I know, 15 years isn't exactly one of those big anniversaries. The nice, round 10 and 20 seem to command a bit more respect and, if you're going with birthdays, 15 is beyond upstaged by 16. But I actually have something special planned for Zooropa's 15th, part of which I'd like to share with you guys.
After discovering the 33 1/3 series of books -- each of which focuses on a different album -- and joining a project seminar in my last semester at college, I decided to start writing a book about Zooropa.
U2's output has always reflected the scope of their experience. Their debut, Boy (1980), was influenced by the punk and post-punk bands that had made their way into Dublin's radios and venues. But when the band began touring abroad, they explored not just more of the world, but different sounds and ideas. By the time U2 released The Joshua Tree (1987), they had suceeded The Police as "the biggest band in the world." Much more importantly, though, their music now spoke of their deeper, matured understanding of Mid-Eighties Earth.
The Joshua Tree uses the title image and its surrounding desert as metaphors for America: a promised land, as the embodiment of the mythic American Dream, but also a wasteland, with its interventionist policies abroad and “Greed is Good” mentality at home. Having witnessed firsthand the firebombing of villages in El Salvador by American-backed troops, Bono sings about a war-torn city that groans as violence sweeps its streets; and about the monster of America – the liberator that waits for survivors to run outside and into its arms. But a few tracks later, his tune has changed: he’s seized by the image of the Statue of Liberty – for him, both a siren and a rescuer. Now America has become the greener pasture “dreamers die” trying to reach, just so they can “see what’s on the other side.”
But the scope of The Joshua Tree extends beyond the United States and its interests, with allusions to Ireland (“Running to Stand Still”), Britain (“Red Hill Mining Town”), Argentina (“Mothers of the Disappeared”), New Zealand (“One Tree Hill”), Africa and Heaven – which are both, in their own respects, “Where the Streets Have No Name”. And just as the lyrics illustrate these places and the struggles – both personal and political – of the flesh-and-blood people inhabiting them, so too does the music evoke landscapes and the conflicts unfolding across them. Take guitarist The Edge’s mystifying arpeggios, which introduce the album, his prowling rage throughout “Bullet the Blue Sky,” or his gentle, exasperated wanderings on “Running to Stand Still.” Take drummer Larry Mullen’s haunting contribution to “Mothers of the Disappeared,” his beat masked through some otherworldly distortion. Take bassist Adam Clayton’s surging lines in “Exit,” echoing the thoughts that pound the lyrics’ desperate, tormented narrator. Take Bono’s ripened voice, reaching higher, even at the top of his register, to bring a sense of authenticity to the passionate character arguing, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” U2 aren’t just telling stories; they’re working hard to bring listeners into the narrative.
U2’s fascination with this sort of realism continues on Rattle and Hum (1988), which seems like an odd duck – a double album, half live tracks, half studio recordings – but works surprisingly well. The new material is rarely political, reflecting the mood in most of the outtakes and b-sides from The Joshua Tree and its singles. An overwhelming number of Rattle and Hum’s songs focus on the idea of love, most obviously in “Love Rescue Me” and “When Love Comes to Town,” but also in “Desire,” “Hawkmoon 269” (the refrain of which is “I need your love”), “God Part II,” (with the chorus, “I believe in love”), “Hallelujah (Here She Comes),” “A Room at the Heartbreak Hotel” and “All I Want is You.” To top it off, the single release of the last song features covers of “Everlasting Love” and “Unchained Melody.”
But the emotions in this love saturation – which sounds like a rejected chemical term – are far from shallow. This is a gritty “love.” True love? Love mistaken for desire? Love that actually is desire? The songs work through several permutations of love and the characters giving, receiving, withholding or confused by them. Whereas The Joshua Tree considered “the two Americas” – its dream and its reality – Rattle and Hum looks at the many facets of love.
And while America is no longer a major focus of the lyrics, it has now slipped into the performances: although some sounds have been carried over from The Joshua Tree, more of the music draws from American influences, especially blues and folk. The album doesn’t just pay tribute to American music and its legends – Billie Holiday (the “Angel of Harlem”), Elvis Presley and Bo Diddley among them – it also features two: B.B. King and Bob Dylan. Even with the adoption of a new (old) style, a preoccupation with love, interceding live cuts and some high-profile guest spots, U2’s studio songs continue to ride on the band’s deepening understanding of their world.
