May 11

U2 – “The Fly”

Popular106 comments • 7,970 views

#668, 2nd November 1991

The Wikipedia article on Achtung Baby is illuminating in unexpected and glum ways. For a start, the demands of Wiki-style are never kind to projects which centre on ambiguity and every last bit of knowingness gets flatly ironed out. But more, the behind-the-scenes material – a boil-down of dozens of books, articles, and retrospectives – suggests what a ghastly and drawn-out process Not Being U2 was for U2. (My favourite factoid: how one proposed album title was Man – as opposed to Boy, you understand – before someone noticed this would squarely poleaxe the whole ‘not pompous any more’ look)

This points to one of the big questions about New U2 – the extent to which this music was impressive, or just impressive because of who was making it. When we watch a film about an ex-con, for instance, we often cheer them on when they reject a life of crime or violence while expecting the drama to hinge on their return to it. In our everyday lives, of course, we don’t find it much of a struggle not to commit armed robbery. Similarly, many bands find it surprisingly easy not to make tedious and overblown rock records, so how much of the interest in U2’s early 90s material comes from them fighting these deadly urges, rather than the fact (or otherwise) of their success?

“The Fly” seems designed to state these changed priorities as clearly as possible. Everything you identify with 90s U2 – the elliptical lyrics, the attempts at funkiness, Bono getting his Bowie on and trying out different characters – is here in force, and for me the later Achtung Baby singles had nothing like the impact this did. Of course, this one had the good fortune to break Bryan Adams’ geological span at number one – after sixteen plays of “Everything I Do” I can report that “The Fly” sounds bloody amazing, and I felt similar goodwill towards Bono at the time.

But even free of context “The Fly” is a good record, as contemporary and striking as it needed to be. It’s built on a loose, loping rhythm which makes the song a harsher cousin of 1990’s ‘Madchester’ sound, with the breezy wah-wahs of the Farm or the Happy Mondays replaced by crunching, churning guitar work. If The Edge has a good comeback, Bono isn’t quite so convincing: his aphorisms set a mood well without adding up to much, and “the sheer face of love” is a fine image, but for all that the song needs it I can never enjoy his falsetto, and there’s still a few of his rock-singer-isms (“…chiiiild”) hanging around to sour the modernist milk.

At a safe distance, what intrigues me about U2’s reinvention is how little actually changed. The group were desperate to throw off their ties to a specific past, and fled into the comforting arms of another one – decamping to Hansa Studios was simply swapping a romantic America for a romantic Europe. And the elements the group played up on Achtung Baby – their theatricality, their love of texture – were always there: Rattle And Hum was a performance of a style as much as the Zoo TV material was, the heat-haze guitar on The Joshua Tree as evocative and alien as any of the electronic sound on Achtung Baby.

From this perspective choosing between Old U2 and New U2 was simply a question of working out whether Nine Inch Nails were a healthier influence for a rock band in 1991 than John Lee Hooker. But something else had shifted. U2 remained, as they always remained, an heavy-handed bunch. This was the secret of their success – in the Joshua Tree days their sincerity and scale bludgeoned you, needing no interpretation. But now they shifted their weight from content to context – they were just as heavy-handed, but about their artifice not just their art. They now hammered you with ‘postmodernism’, and in doing so helped make this thumping knowingness a signature of their times.



  1. 1
    fivelongdays on 9 May 2011 #

    I’m not a U2 fan, and this song has always seemed to be a little bit, well, nothing, really. It’s alright, but it doesn’t stick in the head like some of their better stuff still does.

    To be honest, it reminds me ever so slightly of a more industrified version of “Blues From A Gun” by JAMC, for some reason.

  2. 2
    CarsmileSteve on 9 May 2011 #

    also, wasn’t this officially deleted the week (day?) it came out thus helping its push for number one?

    seem to recall a LOT of copies hanging around record shops for Actual Years though…

  3. 3
    Tom on 9 May 2011 #

    I’m not a U2 fan either – as my sniffiness in the review probably makes clear – but I like this more than anything else they did post-80s.

    The instant deletion thing was covered in the Adams thread – I think it was 3 weeks?

  4. 4
    flahr on 9 May 2011 #

    There’s clearly something fun somewhere in “The Fly” – some germ of having a good time and Technicolor and S’Express – though to my ears it’s a bit too obvious what they’re trying to do (s’spect this is the “they were just as heavy-handed, but about their artifice not just their art” bit in the review?) and it doesn’t quite sustain five minutes. But hey, I’m willingly listening to it for a second time right now, so the fun at its core does seep through in some places. 5.

    The video is awful.

  5. 5
    Tom on 9 May 2011 #

    #5 I don’t think, at this point, their rejection of Old U2 extends to the idea of “fun” exactly. We have that still to look forward to.

  6. 6
    Mark G on 9 May 2011 #

    I remember stating boldly that this would only be at number one for one week, as U2 fans would buy it in week one and no-one else would want it in weeks following.

    Which is what happened.

    So, basically, here gets born, the ide of a number one hit single selling to a bands fans and no-one else?

  7. 7
    Tom on 9 May 2011 #

    #6 Bring your daughter to the what now?

  8. 8
    Cumbrian on 9 May 2011 #

    #7 And Innuendo.

    More thoughts on this when i get a chance to put them down. Initially though, I listened to Achtung Baby last week and I thought, on finishing, “this album has a reputation that I’m not hearing”. I prefer Zooropa.

  9. 9
    Matthew H on 9 May 2011 #

    #6 I think The Jam nailed that.

  10. 10
    Chelovek na lune on 9 May 2011 #

    #1 yes! I’d not made that connection with “Blues From a Gun” before, but it certainly makes sense.

    I quite like “The Fly”; as Tom essentially says, it comes just at that moment in which all the bombast and pomp of earnestly sincere stadium-rocking U2 has been thrown off, but before the skin of the bombast and pomp and earnestly sincere new-look U2 has yet to harden. Brow-beaten leather jacket off: trendier new wear not quite worn-in as yet.

    In fact, I rate “Mysterious Ways” and the dance remix of “Even Better than The Real Thing” pretty damn highly, too. And “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses”, too. And “One”….well, that’s just sublime. Still.
    I’m really not a U2 fan, but it strikes me now that this period – ie that of “Achtung Baby” really was their best work.

    It’s not such a stretch (oh but please oh please let’s not bring the Scorpions into it again…) to link all this with the tumultous changes in Berlin and across Eastern Europe at this time, surely? Even if U2 were perhaps being a bit too self-conscious about that; the Wall has fallen; pompous rock moralising is (for a moment) out of the question – it’s a bit… well, “cawmniss”.

  11. 11
    weej on 9 May 2011 #

    Not a U2 fan either but this is probably the only song of theirs I actually enjoy listening to. All the things that annoy me about their music generally seem to work in their favour here, and I’m not sure why – sheer force of will seems like the obvious answer.
    It is about a minute too long, though, and some of the Edge’s twiddlings at the end of the chorus knock a point or two off. 7 sounds about right.

  12. 12
    Matthew H on 9 May 2011 #

    Anyway, I was always more of a Mysterious Ways man, but I’m enjoying this on my headphones right now. Along with the quasi-dance-rock beat, it’s got a rough edge and a weird hollowness (to match the VOID in Bono’s SOUL, no doubt). Reckon 7’s about right, and the write-up nails the peculiar relative tremors of U2’s “switch”.

    Achtung Baby has too many tracks, but the highs are high. And Perfecto mixes of Mysterious Ways and Even Better Than The Real Thing satisfactorily completed the bandwagon-jumping – in style too.

  13. 13
    MikeMCSG on 9 May 2011 #

    # 6/7 You could go back a bit earlier to The Jam for that.

    I’m surprised that no one has mentioned how similar this is to the Inxs sound. Bono and Hutch were great mates at this point and clearly cross-fertilising each other ; Inxs made their best LP “Welcome To Wherever You Are” the following year.

