The Achtung Baby album cover was a significant change for U2 in several ways. The band’s previous three albums all featured mostly two-tone color schemes — black and gold (The Joshua Tree and Rattle And Hum) or maroon and gold (The Unforgettable Fire). And every U2 album from the 1980s featured a single image on the cover.
Achtung Baby featured not one, but a collage of 16 colorful images — each of which, Bono said at the time, was strong enough to be an album cover in its own right. Why the collage? U2’s longtime design guru Steve Averill, answered that question in the book Stealing Hearts At A Traveling Show:
“We all began to realise that no single image is ever going to express the large change that [U2] made in the music and their approach to recording it.”
In the same book, Bono describes the Achtung Baby cover as “breathtaking” and says it’s “my favorite U2 album sleeve.”
Album Sleeve Controversy
But it wasn’t the main album cover that caused controversy. The back cover of the CD booklet (and also the back of the vinyl album) featured another grid of 16 photos, one of which was a nude photo of Adam Clayton. The photo, like many others, was color-treated in harsh red and blue tones, but there was no hiding Adam’s manhood.
In a 1991 issue of the official U2 fan club magazine, Propaganda (Issue 15), Averill explained that the decision to shoot and include the nude photo had to do with one of the album’s early working titles, which was Adam:
“The idea was that of the very basic progression from the first album of the Boy to Man, making a very simple straightforward statement, a person standing in a very unglamorous way. It wasn’t intended to have any particular sexuality about it, just a statement of where the band are in the most open and ‘naked’ way possible.”
But whatever the band’s intention, some music retailers in North American and other territories threatened to not sell the album because of the full-frontal nudity. Island Records reacted quickly, reprinting the CD and cassette artwork with either a black X or a green shamrock covering Adam’s nudity.
The relatively small number of vinyl copies that were printed remained untouched, making them — and the CD/cassette versions that featured the original photo — instant collectors’ items.
The idea to shoot a photo of Adam naked, you may not be surprised to learn, was Bono’s. In U2 By U2, Adam explained why the idea appealed to him:
“I felt that, in a permissive society, if one could view a naked female and not suffer any kind of inhibition, then one should be able to look at a male body in exactly the same way. I knew there might be repercussions but this was a one-shot opportunity for me. This was the right record for such an expression.”