More Real Than The Better Thing: Of Achtung Baby Myths & Meanings

November 27, 2011

“And this of course is at the heart of the idea of redemption: to begin again. . . . I wish to begin again on a daily basis. To be born again every day is something that I try to do. And I’m deadly serious about that.” – Bono, in conversation with Michka Assayas

That the album Acthung Baby and the subsequent Zoo TV tour marked epic early-to-mid-career turning points for U2 offers an historic-creative truth that fans and critics still like to ponder and pontificate on. That wrestling with fame, fortune, and their reflections in the media mirror gave U2 a swift kick into the millennial postmodern future remains a recurring meme that’s still larger than life.

As the Rattle And Hum backlash refracted, U2 reacted by getting born again in 1991. And in 2011, fans and critics are once again celebrating and reevaluating on the occasion of multiple Acthung Baby anniversary re-release editions and box sets, the Davis Guggenheim documentary From The Sky Down, and the Ǎhk-toong Bāy-Bi covers album, first released with Q magazine and now available on iTunes as a benefit for the humanitarian charity Concern Worldwide for the East Africa food crisis.

As the story goes, late 1980s shadows of seriousness and sepia-toned savior complexes soured as the decade ended and then seeded the prevailing myths that have reigned since Acthung Baby first dolled U2 up in dayglo and drag. While Guggenheim’s great documentary poignantly widens the lens on the band’s internal crises and creative processes, it breaks no major new ground that the 1990s made-for-TV documentaries weren’t already delving into.

With three decades in the rearview mirror, critical fandom might have a clear enough retrospective vision to rewrite the myth and find even greater meaning in U2’s pivotal moment. U2’s unlikely and meteoric rise to stardom reclaimed the moral integrity of mass-produced rock and roll at a time when the commercial vitality of the medium threatened to implode of its own obsolescent inanity. U2’s simultaneously idealistic and ironic embrace of postmodern technique tantalized millions then and continued all the way through the 360 tour, with the band and its organization functioning as a corporate organism concocting shimmering sonic spectacles with sacred reverberations.

The startling success of 1990s U2 does not come from killing 1980s U2—for this band’s ambition biting the nails of its own success survives on a metaphysical fuel that’s the antithesis of rock’s suicidal tendencies. No trees got chopped down except as a convenient soundbyte to engineer the tactical charade of a total makeover. Interestingly, U2’s religious fervor doesn’t deny its source or make any deals with any devils to survive the end of the last century, even as the band moves away from a white flag waving a Martin Luther King Jr. honoring, and a bullet in the blue sky flying.

The Bono that was “bugging us” in Rattle And Hum channeled the voice of an old testament prophet as he pestered Americans about apartheid in South Africa or war in Central America, about hypocrisy among TV preachers or Irish-Americans. That God isn’t short of cash or that revolutions are not worth killing for—challenging and controversial statements made boldly and bravely from the big screen in the megaplex of middle America—got drowned out by middle-aged critics complaining about U2’s attitude in the movie, insisting that Americans already knew everything there was to know about the blues and Elvis.

What the super-nerdy rock and film critics failed to admit or acknowledge, of course, was that due to pervasive cultural amnesia, some young Americans reared on MTV and commercial radio in the 1980s needed the kind of self-discovery of America’s rich cultural and activist roots that U2 were providing – and we didn’t even resent that U2 “aren’t from here.” As fans, some of us were a few years younger than U2 and craved to be connected to rock’s deeply radical lineage of Hendrix, Beatles, Dylan, and Stones in precisely the ways that this band provided on Rattle And Hum.

Rattle And Hum remains a much better movie than many will admit, and the new tracks that came out on the album are some of the band’s best ever. And late-late 80s Lovetown-era U2 is a charming and wonderful lost period in the band’s history. They lost their innocence, sure, but somehow, they never got swallowed by the beast they created. Acthung Baby didn’t damn the vibrant legacy of classic U2; it merely confronted the critics and slayed the demons of self-doubt.

Whereas 1980s U2 got ransacked in the dailies and the monthlies (this is still before blogs, mind you) for being so pious that they became pompous, 1990s U2 retorted, “You want pompous? We’ll give you pompous.” U2’s resulting over-the-top treatment of themselves in the Zoo and Pop periods only revealed through self-examination and self-parody an even better piety, spirituality, and overall sincerity in the songcraft itself.

In the 2005 booklength interview with Michka Assayas, Bono admits that the Zoo period represented “a crisis of strategy more than a crisis of faith” and “a new way to express old idealism.” This “judo” of “hard juxtapositions” (as Bono would describe it) reveals the band’s debt to the great counterculture art movements of the 20th century—for there would not have been a Zoo TV expression without the radical inroads into the collective psyche pioneered by the likes of the Beats and Merry Pranksters in America or by the Surrealists or Situationists in Europe.