    I thought this was quite good but no world beater. “One” apart, I thought the singles choices from “Achtung Baby” were quite poor , “Ultraviolet” and “Until The End Of The World” being two of their best ever songs, but then again it meant the album when purchased had hidden delights.

  14. 14
    Davek on 9 May 2011 #

    Still find this an awkward grab at contemporary up-tempo rock ala Vertigo, but the portion of the song where the wild guitar solo leads into the operatic vocals is really beautiful.

  15. 15
    Chelovek na lune on 9 May 2011 #

    #13 Hmm, yes I see what you mean re INXS. Though their material was mostly rather weaker than U2’s IMHO. Now, “Sometimes” by Max Q, Hutch’s spin-off project from the previous year – is definitely of this ilk. But very much inferior…

    Although let’s be frank: this was when a lot of second-rate rock bands (often newly signed to major labels and at least medium-name producers) started bunging an automated drum beat over their substandard strummings and unremarkable vocals and uninteresting lyrics. Though I’d hold the Stone Roses (and the Mondays) more responsible for this than U2, I don’t think Bono’s merry men can be entirely exonorated on charges related to this.

  16. 16
    lex on 9 May 2011 #

    I remember this existing – having had no idea who or what a U2 was previously – and being completely baffled that lots of people apparently seemed to care about it. To be honest, I remain completely baffled as to the appeal of this godawful tedious band.

    I do not remember a single thing about the song itself and do not intend to change this.

  17. 17
    Steve Mannion on 9 May 2011 #

    I didn’t expect this to score that high! Was ready to defend it (at least to the same extent as ‘Desire’ but this is a bit better and more interesting).

    I give U2 a fair bit of credit for trying to take stadium rock into “exciting multimedia territory” and the Zoo TV spectacle was a smart move for a band keen to remain relevant without ignoring or obscuring newer trends (the club remixes of the band’s tracks were pretty savvy too, don’t blame them for trying to stay some sort of hip for much of the decade).

    But ultimately it all worked because of the sonic characteristics and influences that define Achtung Baby, compensating adequately for Bono’s more irritating indulgences and enabling them to sound cooler than any other major (millions-selling) rock band at that point.

  18. 18
    Mark G on 9 May 2011 #

    #16 In which case, you can’t moan, can you?

  19. 19
    Tom on 9 May 2011 #

    #17 something I realised reading about AB/ZooTV is how… well, quaint and sweet the 90s idea of ‘multimedia’ feels now.

  20. 20
    swanstep on 9 May 2011 #

    I think Tom’s right that Bono’s the weak link here. Edge clearly has a bunch of new ideas, as does the rhythm section, and the song structure is somewhat interesting, e.g., we seem to go out on a new verse section, (which really works I find), whereas Bono just sounds like he’s trying hard to be cool or something.

    Anyhow, I’ve always found The Fly to be an inferior version of Zoo Station, the first track on Achtung Baby. I’ve never understood why *that* wasn’t the grand re-introduction single.

    Good call #1 on the JAMC connection – their Reverence single from 1992 sounds exactly like this too, only better, and its vid. was ace.

    Never thought I’d be scoring U2 lower than Tom, but for me this is a:
    5 or 6

  21. 21
    MikeMCSG on 9 May 2011 #

    # 16 Welcome to the generation gap folks !

    Seriously Lex you need to listen to things at least once if you want some respect for your views here.

  22. 22
    Steve Mannion on 9 May 2011 #

    #19 Yes I admit I have a big pang of affection on that basis. The suspended Trabants, the bit where Bono channel hops thru live TV on a massive screen and so on…I’m conveniently ignoring McPhisto of course…

  23. 23
    iainl on 9 May 2011 #

    The comparison that struck me at the time, and still does, is that they seemed to meet Depeche Mode coming in the other direction of the electronic-rock divide with Personal Jesus and then the Songs of Faith and Devotion album. Except that DM were miles better.

  24. 24
    lonepilgrim on 9 May 2011 #

    the impulse for U2 to record in Berlin’s Hansa studios was no doubt influenced by Bowie’s work there in the late 70s and it provided a similar opportunity for the band to reorient themselves away from the widescreen Americanisms of their previous couple of albums. Whereas Berlin was still divided when ‘Heroes’ was recorded, for U2 the German Capital was part a newly unified European country on the periphery of the West that was still in the process of reinventing itself.
    It’s been fascinating reading the Bowie blog (at http://bowiesongs.wordpress.com/) to discover how haphazard was the creation of “Heroes’ – when at the time it was interpreted as part of Bowie’s master plan to tap the zeitgeist. U2s working process for ‘Achtung Baby’ sounds similarly problematic and that comes across in the music – for good or ill. The shuffling drum pattern sounds generic and dated. The guitar alternates between the nagging riff and more familiar Edge-isms (where he can’t seem to help showing off, rather than keeping it simple). Bono plays up his irritating qualities to good effect – I like the falsetto and the sense of conflictedness that is implied rather than telegraphed. It was an astute move or dumb luck to embrace European artifice when a more ‘authentic’ version of the US in the form of Grunge was on the horizon.

  25. 25
    Conrad on 9 May 2011 #

    Never heard this before. The riff is Hush isn’t it? As updated by The Charlatans on the Only One I Know. All very Madchester, about a year and a half too late. And yes very INXS. Pretty lame, like Bono’s falsetto, I’d give it a 2. Have they gone hip hop yet?

  26. 26
    MBI on 9 May 2011 #

    Not even sure this was released a single in the US, and quite surprised to see this is the song introducing U2 to the ’90s and not “One,” “Mysterious Ways,” “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” or even “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?”, all of which have more cred as far as I can tell.

  27. 27
    thefatgit on 9 May 2011 #

    Come into my arms Bono, and save me from all that SICKLY ROMANTIC EARNESTNESS!!!

    Only problem was, Yer Man wasn’t really comfortable in the sweaty and claustrophobic industrial zone, after striding across vast canyons, looking for Gram Parsons in the desert, then trawling the Delta with autograph book in hand, seeking legend-status-by-association. But it was U2, probably the only band who could shoehorn Adams off the top, even if I was hoping that Adams’reign would be ended by some thrilling breakbeat or hardcore smash.

    The Biggest Band in the World had discovered the ’90s, and found that the 20th century was already decaying right in front of their eyes. Achtung Baby’s acutely aware of NOW as it was then, without predicting NOW, as they might have have been tempted to perceive it.

    I like TF as a kind of antidote to all that overpolished power-balladry, but like most medicines, it left a bad taste in the mouth. I didn’t hate it, but I couldn’t love it either. On Achtung Baby, it’s probably one of the weaker songs, compared to “Even Better Than The Real Thing” or “One”. It’s definitely Bono’s falsetto that sits uneasily in the mix, almost curdling the whole thing. So a welcome relief in 1991, but far from perfect, and far from what was actually engaging me back then.

  28. 28
    Steve Mannion on 9 May 2011 #

    His falsetto totally fooled me at the time (thought it was some big lady they’d roped in). It’s relatively restrained here tho. ‘Lemon’ is where it really CURDles (oh your sides).

  29. 29
    Tom on 9 May 2011 #

    Am I the only cold-hearted swine who doesn’t like “One” at all?

  30. 30
    Mark G on 9 May 2011 #

    I don’t like it much, apart from:

    At a band rehearsal, our singer borrowed my guitar and did a note and tone perfect version of “One”.

    Some years later, I see a vid of Bono playing it live, and I realise he’s got the exact same make/model of guitar. So, no wonder it sounded exactly like it.

  31. 31
    Steve Mannion on 9 May 2011 #

    ‘Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?’ was the AB single I didn’t like much at all, always liked ‘One’. Also went from heavy dislike of ‘Stay (Faraway, So Close!)’ to loving it many years later, oddly.

