While U2 frontman Bono said "The Fly," the first single from Achtung Baby, was "the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree," it could easily be applied to the entire album, which was released on November 19, 1991. Achtung Baby is a document of the band, almost on the verge of breaking up, then re-imagining itself and coming up with a dozen tracks that sound radically different than 1987's landmark album The Joshua Tree and the unfocused Rattle and Hum, released a year later.
When the members of U2 went to Berlin in October of 1990 on eve of German reunification, nearly a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, they had their own reunification to deal with as there was friction and tension between the members. As Bono says in the recent Achtung Baby documentary From the Sky Down, "Making Achtung Baby was the reason we're still here now. That was the pivot point where we were either going forward, or is this our moment to implode."
At Berlin's Hansa Studios, where producer Brian Eno had worked on David Bowie's Heroes in 1977, the band was experimenting with material, improvising with ideas as the band had done in the past. The band's working process was documented on the Hansa demo tapes, which were stolen after band reportedly left them in a hotel room and released as bootlegs prior to the release of Achtung Baby.
The Edge had been steeping himself the music of German industrial bands like KMFDM and Einstürzende Neubauten and Manchester acts like the Happy Mondays, while drummer Larry Mullen Jr., who had been listening to Cream and Jimi Hendrix, was struggling with playing along to a drum machine. The demos show the band moving further away from the American influence of Rattle and Hum into much edgier territory, with the Edge using harsher guitar distortion.
While working on the song "Sick Puppy," which would eventually become "Mysterious Ways," the band took the chord changes from the second bridge and made a new song from it: "One." As they started working on "One," the Edge said in From the Sky Down, suddenly something very powerful was happening in the room and everyone knew it. "It was a pivotal moment," the Edge continued. "We'd been going through this hard time and nothing seemed to be going right. Suddenly we were presented with this gift. It just kind of arrived. It steadied everyone nerves hugely in the studio."
That spark essentially set the rest of the album in motion. After a few months in Berlin, the band went back to Dublin and resumed recording in a seaside manor in the Dublin suburb Dalkey in February 1991. In the book U2 by U2, the Edge says the band was struggling with "Lady With the Spinning Head," which would eventually become a B-side, but it actually spawned "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)," "Zoo Station" and "The Fly."
As bassist Adam Clayton says in U2 by U2, he wasn't sure whether glasses or the tune came first, but as soon as Bono found the Fly glasses, he knew what the character should be and how he should sound. In putting together the Fly's outfit, Bono says in From the Sky Down that he took Lou Reed's glasses, Jim Morrison's pants, Elvis' jacket and a little bit of his hair cut; it was like an Ident-I-Kit Rock Star.
When "The Fly" was released as the first single a month before the release of Achtung Baby, it gave the public a chance to hear just how much the band had changed since the '80s. For the most part, it was a radical departure, but also a reflection of the band pushing forward and re-branding itself after almost disbanding and paving the way for future releases like 1993's Zooropa.
More from our Today in History archive: "Oasis' (What's the Story) Morning Glory? turns a bratty sweet sixteen" and "Ween's The Pod turns 20"
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