By the end of the 80s they had reached the pinnacle of success. In 1987, U2 released their fifth studio album ‘The Joshua Tree’ to commercial and critical success, and, as a result, became the most popular “underground” band in the world. Many bands struggle with their live performances to achieve the bar set by their producer in the studio. In contrast, U2’s signature ethereal neo-psychedelic sound and poetic, melancholy lyrics connected with audiences all over the world. To their fans, flocking to U2’s sold out stadium concerts represented a secular pilgrimage to receive musical communion at a modern day tent revival. U2’s authenticity stood out for those of us coming of age in the cynical, foppish eighties; a buoy, floating in a sea of otherwise plastic entertainment consisting of new romantic and metal hair bands.
When asked why he made the documentary about ‘Achtung Baby’ the director responded:
“What I was drawn to was how they felt about that moment in their life. Each of them had a very different perspective, but it was definitely a tumultuous time for them. It was a time when they either had to reinvent themselves or perish. They reinvented themselves in an incredible way, but it was touch and go!”
The band’s need to renew itself, even at the risk of breaking up, is something we all pass through at various stages of our lives. They chose Berlin, right after the collapse of the former Soviet Union. The band recorded at Hansa Studios, known as “Hall by the Wall” because it is adjacent to the Berlin Wall. Other successful artists like David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Depeche Mode had recorded music at Hansa.
Bono was interested in dance music and the Edge had become interested in industrial music and both were determined to take the band in a different direction. Larry and Adam wanted a more traditional U2 record.
The choice of pushing themselves to either death or rebirth, the choice to radically change their style despite being at the top, to use a Berlin studio at the start of reunification were examples of Janusian thinking.
How much was U2 really risking? That is hard to define, but many of the most influential bands in Rock n Roll: The Beatles, The Eagles, Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Police, to name a few, couldn’t survive their success.
Those people who take more, but not excessive risks have been shown to be the happiest.
They fought. They yelled. They contemplated breaking up. Nothing was working out. The director describes the breakthrough moment:
“And then this song (“Mysterious Ways”) happens. And I go,“Well, this is the moment. Let’s go after it.” We went into the archive and the original recordings from those sessions were there. They were playing “Mysterious Ways” and these chords arrived for “One,” and then the next moment when they pull those chords out to start another song, and wow! It’s like you’re an archaeologist and you’re digging through the dirt and the rubble and you find this stone that holds the key to this mystery.”
From “Absolute Soul Destroying Failure” to “Mysterious Ways”to “One”.
This, my friends, is the mystery of life.
This, my friends, is grace.
I have had it happen multiple times in my life.
May we all find it.
I am looking for it again, right now, in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
From The Sky Down