  32. 32
    wichita lineman on 9 May 2011 #

    “Helloooo Sarajevo!!!!!!” The McPhisto era U2 was try-hard but very funny. And not an obvious move at all, especially when so much post Manchester pre Britpop UK indie was try-hard and deadly earnest (5.30, the Catherine Wheel, Curve).

    I heard this for the first time in ages last week and was struck by how much, as Conrad mentions, it sounded like a Charlatans knock-off.

    I reckon the falsetto helps it hugely (always does in pop, like a revving engine, or crowd noise).

    Re 29: One is ghastly! A whining busker anthem. I always imagine it sung in the “impassioned” style of Enrique Iglesias. Has it been on X Factor yet?

  33. 33
    MikeMCSG on 9 May 2011 #

    # 29 I think Lex will join you in the kennel Tom. What is it you don’t like about it ?

  34. 34
    Tom on 9 May 2011 #

    #33 I don’t know really! I don’t like it LESS than many other big romantic ballads (including several we’re going to meet) – I just think it plods. Someone on the Adams thread said that either big love songs touched him or not and if they didn’t it was curtains for them – and maybe I’m like that about “One”, I can’t give it the investment it seems to be demanding.

    I remember at the time I was a bit irked by how the chest-beatingness of it seemed to bely all the “We don’t take ourselves seriously anymore” buzz around the band, but that’s no reason not to like it on its own terms.

  35. 35
    wichita lineman on 9 May 2011 #

    One’s cause hasn’t been helped for me by a busker who sang it (with a Spanish accent) at Waterloo station EVERY SINGLE DAY. Same goes for Stevie Wonder’s Part Time Love, which a man dressed as Sylvester the cat played on a saxophone at Piccadilly Circus every day on my way to work.

    But really, I wouldn’t have thought it’s any harder to imagine someone disliking One than disliking With Or Without You. Massive rock ballads – they’re hard to pull off, and it’s easy to go over the edge. I’ve always preferred Waiting For A Girl Like You to I Want To Know What Love Is, restraint is the key. There’s a line somewhere (not sure where) in that genre that can’t be crossed.

  36. 36
    lonepilgrim on 9 May 2011 #

    While ‘One’ get’s kicked about, can I say that I really don’t care for Johnny Cash singing ‘Hurt’

  37. 37
    Rory on 9 May 2011 #

    Man, I have so much to say about this and no time to write it; I should be writing it all in advance, but haven’t. Back again later in the week, when you’ll all no doubt have said it all.

  38. 38
    Steve Mannion on 9 May 2011 #

    This ‘not taking ourselves seriously’ thing is interesting but they seemed to want to have their cake and eat it. A goofier example is U2’s next #1 (not much of a spoiler there let’s face it) but they never stopped doing big earnest romantic ballads. I can see how ‘One’ may have seemed a throwback but there’s a simultaneous dirtiness and glitz to it (or at least Edge’s contribution) that their 80s epics didn’t have and which I found more compelling.

  39. 39
    swanstep on 9 May 2011 #

    Another vote against One (just have never liked its basic feel, and was mortified to see it turn up as a friend’s wedding song!). And I can do without Mysterious Ways too. I still think that AB is a pretty amazing record tho’ – there are (from my perspective) at least 8 or 9 very good to great tracks and they’re well spread out. The beginning (first two tracks) of the record is ace, it ends (last 3) *really* strongly and there are bunch of great things in the middle. AB really felt to me like Thriller or Hysteria in that *every* track was hook-filled – it keep on giving you new entry points, new ways to like it, and any blemishes ended up not mattering.

  40. 40
    swanstep on 9 May 2011 #

    @lonepilgrim. Oh noes! Even with the vid with June Carter looking on etc.? I confess to finding it incredibly moving.

  41. 41
    Cumbrian on 9 May 2011 #

    #34 That’ll have been me. One doesn’t touch me – as a result, I don’t really like it. The problem I have with it is, I feel, that lyrically it gives the impression of trying to be an intimate, one on one song initially but then seemingly transistions at the chorus into a one love for all mankind thing. I don’t mind songs that go for the one love for all mankind vibe necessarily but I tend to prefer love songs to go one on one – transitioning between the two is, for me, a no no. Isn’t the point that you’re trying to make the object of the song feel special? Isn’t that rather undercut by getting halfway through your protestations of love and then breaking off to say that, but of course, everyone is a special flower, not just [object of love song]?

    Obviously other opinions are available but One definitely doesn’t do it for me.

  42. 42
    wichita lineman on 9 May 2011 #

    Re 36: Count me in. Death porn.

    A fun pop game – ask a Johnny Cash fan* what his best songs are beyond the Sun years and the American Recordings. “Errr…..” Jesus, what was he doing for 40 years?

    *this game was invented by Pete Paphides for Beth Orton “fans” some years back.

  43. 43
    Tom on 9 May 2011 #

    I think the only J Cash I have outside those are Christmas songs which are enjoyably full-blooded in their sentimentality.

    And of course my kids’ favourite, the gloriously unscientific “Dinosaur Song”, “Brontosaurus Rex” and all.

  44. 44
    Cumbrian on 9 May 2011 #

    #42 I like Cash – answer is Man In Black. Then Long Black Veil and Ballad of Ira Hayes (though he didn’t write either of those – which might be a disqualification).

    I said up thread that I like Zooropa – I really like The Wanderer off that too.

  45. 45
    Pete on 9 May 2011 #

    The first new number one when I was at University. We had waited so long and then this. At which point I discovered there was a thing I had never noticed before: U2 were really big. I mean I knew people liked them, but I hadn’t realised that they were so big they could have a number one with a rubbish song with a rubbish new image. All my new friends, when I scoffed at this feeble-minded U2 rubbish, showed they had The Joshua Tree or some such nonsense in their record collection. My tirade against this nonsense bounced against the tail end of a massive generational fanbase. I was alone with my Carter records.

    I’m not saying I was right, but I never wanted to be wrong like them.

    I was deeply suspicious of this U2 volte face, cosmetic that it was. Until Numb, which I quite liked as it didn’t have Bono singing on it. Int he intervening years I have softened on the Fly a touch.

    Johnny Cash in the seventies. Well, his variety hour wouldn’t present itself.

  46. 46
    thefatgit on 9 May 2011 #

    I’m with Swanstep re Cash’s “Hurt”. I loved Reznor’s internalised rage, but JC simply takes the song to a whole new level. Rallying point for the death cult, it maybe, but Cash at his worst was considerably more accomplished than NIN at their best.

  47. 47
    Cumbrian on 9 May 2011 #

    I find U2 a difficult band to discuss in some respects. They’ve been so huge, have a pretty identifiable sound, a set of personalities that are well known and extra-musical activities that keep Bono, at least, in the spotlight. Frequently, the tendency is to play the man and not the ball when it comes to the music that they actually produce. I think that, personally speaking, this potentially causes me to fall victim to confirmation bias (again, personally speaking, that’s not why I come to Freaky Trigger – I actually want my biases challenged!). In this, U2 are not an act alone – I think there’s a few Bunnies coming up, particularly in the mid-late 90s that I’d categorise similarly.

    Maybe it’s because I wasn’t quite old enough to hear this at the time, in context, but when I first listened to this (several years after the fact, as I was 10 when this came out) I drew little distinction between this and Rattle and Hum/Joshua Tree. The Edge has a new box of effects but, essentially, this is stadium rock – with a big riff and histrionic guitar solo. It’s not quite sing-a-long but it sounds like what I think U2 are about – a bloody big stadium rock act (and I say this as someone who is partial to some stadium rock). But is this just my set of preconceptions speaking? On second listen, I quite liked the opening minute and a half of the track – OK, there’s a whacking great riff, but the track itself is actually pretty spare. It’s just voice, drum and bass with some Edge effects on the first verse and I found myself beginning to reassess. There seems to be something a little more “clubby” about this section of the record – but my first listen is confirmed as they then bugger it all up by putting in a guitar solo that is too long (there’s a naturally breaking point to the solo at about the 2:50 mark on the track and then they stick another 20 seconds of fret-wankery in there – why?). The remainder of the record is just bluster. I think it really lets down the opening half of the track. 5 – if they’d managed to cut a minute out of it and find a more satisfying ending, it would likely by an 8.

