I reckon U2 are more influential than The Velvet Underground, in terms of how many records the artists influenced by either have sold. And how many artists they’ve influenced. Turn on the radio at any point in the mid-00s and you’d hear a massive Sincerity Rock Band with echoes of U2; take “Sweet Disposition” by The Temper Trap as an example. Or Coldplay or Snow Patrol’s entire careers. (OK, maybe not the first two albums by the latter.) When I first heard Arcade Fire I baulked because everyone was going crazy for them but they were using the U2 bassline all over Funeral, which I basically see as both emotionally manipulative and creatively bankrupt. Arcade Fire then, of course, went “full Achtung Baby” on Reflektor. More about what “full Achtung Baby” means in a bit, possibly. Even in the 90s the likes of Oasis and Radiohead made nods towards the Irish megaband even if they didn’t quite sound like them.
I once told a staunch U2 fan and sensible atheist (and holder of a PhD about vaginal imagery in the Alien films), many years ago, that every U2 song is about god, one way or another, and they said I was talking crap. “Go away and think about it” I replied, and a few days later they came back and said I’d ruined U2 for them, because it is, indeed, true, that every single one of their songs is about god. One way or another.
Every time I use the phrase “you too” near my elder brother, such as when he says “have a nice weekend” and I respond “you too”, he says “what’s Bono got to do with anything?”, which is intensely annoying. I have started doing this as well, which is probably also intensely annoying.
U2 are almost inconceivably massive; they’ve sold more than 170 million albums, won 22 Grammys (more than any other band), and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005, the first year they were eligible. (Though we established on the night at Record Club that Rihanna and Taylor Swift have each sold more records in a considerably shorter timeframe than U2.) (Other artists who’ve sold more records that U2: The Beatles, Elvis, Jacko, Madonna, Elton, Led Zep, Pink Floyd, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, AC/DC, Whitney, Queen, The Rolling Stones, ABBA, Garth Brookes, Eminem, and The Eagles.) What this means is that they are ‘the establishment’.
I feel like U2 have hovered over Record Club like a tiny grey cloud, often imperceptible but occasionally remarked upon, recognised as bringing something potentially necessary to the table (the rain that makes crops grow, to extend the metaphor), sometimes beautiful, productive and useful in their own right, but mostly fucking annoying.
I once a read an interview where Bono said that he harboured vague ambitions to write a novel, but had decided that he never would in case it wasn’t “one of the great novels”, as what would be the point in branching out and producing something merely average, or even quite good, in another field, when he’d already made some of “the great records”. More than anything else, that sentiment made me think he was a cunt. Bono’s clearly a massive smugface bellend, but he’s more wealthy than most countries, so probably doesn’t give a damn what I think.
Achtung Baby is U2 trying to think outside of their box, trying not to be a massive Sincerity Rock Band anymore, trying to embrace groove, art, pop, Berlin, Bowie, hip-hop, that shuffle-y indie-dance beat that people think The Stone Roses introduced (they didn’t; it was The Mock Turtles), postmodernism, the 90s, and probably some other stuff. Including nudity, judging by the cover. When a band “goes full Achtung Baby” it’s arguably the equivalent of a middle-aged man buying a sports car. A (futile?) attempt to rebrand oneself as one feels youth and relevance slipping away, perhaps.
Achtung Baby is, of course, co-produced by Eno, and it sounds like he does a lot more here than just add widdly ambient intros to massive Sincerity Rock Band anthems. Except that, actually, Daniel Lanois is arguably more important. And maybe U2 themselves deserve a little credit. And actually let’s not give U2 anty credit for anything, the massive bellends. I pretty much hate U2, but this album is really, really good. Except the last three tracks, when being a massive Sincerity Rock Band kicks in like biological memory, and they can’t help themselves. (Notably this is only the second record we’ve ever chosen not to listen to the entirety of at Record Club.) Many of the songs on Achtung Baby are actually fun! And groovey! (“Even Better Than The Real Thing”, “The Fly”, “Mysterious Ways”, “Zoo Station”.) The drums and bass consistently sound really weird and thuddy and odd, like someone really misunderstanding dance music and krautrock and making something kind of interesting by accident instead. The Edge (Dave to his mum) does some interesting stuff with his guitar that doesn’t involve playing three notes over and over with massive delay.
In the press around the album Bono ranted about corporate sponsorship and the stupidity of rock mythology and rock’s “fat bastards” and sticking up for indie bands (in 1991, when ‘indie band’ actually meant being independent and alternative), which is kind of sad, because U2, as established by the buckets of Grammy Awards and 170 million album sales and undeniable influence on all sorts of other bands who really ought to be a whole lot better, are the most establishment band that there has ever been. Way more than The Beatles ever could be. They’re corporate rock 40-year careerists. They literally foisted an album on millions of unsuspecting, innocent people by signing a massive horrorshow deal with Apple that basically abused everyone’s iPhones. They’re pretty much disgusting. I quite like bits of Pop though, and those first three songs from The Joshua Tree are pretty undeniable.
Achtung Baby being really good might actually, probably, be down to Flood. it’s all about how it’s mixed. Just get the minimalist start to “So Cruel”. Pretty much everything U2 have done post Pop has been an exercise in sounding as much like people think U2 sound as possible. What they’ve forgotten is that, actually, U2 also sound like this, as well as The Joshua Tree.
Steve listened: I came out in a bad U2 rash after this outing of Bono Vox – for that is his full alter-ego pretentious name adopted much in the same vein as Sting. The thing that U2 have done is to have provided a simplistic template of how to herd the masses in terms of musical taste – adopted then by the likes of Coldplay, Snow Patrol etc. They masquerade as the underground, playing with those influences, much in the same way that a certain main-chain shops take on qualities of the independents. They also make themselves sound more important than they actually are, and this comes through no more clearly than via the mouth of Bono. Vague statements about “coming together”, “peace”, “touching god” make for an insipid attempt to probe the human psyche, but don’t really require much thought to get there. Easy listening for the masses and that is why I hate them.
Tom listened: Ever since I was a teenager I have lived in fear that eventually U2 would release a record that was so undeniably great that I would have to admit (to myself, if no one else) that it is really rather good.
And…I actually quite liked One when it was released as a single!
So I was a little fearful when Nick pulled out Achtung Baby that that moment might have come, the moment when I could no longer comprehensively and wholeheartedly ‘hate’ U2 with a clear conscience.
I needn’t have worried – although reasonably palatable musically, Achtung Baby is still risible. After all, at its helm are the conceited warblings of the biggest egomaniac in rock music! Horrible.