It’s Been 20 Years? The Best of 1991 Revisited: Achtung Baby

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2011 marks a year in music that (unbeknownst to us at the time) would be truly revolutionary and generation-defining in a way that will continue to reverberate for decades to come. In a series of posts, KCRW DJs will investigate some of the most important albums of the end of the last millennium.

From DJ Mario Cotto:

When I started looking at the list of records that came out in 1991, the first one that caught my eye, the one that I immediately remembered was a pretty big deal for me (as I’m sure for many) was U2’s “Achtung Baby“.

So much has been written about U2’s early 90’s left turn of an album, that although I could write ad nauseum about Lanois/Eno’s mind-blowing production, or the consistent lyrical socio-political/spiritual/millenial aspects ranging from globalization to shifting gender roles to being on the cusp of the Information Age to the death of God, or the fact that as a “statement” it was about as radical and daring a transformation as any band that popular has ever attempted.

However, I’ll simply take a more personal approach and simply invite you to my first listening and sharing of the album.

It would’ve been mid-November in North Philadelphia. My dad had a church at the corner of Chew & Fairhill Sts. Around this time, I was a freshman in high school. I was still a total Olney/North Philly Homeboy. Spent alot of the time either hanging out on other kid’s stoops listening to K-Solo on boomboxes, riding bikes around the neighborhood, or playing stickball in the alley behind the house. My dad’s church was a couple of blocks from my house, and a bunch of my friends happened to go to my dad’s church on Sundays.

My bud Walter lived right around the corner from the church. Walter was the first kid I ever knew who had a Nintendo Entertainment System. So, almost every Sunday after church, I’d head over to Walters and his mom would make us snacks and we’d hang out in the basement playing Nintendo or pool. Walter was a very quiet, shy kid who couldn’t go bike riding or play ball on Saturdays because he would often spend weekends at a parking garage near Rittenhouse Square helping his dad park rich people’s Mercedes Benzs‘ (mind you this kid was 13 or 14). While playing Duck Hunt he’d regail me with stories of the weird stuff he’d find while rummaging through people’s glove compartments and the dozens of times he nearly wrecked these totally unsuspecting people’s prized automobiles.

Anyhow, earlier that week, I’d sold a bunch of my baseball cards and comic books to get the necessary $11.99 to buy a brand new cassette at the local Strawberries. Although the signs for A BRAND NEW U2 album had only gone up within 1-2 weeks of release, the radio had already started playing “Mysterious Ways“, whose droning loops and programmed drums sounded to me at the time like some fusion of pop music and hip-hop (Although I was listening to hip-hop, Christian rock, and Sting, I had zero awareness of “Industrial” and/or other forms of dance music at the time.)

I was truly excited about an album of music that sounded like whatever THAT “Mysterious Ways” sound was. I knew “The Joshua Tree”, “October”, and “The Unforgettable Fire”…but this was something else altogether. The posters (by Anton Corbijn) were all dramatic black and white photos of bulls, Bono and the band in drag, and tiny little cars. I was in uncharted territory aesthetically speaking.

I remember riding my bike to the Strawberries on Wednesday of that week. And by Sunday morning, I’d listened to the cassette, on repeat, in it’s entirety around a hundred times. Especially on headphones, although jarring and abrasive, and generally lacking the austere piety and reverence of previous albums, this was booming. It felt raw and naked. This was the sound of a band challenging their beliefs and wrestling their angels. The sound of a band discovering something other than romantic love and desire, the excitement of the flesh. 13-year-old me was stunned. I was used to these guys singing about God, Martin Luther King, and wanting to go to heaven. It wasn’t necessarily a denial of those beliefs or concepts per se, but seemingly an expression of how hard it is to be righteous. About how one can’t possibly truly experience the fullness of life without knowing the darkness. “Achtung Baby made it okay for belief to be a complicated, perhaps even terribly messy thing. (Essentially, they were entering Johnny Cash terrority.)

This also marked the first time I felt so struck by an album, I HAD TO SHARE IT.

This became my first instance of musical proselytization. I went to Walter’s house after church service and while his mom made us some pizza rolls downstairs, we hovered over the boombox in his room. I pulled the cassette out of the case and handed him the liner notes. He was unnerved by the fact that there was a picture of a naked guy in the corner (Bassist Adam Clayton) and these dudes were all dressed up like women. Then, there was a perfectly fit naked body painted female torso next to a leering Bono. Walter looked at me like what the hell is this, why do you, the minister’s son have this?!?!) I told him…this is the “NEW U2 record,” as I popped the cassette into his boombox. As the opening buzzsaw guitars and dramatic thump of the skittering drums of “Zoo Station” kicked in, we both sat down and just stared at the speakers. No words spoken. Just chaotic layers of gorgeous cacophonous sound and wobbly vocals talking in jibberish. At this point, neither of us knew what it felt like to be drunk, but we both half-guessed it was something like this or maybe this was something more than that. Whatever it was it made you crazy. But feel reeeeeeally good.

Walter’s mom called us endlessly to retrieve our Sunday snack, but we didn’t hear her. By the end of side 1, something had changed. We knew that Nintendo Games, comic books, baseball cards, and bike riding were a train stop we weren’t going back to. The next stop was wherever Zoo Station was. Now began the time of the sound of revving engines, stories about girls, breaking glass, and the excitement of looking to define whatever the real thing was, so that we could get dizzy on it.

A variety of 20th anniversary editions of Achtung Baby and a dizzying 6-CD + 4-DVD + 5-7″ box set are set for release this October and an album of various artists (including Depeche Mode, Jack White, Patti Smith, & Damien Rice) covering the album in it’s entirety comes out this November.

— Mario Cotto