Achtung Baby and the greatest rock reinvention.


It was roughly three weeks before Christmas in 1991. My afternoon classes were over, and a brisk stroll into the old town landed me at the Zlaty Dukat restaurant for a dinner of pork, dumplings and draft Pilsner Urquell. Returning much later to my hillside residence hall, I stopped by the sliding glass window for mail call, and to say hello to the ever-friendly night porter. With a smile, the old man gave me a handful of letters, a shoebox-sized package, and a warm seasonal greeting in Slovak: “Veselé vianoce.”

“Merry Christmas to you, too,” I responded — in English.

Upon closer inspection, buried deep in the box was the real prize of the day, a cassette copy of U2’s album “Achtung Baby.” It had been released only a short time before, and some of the tunes were just beginning to be played on Bratislava’s weird, joyful Rock FM radio station, a figment of pre-Communist imagination sprung amazingly to life two years after the Velvet Revolution. The signal was relayed to a local transmitter in Kosice, Czechoslovakia, and then came to rest on the FM band of my South Korean boom box.

Popping the top on a locally brewed Cassovar lager, I listened with rapt attention. Indeed, U2’s sound on “Achtung Baby” was different – very much so – but at the same time, the band was the same one I’d seen perform in Ireland during the 1987 tour backing “The Joshua Tree” album.

What in the hell had happened? It took me a while, but eventually it made sense, and when it finally did, I was hooked for life.

Twenty years have come and gone. I didn’t spring for the Super Deluxe Edition of “Achtung Baby”, just the remastered original album with an accompanying disc of B-sides, most of which I’d heard before. No matter. This essay-length review on Pitchfork by Ryan Dombal uses the re-release as an excuse to recall the context of a time, and indeed, Dombal does a fine job of it. In particular, his assessment of the subsequent Zoo TV tour’s impact is spot on. Two excerpts are offered, but by all means, read the whole piece.

U2 Achtung Baby

[Super Deluxe Edition] Island; 2011
By Ryan Dombal; November 9, 2011

“If you give a pop star a shit pile of dough and he refuses to self-destruct, I think it is a bit wet,” said a smoking, slicked-back, black-sunglasses-clad Bono in a 1993 interview on the UK music show “Naked City”. “I think it’s part of the deal. If they don’t die on a cross by 33, I’d ask for your money back …

… Achtung Baby is rightly known as one of rock’s greatest reinventions because it was so complete. Sure, U2 changed their sound from chiming melodics to lurching, distorted rhythm. But they also changed their attitude, their demeanor, their look, their ideas on how to deal with celebrity. All of a sudden, they were funny, sexy, a bit dangerous– three things few would’ve associated with U2 in the 80s. And yet, at their core, the band’s values remained constant. They were still ethically minded and interested in the real-life connection between living beings. But the way they went about projecting those core tenets flipped. In TV-news parlance, their attitude switched from “60 Minutes” to “The Colbert Report”.