Uncut Ultimate Music Guide JUNE 2009 - by Sam Richards


Vorsprung durch technik - the oddest and most intimate album in U2's catalogue.

So U2 had pulled off one of the most audacious reinventions in rock history. In 1991, they'd successfully emerged as thrustingly contemporary cyberpunk vagabonds, brandishing a newly ironic appreciation of their self-made mythology, expanding the remit of stadium rock with their Zoo TV multimedia hullabaloo.

With the aid of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, and guided by their new guardian angels Lou Reed and David Bowie, U2 had performed a thrilling volte-face. Achtung Baby was a critical and commercial triumph. Thanks to the shrewd inclusion of catch-all anthem One, U2 brought the flag-wavers with them, as well as impressing a new generation of MTV-reared brats.

And what if Zoo TV was really just a confused concoction of silly stunts, lame third-hand situationism and old-school stadium bombast? It was, undeniably, a phenomenon - and a pretty entertaining one at that. U2 had willed themselves back into cultural relevancy.

Erstwhile contemporaries Simple Minds and The Alarm were left choking dust; U2's new peers were the alternative generation of REM, Jane's Addiction and Nine Inch Nails. As PVC-clad alter-ego The Fly, Bono even looked cool, for the first and only time in his career. Adam Clayton took U2's new fixation with celebrity culture to its logical extreme by getting engaged to supermodel Naomi Campbell. Achtung Baby went eight times platinum. Five-and-a-half million people paid to watch Zoo TV. By the time U2 returned to Dublin in November 1992 after the third and most ambitious 'Outside Broadcast' leg of the tour, they were feeling invincible.

"Everybody's head was spinning," said Bono. "We thought: 'Why not keep that momentum going instead of standing on dining tables at nine o'clock and throwing fruit around the restaurant? We're up here on the moon so let's stay here and make a record.'"

What started out as an experimental jam session and adrenalin substitute became a fan-club-only release, then a commercial EP, then - what the hell - a full-blown album. Zooropa took less than nine months from conception to release, with the band flying back to Dublin between the dates of the Zooropa '92 tour to get it finished. "There was no opportunity to mess around or second-guess ourselves," The Edge reflected later. "Because of the time problem, we really just had to go for it."

With Eno and Flood at the helm and The Edge's experimental instincts driving proceedings, Zooropa turned out to be the oddest and most intimate album in U2's catalogue. Advertising slogans for lyrics. Industrial dance beats. The Edge rapping. Johnny Cash crooning. The sound of U2, in Bono's words, "getting away from the weight" of being U2.

The Zoo TV tour had involved a few ugly contortions. Some were probably unavoidable - how to balance the cool, ironic distance of The Fly with the absolute sincerity required by Pride (In The Name Of Love). Some, though, were self-inflicted - how to balance the cool, ironic distance of Bono's MacPhisto character with the absolute sincerity required by linking live by satellite to Sarajevo. Inflated to stadium size, much of Zoo TV's ideology came across as fatuous. But, freed from the context of having to engage fifty-thousand people in a football ground simultaneously, Zooropa actually made a crazy kind of sense. At the eye of the storm, Zooropa allowed U2 to survey the chaos they'd created with an eerie calm.

Numb was the first single, although the traditional 7" and CD formats were deemed passé for the new U2. Instead, Numb was issued in VHS format, with a deadpan video directed by Kevin Godley. The song matches the perversity of its release: with Bono confined to a manic falsetto cameo, The Edge intones Numb's verses in a louche, dispassionate monotone over a tense, trip-hop-style beat.

If Bono viewed Zooropa largely as an opportunity to maintain Achtung Baby's momentum, his guitarist clearly had some issues to get off his chest. Numb unfurls as a litany of ironic commands, satirising passive consumerism and media saturation, as well as acknowledging the void at the heart of the celebrity existence: "Don't move, don't talk out of time / Don't think, don't worry, everything's just fine". And then the straight-up admission in the chorus: "I feel numb... too much is not enough". For the first time in a long time, U2 sounded small, vulnerable, hunted.

Then there's the elegant, ambivalent title track. Over a Blade Runner-ish synthscape complete with radio signal interference and Edge's familiar guitar figures treated to sound like laser bursts, Bono begins crooning well-known advertising slogans: "Vorsprung durch technik" (Audi), "Be all that you can be" (the US Army), "Better by design" (Toshiba), and so on. A cheeky piece of post-modern pop posturing, for sure, but nothing the likes of Devo, The KLF, or even Sigue Sigue Sputnik hadn't explored before. It's the following verse that intrigues: "And I have no compass and I have no map / And I have no reasons, no reasons to get back / And I have no religion and I don't know what's what..." No reasons? No religions? For U2, the band of pious, unequivocal sentiment, these existential doubts sounded positively subversive.

Both Mysterious Ways and Even Better Than The Real Thing from Achtung Baby had been remixed by Paul Oakenfold, the latter with unprecedented success: released as a stand-alone single, it charted higher than the original and graced numerous club mix CDs, Bono's voice merging seamlessly with the slick supplications of a thousand house divas.

