On Thursday of this past week, U2 began a 4-show stand in Berlin, Germany, which is, of course, well known as the city where parts of Achtung Baby were recorded. In celebration of that connection, U2 performed their song “Zoo Station”, Achtung Baby’s opening track, for the first time in nearly nine years. Of course, “Zoo Station” has an even closer affiliation to the city than that the album it’s from was recorded there – the song is named after one of Berlin’s railway stations, which would go on in later years to also influence the name of an important U2 tour (Zoo TV) and another U2 album (Zooropa).
I like to think that, even more than “The Fly”, which was Achtung Baby’s first single, “Zoo Station” kind of sets the tone for what was the big reinvention that U2 was undergoing with the album in question. “Zoo Station” sets up that reinvention as an almost inevitable part of the band’s maturation process. The band was tapping into the zeitgeist, the spirit of the moment, and Achtung Baby was where that muse led them. “I’m ready for what’s next”, Bono sings in “Zoo Station”, signalling his willingness to be swept up in that current and taken to wherever it happened to go. That’s why the titular train station was the perfect metaphor for this stage in the band’s growth – it represented the band’s desire to relocate, to move out of their comfort zone and to get to someplace new and exciting. I’ve always admired the band for that sense of adventure, and never has it been exemplified more clearly than with the trio (or quartet, if you count the Passengers album) of albums that the band released in the ’90’s. “Time is a train” the last verse’s last lyrics proclaim, “makes the future the past. Leaves you standing at the station, your face pressed up against the glass.” Here, Bono is indicating his unwillingness to be left behind. He, and the rest of the band, chose to not be among those standing with their faces pressed up against the glass, watching the future pass them by. And really, the intervening years have shown that Achtung Baby was as much about the future as it was the then-present moment. Try to imagine the path that the band’s career might have taken had they not chosen that pivotal moment to try something new – if they had simply kept plugging along in the Joshua Tree/Rattle and Hum vein, particularly with the personal dissatisfaction the band members claim to have been feeling at the time, it’s not hard to see where they might have called it quits years ago.
With all this in mind, it’s easy to see how “Zoo Station” epitomizes the band’s collective feelings on their state of mind some twenty five years ago as they began work on what would become Achtung Baby, and the way that those feelings are all tied up with the city of Berlin. Heck, it’s not a big leap to foresee that “Zoo Station” might come to represent Berlin in the same way that “One Tree Hill” stands for New Zealand, or “Mothers of the Disappeared” stands for Argentina in the minds of U2 fans. It’ll be interesting to see whether “Zoo Station” is rotated in and out of the setlist at future Innocence + Experience shows or if this was a one-time performance.
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