But following the record’s release, U2 experienced a fair bit of turbulence. Rattle and Hum, after all, is not just an album but also a major motion picture. What had started out as a small documentary about the Joshua Tree tour developed a budget and joined with the Rattle and Hum sessions to become a mammoth movie-and-soundtrack combo that seemed as though meant to hurriedly capitalize on the band’s explosive success from the previous year. Here’s 1988 through 1991 in fragments: Premiere! Criticism! Pretentious? (Craziness!) Retreat! Relax. Tour! Tour! TIRED!! Break. Break up? Break down. Break through:
When U2 found themselves in the studio again, grappling over the songs that would eventually form Achtung Baby (1991), they were dealing with the growth of factions between one another that threatened not only the band but their friendship. Looming on top of this was their now-dubious “biggest band in the world” title. A by-product of their success was the joke, “How many members of U2 does it take to change a light bulb? One. Bono holds the light bulb and the world revolves around him.”
But this punchline was also their salvation. Rehearsals in the newly-reunified Berlin continued to fall apart until the ballad “One” emerged, compacting into a diamond of a song all the pain, angst, resignation and desperation the four bandmates had been experiencing – in their personal lives, in their public lives and in U2. After “One,” the band was able to achieve a sort of sonic liberation – another misbegotten science phrase that never was – by consciously keeping from anything that sounded like “the old U2.” The songs on Achtung Baby continue on the same personal track as those from Rattle and Hum (with far fewer mentions of “love”) but are more sophisticated and much fresher.
The band’s turmoil, within and without, brought a remarkable cast of characters to surface in the record: men exploring the pull of the superficial and the sexual; lovers trying to untangle themselves from each other after the end of an affair; a drunk waking face down in a gutter, embracing the ground the morning after he’d embraced the world; a terrorist coming to realize his fanatical “love” is “blindness;” and even Judas, speaking directly to Jesus both before and after death. Bono, at his peak as a lyricist, grapples with these voices while the guitars, drums, bass and auxiliary production apply a novel – but still interpretative – sheen.
For the tour in support of Achtung Baby, U2 riddled their public image with irony, pretending they’d accepted their monstrous celebrity status while actually ridiculing it. Bono adopted a leather jacket, leather pants, bug-eyed sunglasses (a fashion route from which he hasn’t returned) and an over-the-top, swaggering stage persona. And instead of risking the birth of another overgrown concert documentary, U2 let their show become a spectacle instead. The ZooTV tour featured scaffolding that towered behind the band and supported a slew of JumboTron-size screens. In addition to live footage of the band’s performance, each of these broadcast a schizophrenic array of imagery U2 seemed to hope would satirize through embellishment the sense of media bombardment perfected through coverage of the Gulf War.
Having nearly broken up in 1990, released a hit record in 1991 and gone on a yearlong tour in 1992, the group seemed due for a breather in early 1993 before resuming the ZooTV jaunt in the summer. But just as much out of restlessness as inventiveness, U2 instead conceived Zooropa (1993). Their interest in the concept of America during The Joshua Tree had led to their dabbling with its music on Rattle and Hum. Now, U2’s curiosity over Europe’s reunification while writing Achtung Baby and the impact of media on culture while staging ZooTV led to explorations of both on this unexpected album. Although it was received well enough among both critics and the public, some listeners were thrown by the contrast between the bouncier, more pop-oriented Zooropa and the darker, rockier Achtung Baby.
But for some (count this writer in) the album is purple space crack: fun, weird, deceptively deep, mood- if not mind-altering but, thankfully, not chemically addictive. Zooropa works because it isn’t a masterpiece, nor does it try to be. It doesn’t demand superlatives, a new album-centric tour or media bombardment – as every other U2 record since The Joshua Tree has. It’s just happy enough to play back the warping world the band has been living in.
After Zooropa, the band supported producer (and musician in his own right) Brian Eno to create the experimental Original Soundtracks 1 (1995) under the pseudonym “Passengers.” POP (1997) marked U2’s return to the mainstream, but the album, with its companion Popmart tour, proved to be more of a Pandora’s Box for the band than a catharsis. I’d like to dive into these and other records, give them their due – and I will. But let’s go spelunking in Zooropa first.
