Although Achtung Baby was released on November 18/19, 1991, you might say it was actually born — at least the idea — nearly two years earlier. U2 was wrapping up 1989 with a series of shows at the Point Depot in Dublin and the end of the decade had Bono in a reflective mood.
Near the end of the December 30, 1989 show, as the band was beginning “Love Rescue Me,” he gave a short speech:
“This … I was explaining to people the other night, but I might’ve got it a bit wrong. This is just the end of something for U2. And that’s what we’re playing these concerts, and we’re throwing a party for ourselves and you. It’s no big deal, it’s just we have to go away and … just dream it all up again.”
Although the press (and many fans) wondered if Bono was hinting that U2 would be calling it quits soon, he was actually setting the stage for a dramatic reinvention that would begin over the next two years and manifest itself with the release of Achtung Baby and the subsequent Zoo TV tour.
Despite the massive worldwide success of The Joshua Tree and its followup, Rattle And Hum — or perhaps because of it — U2 was exhausted and stressed and looking for something new as the calendar turned from the ’80s to the ’90s. The Rattle And Hum album and film (mostly the latter) gave the band its first real taste of critical backlash. Being U2 had stopped being fun, as Larry explained to Bill Flanagan in his book, U2 At The End Of The World.
“It had become very serious, very hard work. And just no fun. It was nothing to do with the music. It was to do with getting up and going to work…. On the stage it was good but it was very intense and was very hard work. You were grimacing because you were stressed. I remember coming off that tour [Lovetown] and feeling, ‘If this is what it is I really don’t want to do it any more. I can’t do this any more.'”
The Sounds Of Things To Come
Shortly after the Lovetown tour ended in early 1990, Bono and Edge worked on the score for a London theater production called A Clockwork Orange: 2004. The music, inspired by industrial bands like KMFDM and Einsturzende Neubaten, was far more avant-garde than U2’s traditional sound. But, given the venue and the poor reviews of the production, almost no one heard it. One of the songs from ACO: 2004, “Alex Descends Into Hell For A Bottle Of Milk / Korova 1,” later appeared as a b-side on “The Fly” single. (It also appeared a few years later on the Johnny Mnemonic soundtrack, thus the mention of that film on the video below.)
While that song (and the entire musical production) flew under the radar, the public finally heard a glimpse of a new U2 sound later in 1990 when the band did a charity cover of Cole Porter’s “Night And Day.” Though no one knew it at the time, it and the Clockwork Orange score offered a hint of the sound of things to come.
In the summer of 1990, U2 gathered at STS Studio in Dublin and recorded some very rough demos. Bono and Edge were responsible to continue working on the new material before the band met later in the year for more formal recording sessions. In U2’s own Propaganda magazine, Bono mentioned a couple early song titles from the summer sessions: “Ultraviolet” and “Sick Puppy.” (The latter was an early version of “Mysterious Ways.”)
On To Berlin
In early October 1990, U2 flew to Berlin to formally start working on what would become Achtung Baby, arriving just as the city was celebrating its Liberation Day. The band gathered at the famous Hansa Ton studios in Berlin, where David Bowie had recorded his Low and Heroes albums. But U2’s early recording work was a struggle, with no consensus over what direction the band should take after Bono’s promise to “dream it all up again.” Larry described it as a period of “immense strain.” In a later Rolling Stone article, Edge described the divisions this way:
“Berlin was difficult. I had quite a strong feel where I thought it should go. Bono was with me. Adam and Larry were a little unsure. It took time for them to see how they fit into this. I also think Danny [producer Daniel Lanois] didn’t fully understand where we were headed, because we were working on more of the throwaway, trashy kinds of things.”
At one point, the band later recalled, Bono was particularly critical of Adam’s playing, prompting Adam to take off his bass and hold it out for Bono, saying, “You tell me what to play and I’ll play it. You want to play it yourself? Go ahead.”
And Then There Was “One”
The breakthrough moment came while the band was fighting its way through “Sick Puppy.” Edge played two new bridges in the song that caught everyone’s attention. Everyone stopped and Danny Lanois asked Edge to play just the bridges back-to-back on an acoustic guitar. The band gathered in the main recording room to try to capture this spark of an idea. As Edge explained in the 2011 documentary, From The Sky Down:
“It was one of those hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck moments. It was such a pivotal moment. We’d been going through this hard time and nothing seemed to be going right. And suddenly, we were presented with this gift. It just kind of arrived.”
As the band jammed on this new song, Bono called out chord changes and made up lyrics on the fly. He sang about what U2 had been going through in the studio — discord and disunity.
The band knew they’d made a breakthrough. An early version of what would become “One” was recorded the next morning, finally giving the band a sense of musical progress and, more importantly, a sense of personal relief. After about two months of work in Berlin, the band agreed that they’d break soon for the holidays and continue recording in the new year. But first, U2 gathered in Dublin over Christmas to talk through what happened in Berlin and make sure each person wanted to continue as a band. All agreed that they did.