    Some of my view of The Fly is what I think of Achtung Baby. I see it as a stadium rock record. I think the U2 leap at this time is more to do with who they got to remix their records/who they were working with than what they’re actually doing themselves (with a couple of exceptions). I think the real change is on Zooropa, which I hear as more of an after hours record, less obviously playing to what I think are commonly perceived as their strengths and consequently surprises me when I listen to it. I just don’t get surprised when I hear Achtung Baby. Maybe those who were at the right age at the point of release can give me some insight as to just why this is/was perceived as a move on for U2.

  48. 48
    23 Daves on 9 May 2011 #

    I was never a U2 fan (and I’m still not) but “Achtung Baby” did soundtrack the late period of 1991 and even a lot of 1992 for me. I was living in my parent’s small town, and at that point I only knew one friend who had a car – or at the very least, one friend who was willing to give me lifts to places, with a strange combination of resentment and enjoyment (making sarcastic comments about his “designated driver” status whilst simultaneously clearly getting off on revving around to far-flung places playing music loudly with his mates). It’s probably not the case, but if often felt as if he only had two CDs in his car, “The Stone Roses” and “Achtung Baby”. I’ve even got a home video somewhere amidst my dusty pile of VHS tapes of us driving around the countryside while it plays in the background.

    Eventually, I had to begrudgingly admit that it’s a perfectly good album. Not a classic, and certainly not something I get regular urges to return to, but inoffensive at worst and enjoyably groovesome at best. Despite the huge part it played backing some of my formative teenage experiences, however (which mostly only involved cannabis and beer and not much beyond that, however much I’d have wanted other stuff to happen) I don’t feel any fond nostalgia when I hear it again. There’s just not that degree of personal association – it was somebody else’s obsession rather than mine.

    Still though, two things were in this single’s favour for me at the time – firstly, it knocked Bryan Adams off the top spot, which caused positive bias on my part where the former’s longevity caused disproportionately increased negative feelings. Secondly, a stadium rock band copping the grooves I was enjoying in the local alternative nightclubs and going to number one with them felt like as good as things were going to get. If the Roses and The Mondays couldn’t make it to the summit, then having somebody who simply borrowed off them getting there felt like a fair enough compromise.

    These days, I can still listen to it and enjoy it, and also (as others have pointed out) enjoy the sneaky JAMC-isms going on, but it doesn’t have quite the edge (no pun intended) I remember. Back then I’d have given it 7. These days, it will have to settle for 6. It sounds far cleaner and more calculated than my memory of it being this buzzing great wasp of a dance-rock tune which scared away Bryan Adams.

  49. 49
    Garry on 9 May 2011 #

    This was the first song I can remember hearding of U2. I’m sure previous ones were on radio but I can’t remember them. I remember the videos for this and One clearly. I liked the Fly. From here I worked backwards, liking the singles from the previous couple of albums, and then I liked the singles from Zooropa too.

    Then they released Pop – the first album they released when I was at a radio station. With Pop they promptly lost me and I’ve never been interested in later work.

    So I guess I’m not an album U2 fan, but a fan of certain songs of the late 80s and early 90s.

  50. 50
    hardtogethits on 9 May 2011 #

    A major, complicating, factor that accelerated the record’s appeal was that its video was shown on Top Of The Pops before it charted. TOTP had absolutely shunned the idea of pre-release videos, and from late 1979 right through to October 1991 its producers devised and rigorously applied rules which severely restricted the show’s opportunity to give publicity to discs from outside the Top 75. If you weren’t in the chart, you weren’t on the show (there were some exceptions in special features like Jonathan King’s look at the US charts).

    When the self-set rules changed, one video per week was shown from outside the chart. U2 were the third act to benefit, and the first to do so with a brand new release (not a track already available on an album).

  51. 51
    anto on 10 May 2011 #

    I was intrigued as to how this single would be reviewed and as it turns out I agree with most of what Tom says (including the score).
    It’s odd that in ’91 a common response to The Fly was that it was U2 trying too hard and yet listen to this back to back with their previous entry on Popular and it’s obvious that Desire is the sound of a band fumbling to grasp something that is not truly their own.
    The Fly on the other hand has held up staggeringly well. Those gutiars are the Edge at his best for certain. I can indulge the meaning-to-be-meaningful lyrics not least because I can recall scanning the sleeve of Achtung Baby as a naive child (it was one of the presents my Brother received at Christmas 1991)and thinking ” Every artist is a cannibal/Every poet is a theif ” was just like the deepest statement ever(shudder).
    I recently listened to The Joshua Tree start to finish for the first time in years and what struck me is how un-rootsy a lot of it is.
    In fact the weakest track is Trip Through Your Wires which does go for bar room bluster but so much of it seems to be about expanse and atmosphere rather than just an Irish rock band attempting Americana.
    I notice Brian Enos touches a lot more than I used to – that minimalist backing on Mothers of the Disappeared for instance.
    With that in mind Rattle and Hum seems like a distraction and had U2 thought better of it (or avoided ponchoes altogether) they might have arrived at the Achtung Baby sound a lot sooner and without having to un-learn their bad habits.
    As for Zoo tv theres not much difference between straining to show an audience how much you understand Raymond Carver and how much you understand Baudrillard so yes the instincts were similar.

  52. 52
    swanstep on 10 May 2011 #

    2 peripheral questions:
    (a) Has anyone seen the seen the full ‘trilogy’ version of Wenders’s Until the End of the World? I saw the original version on release in 1991/1992 and it was truly awful, particularly the bits set in Australia (Herzog’s Aussie film in the ’80s, Where the Green Ants Dream, is probably his worst film too!) Is it any good or at least significantly improved?
    (b) Has anyone else seen the recent guitar docu. with Edge/Jimmy Page/Jack White, It Might Get Loud? I saw it last week on a cable tv arts channel, and thought it was OK (but was glad I didn’t pay big bucks to see it out!). None of them came across as especially eloquent or thoughtful, but Edge seemed to me to come off worst: a little defensive overall about how punk rock his thousand effects units and signal processors and an army of tech assistants could be. Or something. I also wanted the docu.-maker to press him a little more about how he saw himself in relation to Fripp/Belew and other Bowie guitarists as well as compared to other influential post-punk guitarists like McGeoch and Marr. Alas not, and Edge didn’t volunteer anything on these fronts that I noticed.

  53. 53
    Tim Byron on 10 May 2011 #

    I was 9 in 1991, when ‘The Fly’ came out, and by that point, in terms of U2, I knew ‘Desire’ and that was about it. So in my head, U2 were roots-rockers with harmonica (of which there were a lot in Australia – Johnny Diesel and the Injectors, Paul Kelly and the Messengers, and the Black Sorrows to name a few). I think I had some vague idea that the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Where The Streets Have No Name/Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’ was a sort of U2 cover, but I would have heard that before the original. I don’t think I had very much context for ‘The Fly’ or “Achtung Baby” at all.

    But I loved it! U2 were just about the coolest band in the world to me at that point. The thing about “Achtung Baby” that really got to me was the counterculture postmodernist schtick – because it was probably the first time I really came across it. As a song ‘The Fly’ is a bit more about mood rather than songcraft, hooks, and structure, and so it in some ways is a surprising #1. But it’s probably like Lady Gaga today, in that what is inspiring Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters these days is often the imagery and ideas rather than the music. There’s a bit in the video clip to ‘The Fly’ where a TV screen in the background flashes up ‘WATCH MORE TV’, and I loved that.