1 Zooropa 6.30
(“Uncertainty can be a guiding light”)
Achtung Baby started in Germany. The album’s first recording sessions started in Germany (Berlin’s Hansa Studios). The album’s first song, “Zoo Station,” is inspired by Germany (Berlin’s Bahnhof Zoo train station). The album title’s first word, even, is German.
But when U2 tried coming up with a name for what would become the first song on their next album, they found their world no longer started in Germany. In fact, it didn’t seem to be on even the same planet!
And so the Irish started making up words.
There’s a definite etymology to “Zooropa,” though. The phrase, as well as the song and album that bear it, have roots in “ZooTV,” the band’s stage show, which lampooned the phenomenon of media bombardment by means of one of the rock band’s many gifts – amplification. U2 broadcast both their performance and frenetic, song-specific montages across gargantuan video walls that loomed behind them during each show of the tour.
There’s also an element of “Europe” in there, too: an early nineties Europe, which was weathering the social / political / economic trauma of reunification with the former U.S.S.R.’s satellite states. But then a sense of alienation jumps in: xenophobia is spreading, especially in the Achtung Baby fatherland, and desensitization is revealing itself as the byproduct of intense, frontline media coverage. Maybe this is another planet that U2 are trying to capture in song! Maybe it’s Europa, swinging around Jupiter – it seems that far out.
But, as with any Philip K. Dick novel set on a world almost unrecognizable as our own, what hits home is that this is home. We realize that the characters here are as unsettled by this reality as we would be, were we in their place. The main point in the song “Zooropa,” if not the album as well, is that, strange and perhaps lost as the world may seem, it can still be remade. Those hoping to exact change just have to “dream out loud.”
However, “Zooropa” starts off in a far less optimistic place. The song is a six-and-a-half-minute sprawl, the first two minutes of which are instrumental. During this time, the band develops and refines an ominous sense of limbo by intruding into the fog of sound sustained by producer Brian Eno’s synthesizers with a festering pile-up of radio and television babble. The vague, distorted voices are unintelligible, and the band seems to try covering over them by hatching minimalist patterns on the piano and bass – which sound much more natural by comparison.
In addition to an air of uncertainty, there’s also a distinct primordial feel to this portion of “Zooropa,” which makes perfect sense, considering that Larry, not Adam, came up with and performs an unsophisticated bass part here. About a minute and a half in, the thorns of voices go wild, sounding like they’ve wrapped themselves around the swelling bass. For me, this roughly recalls 2001: A Space Odyssey – apemen clamoring around a pitch black monolith, hopping on the express train to the next point in their evolution. (Or, at least, I think that’s what’s going on. This is 2001: A Space Odyssey, after all.)
A parallel for the movie’s iconic bone-toss-to-space sequence comes not long before the two minute mark when The Edge’s guitar emerges. It’s not echoing, as in the eighties, and not growling, as in “Zoo Station” an album ago, but instead squeaking a motif that will crop up again later in the song. After this, the full band lands on the surface of Zooropa, and the voices from the earlier audio pile-up consolidate all their ideas and conflicts into a single question: What do you want?
This provides the groundwork for the second of the track’s three informal movements. The character Bono voices here sounds unnervingly complacent while putting “Zooropa,” whatever that is, up for sale. The speaker claims that, among other things, it “could be yours tonight.” But what is Zooropa? And how is it “better by design” or “a bluer kind of white?” There’s no elaboration on any of this.
But that’s the whole point. The speaker here is little more than a heap of billboards watching over a Zooropean highway. Nearly all the “taglines” Bono sings are actual slogans of existing companies, many of which were better known in 1993 and Europe than in 2008 and America – the time and place from which this writer hails. Zooropa could be an Audi (whose motto is in Achtung Baby-friendly German), enrollment in the U.S. Army, a bottle of SlimFast, Persil or Fairy laundry detergents, a Toshiba television, a United Airlines ticket, a Zanussi washing machine or even Colgate toothpaste – all of which are advertised (for free and for fun) in the lyrics.
So what do you want Zooropa to be? the consolidated voice of the babbling advertising world seems to ask over and over. And, in a very postmodern way, Zooropa is whatever its audience wants it to be – if nothing else, a product of their imagination.
(A musical aside: the bass line in this section bears a strong resemblance to the one Adam uses in “The Fly,” a song from Achtung Baby that features a series of personal, rather than professional, mottos. Those lyrics are the terse sayings of an imagined barfly, who offers, “It’s no secret ambition bites the nails of success,” “Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief,” and the mea culpa “There’s a lot of things, if I could I’d rearrange.” Coincidence?)
