20 years ago in October, U2 released Achtung Baby, a generally excellent album, as good in my opinion as anything that came out in the ’90s. I was not a dedicated U2 fan before it came out. I was afterward. It is no exaggeration to say I have listened to the album, or the numerous derivative remixes, single versions and B-sides on a weekly basis since it was released. Think about that for a second. By any definition, it’s been a bit of an obsession. In that sense, I can sort sympathize with artists who are obsessed with a single subject/medium/theme throughout their professional career. Except Christo. What the hell is that about?
It’s hard to convey my obsession with the album to someone who hasn’t had to live with me. I have listened to it hundreds of times, and I still notice new things (I think), every time I hear it. Dollar for dollar, the CD was probably the best 15 dollars I ever spent. I do get burned out from time to time, of course, and go on hiatus, but when I come back to it, I hear it new.
Achtung Baby was also the album that introduced me to what a guitar could do. The first guitarist I ever noticed, it should be said, was the Edge. I remember seeing the video for “I Still Have Found What I’m Looking For” on MTV, which used to have music videos on it. In it, the band’s walking around Las Vegas, and Bono’s kissing girls while Edge is playing a beaten-up acoustic and not giving a shit. And I thought that was totally f*cking cool.
AB was unlike anything that I was familiar with. The band had changed sounds before, from their early post-punk stuff, to the experimental soundscapes of The Unforgettable Fire, which led directly to the fuller and more mature sound of The Joshua Tree, and Rattle and Hum, which sort of sounds like an Irish guy doing an American accent. In the lore of the band, the group was looking to reinvent itself. Half the band wanted to stick with a Joshua Tree-style sound that had turned them into a stadium-filling headline act, while Edge was getting into Nine Inch Nails and dance music. At the same time, romantic relationships were breaking up. In search of inspiration, the band went to record in Berlin, a city that was re-imagining itself after the collapse of the Wall. While visual aesthetic of the album and subsequent ZooTV/Zooropa/Zoomerang tour was defined by the band’s winter in Berlin (especially from the proliferation of cheap little East German Trabants), the recording sessions was marked by creative discord. So they went back to Dublin, where things came together. As I understand the story, the band was working on another song, possibly “So Cruel,” and sort of stumbled onto “One.” (I hear that audio of this session is available, but I have yet to hear it. Soon.) The band would stay together! Huzzah! (Or something.)
Achtung Baby was an effect-heavy album from the beginning of the first track, “Zoo Station,” when Larry pushes his bass-drum through a distortion effect. Bono stopped screaming and started singing falsetto using effects on multiple vocal tracks. Adam Clayton was also there. I’d also say it is a project driven by highly processed guitars. Since The Unforgettable Fire, Edge had been known for layered jangling delays, chorus effects, and his “shimmer,” in which the guitar signal is split, and one line goes through an octave effect repeatedly, so that the effect is of the original tone followed shortly later by a swelling chorus (see the video):
As you might imagine, when you have a slightly delayed duplicate signal (or many), suddenly a lot of sonic options open up for you, because each line can be run through its own effects chain. And it is this sonic space that the Edge filled in Achtung Baby. On board, an arsenal of guitars, delay effects and a pair of Korg A3s. The Korg A3 is a sort of dinosaur now, a pioneer of digital rack-mounted multieffects chains coming online, but when you plug one in, you feel the roots of several sounds on the album. Each A3 allows you to run a signal through up to 6 different effects at a time. You can program the machine to run the effects in the order you want, and each effect can in turn be adjusted to your liking. It’s a pretty complex machine with a lot of flexibility.
My obsession with the album’s sound has driven a lot of my decisions about my guitars, my equipment, and what I do with them. In a subsequent post, I will show off what the machine can do (which happens to include hiding what I can’t).