Friday, November 18, 2016

'Achtung Baby' Was a 180-Degree Turn for U2

I'm not what you could call a fan of U2. Don't get me wrong. I like many of the band's songs, and I have owned some of U2's albums in the past. Today I have some of the band's CDs on my shelf. That doesn't make me a fan, though.

I once worked with a guy who was really a fan of U2. He knew every song, every album. I'm that way about some groups, too, so I understood.

Still I am hardly qualified to select the best U2 album ever made, but if I was asked which one I like best — and that could change if I hear a U2 album I have never heard before — I would name "Achtung Baby," the album that hit music stores 25 years ago today.

I don't know if it was the best album the band ever released — I like "War" and "The Joshua Tree," too — but I can say that it is the best U2 album I have heard in the last 25 years.

It certainly was different.

For reasons I never really understood, U2's "Rattle and Hum" was panned when it was released in 1988. I liked it, and it did pretty well commercially, but still it was widely criticized.

So when U2 released "Achtung Baby" three years later, the band had a few surprises in store for folks; even people who had been listening to U2 for many years had to have been surprised. What had come before had a distinctly American sound to it, but the music on "Achtung Baby" had an — I don't know — postmodern British sound. It incorporated elements you typically found on David Bowie's albums.

Five singles were released from the album. "Mysterious Ways," which was released as a single about a week after the album, was the most successful in the U.S., reaching #9 on the charts, but "One," which followed four or five months later, climbed to #10.

Those two songs and "The Fly," which was released as a single nearly a month before the album, all went to #1 in U2's home country of Ireland.

Back to that new sound.

Seldom, if ever, do you see a band do an about–face as successfully as U2 did on "Achtung Baby."

That was clear from the very first song, "Zoo Station."

"Achtung Baby" was inspired by the reunification of Germany, and the music, in its way, has always reminded me of Mike Myers' Saturday Night Live character Dieter and the comedy sketches about his fictitious West German TV show Sprockets. Those sketches were popular at about the same time as the album was riding the charts. Maybe that's where I make that mental connection.

Anyway, "Achtung Baby" was widely accepted, sold 18 million coies, got great reviews, debuted at #1 on the Billboard chart, won a Grammy and has been named one of the all–time great albums by several music critics.

Now, that is a successful transformation.