After Zooropa’s release, The Edge commented, “Taking advertising jargon, you start to get an insight into the advertising culture that produced it.” So, once the speaker has exhausted all the lines in stock about the wonderful, amorphous Zooropa, who else should appear but Edge, his squeaky transition motif indicating a page turn for the song. From the four-minute mark through to the end, “Zooropa” focuses on a new character, one who channels her revulsion for the overgrowth of commercialism into an enthusiasm with which she hopes to reform her world – in this case, literally.
Her first few lines come across as a manifesto: “…I have no compass / …I have no maps / And I have no reasons / No reasons to get back.” She has no grip on direction and no idea where she even is – but she doesn’t care! This isn’t what it’s like to feel lost; this is what it’s like to feel liberated! The band echoes this in the music: whereas the bass plodded in the first movement and had a familiar bounce in the second, now it has begun quaking with the rest of the ascending sounds, all trembling in response to the new speaker’s exhilaration.
She stands in awe of opportunity, of not just accepting the available flavors of Zooropa but inventing one for herself instead. There’s no overarching religion now, there’s no indication of “what’s what.” But most of all, the narrator recognizes there’s no knowing if there’s any limit to “what we’ve got.”
A Zooropean choir (or, less magically, a few tracks of backing vocals from Edge) falls in behind her as she reassures herself – and us – that we’ll all “be alright.” The narrator claims “the right shoes,” like ruby slippers, can “get you through the night” and back to a world you more comfortably recognize as your own. Calling on others to rise above the corrupted Zooropa, she rails against ignorance – “Get your head out of the mud, baby” – and encourages, “Skip the subway / Let’s go to the overground.”
As the corrosion begins to fade from the landscape, she hears “voices, ridiculous voices / in the slipstream” and realizes the chatty billboards from the second part of the song are, of all things, melting away. With only uncertainty as her “guiding light,” the speaker is staving off the advertising “world” and restoring her vision of Zooropa.
“She’s gonna dream up / The world she wants to live in,” the evaporating advertisements forecast, “She’s gonna dream out loud / She’s gonna dream out loud.” Before disappearing completely, they promote one last scrap of advice for us all: “Dream out loud.”
To cap off this bizarre story of ecstasy in the throes of possibility, U2 crash the song into a wall, sending what sounds like a hamster tumbling around inside a balloon careening through the air for a few long, awkward, beautiful seconds before they – and we – drop into the next track. And in that pause before “Babyface” starts playing seems to be the cue for all those hearing “Zooropa” for the first time to utter aloud a resounding “WHAT?!” and accuse the squiggly astronaut on the album cover of kidnapping their favorite Irishmen.
It’s really not that much different from 2001. Either way, you’re going to end up gawking at a space baby.
In retrospect, "Zooropa" (and the whole of Zooropa) is what lay around the corner for U2: having figured out how to rewrite their signature on Achtung Baby, they’d try spelling themselves out yet another way. The band was conscious of their image, but not necessarily in maintaining it; U2 were looking to push further what they, the so-called “Biggest Band in the World,” could put on their records. And with “Zooropa,” they’d found a way to have fun musically while also showing the struggling European nations how to reinvent themselves – to dream up (and realize) the world they want to live in.
U2 seem to feel this is possible, even with a resurgence of xenophobia and fascism within the recently reunified Germany making a threatening blot on the future. Their optimism extends to the prospect of reversing media bombardment, as well. As Edge pointed out, the advertising culture brought the state of its world onto itself; the advertising culture can wring itself free, just the same.
Author William Gibson, whose futuristic visions influenced the overwrought marketing-frenzied cityscape U2 visit with “Zooropa,” makes a remark in the documentary No Maps for These Territories that, for me, heavily suggests the epiphany in the third part of the song:
I think we all have these moments that are vertiginous and terribly exciting and very frightening in which we realize the contemporary absolutely and I think it induces terror and ecstasy and we retreat from it because we can’t stay in that state of panic, which is, I think, the real response to what’s happening to us. We’re more comfortable with an earlier version of who we were and what we were. It makes us feel more in control.
That we crave control – which seems near enough to an oxymoron – is a thread that continues in “Babyface.”
 “The Edge of the Zoo;” Propaganda, Issue 18, November 1, 1993.