    Most stadium rock is incredibly po-faced, for better or worse. For U2 to make stadium rock with a wink – and have audiences lap it up – still seems like a pretty big achievement to me. Stadium after stadium of people were watching a spectacle made with a heavy dose of irony, which poked fun at consumerism, where strange phrases like “EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG” flashed on screens at them, etc!

    Some of the lyrics now come off to me as being a little more faux-intellectual than they used to, but contra to @51 I still think “Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief/ All kill their inspiration and sing about the grief” is a great lyric (it’s just that the way Bono delivers it can’t help but remind you that he is a tosser).

  54. 54
    Ed on 10 May 2011 #

    #52b I saw ‘It Might Get Loud’ on a plane, which also seemed about right for it. In terms of personality and all-round human decency, I thought there was a very clear ranking of Jimmy Page >> The Edge >> Jack White. Page and, er, Edge were at least interesting about the technicalities of their craft. White just seemed like a self-absorbed whiner.

    The Wire had a great – and reasonably positive – review of AB, which included the classic line (roughly, from memory): “The Edge is the best guitar player now working in rock music. It’s a shame he happens to be in a band with the worst singer.”

  55. 55
    Ed on 10 May 2011 #

    #19 The vintage technology is lovely, isn’t it? Video walls! Satellite TV! Mobile phones! It’s like steampunk. A reminder of how very different the world was on the other side of the mid-90s explosion of the www.

  56. 56
    swanstep on 10 May 2011 #

    @Ed, 55. The vision of how tech would evolve from 1993/1994, i.e., from just before Mosaic/Netscape emerged to give us the first draft of the web, is best recorded in a series of ads for At&t made by the young David Fincher: I discussed those ads in a blog post last year in the context of the first, very exciting trailers for Fincher’s The Social Network (which I ended up not liking that much!), if you’re interested.

  57. 57
    MikeMCSG on 10 May 2011 #

    #50 We’ll be returning to the relaxation of those rules in a couple of entries time I think.

  58. 58

    Not sure if it’s evidence of how hard I was working as deputy editor at Wire in 1991, or an indictment of me not doing my job as music critic, but I realise as I play this I’ve never heard it before. Even though I know I own the 12″…

    What it actually makes me think of is that story about Simple Minds c.Belfast Child: that it was Bono’s advice that tricked Jim Kerr into rendering his band forever useless. Well, to me this sounds like U2 trying to be high period Minds. Which is better than any period U2; but they don’t really pull it off.

  59. 59
    Mark G on 10 May 2011 #

    #42, what was the “game” for “Beth Orton” “fans”?

    #58, what “advice”?

    I reckon Julian Cope got it right when he said he couldn’t be ‘pals’ with Jim for one particular reason. There, we can all be gnomic.

  60. 60

    Don’t know the actual concrete content of the advice! Hofmeister Bear mentions the story at Comment 29 on the Belfast Child thread: I assumed it was “be more like U2” (with the subsequently revealed intention of U2 being more like old-school Simple Minds) (ie actually good not bad).

  61. 61
    Mark G on 10 May 2011 #

    Oh, OK.

    JCope’s thing was that they had met and got along quite well, until the subject of the “Faust Tapes” album came up, at which point Jim mentioned that they’d all bought this inexpensive album, but reckoned it so awful they’d lobbed their copies as frisbes off the top of a mutistory car park. At which point JC decided they could not be friends after all. (I’m sure it’s in “Head On”, his autobiog)

    Certainly, Bono reckoned Echo and the Bunnymen to be their main competitors, and certainy Ian Mac did too (or did he reckon everyone else to be? anyways..) but U2 and Simple Minds certainly tended to alternate releases or so it seemed, and for a while you’d be forgiven for thinking that the new SM one was U2 (although not vice versa).

    Maybe that was it: Be like U2, which lead them into being a ‘less good’ U2, which is a bad thing to be, certainly…

  62. 62
    Ed on 10 May 2011 #

    For ‘Sparkle in the Rain’, I think it was, the record company put full-page ads in the music papers with a picture of a mountain. The message being that Simple Minds were now “rock”.

  63. 63
    Mark M on 10 May 2011 #

    52/54: I saw It Might Get Loud for work, my interest in guitar heroics have vanished around about 1986. Jimmy Page is the clear winner, combining the sense that he’s grown into being a gent who’s comfortable with himself (and has an amazing tailor) with a kids’ enthusiasm for music (there’s a great bit with him listening to Link Wray)*. The Edge’s problem, apart from the fact that he’s not very interesting, is that the film is tremendously unbalanced – the three are meant to represent three contrasting generations, but essentially Page and White are both from blues rock stock and Edge isn’t, which makes for uncomfortable jamming**. White is an idiot of the first order, but that’s no surprise.

    *The surviving Led Zep chaps all seem to be rather civilised nowadays.
    **The guitar summit bits are immensely dull.

  64. 64
    Mark G on 10 May 2011 #

    #42, what was the Beth Orton version?

  65. 65
    Andrew F on 10 May 2011 #

    I am guessing the Beth Orton version is “…apart from the Chemical Brothers tracks”

  66. 66
    Cumbrian on 10 May 2011 #

    #63: To be utterly contrary, the two best bits of It Might Get Loud for me are actually in the guitar summit bits. The first is where all three of them are jamming on I Will Follow and right at the end, Page basically tells The Edge that he’s playing the wrong notes. I suspect that The Edge would have taken it from Page but not from White because the respect the two have for the elder statesman is papable – and shown in the second best bit, where, having dutifully listened to The Edge and Jack White play their bits, Page stands up and cranks out the Whole Lotta’ Love riff. White breaks into a proper fanboy “I can’t believe I am sat 5 feet away from this” smile and The Edge physically gets up from his seat for a closer look. It’s charming to see two guys who earn a lot of money playing guitar come over like starstruck schoolboys – particularly when they have been both have been guilty of being utter poseurs at times.

    The Link Wray bit is very good too though.

    Great perjorative viewpoints from a couple on Jack White too – with which I thoroughly disagree! In my view, he’s one of the few interesting rock musicians of the last 10 years, basically because of the artifice and his rather snotty attitude. Doesn’t mean I’d like a beer with him though…

  67. 67
    Mark G on 10 May 2011 #

    Dunno, a beer would be cool..

  68. 68
    DietMondrian on 10 May 2011 #

    It’s interesting (well, it’s interesting to me) that, while I’ve never been a U2 fan, Achtung Baby was the closest I came to liking them, and I had a reasonably positive memory of The Fly – until I listened to it just now and found it a bit torpid.

    Pet Shop Boys were mentioned upthread – I recall Neil Tennant, when they released “Where the Streets Have No Name (I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You)/How Can You Expect to be Taken Seriously?” talking about his disdain for some rocker (might have been a U2 member) thanking his manager for lending him a jacket so he could get into some posh do. Wow! You’re so rock ‘n’ roll you don’t own a jacket! Or similar.

    My memory of all this is that U2’s reinvention was provoked specifically by PSBs taking the rise, though it seems too quick a turnaround from the PSBs’ pisstakery to Achtung Baby’s arrival.

  69. 69
    wichita lineman on 10 May 2011 #

    Re 64:
    “Do you like Beth Orton?”
    “Oh yeah, she’s great. I love Trailer Park”
    “”What’s your favourite song?”

    I like Johnny Cash, but think his catalogue is pretty thin for a “legend”. Ditto Willie Nelson. Not exactly style over substance, but certainly forerunners of the Cave/Magowan/Gillespie school of mildly talented artists who demand to be taken very seriously indeed. And it works (see Screamadelica BBC4 special as latest example).

    Re 68: I’d love to think Bono was wounded by Neil T’s pisstaking, but let’s not forget he took a stylist to court to get his “iconic” black Joshua Tree hat back. Not much awareness of how unbelievers would point and laugh, I guess.

