The Joshua Tree/Achtung Baby
Another double album choice and it could have easily been a treble choice with The Unforgettable Fire just missing out. Considering Fire contains two of my favourite U2 songs in Bad and Elvis Presley and America it was a tough decision. The two albums I’ve chosen are the albums that made U2 the megastars they are today but The Unforgettable Fire was an important stepping stone to them becoming the biggest band in the world.
It’s widely acknowledged that the moment U2 took the leap from a band on the rise to to becoming something extra special was that afternoon in 1985, Wembley Stadium and Live Aid. U2 were making a name for themselves and had scored a mid afternoon slot. Sunday Bloody Sunday had been played and the opening refrain of Bad filled the air. Halfway through the song Bono started pointing out into the crowd. At first it looked like maybe someone was in distress but it was Bono trying to connect with the audience in the anonymous surroundings of Wembley Stadium. When he finally jumped into the crowd the stadium went mad. Bono had an intimate dance with a girl from the audience in front of a billion people. It was one of music’s great ‘moments’ and the tipping point for U2.
It’s bizarre looking back now but the band thought they’d blown it. Bono’s antics caused a huge argument after the show. He’d left the band hanging as they’d no idea what was going on. He’d just disappeared from sight and they weren’t even sure he was still there until he appeared back on stage a few minutes later. They also missed out on their 3rd song and biggest hit of that time, Pride.
It was only in the days after that it began to filter through that Bono’s off script jump into the crowd was many people’s favourite moment of the day, mine included, and I’m happy to say, like the t-shirt of the event said, ‘I Was There’. It was my first trip to the big smoke of London and a city I’ve since fallen in love with. Can’t believe we went by Stagecoach bus, think it took about 10 hours. A pal of mine Markie Dolenz put us up in his flat in Walthamstow and although we’ve lost touch I’ll be forever grateful.
I remember exactly how I discovered U2. A friend of mine, Stuart Collins, worked in a camera shop in Glasgow’s Charing Cross. Either with my girlfriend of the time and/or some pals we would end up there of an afternoon and just shoot the breeze, have a laugh and just get wasted. How Stuart never lost his job I’ll never know and although the shop wasn’t that busy he still had to deal with customers in his inebriated state. It was on one of those visits he put on a cassette titled Boy by a band called U2. I don’t think I’d never heard of them until this point. I think this was probably around 1983 and after my initial metal years I was starting to branch out a little. What struck me about Boy was the raw energy of the band although it took me a little while for me to really fall in love with the music which I was later to regret. More of that shortly. Slowly the music won me over and I found myself making sure that was what was played anytime we were at the shop and multiple times. The three song run of An Cat Dubh, Into the Heart and Out of Control is still among my favourite moments on any album of any band.
The reason I regret taking so long to get into the band was I passed up on the chance to see them live and it all happened about 100 yards away from where I first heard them when the band palyed a gig at Tiffanys in Sauchiehall Street. It’s a gig I could have gone to and regularly get a ribbing from those who were there but at the time I just wasn’t ready but will always be one I will look back on as the one that got away. I had to wait a year later to see them live for the first of twenty live shows.
There’s been a million words written about both the albums I’ve picked and I’ll only contribute a few more. The Joshua Tree and the subsequent film and soundtrack Rattle and Hum saw a band that had become massive on the back of the Live Aid performance. The problem was they had begun to take themselves a bit too seriously and become a little overbearing and earnest. Their shows were still great but Bono had taken on the mantle of man who could save the world and it turned a lot of people against the band and their constant flag waving and banging the drum of injustice. At this point in the dictionary pretentious had a picture of U2 beside it. I must admit I’ve always viewed this part of Bono’s ego in a fairly relaxed way. There’s not many rock stars have the ear of world leaders. He may not have the power he thinks he does but if he wants to help eradicate AIDS, fight against poverty and generally use his powers for good (tax avoidance scheme in Netherlands aside) then a few rants, a bit of preaching and the occasional slightly patronising speech during a gig are a small price to pay as far as I’m concerned. I know a lot of people disagree and Bono seems an easy target but he more than anyone realises this and accepts the criticism and occasional hypocritical position he finds himself in. Bono may be many things good and bad but one quality he doesn’t lack is self awareness. As the Zoo TV tour proved.
The Joshua Tree just happened to be released on my birthday in 1987 and it’s full of iconic U2 songs, Where the Streets Have No Name, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, With or Without You, Bullet the Blue Sky but even the lesser known songs like One Tree Hill, Mothers of the disappeared and Running to Stand Still make this a fantastic album. Live the songs were transformed. Where The Streets still gives me goosebumps to this day when I hear the opening refrain, the bass line beginning of With or Without You has the same effect. Before the glitz and technology took over Bullet the Blue Sky live involved a single spotlight sweeping over the crowd. It was simple but effective. I didn’t really like Bullet on first listen and when recording a cassette of the album that was the song that was relegated to Side 2 as the album didn’t fit on one side of a C90. Live the band may have become over earnest rock stars but when the music hit the sweet spot few could get near them.
During the Joshua Tree tour the band filmed gigs in Denver that became the film Rattle and Hum and also a soundtrack album of the same name was released with covers, some new songs and alternative versions of songs including a gospel version of Still Haven’t Found. It was this film and album release that saw the band receive a lot of criticism regarding their rock star status. Criticism the band took to heart and on a New Year’s Eve concert in Dublin that was broadcast around the world. Bono stated that they would have to go away and dream it all up again. And although it nearly caused the break up of the band they really did dream it all up again.
