious and the personal reasons. Everyone has a personal story about “Achtung Baby” because love it or hate it, it simply could not be ignored. It is the gloriously profound fact that it shaped people on the individual level that is its true legacy. Ask anyone, give them time to formulate their answer, and you’ll hear a truly moving story. Go ahead.

For those of us who were there, so to speak, the fall of communism and the tearing down of the Berlin wall was as unexpected and psych-shaping as 9/11 would later be. Suddenly, as if overnight, the paranoid world we had been born into was splitting open like a chasm created by a powerful earthquake. There was air to breathe, a breeze even. It seemed that there was no longer any need to fear being vapourized by a nuclear bomb. No more drills for how to respond when you could actually be learning in class. It was exhilarating in a communal sense, and frightening. Because the question was “What now?” There was a great deal of uncertainty in that breathable air. We had no way of knowing what would result. We couldn’t exactly see light at the end of the tunnel, just the desperation for light. There was also the siege of Sarajevo, the Gulf War, millions dying in Somalia, genocide in Rwanda, etc. The 1990s were a paradox. On the one hand the world was experiencing a decadence and economic prosperity before unknown and on the other a lifetime of paranoia had no clear expression. Uncertainty is the very anti-thesis of stability. Some people believed the world would end on New Year’s Day 2000, so party like it’s 1999! There was an unlimited possibility and a deep-seated weary despondency, even hopelessness, in the same moment. It was a difficult environment in which to navigate adolescence; and, apparently, an equally difficult environment for a band to find their way back to themselves.

But that’s what they did with “Achtung Baby”. They had grown much too serious during the “Joshua Tree” days, even their family said so. “Achtung Baby” became the vehicle through which they lightened up again, became themselves again, and got comfortable in their own skins. Like the times, it is a paradox. While they were dealing with a whole slew of personal challenges- such as learning to be parents, going through divorce, working through the disillusionment of the post-honeymoon period, so to speak, in their career as a band, and learning to love their art again- they also perfectly chronicled a unique decade right at the start of it.

I was raised as a U2 fan. It is literally mother’s milk. My first conscious personal attachment to them was when I was five years old and saw back to back videos of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” from the “War” album and “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” from the “Unforgettable Fire” on MTV. But it wasn’t until “Achtung Baby” that I really discovered them for myself. “Achtung Baby” was the first U2 album I actually owned, and for me, that period is who U2 is. The rest I discovered in retrospect or as it was released. And it changed my world.

It was the summer of 1992. I was 13 years old. “One” was climbing the charts to number 1, so I was already familiar with it. I had surgery again and faced another summer in a wheelchair recovering and learning to walk again in order to be ready to return to school in the Fall. And I wasn’t happy about it. Mom brought me a cassette walkman with “Achtung Baby” in it to listen to while in hospital. For the first day, I listened to “One” over and over. Then I got curious and listened to the entire cassette.

It quite literally blew my mind. I had no idea of what was going on outside my little bubble then. It never occurred to me to find out. The top forty charts and MTV were all I really knew (with the exception of the greats of music like Elvis Presley and on through Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd- and some of the blues). The only German band I had knowingly heard was the Scorpians. I saw their performance for the concert played at the Berlin Wall as it came down for which their song “Wind of Change” was written. But I hadn’t yet any concept of industrial music, of what was going on in the German music scene, in the rest of Europe. I knew nothing about North African rhythms and the Manchester blend of rock with club and house music. I didn’t even know what house music was. I had never heard any of Brian Eno’s ambient works, or Patti Smith’s growling complaints, and even Bob Dylan was just a shadowy outline for me. This was the beginning of the end of my personal cultural myopia. Europe was changing, the Eastern bloc no longer existed and was opening up, and I was opening with it. But my ignorance meant I had no real basis for comparison with the music that is “Achtung Baby”. If I had been familiar with those concepts, I might have been more prepared for “Achtung Baby”; however, there was still no point of comparison to be found. It was utterly unique. And a little difficult to digest.

From the very first note until the last, this album was an assault on the senses and to established sensibilities. The guitar was channeled through technology and not simply for the echo and chime effects that I was already accustomed to from The Edge; it was distorted, warped, angry, weeping, straining for hope, and restrained all at once. The combination of beat box rhythms and Larry Mullen’s (the Jr. now optional) homemade military snare battering completely surrounded you in rhythm and was overwhelming. Adam Clayton’s bass resonated now to the deepest depths of the human soul (the thing is downright tribal when played on a good stereo with woofers). And Bono almost didn’t sound like himself. Gone were the earnest power notes of earlier albums because now the music nearly reached those emotional crescendos for him, to complete them required a totally new way of singing. He stretched his voice into new ranges. This is the very beginnings of the development of his now famous falsetto. Technology was now applied to his voice as well, roughing it, making it guttural, ethereal, moody. The result was an album of atmospheric distortion, a sexy, sci-fi creation from some faraway planet on the other side of a black hole somewhere, music from an alternate reality that, as it turned out, was more our reality than we could know at the time. And that’s just the music: the lyrics are a world unto themselves. I could write an entire literary thesis on the lyrics and what they mean to me as a poet and as a human being. An entirely insufficient sum-up of them would be to say that this album personified that desperation for light mentioned earlier.

It isn’t easy to reach back to my 13 year old self to recall my very first impressions of “Achtung Baby”. I am not accustomed to looking back; I’m always concentrated on the future, sometimes, I admit, at the expense of the present. But as U2 said in the documentary film “From the Sky Down”: “There is a point when it becomes dysfunctional not to look back at the past.” So to celebrate this anniversary I have tried to do just that. This music has grown up with me, become a part of me. In nearly every memory- good, bad, sad, traumatic- “Achtung Baby” is in the background playing or in my head. It has shaped how I see the world, understand the world, interact with it, and have attempted to make it into. Almost every time I listen to the album I hear something new in its musical compositions or garner some fresh interpretation of its lyrics and emotional soundscapes that I didn’t before.

This album is frank truth and potent ambiguity in the best sense, and the balancing of these concepts is at the core of what living is about. It doesn’t get easier with age and experience because one only becomes more aware of it. There is no concept that is deeper than these, more difficult to fathom. Love, for instance, is a form of truthful ambiguity, and hopefully, a successful balancing of it. My point is: that is what makes this album so important to its time in history and why it continues to be equally important today. That is why it changed the world- because it was the album to which an entire generation grew up. It introduced them to these concepts. Albums like “Nevermind” and “Ten” and bands like Mazzy Star bolstered the development of music in tackling them. The music that has followed it, particularly since 2000, has been consciously determined to focus on the light rather than the desperation for light, which feels like a step backward, especially in the post 9/11 zeitgeist. But it cannot escape that ambiguity even as it fails to balance it, because it cannot escape the awareness of it. That is the legacy of “Achtung Baby”.

As the world celebrates “Achtung Baby’s” 20th anniversary, the world is finally beginning to grapple with what it meant and means in a conscious sense, to put words to it. “Spin” magazine listed it as the number 1 album of the last 25 years. The readers of “Q” voted U2 “The Greatest Act of Last 25 Years” for the 2011 Q Awards. But all the accolades in the world do not describe its effect. Its effect was personal and that made it more important than anything more generally felt. What is your “Achtung Baby” story?


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