The Unforgettable Fire – Guidance Is Key
By 1983, and three albums in, U2 had established themselves on the scene as a promising, up-and-coming band. However, after this first trilogy of albums, U2 would go on a hiatus after finishing up their War tour in Japan at the end of that year. U2 wanted to go in a more arty and serious direction on their next album as they weren’t interested in being shelved as a bombastic arena rock band. The band decided to find a new recording space that would inspire a new musical direction and the space they found would be Slane Castle, Ireland. Next they needed to find the right producer. Enter: Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois.
In the annals of rock and pop history, there are many producer-and-band pairings that have become synonymous with how a band or an artist sounds: George Martin with the Beatles, Teo Macero with Miles Davis, Tony Visconti with David Bowie, Eno with Talking Heads, Tim Friece-Greene with Talk Talk, Dave Fridmann with the Flaming Lips, Nigel Godrich with Radiohead and so many more. In these cases, it seems the producer acts as the spark that sets fires the artist’s creative trajectory. The creativity was already there – it just needed to be lit. These producers would both harness and frame the artists’ power as well as extract their full potential. In 1983 U2 would light up their potential with the help of Brian Eno.
The Edge (David Howell Evans) was fond of Eno’s sounds and experimentation with ambient textures and wanted him at the helm. Eno, on the other hand, was somewhat frightened by the full-on earnestness of a band that just came back from working with Talking Heads – a band absorbed in irony, role-playing, and having fun. U2’s record label, Island Records, tried to dissuade the band from going down an arty road with Eno, but the band insisted on the collaboration and Bono persuaded Eno and Daniel Lanois to come on board. This would prove the most decisive move in U2’s career.
Before working on The Unforgettable Fire (1984), Eno hadn’t worked with a rock band before, but what Eno and Lanois brought to the table and soundscape would change the way a rock band could sound. Eno made Bono stretch his vocal register and raise the bar of his lyrics while Lanois and the Edge played around with guitar effects and found the formula that would come to define the sound of the band for the rest of the ’80s.
Eno and Lanois have since become instigators for artists wanting to reinvent themselves and expand their sound palette: Lanois later produced Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy (1989) and Time out of Mind (1997), while Eno was producing other established bands like Coldplay. From 1984 to 1994 the alchemy between Eno, Lanois, and U2 would produce a trio of albums that would encapsulate everything U2 was capable of achieving.
The Unforgettable Fire gave birth to “Pride (in the name of love)”, and “Bad” and Live AID gave U2 to the world. The risk-taking and experimenting paid off and the pairing of a new forward-looking sound to a band who, literally, got the music across the barricades, paved the way for U2 conquering the sonic world.
The Joshua Tree – Or How the West Was Won and Where It Took Them
During the mid-’80s U2 became interested in roots. Bono believed that U2 didn’t have any roots and didn’t come out of any tradition. They came from punk music which, a genre that some might consider denies its roots. Having already established a fascination with America during their earliest touring, U2 set their sights on the promised land (and especially the people who were left with no promise at all). This fascination, coupled with Bono’s trip to Ethiopia and Central America in 1985, brought their attention to American history, culture, and geography. The American desert became the place, the metaphor and the symbol.
In 1987 – with Eno and Lanois at the controls once again – U2 released The Joshua Tree. Donning a Native American wardrobe, wearing cowboy boots and singing about the spirit of the American land and people – the album had all the makings of an epic masterpiece. To the skeptic and critic it sounded like – and had the look of – a full-on assault on the vast American market which was (and still is) the market every band dreamed of conquering.
However, no matter how you look at it, the album put U2 on everyone’s lips and even on the cover of Time Magazine. U2 had released their most fully accomplished album to date – and it would define the band and their sound throughout the ’80s.
Rattle and Hum – Tangled up in Roots
When you are on top of the world and in the midst of touring the most successful album of the year, why not make a film about it and why not star in it?
Phil Joanou’s documentary Rattle and Hum has, since its release in 1988, become viewed as a textbook example of a band losing their ground and artistic control. Ironically enough, the album and film were about looking for roots and discovering new music. However, Bono was stigmatized with a messiah complex due to his moral speeches and political correctness during concerts, a criticism that stuck to his persona and the band. What was once lauded and hailed –U2’s critiques of the inequalities – quickly became points of ridicule. This critical backlash hurt the band and Bono in particular.
Also, the constant promotion of The Joshua Tree album and extensive touring – which saw them entering the stadium arena – left them exhausted. These and other factors made U2 pull the plug and “go away and dream it up all again”, as Bono put it. This was the end of the ’80s and the times and the musical landscape were changing. Dance music emerged, especially in Europe, and the Cold War was winding down and with it, the Berlin Wall would soon fall.
These new changes, new musical trends and critiques of the band made U2 go away in search of a radical new sound and look that would both express the climate of the time as well as what was in their hearts. Enter: the shades, the leather and the irony.
Achtung Baby – The Great Reinvention
According to Bono, Achtung Baby is the sound of four men chopping down the Joshua tree – which is quite a bold statement of intent.
Released in November 1991 Achtung Baby is a child of its time and perfectly encapsulates the sentiment, disorientation, and sound of a changing world. The self-mockingly ironic title, the industrial, distorted sounds, dance-oriented rhythms and bleak melancholy lyrics are startling and rattling – to say the least – for the fans who came to love what they saw as Christian band wearing their hearts on their sleeves.
U2 lost some fans in the process of this change but gained a new and more alternative youth following. Accused of being “missionary” in the past, with Achtung Baby, U2 set out on a different kind of mission and it would include a tour for their new congregation.