Achtung Baby: 20th anniversary edition
In the recent BBC1 documentary From The Sky Down, U2 spoke candidly about how their 1991 album Achtung Baby signalled a radical rethink in their approach to making music, and to their entire career.
Painstakingly assembled at Berlin’s famed Hansa studios, the album sessions were as much a reaction to what went before as a map for the road that lay ahead.
The 20-year anniversary reissue of the album, out later this month, offers more than a chance to revisit the 12 songs that comprised the original release. Across numerous formats, there are remixes, rarities, B-sides and a plethora of previously unreleased material (not to mention four DVDs).
MusicRadar was given a sneak preview of what’s on offer, and below we highlight what we think are the most interesting tracks, kicking off with six “new” songs fans won’t have heard before.
Blow Your House Down
The pounding rhythms at the fore of this slab of vintage new wave may prompt some listeners to think of Elvis Costello’s Pump It Up, not least in the way Bono spits out the words in what’s sometimes called a “shopping list” fashion.
Closer to home, however, it could be read as laying the basic foundations for U2’s own future stompers Vertigo, Elevation and, especially, Get On Your Boots.
Heaven And Hell
From formative sessions in Dublin, this is a hymnal, soulful ballad, punctuated by the Hammond organ of U2’s long-serving sound technician Paul Barrett, who has made intermittent contributions to the group’s recordings since the late ‘80s, and is also credited as producer of the track.
Possibly inspired by John Lennon’s solo work, mixed with the sepia-toned slower tempo numbers in The Band’s back catalogue, Bono’s emotionally fraught lyric examines the often irreconcilable differences between two lovers.
The minimalism of the track recalls the staccato guitar and taut rhythm of Talking Heads, circa Remain In Light, although David Byrne’s group are not among the touchstones quoted by Bono in the lyric (“The ghosts of my heroes, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Iggy, Wim Wenders...”), delivered in a Reed-like monotone.
In that sense, it could be read as a love poem to the city where Achtung Baby was put together, and the influences it sought to emulate.
Near The Island
A delicate and sombre instrumental, recorded during initial sessions in Dublin, with The Edge’s gently plucked acoustic guitar exchanging melody lines with piano (uncredited, but most likely The Edge himself or perhaps Barrett again).
Not so much a song with a clearly definable verse-chorus structure, but more of a fragmented sketch earmarked for future embellishment which never came about; a discarded foundation for which the band struggled to find suitable building blocks.
Down All The Days
The pulsating synth intro interspersed with scraping guitar precedes a lyrical melody that perhaps owes too much of a debt to Where The Streets Have No Name, the obvious parallel possibly explaining why it was shelved.
Clocking in at six-and-a-half minutes, the latter part of the track is filled with what sound like freeform ad-libbed Bono vocals, which may have been intended as a guide before the lyrics were finished.
Elements of the track, including a passage of military-type, rat-a-tat drums, would be reworked later for Numb on the band’s next album, Zooropa.
Everybody Loves A Winner
Returning to the soulful hues of Heaven And Hell, this gospel-tinged waltz features a falsetto vocal by Bono, ruminating on religion (“once I had faith,” he sings) and taking a few tips from the Percy Sledge songbook.
Barrett’s swirling Hammond organ is reminiscent of Billy Preston, while the full-throated duet vocal by Maria McKee suggests the recording dates from the sessions where she provided back-up on a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Fortunate Son, the B-side to Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?
Even Better Than The Real Thing
One disc of the deluxe edition is devoted to first full recordings of tracks that would ultimately be reworked for inclusion on Achtung Baby. Presented here under the title “Kindergarten”, not all songs are radically removed from what was eventually released, but here are some of the most noteworthy differences we spotted...
Even Better Than The Real Thing
The sound is noticeably sparser on this early take, with The Edge’s guitar lines mixed low, allowing Larry Mullen to shine with an array of tom-toms and hi-hats in the foreground. Much of the lyric would also be rewritten before the song took its place on the finished album.
In the documentary From The Sky Down (also included in the super deluxe edition of the album reissue), The Edge speaks of this song being pivotal in the group finding their way towards the atmosphere and identity of Achtung Baby.
In this early version, the sound is dominated by acoustic guitar and Bono’s echo-laden voice; cut from the same cloth as John Lennon’s Stand By Me, while also referencing Roy Orbison’s melodramatic vocal style.
The Christmas-like chimes and full-blooded organ accompaniment would ultimately be jettisoned, but the specific inflections of the vocal suggest the same take was used for the final album version.
Until The End Of The World
Stripped of the banks of duelling guitars that propel the version originally released, this muted take is less rage-like, with Bono’s vocal higher in the mix but sang in deeper, more reflective register.
This is rumoured to be the version U2 first played to director Wim Wenders for inclusion in his film of the same name, and still retains the stronger percussive elements of its initial demo, with the working title Fat Boy.
Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?
Notoriously, one of the most problematic songs on Achtung Baby, which four separate producers took a run at (five, if you include the band themselves as a single entity).
This early recording is in a less complex straight-down-the-middle four-four time signature than the version that eventually made the cut. If anything, this take has more in common with the power pop jangle of, say, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers than the cinematic grandeur of U2.
Bono has been quoted as saying that So Cruel went through a lengthy recording process because its initial structure was “too traditional” and shared too many similarities with She’s A Mystery To Me, the song he and The Edge wrote for Roy Orbison.
There are clearly identifiably Big O motifs in this version, although Bono’s conversational approach to the vocal also suggests shades of Leonard Cohen.
Shorn of most of the vocal effects of the version that gave U2 their second UK chart-topper (which were designed to suggest a phone conversation), this is the sound of the band at their most primitive, its riffs referencing ‘60s garage bands.
Having said that, the lack of studio effects and the hip-hop break beats allows Adam Clayton’s throbbing funk bass lines a bigger slice of the sonic pie.
Whereas The Edge went overboard with the effects pedals on the version that would surface on Achtung Baby, this slightly slower reading takes its lead from Adam Clayton’s melodic bass (the song began life as an improvised Clayton riff).
It also benefits from the sense of all four band members playing “live” without recourse to overdubs, and with the spontaneous energy of a good-humoured jam session.
Trying To Throw Your Arms Around The World
In a take that would have sounded impossibly out of place on Achtung Baby, U2 go country folk!
The acoustic guitars and chorus harmonies place the song firmly in the camp of Crosby, Stills & Nash, arguably compounding the tongue-in-cheek element of the song’s lyric (Bono’s words supposedly chronicle a drunken walk home from a night club).
It’s doubtful whether this version was ever under any serious consideration, but it suggests that an album of unplugged campfire singalongs wouldn’t be such a bad thing!
Available in a dizzying array of formats, it’s likely that what’s being marketed as Achtung Baby’s “uber deluxe” version of 10 discs (six CDs, four DVDs) will only be snapped up by diehard fans with the deepest pockets - it’s listed on Amazon for a whopping £268.
That’s a pity, as although the unreleased “new” songs previewed in this article are available on a more affordable two-disc standard deluxe release, the embryonic “Kindergarten” versions are restricted to the more elaborate packages.
These are the familiar songs in fledgling form, which, more than anything else on offer, chart the step-by-step progress of a band searching for a new sound, striving for reinvention and reinvigoration.
Nonetheless, Achtung Baby remains arguably U2’s most remarkable album; perhaps not as lauded as the world-conquering Joshua Tree, but an intriguing illustration of a band heading back to the drawing board after the success of that earlier record had, to all intents and purposes, painted them into a creative corner.
The 20th anniversary edition of Achtung Baby, in its many formats, is released through Universal/Island on 31 October