Achtung Baby is the seventh studio album by rock band U2. Produced by Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, it was released on 19 November 1991 on Island Records. Stung by the criticism of their previous album, Rattle and Hum (1988), U2 shifted their musical direction and incorporated alternative rock, industrial, and electronic dance music influences into their sound.
Thematically, the album was darker, more introspective, and at times more flippant than the band’s previous work. The album and the subsequent multimedia-intensive Zoo TV Tour were central to the group’s 1990s reinvention, as U2 replaced their earnest public image with a more lighthearted and self-deprecating one.
Seeking inspiration on the eve of German reunification, U2 began recording Achtung Baby in Berlin’s Hansa Studios in October 1990.
Conflict arose over their musical direction and the quality of their material. After weeks of tension, arguments, and slow progress, the group made a breakthrough with the improvised writing of the song “One”. They returned to Dublin in 1991, where the majority of recordings were completed. The album title and colourful multi-image sleeve were chosen to confound expectations of the album and the group.
Achtung Baby is one of U2’s most successful albums. It earned favourable reviews and produced the hit singles “One”, “Mysterious Ways”, and “The Fly”. The album has sold 18 million copies worldwide and won a Grammy Award in 1993 for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. One of the most acclaimed albums of the 1990s, Achtung Baby is regularly featured on rankings of the greatest albums of all-time.
To produce the album, U2 employed Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, producers of the band’s albums The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree Lanois was principal producer, with Mark “Flood” Ellis as engineer. Eno took on an assisting producer role, working with the group in the studio for a week at a time to review their work before leaving for a month or two. By distancing himself from the work, he believes he provided the band with a fresh perspective on their material each time he rejoined them. As he explained, “I would deliberately not listen to the stuff in between visits, so I could go in cold [… ]”. The “oblique” strategies of the Lanois-Eno team contrasted with Rattle and Hum producer Jimmy Iovine’s direct and retro style.
The band believed that “domesticity [w]as the enemy of rock ‘n’ roll” and that to work on the album, they needed to remove themselves from their normal family-oriented routines. With a “New Europe” emerging at the end of the Cold War, they chose Berlin, in the centre of the reuniting continent, as a source of inspiration for a more European musical aesthetic. They recorded at Hansa Studios in West Berlin, near the recently opened Berlin Wall. Several acclaimed records were made at Hansa, including two from David Bowie and Eno’s “Berlin Trilogy”, and Bowie’s and Iggy Pop’s collaboration, The Idiot. U2 arrived on 3 October 1990 on the last flight into East Berlin on the eve of German reunification. Expecting to be inspired, they instead found Berlin to be “depressing”, “dark and gloomy”. The collapse of the Berlin Wall had resulted in a state of malaise in Germany. The band found their East Berlin hotel “bleak” and the winter “inhospitable”, while the run-down condition of Hansa Studios and its location in a SS ballroom added to the “bad vibe”.
Morale worsened once the sessions commenced, as the band worked long days, but could not agree on a musical direction. The Edge had been listening to electronic dance music and to industrial bands like Einstürzende Neubauten, Nine Inch Nails, the Young Gods, and KMFDM. He and Bono advocated new musical directions along these lines. In contrast, Mullen was listening to classic rock acts such as Blind Faith, Cream, and Jimi Hendrix, and learning how to “play around the beat”.He and Clayton were more comfortable with a sound similar to U2’s previous work and did not understand the proposed new direction. The Edge’s interest in dance club mixes and drum machines made Mullen feel that his contributions as a drummer were being diminished. Lanois was expecting the “textural, emotional, and cinematic”
U2 of the The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree, and he did not understand the “throwaway and trashy things” on which Bono and The Edge were working. Compounding the divisions between the two camps was a change in the band’s long-standing songwriting relationship. Bono and The Edge were working more closely together writing material at the exclusion of the rest of the group.
