It’s 1994, and I’m sitting in the back of my oldest brother Damien’s Nissan Pulsar as he takes my brother, sister, and I for a spin in his new ride. Eight years old and unaware that this is one of the tackiest vehicles ever created, I bask in the absence of this wannabe convertible’s T-tops as the wind and sun hit my face. From the speakers at a high decibel emanates a distinct voice I’ve become familiar with over the past year: “A man will rise / A man will fall / From the sheer face of love / Like a fly from a wall,” some guy by the name of Bono bellows through distortion as my brother takes a sharp turn into our driveway.
Though it’s actually been almost three years since this record was released, my third-grade music knowledge is limited to my father’s Beatles and Paul Simon collection and the pop culture laggings of my older siblings, so at the moment, I’m familiar with some movement called “grunge”, a feminist piano player named Tori Amos, and now, the Irish quartet blasting from this semi-sleek automobile.
With the car in park mode, my brother skips to track ten and has us listen to Bono lament over a dreary organ, “Sometimes I feel like checking out,” and I honestly can’t help but agree with the man. Though that last song with the thrashing guitar chords and screeching solo was badass, this next one just isn’t cutting it, and I start to wonder which villain I should have my Ninja Turtles action figures kick the shit out of. Yet when a loud drum roll kicks in, and a sonic blast of now-famous Edge reverb soars into my ear canals, all my ambition to fake a fight between a five-inch tall Shredder and Donatello goes away. For the next six months, I’ve got a new item to keep my attention…and I won’t stop blasting the hell out of it.
This November, Achtung Baby celebrates its 20th anniversary, which will unyieldingly cause everyone born in 1977 or earlier to groan at how quickly the time as gone by (as well as reminisce about who they made out with to the song “One”), but for the majority of those under the age of 30, it seems celebrating U2’s seventh studio album is as foreign a concept as celebrating the Euro Cup. It’s become more and more noticeable that, in terms of youths’ knowledge of the Irish quartet, there’s a giant rift between 1987’s The Joshua Tree and 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind: the former is still undoubtedly recognized as one of the greatest albums of all time, but the latter is now seen as the epitome of the arrogant and over-commercialized band that U2 has become. And this makes me really pissed off, because if you examine how gigantic the electronica-rock scene is right now, U2’s three albums from the 1990s would have a much bigger impact on youth culture than “Vertigo” ever did.
Yet somehow, it’s the forgotten era.
Achtung Baby, the album that led off U2’s decade of electronics and tape loop experimentation, isn’t the sound of a band making music for the masses; it’s the sound of a band stretching itself. The popularity and historic withstanding of tracks such as “One” and “Mysterious Ways” make a lot of people think this was a record of commercial intentions, but in fact it was entirely the opposite. If you concentrate on the drastic differences between The Joshua Tree and this LP, you’ll discover a band at lengths as disparate as David Bowie went on Hunky Dory after The Man Who Sold the World. From the opening electronic grunge-crunch of “Zoo Station” all the way to the dark, medieval final track, “Love Is Blindness”, Achtung Baby is a promising testimony to the merits of which U2 is capable of achieving.
It’s been 17 years since that car ride, and Achtung Baby still hasn’t lost the magnitude it had when I was eight years old without any semblance of a CD collection. When I listen to it, I’m reverted back to that day in 1994 as my older brother’s influence set me on a lifelong (and non-lucrative) path toward music obsession. The Edge’s guitar pedal effects on all 12 tracks left an imprint on my brain that’s sparked a passionate love for reverb and abnormal production techniques, as well as single-handedly developed my compulsion for bands such as the Flaming Lips, Kings of Leon, and Muse. When I hear the opening to the Lips’ “The W.A.N.D.”, I recall the descending slide of “Mysterious Ways”. In the strobe reverb of KOL’s, “Crawl”, I hear hints of “Until the End of the World”. In Matt Bellamy’s guitar squeals, I hear the Edge jettisoning noise at the end of “The Fly”. It’s a total anomaly: in contrast to the rest of my generation, U2 is the defining influence on my musical taste.
Every time I see the group’s name or picture, I wonder for a minute how U2’s other members view Bono’s antics since everyone commonly groans at the mere mention of the band. And the fact is, no one’s groaning because they hate U2—they’re groaning because they hate Bono. For the past decade, the leather-jacket-wearing, gelled-hair-donning singer has been in the press more often for his charity than he has for writing albums. Which is not to say it wasn’t nice initially to witness a rich celebrity using his money and fame for good purpose, but after a while, there’s only so much one can take before he starts to wonder if Bono actually deems himself Superman.
Yet with Achtung Baby, the moral crimes of U2’s lead singer shouldn’t shy kids from experiencing the sonic excitement of this album. Beyond “One”, there are 11 other songs that deserve placement on iPods everywhere. There’s the soft piano ballad of “So Cruel” that showcases the painful side of Bono’s love life (which might actually make a lot of people happy), or there’s “Acrobat”‘s chain-rattling percussion that begs the question of just how influenced TV on the Radio is by the Irish quartet. And in case you’re unaware of just how close U2 can come to blowing speakers, throw the jet-powered “Until the End of the World” onto your MP3 player and wait for the crescendo. You’ll be surprised that the Edge has a little Van Halen running through his veins.
I realize that in the eyes of America’s youth, U2’s become a joke to enjoy for ten seconds as you flip through Rolling Stone and spot a snapshot of the band on its quarter-billion dollar 360 tour. But for me, Achtung Baby defined rock music: voice distortion, guitar reverb, effects pedals. It’s rock in its truest form. So this isn’t a cry for help or propaganda to buy the reissue, but merely one U2 fan’s way of explaining his love for an iconic album that’s sadly lost its luster amongst today’s baby boomers and adolescents. And though I can agree Bono needs to back off the extremity of his heroic efforts, I can’t agree that early U2 be forgotten by everyone under the age of thirty. This is a masterpiece of musical exploration and, in my opinion, the band’s defining achievement, and it deserves a chance by everyone who’s ever thought “Stuck In a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” is all U2 can bring to the table. So attention, baby: this 25-year-old is on U2’s side. Will any of you cross the picket line and join me?
// Notes from the Road
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