After another brief visit to Berlin and photo shoots in Tenerife, U2 continued recording Achtung Baby in Ireland in February, 1991. They used two locations: Elsinore House in Dalkey, a five-bedroom manor with a pair of large, empty kennels outside (prompting them to call the place “Dogtown”) and Edge’s home studio. After several months in those two locations, U2 returned to the familiar environs of Windmill Lane for the final push to get the album finished. But throughout the year, U2 faced more difficulties — this time, outside the recording studio.
In April 1991, the band learned that bootleggers had obtained high-quality digital audio tapes from U2’s recording sessions in Berlin and started sharing (and selling) copies around the world. Multiple versions of the bootleg were released over the next year, culminating with almost 3.5 hours of unreleased material that was pressed onto a 5-LP vinyl set called The New U2: Rehearsals and Full Versions. (In 1992, bootleggers pressed the same material into a 3-CD set named Salome: The [Axtung Beibi] Outtakes. That was later followed by a 7-CD, 7-hour+ set called The Hansa Ton Sessions.) When the mainstream press picked up the story, Bono called the recordings “gobbledygook” and said he didn’t “know why anyone would be interested in them.”
Island Records eventually threatened lawsuits against any music stores that were caught selling the bootlegs. Law enforcement caught a couple shops in London and Germany doing so, and those shops received fines.
It was never clear where or how the tapes got into the wrong hands; some stories suggested they were stolen from the band’s Berlin hotel, while observers in Dublin said they saw band members leaving tapes in their unlocked cars.
A “Grim Period” For The Edge
While all this was going on, Edge and his wife, Aislinn, were struggling to keep their marriage intact. The couple separated around Easter of 1991. Edge moved in briefly with Adam before finding his own place. As Edge later explained in U2 By U2, his personal struggles had a definite impact on the work U2 was doing in the studio.
“It was a grim period for me, finally looking failure in the face and seeing this was something that could not be redeemed. We tried. We went to counseling. I think it had gone too far. So making the record was a welcome distraction but inevitably it started to reflect what was going on in my life, partly because my own creative instincts were overwhelmed by it, but I think it also infused Bono’s contribution.”
Edge’s marital troubles can be heard throughout the album, perhaps most notably in the lyrics of songs like “So Cruel” and “Love Is Blindness.”
The Finish Line
U2 worked on Achtung Baby right up until the last moment (as they do with nearly all U2 albums). Island Records founder Chris Blackwell arrived in Dublin on September 21, 1991, expecting to attend a celebration of the album’s completion, but instead watched the band work into the early morning, completing the final mixes of several songs and choosing a running order for the album.
After a group breakfast the next day, Edge hopped on a plane and took the band’s tapes to Los Angeles for final mastering. The sense of relief was palpable. As manager Paul McGuinness later recalled, “There were black days when I thought it would never be finished.”
U2 stayed out of the public eye as much as possible while recording Achtung Baby. Even as the album was close to being released, they declined many of the normal press and media requests that would accompany a new album. Instead of a U2 interview with Rolling Stone, producer Brian Eno wrote an essay about the recording sessions. With this couplet, Eno perfectly described the spirit that gave birth to Achtung Baby:
“Buzzwords on this record were trashy, throwaway, dark, sexy and industrial (all good) and earnest, polite, sweet, righteous, rockist and linear (all bad). It was good if a song took you on a journey or made you think your hi-fi was broken, bad if it reminded you of recording studios or U2.”
Baby Is Born
U2 released Achtung Baby worldwide on November 18/19, 1991. The album artwork drew immediate controversy because U2 included a nude photo of Adam on the inner sleeve. When many retail outlets in North America threatened to not sell the album, Island Records acted quickly to add a black “x” or green shamrock over the photo on the CD and cassette versions.
The album was a huge success. It debuted at No. 1 in the U.S. and stayed in the top 20 of Billboard‘s albums chart for almost 30 weeks. In the UK, Achtung Baby debuted at No. 2 (behind Michael Jackson’s Dangerous) and was instantly certified Platinum with sales of more 300,000 copies.
Critical reaction was equally strong. In the Los Angeles Times, Robert Hilburn admitted that it was “a difficult album” but gave it a 4-star rating and called U2’s decision to abandon its 1980s’ flag-waving ways “a daring move.” In TIME magazine, Jay Cocks said, “There’s a lot indeed to be cheered on Achtung Baby. And celebrated. It’s a monster.” And in Hot Press magazine, Niall Stokes wrote, “Achtung Baby plunges into the rich complexity of adult experience, the spiritual, the cerebral and the sensual all clashing in a cauldron of ambition, insecurity and desire. Ostensibly decadent, sensual and dark, it is a record of, and for, these times.” (See more Achtung Baby reviews.)
Important Dates In Achtung Baby History
December 30, 1989: Bono delivers the “dream it all up again” speech at a concert in Dublin.
February 6, 1990: A Clockwork Orange 2004, with a musical score by Bono and The Edge, premieres in London.
June, 1990: U2 records its cover of Cole Porter’s “Night And Day” in Edge’s basement.