U2 found that they were “under-rehearsed and under-prepared” and that their ideas were not evolving. For the first time, the group could not find consensus during their disagreements and felt that they were not making progress. Bono and Lanois, in particular, had an argument that almost came to blows during the writing of “Mysterious Ways”. Mullen thought it “might be the end” of U2. Eno visited for a few days, and understanding their attempts to “deconstruct” the band, he assured them that their progress was better than they thought. By adding unusual effects and sounds, he showed that The Edge’s desire for new sonic territory was not incompatible with Mullen’s and Lanois’ desire to retain solid song structures. In December, a breakthrough was achieved with the writing of the song, “One”. The Edge combined two guitar chord progressions, and finding inspiration, the group quickly improvised most of the song. It provided much-needed reassurance for the band and re-validated their long-standing “blank page” approach to writing and recording together.
U2 returned to Dublin for Christmas, where they discussed their future together and all recommitted to the group. They briefly returned to Berlin in January 1991 to finish their Hansa work. Although just two songs were delivered during their two months in Berlin, The Edge said that in retrospect, working there had been more productive and inspirational than the output had suggested. The band had been removed from a familiar environment, providing a certain “texture and cinematic location”, and many of their incomplete ideas would be successfully revisited.
Spin Magazine Article
With the middling reaction to last year’s better-than-you’ll-admit No Line on the Horizon, U2’s chest-heaving big-box spectacle seems to be fatiguing more of pop’s body politic than it’s inspiring. Weirdly, this was exactly the case more than 20 years ago.
After the critical and commercial sweep of Joshua Tree, the Irish conglomerate followed its bombastic muse with the ponderous 1988 docu-fiasco Rattle and Hum, which featured a Bono mot that would haunt many of us for years to come: “Okay, Edge, play the blues!” Flailing and directionless, the band retreated and reconsidered whether it was time to fold up their flag for good.
Instead, three years later they emerged with the album — Achtung Baby, cheekily titled as a nod to German reunification — that would energize their career and genetically engineer rock music into the hybridized mutant we know today. Initially recorded at Hansa Studios, a former SS ballroom near the reopened Berlin Wall (and later completed back home in Dublin), Achtung was an effort, stoked primarily by Bono and the Edge, to “deconstruct” the band and rewire it with jolts of beat-generated clutter and collage, nicked from industrial music, hip-hop, dance remixes, and the Madchester scene. That method almost collapsed the band — bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr., as well as coproducer Daniel Lanois, were left bewildered and cranky.
But the frisson found expression in U2’s most immediately dynamic music since 1982’s War, and its most emotionally frank songs to date, capturing that particular early-’90s rub of boundless possibility and worn-down despair. Bono’s lyrical flights had a battered grit, like a defrocked cleric stirred to regain his flock without the usual trick bag of bullshit. “One” became an indelible anthem because it admitted “we’re not the same” but urged that we’ve gotta “carry each other” nonetheless. The squalling swagger of “The Fly” resonated due to the rock star at its center confessing he’s a liar and a thief. And for “Mysterious Ways,” the Edge somehow concocted a jubilantly snarling riff that transformed Bono’s gospel come-on so it didn’t feel gross the morning after.
Unlike Radiohead with OK Computer and Kid A, U2 took their post-industrial, trad-rock disillusionment not as a symbol of overall cultural malaise, but as a challenge to buck up and transcend. Their confessions of frailty and blindness amid murky atmospherics (no doubt egged on by coproducer Brian Eno) had an air of cleansing rather than whining. That the album trails off introspectively is brave in its own quiet way.
Though they continued to bumble through periods of bloat and self-delusion and irrelevance, U2 became the emblematic band of the alternative-rock era with Achtung Baby. Struggling to simultaneously embrace and blow up the world, they were never more inspirational. — Charles Aaron
Achtung Baby has sold 18 million copies, including eight million copies in the US. It is the group’s second-highest selling album after The Joshua Tree, which has sold 25 million copies. The success of Achtung Baby prefigured the group’s continued musical experimentation during the 1990s. Zooropa, released in 1993, was a further departure for the band, incorporating additional dance music influences and electronic effects into their sound.
In 1995, U2 and Brian Eno collaborated on the experimental/ambient album Original Soundtracks 1 under the pseudonym “Passengers”. For Pop in 1997, the group’s experiences with dance club culture and their usage of tape loops, programming, rhythm sequencing, and sampling resulted in their most dance-oriented album.