In all the booze, cigarette smoke, and flashing lights affiliated with this period of U2, it would be easy to suggest that they’d turned from the Light. While most would categorize U2 as politically liberal, the band’s passionate embrace of Christianity could easily be seen as evangelical. On one surface, Achtung Baby responds to the Fall of Communism in Berlin, but on another deeper level, it probes the Fall of Man, from the Garden of Eden to the Garden of Gethsemane to the urban and suburban gardens in our hearts and minds.

The fire and faith that once stood strong in a stark American desert get tested in a unified Europe, a global soundtrack under the blinking signs of towering technological temptations. It would be easy to suggest that if the medium is the message of Zoo period U2, then the message is wrong, that surreal media masturbation is even better than the real thing of a moral life lived by an ethic of hard work and authentic religious hunger.

But U2 points in one direction in order for us to discover that we need turn away from all that, away from certainty, to go further than surface assumptions about not only this band but about the meaning of life itself. By embracing doubt, the band looks even deeper for the divine. Fame and fashion were more the lepers in the head than faith and God, but only a faith scrutinized under postmodern media microscopes could survive and even get purified by the fire of fame.

1980s U2 tried to walk in the light of the moral patriarchs, in a masculine mood of the mountaintop. The switch that gets flipped for the last decade of the 20th century plumbs a valley of the erotic, hypnotic, and fiercely feminine, where the only light is electrified to illuminate late-night wrestling with the carnal circumstances of bodily limits.

The mysterious way of this record, though, does rip U2 from itself. Strip away the narratives of the documentaries, and we might admit that the old U2 is reborn even more than a new U2 is rebooted. The daily reality behind this catharsis crawls towards maturity; the real thing involves marriage and divorce, parenting and responsibility, addiction and recovery, celebrity and charity. Yet the hard realities of growing up in public never sounded so groovy.

Discovering more and more God in Judas Iscariot, in broken or tested marriages, in the AIDS crisis, in media surrealism, in hyperconsumerism, and in the mysterious ways of women might seem counterintuitive to some, but this visionary judo is exactly what happens with the poetry and music of Achtung Baby, at least one sparkling pinnacle within U2’s overarching artistic, commercial, and mystical triumphs. When Bono’s cosmic heart reconnects with the band’s high-wired brain for twelve tracks of holy wax, all of our hearts and minds are won again, made one again, by waxed eloquence.  –Andrew William Smith, Editor

Bono Envy And The Box Office

November 9, 2011

Editor’s Note: In addition to making its rounds on DVD, online, and on pay-per-view TV, the new film Killing Bono, based in part on the writing of Neil McCormick, is enjoying a limited US theatrical release. You can check your local listings for more details.

Don’t talk about Rattle and Hum. Don’t talk about your Spidey sense and SciFi musicals. The history of our Bono and clear success at movie or theatre box offices are a mixed bag.

Unrivaled at selling out rock concerts? Yes. Concert DVDs doing well in the 2000s? Yes. But this doesn’t mean that a movie that frames you as a minor character will be a big hit.

Killing Bono bases itself on the frustrated truth of growing up in the shadow of giants. From a plot made with a jolt of rockstar-caliber jealousy, Killing Bono tries to be many things to different people, but a typically nerdy rock biopic for the hardcore U2 fans it’s not. Even though the work of Neil McCormick as journalist and tweeter are well-loved among U2 fans, many of us are not sure what to make of Killing Bono.

The early parts of the flick feature all the members of U2 as characters, with some choice footage from their roots at school, complete with (formerly known as) The Hype’s first gig and a hilarious scene when when Paul and Dave adopt their stage names at the same time they drop “The Hype” for the hype-yet-to -come in U2. But does this film work as an Irish Almost Famous? Is this movie a faithful rendering of McCormick’s prose?

The American drop of Killing Bono coincides with the epic onslaught of Achtung Baby rerelease options. Was this intentional? Surely, this saturated market manages to appease the post-360-tour blues among fans willing to pay to stay engaged with their favorite band.

But pit the mixed-up comedy mostly-about-the-band’s-mates against the garden harvest of DVDs and documentaries, and most U2 fans are going to be perfectly pleased to dig deeper into their new Uber and Super box sets and may end up ignoring Killing Bono. Maybe we prefer Bono admiration to Bono envy.  –Andrew William Smith, Editor

Not Your Parents’ Band: Growing Up An ‘Achtung Baby’

November 2, 2011

Editor’s Note: The webzine seeks reflective essays and stories from Achtung Babies and their parents about the next generation of U2 fandom and what we were doing back in the early 1990s. Hit us up on Facebook.

Being born in early 1994, just after U2 finished up their massive Zoo TV tour, I’m more of a ‘Zoo baby’ than an ‘Achtung Baby.’ I was sort of born in between U2 eras (Zoo TV is my favorite U2 era by the way).

Growing up among U2 “likers,” my family all like U2 to some degree and put up with my obsession of the band’s music. However, none of them are as devoted a fan as me. I haven’t liked U2 for a remarkably long time, but I have known about them since I was around the age of 6. I remember riding around with my dad in the car, and U2’s 2000 hit “Beautiful Day” came on the radio. I would try to sing, but I didn’t know the lyrics. I liked the song, but I never got into the band or listened to any of their material, at least not for a few years.

