Propaganda, Issue 15 excerpt

The sleeve of Achtung Baby with its striking kaleidescope of colour and monochrome images marks out the new release as a departure for U2. As usual it is the work of Steve Averill, the band’s long-time designer. But it only arrived after lots of other ideas were considered. Propaganda talked to Steve about the long process of creating a cover which is right for the music inside it and “breaks the mould of previous U2 sleeves.”

Steve Averill has been instrumental in the look of U2’s design since their first release for CBS Records in the late 1970s. In fact, before that the band even ran past him the idea that he might be interested in managing them: “I said no — I think if I had been managing U2 they’d still be playing the Baggott Inn.”

A wise decision because he turned out to be an inspired designer for the band. Apart from the Wide Awake in America EP and the Rattle and Hum album, Steve has designed the sleeves for all of U2’s albums and most of their single releases in the past 12 years, as well as odd books and tour programmes.

The conception and development of the sleeve designs for the Acthung Baby cassette, CD and LP — and the single releases — were as complex and time-consuming as any of the earlier releases. From scores of conversations, numberous ideas, thumbnail sketches and visual roughs, gradually, over a period of many months, the look of the Achtung Baby emerged.

“These cover designs represent different phases,” explains Steve. “The band would see a certain kind of work and say, ‘Right, that’s fine, that’s a direction we’ve covered, we know we can go, for example, the multiple-image way, but let’s just explore totally different ways for U2.’ Hence some of these cover ideas which look much more like dance-music oriented sleeves. We just did them to show how extreme we could go and then everyone came back to levels that they were happy with. But if we hadn’t gone to these extremes it may not have the been the cover it is now.”

Discussions with the members of U2 about design attitudes for the new record began as early as last winter, with Steve visiting them in rehearsals to discuss general directions. What locations would they be traveling to for the photo shoots, what kind of images were they leaning towards, would the new release mark progression or departure from previous sleeves? He recalls that from the beginning some ideas were clear.

“We all felt one thing in particular, that this is the beginning of a new phase in the band’s music and we should really reflect that in the sleeve design. From the very start there was a feeling amongst us all that if the new sleeve was a logical progression from the other sleeves — so that people could predict what the next U2 sleeve would be like — that it would be a failure. It would have to be quite different from what we’ve done before.

“Another clear feeling early on was that colour would be important, that stark black and white images ala Joshua Tree wouldn’t work this time.

“Initially Anton was concerned that he would not be able to control the colour in his photography, but he became more and more confident about the process he uses and as this coincided with what the band were doing, musically it became clear that it was going to be a real colour sleeve.”

But apart from these basic feelings, it was wide open. As Steve puts it, “It remained very loose because the band don’t really define what the album is really about until much further into the recording of the thing.”

In the summer he traveled with them and Anton Corbijn to Morocco, having already seen the material shot in Berlin and in Santa Cruz. By now ideas were tightening up.

“It was becoming clear that there would be a lot of colour and vibrancy in the photographs, and also a lot of movement,” explains Shaughn McGrath, Steve’s colleague, who played a key role in the designs. “There are less still-shots than ever before.”

They were looking for a balance between the colder European feel of the mainly black and white Berlin images and the much warmer exotic climates of Santa Cruz and Morocco. “We wanted people to see and feel what the guys have been doing for the last three years,” says Steve. “That a lot has been happening and there are a lot of changes, including plenty of fun. The photos are not all serious and po-faced, which some people tend to associate them with.”

One interesting innovation is Shaughn’s hand-drawn typefaces, used to create a “very loose, very energetic feeling, more kind of rock and roll and of the moment.”

By August there was a clutch of working titles for the album, such as Zoo StationAchtung Baby69 and Adam.

“As designers we tried to find images that were not innocuous,” explains Steve. “We’ve used images like the snake or Bono or the belly dancer that had some impact, not just bland pictures. By putting in some kind of symbolism, people may actually think about why they’re there.”

Adam as a working title had its own story, linked to lots of press speculation at the release of the album linking to the striking photo of the unclothed bass player. Steve expands: “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.”

Some observers have bypassed the symbolism of the shot in favour of some cheap headlines: “It was a statement from their point of view, it was never intended as a controversy.”

Its use on the sleeve does add another striking image to the generous plethora of apparently unconnected shots chosen. Some of the shots are merely used because they’re powerful on their own, others are placed in such a way as to conjure up meanings for the viewer. And the cow? “Well, it’s a cow rather than a bull despite it having horns, which is a nice twist. Anton came up with the idea of the symbol of the cow on the front cover — but what he originally intended was quite different from what he actually photographed in the end. It was difficult to find a model cow to do it without going all over the world.”

They settled for an Irish cow, found on a farm in Kildare. For a while it competed with the shot of Adam and a shot of the band in a Trabant for the place as the single main image on the front of the sleeve. Everyone, including Anton, Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, contributed to the discussion, and it became clear that no single image would represent the scope of ideas on the album itself. The idea of a multiple-image won the day and it meant that when the band finally decided on the title Achtung Baby in August, the design of the sleeve was not overly affected.

At the end of it all, the designer is confident that the designs live up to his own high standards, that he set for himself for this work with U2 over a decade ago.

“From the beginning I wanted their sleeves to have that classic character. A lot of design at the moment has strong impact at the particular time, but six months or a year down the road, it tends to have been outdated.

“Sleeves like Boy and War are as strong now as when they first came out, and that to me, is an important part of what a classic album sleeve is. Whereas if you pick up the first album by many bands, the sleeve will immediately date the band to a place and time.

“What we’ve tried to do with Achtung Baby is create a look that will stand the test of time so that people will still feel as strongly about it in 10 years as any of the other U2 album sleeves.”

© Propaganda, 1991. All rights reserved.