Achtung Baby is the sound of a band completely reinventing itself and the album is a definite counterpoint to the Joshua Tree. The bombast of Joshua Tree is replaced by a much more electronic almost industrial sound. The intial location for recording was the famous Hansa studios in Berlin but early work was slow and the band struggled to produce anything of note and with relationships pushed to breaking point it looked like the band could break up over the old ‘musical differences’ cliche. Fortunately the breakthrough recording of One set the band on course to record one of their most successful albums and one that many regard as their greatest album. If I was pushed between the two I’d go for Achtung Baby but it’s hard to compare two distinctly different records. Partly what swings it for me was U2 found a humour and a self deprecation on Achtung baby that had previously been missing. The band that made Achtung Baby took the piss out of the Joshua Tree band in an affectionate but occasionally scathing manner. This manifested itself on the Zoo TV tour which promoted the album. Which, for me, is still the greatest ever stadium gig I’ve ever seen.
The album itself though is quality from the distorted guitar of Zoo Station to the more reflective closer Love is Blindness it is simply a brilliant album. Some say it hasn’t aged well but I disagree I think it’s stood the test of time well given the change of direction the band were trying to perform when they were at their most popular. In contrast to Radiohead, the subject of week ten’s blog, U2 still managed to retain a sound that had mass appeal and I think they also found some new respect amongst the many critics of the Joshua Tree period. Even to this day I can’t find a weakness on the album. Every song has its moments. The commercial appeal of singles such as One, The Fly, Mysterious Ways to the darker So Cruel and Whose Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses. It was on this album I think Bono finally felt comfortable with his voice. Ultra Violet is possibly one of his best studio vocal performances although I might be slightly biased as it’s my favourite song off the album.
If you get the chance watch the documentary From The Sky Down which was produced as part of the 20th anniversary of Achtung Baby and tells the story of the album. Highly recommended viewing.
When the songs were brought to a live setting there was maybe a concern how they would work on the road. Looking back now any concerns would soon be completely groundless the transformation live was quite astonishing.
The Zoo TV tour started out with an arena tour and as you would expect tickets were much sought after and to ensure a ticket it was sleep out time. No getting up at 8.55 and logging into ticket master in 92. Getting a ticket took real commitment. So I and a few thousand others booked my sleeping bag spot on the tunnel that led down to the SECC and secured a ticket for one of the most anticipated shows I’ve ever been to.
During the tour U2 brilliantly used MTV as its promotional tool. A number of documentaries including Outside Broadcast were shown that provided an insight to the tour and many teasers to the show itself. Outside Broadcast is well worth checking out on you tube. Finally in June 92 the tour rolled into Glasgow and I can only describe it as wow just wow. I don’t think I took a breath for the first 15 mins and my jaw just hit the floor as my brain tried to cope with the sensory overload. Probably the most incredible 15 mins of live music I’ve ever seen. Unless you were there or have seen the show it’s hard to describe. An assault of flashing messages, Trabant’s flying in the air acting as spotlights, Bono coming on as the Fly, TVs and lots of them, explosions. Just an incredible whirlwind start with the first eight songs all from the new album. The whole show was mentally and physically draining but in a good way.
Over a year later the Stadium tour rocked up to Celtic Park for two shows and although the element of surprise was somewhat less the show was not diminished for it. They had taken the indoor show and increased the scale for the outdoor venues and it was the size of the show that made this so spectacular. I’m generally not really a fan of the stadium outdoor show. A necessary evil in my eye and usually the only way you will get to see some acts but the Zoo TV show managed to finally crack the barrier between audience and band. No matter where you were at Celtic Park there was something in the show. The multitude of TV screens large and small had a huge part to play in that. It allowed the audience real close ups of the action on stage through individual cams and there was an interaction there that I hadn’t ever seen before in a stadium show. There was also the small issue of the Zooropa album having been written and recorded in four months and released in between the arena and stadium tour which was called the Zooropa tour but was still under the Zoo TV banner.
I’ll always remember seeing the burning crosses rising up on the screen as the beginning of Bullet The Blue Sky rang out and just thinking ‘feck me that’s just awesome’. There were of course the crank phone calls in the latter half of the show when he took on the persona of Mr MacPhisto, the devil who was a long ago washed up rock star who thought he was still relevant. Bono played the part to perfection. On the Glasgow stadium shows the victims were Ian Lang the Scottish Secretary at the time and PM John Major. My favourite was at the final show of the Zoo TV tour in Sydney when MacPhisto phones for a taxi and they hang up on him. A fitting end to the tour and character.
Of course once the big show genie was out the bottle it became expected of U2 to put on a spectacular show and over the years they have always put on something special with the 360 show with the giant ‘claw’ supporting the No Line on the Horizon tour probably the peak of these but none came close to the Zoo TV tour for sheer impact. The recent indoor shows with the video cage was probably the first time I’ve seen something that rivalled the Zoo TV era for sheer wow factor but nothing will rival those first 15 mins at the SECC in 92.
Right I better stop typing or this might get quite long.
Some live clips as well as studio for your delectation.
The Joshua Tree
See you on week 12.