This month marks the 20th anniversary of one of the last great culturally and musically dominant albums of the rock era — Achtung Baby by U2. The album introduced a wild new industrial wall of sound, rhythm, and psychedelic swirl to the world. It sat on top of the charts for months, won the Grammy for album of the year, and regularly appears on critics’ lists of the best albums of all time. It may be my generation’s Sgt. Pepper.
Not long after Achtung Baby dominated the airwaves, the radio and music industry changed forever. Market micro-segmentation and the diminished relevance of terrestrial radio meant that no single album would again capture the rock nation as did Achtung Baby, and Nirvana’s Nevermind did earlier that fall. Sure, musical acts still explode to riches and some fame, but culturally unifying musical dominance doesn’t occur the way it once did.
There are no more Michael Jacksons or The Beatles, or groups like U2. These days, it is difficult to name any single contemporary song that the vast majority of Americans are familiar with as they were with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” in 1984 or U2’s “One” from Achtung Baby. Like our politics, our music has frayed apart.
“Well it’s too late, tonight
To drag the past out into the light
We’re one, but we’re not the same”
— “One,” Achtung Baby
The first time I heard “The Fly,” Achtung Baby’s first single, in November 1991, it was sonically radical. It was an unfamiliar but delightful experience, similar to what the first listen to “Love Me Do” by the Beatles in 1963 must have been. U2’s new radical sound was intentional. Faced with creative stagnation after Rattle and Hum in 1988, U2 sought to reinvent themselves. To record Achtung Baby they traveled to Berlin, a city that was undergoing its own reinvention in the fall of 1990.
Aided by Brian Eno, the aural master of little known but spectacular works like Here Come the Warm Jets, U2 set up in Berlin’s Hansa Studios. Eno and Bono sought to push the album toward an industrial, rhythmic, and distinctive continental European sound. Others in the band resisted the radical new direction, but eventually they hit upon genius. The post-punk guitar explosions, a giant dancehall bass, and drums thrust to the forefront created something never done before, and never done since.
“Time is a train — makes the future the past
Leaves you standing in the station
Your face pressed up against the glass”
— “Zoo Station,” Achtung Baby.
For lovers of deep tracks, the album even produced a fantastic array of B-side special releases including “Lady with the Spinning Head.” (Find it! It’s on the newly released two-disc deluxe version of Achtung Baby.) In all, five of the 12 songs hit the charts in the United States and the Zoo TV tour filled football stadiums around the world.