The Edge, by this point an enthusiastic clubbing convert, wanted to see if he could summon some of Oakenfold's liquid dancefloor magic by himself. The result was Lemon, a transcendent pop single, whose lithe rhythms, shimmering guitar washes and limber dub bassline ensured it nestled on many of '93's big-name DJ compilations without the need for a remix (although both Oakenfold and David Morales had a decent bash anyway). Sung terrifically by Bono in a lascivious falsetto - his "fat lady" voice - it also packs a typically stirring chorus reminiscent of The Unforgettable Fire proving that, happily for U2 plc, there were some instincts that just couldn't be quashed.

Bono wrote the lyric "She wore lemon / To colour in the cold grey night" after being moved by watching a Super-8 film of his mother as a young woman - a meaning rather trampled on the PopMart tour when the song was used to accompany the band emerging, Spinal Tap-style, from inside a giant mirrored lemon.

Zooropa also saw U2 finally embrace sample culture (although too late to intervene when Island Records crushed American sound collagists Negativland in 1991 for chopping and screwing with I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For). After inviting Public Enemy and The Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy aboard the Zoo TV juggernaut, U2 belatedly grasped the idea that the medium could also be the message. So the classical fanfare shunted onto Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car is not just any classical fanfare but, as the liner notes proudly trumpet, a classical fanfare lifted from an album called Lenin's Favourite Songs

More problematic was Bono's revelation that Numb's drum loop was sampled from a Nazi drummer boy in Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph Of The Will. Why? Was it really the best drum sound available? "We attempt to lampoon and therefore demystify the spectre of racial hatred," he blathered, unconvincingly, to NME. This brief fascination with fascist imagery was dubious at best. Luckily, Zooropa - unlike Zoo TV - doesn't amplify these lapses in judgement. The feeling that prevails is of a bold collage of ideas, sometimes clunky, sometimes meandering, but never predictable.

Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car is a triumph of the band's mission to deconstruct their very U2-ness: part Prince, part Warm Leatherette, it comes complete with a searing lyric about indulgence and alienation - "You're a precious stone / You're out on your own / you know everyone in the world / but you feel alone" - that could be as much about Bono himself as any cosseted princess.

Some Days Are Better Than Others is a deliberately glib, plastic pop confection, moulded to perfection. The First Time, originally intended for Al Green, is a ghostly Joshua Tree throwback - Running To Stand Still in daguerreotype. Wim Wenders tribute Stay (Faraway, So Close!) is a twinkling '90s alt.rock ballad - a cousin of Radiohead's High And Dry and Smashing Pumpkins' 1979 that just about manages to keep a lid on its impulse to seek out the nearest cliff-top.

Then there's The Wanderer, easily the weirdest track U2 have ever deemed album-worthy. Again, there are no lead vocals from Bono, although Johnny Cash makes for a pretty acceptable substitute.

Adapted from Ecclesiastes, its lyrics were designed so that Zooropa, an album full of anxiety and uncertainty, ends with a resolution, of sorts: a realisation that the journey is an end in itself. Cash is accompanied on his Biblical quest by a budget gospel ensemble and an insistent plastic bassline, like the auto-arpeggios of a cheap keyboard's line-dance setting. Were U2 privately smirking about having persuaded the man with the most harrowed voice in rock - the "ancient mariner" as Bono called him - to sing over a glorified Casio demo? Probably.

And yet the eerie juxtaposition justifies the wheeze. The Wanderer is Zooropa in miniature: seemingly a bit jokey and throwaway, but ultimately more real and affecting than most of U2's '80s output because it doesn't strive so desperately for power and purity. Zooropa's deployment of irony is inclusive. Rarely do U2 seem to be winking conspiratorially at each other, as they would later on the Pop album. With the band's new-found self-awareness came an understanding of pop music's subtle dynamics, a realisation that not every song has to slay stadiums or surge towards an obliterating climax, an acceptance of haste and imperfection and an appreciation of playful experimentation for its own sake.

"Skeletons of U2 songs, flecked by static, understated, with their speaker stack climbing finales castrated," concluded Uncut's John Mulvey writing in NME at the time. His words were meant as a cautious endorsement, although plenty of U2 followers conversely viewed Zooropa's lack of obvious anthems as an aberration. It sold only a quarter as many copies as Achtung Baby.

Even The Edge, whose inquisitive musical vision propelled the whole Zooropa project forward, has since disowned its working methods: "We don't go down the road with a piece of music just because it's unusual. That's not enough for us now. We want something that's potent and some of the songs [on Zooropa] are not particularly potent. I never thought of Zooropa as anything more than an interlude... but a great one, as interludes go."

Zooropa rarely crops up on the 'Best Rock Albums Of The '90s' rundowns, but it's got a lot in common with a record that regularly tops them. Look at the frightened cartoon face on the cover, the ironic monotone list song savaging modern living, the neutered anthems, the technofear, the evocations of dystopia... Yup, there's more than a microbe of Zooropa in Radiohead's OK Computer.

Some factions within U2 were never fully comfortable with Zooropa's lower-key ambiguity, and of the songs were subsequently installed as staples in the U2 live experience. Other factions evidently considered it not experimental enough: their next album was the Eno-driven Original Soundtracks 1, credited to a different band altogether...

Tracks: Zooropa / Babyface / Numb / Lemon / Stay (Faraway, So Close!) / Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car / Some Days Are Better Than Others / The First Time / Dirty Day / The Wanderer
Released: July 6, 1993
Produced by: Flood, Brian Eno and The Edge
Recorded at: The Factory, Windmill Lane Studios and Westland Studios, Dublin
Chart position: UK: 1 US: 1