  70. 70
    flahr on 10 May 2011 #

    Er… blimey, I’d never actually realised the PSBs cover of “Where The Streets Have No Name” was supposed to be a piss-take. I suppose looking it up and seeing that the other side was “How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously?” suggests that’s true. Well I never. (Curse you Discography…)

  71. 71
    hardtogethits on 10 May 2011 #

    #57. Thank you for noticing, in a non-negative way. I will indeed mention the rules again, soon, much to everyone’s immediate indifference and delayed disdain. Bunny alert.

  72. 72
    nixon on 10 May 2011 #

    Bono’s actual quote about the PSB record, iirc, was “What have we done to deserve this?”, which is both surprisingly witty and completely wrong. You *wish* you had made a record that good, Hewson.

    I only own one U2 record: the remix of Mofo from Pop.

  73. 73
    Mark G on 10 May 2011 #

    Well, I suppose I could give you a few fav Beth Orton tracks, but that’s just me … (that’s just me… that’s just mmmmmme)

  74. 74
    Alfred on 11 May 2011 #

    I guess I’ll be the only one to mention the solo and “middle eight”: Edge taking off with Clayton thumping long until the song returns to the chorus, and Bono, lapsing into what he called his Fat Black Lady voice, scatting until he reprises his “A MAN WILL BEG. A MAN WILL CRAWL” twaddle. It’s a beautiful moment. I’m one of those music writers who’s ripped U2 to shreds in the last twenty years, and while I prefer Zooropa the stadium rock gestures here combined with the enthusiasm for trying all sorts of incongruent ideas is very attractive for once.

    All my friends at the time, by the way, commented that this was U2 “doing” Jesus Jones.

  75. 75
    Alfred on 11 May 2011 #

    I’m very much a formalist when it comes to interpretation yet I’ll admit to giving U2 the benefit of the doubt in the next few years because the portrait created by Bill Flanagan in [i]U2 At the End of the World[/i] of four obviously intelligent twentysomethings having to accept the consequences of their explorations is so attractive.

  76. 76
    LondonLee on 11 May 2011 #

    While there was a certain whiff of U2 bandwagon-jumping, especially with the dance mixes, I always saw AB as them getting back to their roots. Their first single was produced by Martin Hannett remember and when I saw them live back in ’81 the support band was This Heat who were about the height of avant garde post-punk noise.

    While we’re giving Bono a bit of a kicking I was informed by someone who has done some fund-raising work with him that he refuses to allow any photos of him without his sunglasses on to be published. The guy emailed me one of him with Bono sans shades with the message “PLEASE DON”T PUBLISH THIS!”

  77. 77
    swanstep on 11 May 2011 #

    @wichita, 69. Love Orton’s Sweetest Decline from her second album. Yum. (I’ve seen her do it live, where it was just OK, but the recorded version is a knockout.) As for Cash having a slender set of achievements for a legend… I’d say, even setting the Rick Bubin-fuelled comeback stuff, he’s good for at least 4-5 albums of really great material (admittedly including lots of live versions of his original Sun stuff) especially if collaborative stuff with June Carter is included (their Carrying On collab. album is a fave – I didn’t much like the Walk the Line movie but I was thrilled that they used ‘Long-legged Guitar-pickin man’ from that record for the closing credits). He’s got at least as much fantastic stuff as Elvis or Willy Nelson (as you mention). You’re setting a *very* high standard for legend status if people are required to have more runs on the board than that (regardless of the wider cultural impact and influence of their peak stuff). I’m pretty sure, for example. that you can wrap up all the Abba or all the Kate Bush anyone would ever need in 4-5 discs.

  78. 78
    wichita lineman on 11 May 2011 #

    Abba and Kate Bush weren’t making records for 50 years.

  79. 79
    Rory on 11 May 2011 #

    I know very little about Willie Nelson, but these columns convinced me that he has a lot more going on than you might suspect. Similarly, Johnny Cash.

  80. 80
    wichita lineman on 11 May 2011 #

    Crazy is one of the greatest songs ever written by anyone. I Walk The Line is likewise. Both have great voices. It’s not that I don’t like Willie or Johnny, but they had REALLY long careers and their legends are HUGE compared to their list of classic songs. That’s all. I think Lee Hazlewood, for one, has just as strong a claim to an elevated ‘American outlaw hero’ status.

    Re 77: Live versions of Sun songs?? Course that doesn’t count!

    The Beth O game was more to show a) how much her music was a Notting Hill lifestyle accessory in the 90s and b) how many people pretended to like her without knowing any of her songs. I’m glad she’s got some actual fans.

  81. 81
    Cumbrian on 11 May 2011 #

    #78: You’re right, Kate Bush has only been going 34 years. Whippersnapper.

    I think Cash was generally a better intepreter of other people’s songs than he was at writing his own – especially in the immediate post Sun records period up to Live at Folsom/San Quentin – this might be because he was strung out on drugs and didn’t write much (I don’t know).

    It’s a bit harsh to say that he didn’t do much in the period between Sun and American Recordings though. He knocked together concept albums in the early 60s, including Bitter Tears about the plight of the American Indian (which includes the aforementioned Ballad of Ira Hayes) and Sings The Ballads of The True West – funnily enough, all about the Old West – which was a double concept album well before any of these Johnny Come Lately rock bands got around to trying their hand at such things. Plus, some of his most famous songs are from the post Sun period (though as noted he didn’t write a lot,if any, of them): 25 Minutes To Go, Ring Of Fire, Long Black Veil, Ballad Of Ira Hayes, Jackson, etc.

    I think the idea that he didn’t get up to much in his early Columbia years is mostly a product of the fact that Columbia wanted him to re-record a load of his Sun material, so that they could make some money off the old songs, plus the raucous readings of the earlier material that forms the backbone of the prison albums’ reputations.

    I would, however, support the contention that Cash didn’t do much of consequence post mid 70s until the American Recordings, with the odd exception (Ghost Riders In The Sky, there’s a good cover of Springsteen’s Highway Patrolman too).

  82. 82
    David Belbin on 11 May 2011 #

    Saw U2 on the October tour, lost interest in them after The Joshua Tree but bought the 7″ of this, the last one in my U2 pile. It has a little something going for it, but is hardly memorable. I’ll be surprised if they play it at Glasto next month. I saw Beth Orton last month, for the third time, and, despite her being heavily pregnant and coughing a lot, she was in good form. Solo acoustic suits her better than the band she’s had before and she has loads of new songs she hasn’t recorded yet. Her most recent, ‘Comfort of Strangers’ isn’t quite as good as ‘Central Reservation’ (which is a lot better than ‘Trailer Park’). ‘This One’s Gonna Bruise’, which Ryan Adams wrote for her to sing on the patchy ‘Daybreaker’ is a stone cold classic.

  83. 83
    Mike Atkinson on 11 May 2011 #

    “The Fly” – or “The Fluke”, as I wittily dubbled it at the time – is one of a tiny handful of U2 songs that I actually, genuinely like, and it was also the first record of theirs that I ever bought (not that there were many to follow). Nevertheless, my favourite Achtung Baby-derived single remains the Perfecto remix of “Even Better Than The Real Thing”; never was a track more aptly titled!

  84. 84
    Ed on 12 May 2011 #

    My teenage years were massively over-determined by U2, to the extent that I had a cap-sleeved ‘War’ white flag T-shirt, and a mullet, just like Bono. I was preposterously excited by the fact that there was a band that was rooted in the music that I loved (Patti Smith and Television, basically), but could get on TOTP. For many people, I guess, U2 were a gateway from pop into rock; for me it was the other way round.

