[sic] Magazine

U2 – Achtung Baby 20th anniversary box set.

Do you remember a time, before ‘One’ by U2 existed?

From the moment I heard it, I fell back in love with U2, after separating myself from them in early 1990, tiring of their po-faced, hat-wearing, world-saving, holier-than-thou uber sincerity.

If you think they are po-faced and preachy now, you should’ve seen them then. Dull as dishwater, hectoring. Good at what they did, brilliant at what they did, but what they did wasn’t brilliant. And U2 always wanted to be the best at what they did. Ambition bites the nails of success. Achtung Baby was the album where they took their ambitions and the accessible, stadium rock band they always wanted to be, played with the idea a bit, and reset themselves as something a little less obvious.

You might be expecting a classic rock album. The type that Nevermind was going to make obsolete. U2 went somewhere else. Somewhere beautiful. Opening with a squall of feedback, a distorted burst of static, a clattering, keen drum attack. ‘Zoo Station’ was where U2 discovered the ability to let go of everything but what they could be. The ability to be silly, stupid, flippant, and also use humour and playfulness to reveal the deadly terror of heartbreak. So Achtung Baby was perhaps the right title: the warning of danger of relationships, children, and beautiful women that leave wreckage in their path. Achtung! Baby.

At the heart of it – the delicate arpeggios and searching rock gestures – it was still the same band, the same heart of it in new and strange clothes, still wanting to be accessible and resonant and popular. U2 have often chased relevance at the cost of being interesting. ‘The Fly’ was a clarion call of intent. This radical invention saw the band set themselves as leaders. The following years the bands that wanted to be the next U2 – Def Leppard , Bon Jovi , and a thousand other wannabe’s – all went dirty and got ‘real’ instead of living the dream. Here though U2 tackled, in a loose form a concept: the gap between reality and illusion, between love and lovelessness, the place we all live. Lyrics became suggestive, almost erotic, human, and real. This record that shaped my healthy distrust of the world around me. ‘The Fly’, where a guitar solo is backed by an orchestra of car horns, and Bono sings like a soul diva, was the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree , taking the tools they had, and playing with it.

As an album though, it achieved a greatness few others ever have. Each song sat thematically together with the rest of the work. Musically the songs channelled a progression through the 12 pieces, from the roar of ‘Zoo Station’ to the exhausted howl of the searing ‘Love Is Blindness’. Inspired by the bitter divorce of guitarist The Edge , the lyrics resonated with me then and now: about love and hope and trust and betrayal, both personally and in another respect, politically, the gap between perception and reality. This record made sense of an often senseless world. When one is trying to find their place in the world.

On this enormous deluxe edition, the band offer immense value, with six audio CD’s – including the album itself, follow-up Zooropa , two discs of b-sides and unreleased versions, and two discs of the numerous remixes and reinterpretations that showed them very clearly playing with the form. There’s gold in those hills. Plenty of gold. Though, I admit, also, plenty of lost nuggets during the period covered in this set: two furiously prolific years that saw two albums, eight singles, 32 remixes, 9 b-sides, 3 home videos, 153 live shows and a band creatively in abandon and overdrive. As Zooropa proved U2 should think less and do more.

Quite why Zooropa is bundled in here baffles me: it’s U2’s strongest, strangest record and one that is worthy of a standalone release. The extra songs shelved during its rushed creation would also surely fascinate: you could easily make a deluxe edition for this album in itself.

The extra tracks are the key draw here: Disc Six – ‘Kindergarten’ – shows the album in an embryonic version. Most of the songs are roughly constructed, but the lyrics are all over the place, the arrangements in different places ; ‘One’ is more of a classic folk song, ‘Trying To Throw Your Arms Around The World’ is a busk, the rest are insights into the number of variations a song evolves through before it is born. Nothing from the much bootlegged 1990 tapes is here as such. On Disc Five – ‘B sides And Bonus Tracks’ – contains six reworked songs from the bootlegs, rerecorded, redubbed, remodelled and polished – but not a note of the original tapes are still here. The B-sides are strong pieces, but compiled in a haphazard fashion with seemingly little attempt to make a listenable body of work out of it. Not helped with ‘Oh Berlin’ having some of the worst lyrics Bono has ever thunked or speechifyied, about the terror of angels. ‘Down All The Days’ – the demo of ‘Numb’ – shows what an enormous difference a different vocal melody can make to a near identical song as the backing tracks are 99% the same thing. A fascinating insight into the creative process.

This deluxe edition is incomplete: ‘Night And Day’, ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’ and ‘Slow Dancing’ are missing (though the first two are included in lesser, remixed forms). Alternate versions of several songs that appear on film soundtracks and singles are absent. The two remix discs contain between them, 6 remixes of ‘Mysterious Ways’ and miss at least four key remixes (‘Stay’, ‘Dirty Day’, ‘Daddy’s Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car’ and the highly-sought after, not to say excellent, Perfecto remix of ‘Numb’). There’s 53 minutes of unused space across the 4 bonus CD’s as well, so the reason for these baffling exclusions must be deliberate or an incompetent oversight.

There are four DVD’s: a (already released) live show which is therefore, pretty much pointless, a fascinating TV special with several live songs from the 1992 tour, promo videos and a retrospective documentary. The documentary will benefit a standalone release, however as it is, ‘From The Sky Down’ is an in-depth look at the U2 creative process on some of the key songs in the album, bolstered by interviews, archive video, and contemporary live / rehearsal footage that shows U2 and where these songs are now. It carries a huge implied knowledge – the bands key alumni such as manager, producers, and engineer are not introduced. It covers the creation of the record in a learned depth, though, somewhat oddly, feels as if it is still missing some key points; Edge’s divorce that inspired the lyrics is not mentioned once, nor are many of the albums songs.

Overall, this is an exhaustive, immense package. For the price the content is certainly value for money: though certainly imperfect and missing many important tracks of musical trivia that would provide a complete, definitive overview of the era. As far as deluxe editions go, this one sticks strictly to the music in a huge binge of about 14 hours of music. Achtung, Bank Accounts.


~Editors note: Beware there is also an uber-deluxe box which will set you back hundreds.~

For more from Mark, please visit The Final Word