Someday I’ll write my full U2 story, as some of you have done so beautifully – but for right now, I’ll just write the part that involves Achtung Baby. Not just because it’s the 25th anniversary of this incredible album, but also because it’s the most important part of my U2 story. It’s the part where I became a real U2 fan.
As it says in my little bio at the bottom, Achtung Baby was released on my 15th birthday (okay, technically it was the day before). Before that, I used to tell kids I shared a birthday with Mickey Mouse (also true). I thought that was pretty damn impressive…yes, I was one of those kids…sigh. Let’s move on!
As 1991 came to a close, I had no idea I was about to be one of those kids who needed a fast fire escape from glam rock to preserve what little social currency I had accumulated. Very soon, it would become a major breach of coolness to say you were a fan of Motley Crue or Poison (how did Bon Jovi manage to escape this? They stripped down to bare bones and bluesy for the next several years; I’m sure there’s a life lesson in there somewhere). Guns ‘n Roses was still perfectly acceptable (thank goodness), but I didn’t want to take any chances just in case they were about to meet the same fate. So I needed something to replace those bands, and while I liked and admired Nirvana and Pearl Jam, I’ve never been about gravitating toward something just because it was the trend. (After all, wasn’t that the point of “alternative” rock – to be alternative?) When grunge became the mainstream overnight, I just saw it as an oxymoron.
So, enter Achtung Baby. You know how some of you say “U2 saved me?” I don’t typically say things like that because it contradicts my faith. But I will say that U2, thanks to Achtung Baby, saved my teenage social life as much as any one band could. Was U2 all new to me then? Definitely not – were they new to anyone in the early 90s? Okay, true story, they were new to Chris Martin then; he has admitted as such. I know, I know…
So U2 was already a band whose music I admired; I just wasn’t in love with them yet. Sure, I knew The Joshua Tree; I knew the first four songs by heart, like any radio-loving kid of the 80s who lived around adults with extensive record collections. I knew The Unforgettable Fire…I knew Pride was about Martin Luther King, and I knew War because MTV kept that snowy New Year’s Day video in medium rotation for about 10 years. I knew about Boy (in other words, I knew I Will Follow), and I knew about October (AKA I had seen the Gloria video enough times to know they started out as working-class kids from Ireland). In other words, I knew U2 the way your non-U2 friends still know U2.
But in late October 1991, as a friend and I were hanging upside down on my mom’s couch pretending to be bats (I was still that kid), Martha Quinn explained that we were about to see a world premier video from “the new U2.” She reminded us that we hadn’t seen them since they toured around the world to support The Joshua Tree and released the movie Rattle and Hum. Then she said their new album was recorded in Berlin, and we should expect this to influence their new sound, which we’d get to hear more of when the album released in a few weeks. Now if anyone out there has a VHS of this and I’m a little off, feel free to let me know; I’m just going off of 25-year-old memories here. This is how I recall it. And then the video started, and there was someone who looked vaguely like the Bono I recognized as the singer of U2 running into Berlin traffic, wearing some bug-eye sunglasses and smoking a clove. The other three looked edgier than before, too – boy, did they ever – beanie notwithstanding. There were words flashing on the screen, warning us that everything we knew was wrong. Martha was right; this was the new U2.
So I was sold. I wanted that new album in my hot little hands ASAP. I got it just in time; we still had a few months to go before a slow-to-catch-on song about smelling like teen spirit would turn music upside down – and kids like me, who were clinging to the glam rock we grew up with, would not just love U2…we would need them. Because Achtung Baby was the perfect alternative – the glam was all there in the sexiness of their new look, but the industrial undertones Edge was injecting into the sound made it all perfectly acceptable in the age of grunge. For me, it worked. And not just in the first single The Fly or the tone-setting first track Zoo Station, but in the entire album.
Achtung Baby gave us biblical narratives like the U2 the world knew before, but now they were doing it with belly dancers. It gave us love songs, but they were high-minded love songs that were more uplifting than anything grunge had to offer and smarter than anything glam had given us before. When Bono channeled The Fly character and called himself a rock star for the first time, you knew he was equal parts ironic and sincere. God bless the memory of Kurt Cobain and no offense to Eddie Vedder, but through that character, Bono showed that he understood something they didn’t at the time: That it was okay to say “I never asked for this” without advertising the chip on your shoulder. As he would say later in “From the Sky Down,” Bono took Lou Reed’s glasses, Jim Morrison’s pants, Elvis’ jacket and a little bit of his hair cut to make an Ident-I-Kit Rock Star. He embraced it – and if he hadn’t, what would have become of U2?
Thanks to Achtung Baby, we never have to find out.
Photo credit: Beth Nabi (Beth and Bono/U2 Tattoo Project)