    So I have never been able to hate U2, even when their music was perfectly uninteresting, as it has been for all of the 21st century. And at the time of ‘The Fly’, U2 were easy to love. The Jesus Jones comparison upthread is spot-on – certainly a closer match than MBV and Public Enemy, which I think U2 claimed at the time – but the record is all the better for it, with a great churning rhythmic riff and passages of eerie rapture when Bono deploys his rarely-heard falsetto. And TF is one of the weakest songs on ‘Achtung Baby’, which does a great job of capturing the realisation that you are not really young any more. I am surprised by the idea that got around that this was U2’s “fun” album; it is actually a very dark piece of work. It is also one of the last in the line of “classic rock” albums that came to a dead stop around the end of the decade, with ‘Kid A’, or possibly ‘OK Computer’. I would not claim to play it terribly often, partly because I pretty well know it by heart, but I will always think fondly of it.

    #56 Thanks! That is a great post.

    #68 etc: As with so much involving the Pet Shop Boys, it is ambiguous, isn’t it? Yes, they are having fun with WTSHNN; Tennant’s deapan voice, the segue into ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You, and the B-side are all proof of that. But they are reasonably respectful of the source, and the record sounds absolutely terrific, possibly inspiring U2’s subsequent dance mixes. So to me, it is the classic pastiche: neither attack, nor tribute, but somethng else.

  85. 85
    DietMondrian on 12 May 2011 #

    #84: I don’t think PSBs were attacking U2’s music (they must have liked WTSHNN enough to cover it, after all) so much as their (and by extension, other rock bands’) joy-sucking po-faced earnestness, belief in their superiority to pop, multinational-backed pretence at outlaw status, etc, etc.

  86. 86
    swanstep on 13 May 2011 #

    More Berlin/Hansa studios: the Pushing ahead of the Dame (Bowie) blog is up to Heroes. Recommended to say the least.

  87. 87
    Rory on 13 May 2011 #

    When “The Fly” buzzed into view, I was already halfway through my first nine-week term as an MPhil student in England. By this point I was a regular visitor to the local independent record store (which I now see went under in 2003), spending my precious converted coin on a string of CDs recommended by new friends and the UK student zeitgeist in general: The Stone Roses, Screamadelica and Blur’s Leisure all got heavy play in those early weeks. And then came Achtung Baby.

    In previous comments I’ve written about my late-’80s ambivalence about U2, despite having been a big fan of Under a Blood Red Sky and Boy. My interest was sustained by key tracks from their major ’80s albums, like “The Unforgettable Fire”, “Where the Streets Have No Name”, “God Part II”, and, yes, “Desire”; but it felt like an increasingly long time since I’d loved one of their albums wholeheartedly.

    Achtung Baby changed that overnight. I can’t remember when I first heard the clarion call opening of “The Fly”, but I was instantly hooked, and picked up the album more or less immediately. Within days it was my favourite U2 album, filling the gaps I had heard in previous releases with sounds I hadn’t known I was looking for – some of them not far from the bands mentioned above – and featuring a string of tracks with hardly any duds. Only “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” struck me as weak, and even that was later rescued for me by the Temple Bar Edit of the single release. The rest sounded amazing, each and every one.

    In the Bryan Adams entry I wrote about music serving as continuity between the other side of the world and this, but through bands like the Stone Roses, Primal Scream, Blur, Ride, and towards the end of my stay Spiritualized, it was also acculturating me to my new location (in space and, in hindsight, time). What was so extraordinary about Achtung Baby was that it did both at once. Here was a band I had effectively grown up with, having discovered them at the end of the year I discovered pop, whose previous straight rock releases sat perfectly comfortably in an Australian musical context (with the exception of the noodlier parts of The Unforgettable Fire); and here they were raiding a musical toybox I had only just discovered, and only because I’d uprooted myself from that context. It was thrilling.

    Also thrilling were its roots in the most exciting news event of my lifetime to that point (and probably to this point), the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The darker corners of Achtung Baby sounded like the ghosts of East Berlin, and the excited clatter of its more upbeat tracks sounded like the rattling open of a cage. And this was before I’d actually visited Berlin, which I first did in 1998, where you can hear the opening notes of “Zoo Station” in the sound of every tram. Turning their attention from America to Germany felt in 1991 like exactly the right move.

    As I said, I loved just about each and every track. The pinnacle had to be “One” – something about its lyrics and texture spoke to me then, and does now – but I could also listen to “Zoo Station” again and again. My favourite sequence of the album, though, was “So Cruel” followed by “The Fly” followed by “Mysterious Ways”, with this track the pivot of the whole album, and in some ways an encapsulation of it.

    That opening riff again: a fantastic single opening, clearing whatever you were listening to out of the way so that you only had ears for this; but also a perfect contrast on the album to the elegance of “So Cruel”. And then those clattering drums, as if Larry Mullen was banging on the side of a Trabi, and over the top of them the Edge’s best guitar work in ages. I loved every second of that solo and outro.

    Yer man Hewson never sounded better to me, either. I’m inured enough to the derision he attracts here to state simply that I like his voice, and especially here: the breathiness of it, the growl of it, the whine of it, the falsetto of it, the insistence of it. And although I’ve sometimes had problems with his lyrics, these ones can still delight me after all these years. Nobody has mentioned my favourite line of the song, which seems to capture so much about where U2 was in 1991: it’s no secret that ambition bites the nails of success. Screw this one up and we’re toast, boys. They didn’t.

    I listened to Achtung Baby again a few times when we were discussing “Desire” last year, and although it had lost a little of its startling impact in light of what came after (from U2 and others), it held up for me – although it sounded even darker and, in places, sparser than I’d remembered. “The Fly”, though, still stands out from its surroundings.

    As musical madeleines for the favourite times of my life go, I’ve had worse. 9.

  88. 88

    Grabbing and making public Carsmile’s joke in another place, the famous “pomo homework” that Eno gave them was in fact a copy of “Info Freako”

  89. 89
    punctum on 16 May 2011 #

    And then, suddenly, the future turned round, stared the past squarely in its smug and obtuse face and winked a permanent NO…

    Blame Eno, now making his how-much-longer-could-we-have-been-expected-to-wait exceptionally belated debut on Popular, except of course he’s been here for virtually all the journey, taking notes in the 1967 audience, lurking in the 1971 wings, belching nowness in the 1972 arena, starting to pull a few strings in 1975, glued to 1977 and 1981 like a butterfly to an anemone, smiling beningly at 1982 and 1988 while stretching his legs briefly in 1989 and then singlehandedly kidnapping grizzly old pseudo-roots revivalists U2 (they had no choice but to come willingly and loudly), locking them in his idolatrous steel cube, reminding them roughly of what their real roots were and then forcing them to listen to the Young Gods, to My Bloody Valentine, to KMDFM and Sonic Youth, to Madchester (but not in a Jesus EMF way), to take the KLF on board, to fear a whitened planet with the Bomb Squad (did I mention Son Of Bazerk?), to float with Orb, Orbital and Aphex, to twist their world into a storm of accursed currencies, to record their about-bloody-time follow-up to Here Come The Warm Jets…Eno, who stripped Roxy, hijacked Talking Heads and now decided to restart his pop career in the body of U2…

    Achtung Baby wasn’t all brash trash; sometimes the difference was purely cosmetic, since songs like “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?” and “Mysterious Ways” could have fitted onto the tricompartmental wagon of Rattle And Hum if they’d been twisted in the Chubby Checker/Jive Bunny way. But “Even Better Than The Real Thing” signified the beginning of elongated detachment, “Love Is Blindness” cries in its victim’s blood, “Until The End Of The World” made Wim Wenders suddenly seem like Henry Hathaway on a grumpy Tuesday…

    And I am not forgetting that its greatest song – and maybe their greatest song – was the most conventional; the soberly wrecked central axis of “One”…we’re not the same but get to carry each other, don’t see through me dad, see me through, but there’s more to say about that when we get to another U2 number one, far off in the future…