So, that was my first taste of U2. I had no clue that I would one day become so obsessed with their music and how important U2 would become in my life. I started getting into the band around December of 2005.

Just a year earlier U2 had put out their album How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, which included the radio hit “Vertigo.” My dad was watching a program that was on DirecTV. They were airing a portion of U2’s ‘Vertigo: 2005 Live from Chicago’ DVD. I started watching it and slowly I got really into the music. I was 11 at the time. I liked what I saw so much that I went out to buy the DVD.

I can’t tell you how many times I watched the DVD that Christmas. I remember seeing The Edge and how he played guitar. I noted that he didn’t play like most other guitarists: no big guitar solos or show off type stuff, just solid guitar playing. I was amazed at his wall of sound too, which I later discovered was due to his brilliant use of effects units. This made me want to pick up a guitar and so I did the following month. I believe Edge is the sole inspiration for me ever touching a guitar and for me writing music. I also received How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb on CD that Christmas. I wore that CD out!

The summer of 2006 is when I really got obsessed. I took my dad’s copy of U2’s 1987 classic The Joshua Tree and loaded it onto my iPod. I have such wonderful memories of listening to that album that summer. The singalongs to “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “With or Without You,” the anthemic “Where the Streets Have No Name,” listening “Red Hill Mining Town” late at night. I would dive deeper into U2’s catalogue later on over the years.

I must say that U2 are the most important band in my life. They’ve been the soundtrack of the past several years, and they’ve been there for me through all the toughest times, as well being right along for the good times. They’ve helped get me through my teenage years, and I’ll carry their music right along for the rest of my life. I can’t say that I connect with any other band like I do with U2. There’s something about the music and the emotion in their songs that I can feel. I own almost anything they’ve officially released (not regarding all singles), CD and DVD wise. U2 are also the only band that I like everything that I’ve heard from them, including B-sides and unreleased songs /outtakes, to be completely honest about it. I like every single one of their albums, my favorite being Achtung Baby. Which is closely followed by The Joshua Tree and Zooropa, respectively.

I think growing up a U2 fan has been a great thing to have happen to myself, and I know that I’d be a different person and listening to very different music had it not been for them. Some might say that there aren’t too many teenagers that are into U2 these days or that U2 are “your parent’s band,” but I’d say they’re wrong. Sure U2 are an older group but that doesn’t make them any less relevant. I think their ability to connect with a younger audience is still prevalent today. I went to two U2 shows on this past tour [U2-360º Tour], with one of them being my first ever U2 gig, and I saw lots of teenagers and younger kids there. I especially saw several teens and early 20 year olds when I did GA in Philadelphia on July 14 this past summer—just proof that they can connect with younger generations. I think it’s amazing that they can still do that. They’re a very special band, especially considering that they’ve lasted so long, and I have so much to thank them for. –Vincent Magnarella

Wake Up Weary & Sleepy! The Foxes Are In Town!

November 1, 2011

Sleepy Eyed Fox strike a chord at the core of all that music wants to be and could be and never quite achieves unless we’re willing to believe. Five folks (three of them siblings) and eleven songs are suddenly all that we need.

Dropped from the heavens in a gesture of apparent effortlessness yet obviously sweaty effort, Weary Hearts wakes tired sleepers so sick of another generation of great musicians going down the dark alley that their ancestors warned them about. Dropped onto disc at a studio near Nashville in a folksy, timeless, and timely context that owns what it owes to Everybodyfields, Avett Brothers, The Civil Wars, or Mumford and Sons, this foxy serenade seeps into your sleep until you can’t help but humming along.

Of course, rock n roll was never innocent and always chases its innocence. Every once in a while, as if the hated headlines never existed, a band emerges from the earth and the ether to restore our faith. Perhaps pop music isn’t all ego and regret after all, perhaps we can forget for the length of an album the steady parade of diva moments and overdoses, of checking into rehab and refusing rehab for the grave.

Every once in a while, the choir kicks up Tennessee dust and shows up early and eager, a humble crew of gorgeous and unpretentious twenty-somethings with a backpack full of songs burning genuine joy into your guts via your ears. With roots in the great ‘family band’-that-learned-how-to-play-at-church tradition, Sleepy Eyed Fox travel lightly on the road to success, with musicality a fuel stronger than any hype could ever be.

Sleepy Eyed Fox sing songs of singularly prescient Appalachian pop, of pleasing your partner and praising your creator, of washing on the shore of life’s rocky moments to discover love and hope lingering longer than shame or blame.

We don’t need to trust the epic purity that sings like a mountain spring, just trust the source that’s upstream from all this melodic meaning.  Sleepy Eyed Fox sits on the cusp of becoming something unstoppably great. Discover them. –Andrew William Smith, Editor

For more information on Sleepy Eyed Fox or their album Weary Hearts, please visit