Summer, 1990: U2 begins preliminary work on Achtung Baby at STS Studio in Dublin.
October 3, 1990: U2 arrives in Berlin to begin formal recording sessions. First up, though, is a music video shoot for “Night And Day” at the home of film director Wim Wenders. While recording over the next couple months, U2 also does several photo and video shoots with Anton Corbijn.
January, 1991: After a holiday break, U2 returns to Berlin to wrap up its recording work there.
February 9, 1991: U2 arrives on the island of Tenerife to enjoy the annual carnival there, and also for two weeks of photo and video shoots. They don’t feel the photo and video work that Anton Corbijn shot in the cold, dreary Berlin winter is the image they want to portray.
March (circa), 1991: U2 continues recording work at Elsinore House (aka, Dogtown) in Dalkey, Ireland. Around the end of the month, Edge and his wife, Aislinn, separate.
April, 1991: U2 learns of the bootlegs that are circulating from its Berlin recording sessions.
June, 1991: U2 does more photo shoots with Anton Corbijn in Dublin. The famous nude shot of Adam is taken at this time.
July, 1991: U2 does another photo shoot with Anton Corbijn, this time in Morocco.
September 13, 1991: Working with directors Jon Klein and Richie Smyth, U2 shoots parts of a music video in Dublin for its first single from Achtung Baby, “The Fly.” They’ll finish the video shoot a few weeks later in London.
September 21, 1991: U2 works all night and into the next morning to finish recording Achtung Baby. The next day, Edge flies the tapes to Los Angeles for mastering.
October, 1991: In addition to finishing “The Fly” video around this time, U2 also returns to Fez, Morocco, to shoot a music video for “Mysterious Ways,” the second single from Achtung Baby.
October 9, 1991: “The Fly” is released to North American radio stations. It debuts at number three on the Radio and Records AOR chart, and climbs to number one two weeks later.
October 21/22, 1991: “The Fly” is released commercially. U2 announces that the single will only be available for three weeks, which critics call a trick that will guarantee strong sales. It works, at least in the UK. The song debuts at No. 1, ending a 16-week run by Bryan Adams’ “Everything I Do.” In the U.S., “The Fly” peaks at No. 61 on the Billboard singles chart.
November, 1991: U2 works with director Richie Smyth again, this time shooting a music video in Dublin for “Until The End Of The World.”
November 6, 1991: U2 releases “Mysterious Ways” to radio stations. It climbs to No. 1 on the Radio and Records AOR chart and stays there for seven weeks.
November 18/19, 1991: Achtung Baby is released worldwide.
November 24/25, 1991: “Mysterious Ways” is released commercially. It reaches No. 9 on the Billboard singles chart and No. 13 in the UK.
January 21, 1992: Achtung Baby is certified Multi-Platinum, with U.S. sales of more than two million in barely two months.
February, 1992: U2 goes back to Berlin to shoot a music video for “One” with director Anton Corbijn.
February 13, 1992: U2 works with director Kevin Godley in London on a music video for “Even Better Than The Real Thing.” The shoot lasts a few days.
February 27, 1992: The BBC’s Top Of The Pops program airs a live performance of “One” that U2 recorded a day earlier during tour rehearsals in Lakeland, Florida.
February 29, 1992: The Zoo TV tour begins at Lakeland Arena.
March, 1992: U2 releases “One” as the third single from Achtung Baby. It reaches No. 7 in the UK and No. 10 in the U.S.
March 11, 1992: With MTV not supporting either the Anton Corbijn or a second Mark Pellington version of “One,” U2 shoots a third video early this morning in New York City with Phil Joanou directing.
June 7/8, 1992: “Even Better Than The Real Thing” is released as the fourth single from Achtung Baby. It reaches No. 12 in the UK and No. 32 in the U.S. A remix version is released separately and does even better, climbing to No. 8 in the UK.
August, 1992: “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” is released as the fifth single from Achtung Baby.
September 9, 1992: “Even Better Than The Real Thing” wins Best Group Video at the MTV Music Awards.
September 16, 1992: Achtung Baby is certified Multi-Platinum, with U.S. sales of more than four million. Around this time, U2 shoots a music video in Chicago for “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” with Phil Joanou directing.
December 9, 1992: U2 captures five awards at the Billboard Music Awards, including Number One Album Rock Track for “Mysterious Ways,” Number One Modern Rock Track for “One,” Number One Album Rock Artist, Number One Modern Rock Artist, and Number One Concert Tour.
February 24, 1993: Achtung Baby wins Best Rock Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group at the Grammy Awards, but fails to win Album of the Year. That honor goes to Eric Clapton’s album, Unplugged.
March 4, 1993: U2 takes numerous top honors in the annual Rolling Stone magazine readers poll. Achtung Baby is named Best Album and Best Album Cover, while “One” is picked as Best Single.
More About Achtung Baby‘s History
In 2012, producer Daniel Lanois spoke with CBC-TV about the making of Achtung Baby.