    But it had to be “The Fly,” the record’s most clearly unclear song, the farthest departure on the album from anything resembling “U2” (because the Joshua worshippers forgot Boy in people, or it never got to them in the first place), which had to lead the assault, to get Bryan Adams, the past, out of their stranglehold on the top of the charts, the utterly misleading and false 1991 charts; forced out of their securely respectable box and made to matter again by the Punctum Catcher Eno, “The Fly” sings – well, whispers – about sex and dirt and it’s a telephone call from an inmate of Hell, how goes it (“It’s no secret that a conscience can sometimes be a pest”), here’s looking at Bono singing about secrets dreaming about truths (“All kill their inspiration and sing about their grief”), but the stars are falling from the sky, the world is in darkness tonight and every night, and the song crawls with its cracking-up beats, its muffled, distorted premium-line panting (Siouxsie, “Peek-A-Boo,” did you think we weren’t listening?), guitars which pole vault the stadium only to crash into the gamma rays of Jupiter, a falsetto from another life (Billy MacKenzie, in 1991 still not a ghost and evidently not forgotten)…

    There is eventually nowhere left for the song to go but to pull down Joseph and the Bartman and so-called Enigmas which have tortured this year of years (“You know I don’t see you when she walks in the room”) and pleasantries and supersonic Philips hi-fi Knopfler galleries of monocolour, and so it falls apart with glee, the Edge wriggling and screaming like an electrocuted moth against the fading lightbulb of thrusting Thatcher-killing drum programs as Bono relishes imminent destruction (“The universe exploded ‘cos of one man’s lie”) and even gives “the past” its own custom-built epitaph, its assisted suicide note (“Look I gotta go, yeah I’m running out of change” – taking that “change” literally and symbolically – “There’s a lot of things, if I could I’d rearrange”). U2 miraculously managed to pull all of the important 1991 strands together…but really it was Brian who, as with so many previous eleventh hours in pop, saved the day, compelled us to look at the gloriously profuse alternatives; Brian told Bryan to fuck off quicksnap (not the first time he’d done that with a Bryan either) and, even as a base (camp) gesture, “The Fly” showed those pasts who now was the boss. As though there was a time when he wasn’t. Did I mention Spiderland by Slint?

  90. 90
    Ed on 29 Jun 2011 #

    #82. So they did do this at Glastonbury, quite early on in a set that was very Achtung Baby-heavy, presumably as a result of intensive FT study to see how they might win over the doubters. That was very welcome, although I think that the critical consensus that the show was competent rather than inspired gets it right. What felt fresh and thrilling at Wembley Stadium in 1992 felt tired and unimaginative two decades later. The best bit was the interpolation of a few bars of ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Of of You’ into ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’, which raised a grudging smile among my U2-sceptic set.

    What was much less welcome, though, was the grotesquely heavy-handed over-reaction to the very mild-mannered tax protest. Time for Bono to make some restitution, I think.

  91. 91
    Mark G on 29 Jun 2011 #

    I take it they didn’t do “get on yr boots” then?

  92. 92
    swanstep on 29 Jun 2011 #

    @Mark G., 91. No they did both Boots and Vertigo. The frontloaded Achtung baby stuff, e.g., The Perfecto mix of Even Better Than followed by The Fly to start, however, just stood out.

    That said, it appears to have been a superstar-making weekend for Janelle Monae…

  93. 93
    Ed on 30 Jun 2011 #

    @92 Re Janelle Monae, I hope you’re right, and her ranking on Amazon rocketed after her performance, but I wonder if she’s a bit too problematic ever to be a real superstar.

    On the Readers’ Poll 2010 thread, Erithian pointed out that part of her set was on a loop on the BBC red button service on Tuesday. Not sure if it’s still there, I am afraid. Online, there is a nice package including a setlist, stills and video here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/festivals/glastonbury/2011/artists/janellemonae/
    The iPlayer videos generally stay up for a week, so hurry while stocks last.

    I thought the show was great, but it was very characteristically her: the wonderful combination of exuberance and precision; the charmingly gratuitous weirdness – painting a picture while singing one song! – and the slightly distancing effect of all the theatricality, were all in evidence. If you were put off before by her Broadway show-tune tendencies, Glastonbury would not have changed your mind. The set also confirmed that ‘Tightrope’ is by some distance her strongest song. That half-second single-syllable hook – the stressed accent on each repetition of “-een” – is the most brilliantly economical and expressive pop device for a long time.

    What I came away thinking about, though, was her androgyny. For a woman to combine James Brown stage moves, Prince-like arrangements (especially the guitar), and a Jackson 5 cover (as well as a Stevie Wonder one) is even now a pretty bold move, I think. Beyonce played with some of the same ideas in her set, but she was already a megastar, so the stakes were lower.

    It occurred to me that Monae has the same sort of relationship to Brown that PJ Harvey had to Nick Cave (although that one eventually went a bit further, of course), or Justine Frischman did to Hugh Cornwell. Which helps make her cool, but may not help her become a superstar.

    That said, she did win over at least one convert. As I was over-enthusiastically suggesting that Beyonce was the best show I had ever seen, my friend harrumphed and said it was not even the best performance by a black American woman singer he’d seen in the past two days.

  94. 94
    punctum on 30 Jun 2011 #

    Thing is, in the album midweeks, Beyonce is outselling Gaga and the two Adeles put together and Janelle Monae’s not even in the top 40.

    Moral: you can storm Glasto as much as you like, but if Sainsbury’s don’t stock you, you’re not coming in.

  95. 95
    Mark G on 30 Jun 2011 #

    Yeah, but the papers also are all going “yay Beyonce!”, and pressing the red button is too much work they’d much rather re-print press releases…

  96. 96
    punctum on 1 Jul 2011 #

    Or misquote lyrics and build an entirely pointless article around them (Zoe Williams in yesterday’s Grauniad).

  97. 97
    Erithian on 1 Jul 2011 #

    Ed #93 – no, Janelle was only on the red button on Tuesday. Monday was Elbow, Wednesday was Hurts, yesterday was U2 and today is Bellowhead (which I’m looking forward to seeing tonight). Peculiar selection, but chances are random bits of Glasto will turn up on BBC4 for a week or two yet.

  98. 98
    Ed on 4 Jul 2011 #

    @96. That Zoe Williams article was a real trainwreck. It’s a shame, because she is usually excellent: I’ve read great pieces by her on feminist writing, public sector strikes and exercise, just in the past ten days. (Not a very impressive performance by Guardian readers either, who get to the second page of comments before someone points out the misunderstanding.)

    Unexpectedly, the best piece I have read about Beyonce at Glastonbury was by – of all people – Clive James in the Daily Telegraph on Saturday. There are occasional lapses into his characteristic leering, but overall it is an eloquent and thoughtful account of what makes her great.

    @97 Bellowhead are good, then? Sadly I missed them on the BBC, but I am going to Latitude this year when it has a generally pretty drab line-up, and I am looking for bright spots.

  99. 99
    lonepilgrim on 5 Aug 2011 #

    if the original Achtung Baby wasn’t enough:


    I think I’ll pass

  100. 100
    DanH on 3 Aug 2013 #

    So this was the song that finally knocked Bryan Adams off the perch? In America, that distinction belonged to “The Promise of a New Day” by pre-AI Paula Abdul. I’m pretty sure I heard it once after 1991, after hearing it a lot that year.

  101. 101
    hectorthebat on 29 Mar 2015 #

    Critic watch:

    Michaelangelo Matos (USA) – Top 100 Singles of the 1990s (2001) 101
    Woxy.com (USA) – Modern Rock 500 Songs of All Time (combined rank 1989-2009) 909
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 475
    Q (UK) – The 1010 Songs You Must Own (2004)
    XFM (UK) – The Top 1000 Songs of All Time (2010)
    Panorama (Norway) – The 30 Best Singles of the Year 1970-98 (1999) 12
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    New Musical Express (UK) – Singles of the Year 26
    Rock de Lux (Spain) – Songs of the Year 23

  102. 102
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  105. 105
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  106. 106
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