Twenty years ago, U2 — slightly removed from the double-barrel success of The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum — were a band in crisis. Sure, they were arguably the biggest rock act on the planet, but, for the first time in their career, they had felt the sting of critical backlash: Many felt Hum's accompanying documentary, which followed the band across America, was grandiose and self-righteous (even its director would later call it "pretentious"), and the group couldn't help but wonder if perhaps the critics were right.
Had U2 become too big? Had their fascination with all things American (the songs of Johnny Cash, B.B. King and Bob Dylan, the spiritualism of gospel choirs, the sanctity of Sun Studios and Graceland) led them too far from their roots? Were Bono's sociopolitical viewpoints detracting from the power of the band? And, really, after a decade spent trying to conquer the world — and succeeding — what did U2 really have left to accomplish?
They took all those questions (and more) to Berlin, where they hoped to be inspired by the German Reunification and the ghosts of David Bowie and Iggy Pop, both of whom had rediscovered and reinvented themselves there. But, as you'd probably expect, things didn't go according to plan. The sessions bore little fruit as U2 struggled to redefine the group and clear divisions began to develop among bandmembers that had always considered themselves friends first. There was talk of quitting altogether; that rather than continue to fracture, perhaps it was time to call it a day.
Thankfully, they didn't. In a way, those Berlin sessions not only made U2 stronger, but they made them realize that things had to change. Gone were the grandiose gestures and bombastic ballads, replaced instead with an entirely new sound: one that embraced the burgeoning club scene of Europe, the streaked sonics of alt-rock, the artful artifice of Bowie and the adventurous explorations of producer Brian Eno. U2 had redefined what it meant to be a rock band in the 1990s, and they did it all with one marvelous album, Achtung Baby, which marks its 20th anniversary on Saturday.
So in celebration of the album that not only forged new territory, but launched the second phase of U2's epic career, MTV News spoke to the man who was there to witness it all, author and critic Bill Flanagan. He wrote what is arguably the definitive book on the band's Achtung era, "U2: At the End of the World," a sprawling, dense thing that followed them from the recording studio to the stage, on their massive, hugely influential Zoo TV Tour, and beyond. And today, he's looking back on the album that changed everything. Starting, of course, at the beginning.
"Rattle and Hum was a hugely successful album, spun off a bunch of hit singles," Flanagan said. "You couldn't have asked for more from it, commercially, but there was a critical backlash, which probably had as much to do with the movie as anything. Critics were saying, 'Wait a minute, when did these guys become the prophets of rock and roll, telling Americans about Johnny Cash and B.B. King and Bob Dylan?' And any other band in that circumstance ... would go, 'Who cares about the critics, what do they know?' But one of the things that's unusual about U2 is that they sort of took the criticism to heart, and thought, 'Actually, they may have a point.'
"When they saw how [the film] looked, they felt it was a dead end. ... And they didn't want to be trapped; they didn't want be stuck wearing cowboy hats and waving a white flag up and down the stage forever," he continued. "It was a huge risk because, look, when you'd become as big as they had become after The Joshua Tree, everybody tells you 'Don't mess with it.' Nobody says, 'What a good idea, you're going to change your sound, change the way you look.' "
Still, undaunted, U2 headed to Berlin's Hansa Studios, the same place Bowie had recorded Low and Heroes, and where Iggy made The Idiot. And it was there where they split into two distinct camps: those who wanted to try something new, and those who argued there was no point in messing with success.
"There was this great argument about what it meant to reinvent themselves. Bono and Edge were very dedicated to the theory that they had to do something that was dramatically different, and [drummer] Larry [Mullen] and [bassist] Adam [Clayton] weren't totally buying it," Flanagan said. "It became really tense. They didn't feel like they were getting the work done, they just felt like they weren't coming up with good stuff, and they talked about maybe throwing in the towel; that maybe they should go out on top and not become one of those bands that just becomes a worse and worse version of itself."
There were also external pressures, namely from the band's significant others, who, having watched them win over the world, wanted nothing more than them to come home.
"There was a lot on the line with the band, and there was a lot on the line with their families. They'd put a lot of things on hold with their families while they were trying to conquer the world in the '80s," Flanagan said. "They were wealthy, so there was a real question from the wives of, like, 'Well, OK, now you've done what you wanted to do, and now you're going to stay home.' So that was part of the pressure that was on them, like, 'What's the reason?' When you started doing something when you were 15 or 16, and now you're 30 ... you're starting to have kids ... things change."
Of course, we all know how things turned out. After additional sessions in Dublin, U2 had gone through the fire and emerged with Achtung Baby, a delightfully odd thing that was a very big risk, to say the very least. ("People were taken aback by it," Flanagan said. "They thought they had lost their minds.") But for all the sonic adventurousness of tracks like "Zoo Station" or "The Fly," there was a definite heart to the lyrics ... one that was very much inspired by Bono's own domestic dilemmas.
"The lyrics were actually, for the most part, actually quite confessional, even if they were disguised. It's about relationships, marriage, the lure of freedom versus the responsibilities of domesticity," Flanagan explained. "And that's what gives the album its emotional weight. ... And the sound of the album, the beats, the rhythmic improvisations they did and the sonics, which I think, really, is where Edge and Eno and Lilywhite and Flood, the engineer, really got to have some fun. People didn't know what to make of the album."
And looking back 20 years later, Flanagan said that all the head-scratching surrounding Achtung Baby probably wasn't justified. Sure, it's a sonically amorphous listen and, thematically, it deals with weighty topics like sexuality and spirituality. Of course, it's a gaudy thing and, yes, it saw Bono playing characters like the Fly and MacPhisto. But at its core, it's also an album unlike any other; the kind huge bands don't have the balls to make these days. And because of all that, it's unquestionably real, and that authenticity makes it an all-time classic.
"The really great albums, like Revolver by the Beatles or Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan, just create their own sonic world ... and Achtung Baby does that," Flanagan said. "It doesn't sound like it's part of the Manchester thing, it doesn't sound like it's part of the Grunge thing, it doesn't sound like it's part of what Public Enemy and N.W.A were doing. It just sounds like it's Achtung Baby.
"And that's kind of the most important thing a record can do. That's why people still like Led Zeppelin and that's why people still like Pink Floyd; there's not really other stuff that does it. If you're in the mood for a Led Zeppelin record, you've got to put on a Led Zeppelin record. And I think if you are in the mood for Achtung Baby, there's no other album you can go to, that have that combination of vulnerability in the lyric and authority in the music and just tremendous fun in the production."
Share your favorite cuts from Achtung Baby in the comments below!