U2’s “Achtung Baby”

Album Cover for U2's "Achtung Baby"

This week, I’ve been listening to U2’s album “Achtung Baby” from 1991. I grew up loving their album “The Joshua Tree” that came out when I was 10 years old. When “Achtung Baby” appeared during my freshman year of high school, it didn’t catch my attention. I did like the second single “Mysterious Ways” with its strong guitar riff and trippy music video, though. My tastes were heading towards more moody and less mainstream interests than U2. It’s a shame, because this is a very good album. Maybe I just wasn’t ready yet.

On this album, I hear a band with established techniques and skills fighting against repeating themselves. There’s a good bit of experimentation with sound and techniques, as if they are determined to not make another “Joshua Tree.” The Edge’s use of delay, while prominent all over that previous album, is more subtle and much less frequent. The drums have taken on a more dance feel; Upcoming artists like Jesus Jones, The Escape Club, and EMF already leading this trend. Many predicted this combination of break-beat rhythms with guitar rock would become the 90s alt-rock sound, until Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” flooded the airwaves.

Zoo Station

The opener “Zoo Station” start with 3 seconds of quiet background noise and then odd bursts of distorted guitar. This is the announcement that the listener is in for a different U2 album. The bass and drums groove along with a determined driving beat. A tinny snare drum cracks every 2nd the 4th beat, sounding a little trashy. A minimal chord progression contributes to the pending sense of urgency, mostly staying in the tonic with use of the flattened VII and IV to push it forward. “Zoo Station” feels as much like a journey into the album as a destination of its own. The lyrics, which read more a statement of intent, support this:

I’m ready
I’m ready for the gridlock
I’m ready
To take it to the street
I’m ready for the shuffle
Ready for the deal
Ready to let go of the steering wheel
I’m ready
Ready for the crush.

The Fly

The seventh track, and first single, “The Fly” escaped my notice until this week. While not experimental music, this seems to be one of the more experimental tracks on the album. It has the benefit of feeling more uncharted territory for the band, and therefore has a looser, even sloppy, feel. That’s even with the steady dance beat. My son aptly pointed out the resemblance to one of my favorite bands, INXS. It especially reminds me of “Communication,” which INXS started recording just after “Achtung Baby” was released.

The drums continue a dance-beat throughout almost like clockwork, along with the pulsing driving bassline. They keep the song song grounded while the rest seems to scatter here. The guitar starts with a repetitive riff until Bono begins his chorused and heavily-compressed softly spoken vocals. The echoey, slightly flanged, distorted guitar pulls back and then punches back with seemingly random stabs, scrapes, scratches and slides. The lyrics are a bit of a paranoid cautionary ramble. More like a nightmarish stream-of-consciousness with an apparent illusion of meaning, tangents off the chorus’s couplet: “A fly on the wall, it’s not secret at all.”

It’s no secret that the stars are falling from the sky
It’s no secret that our world is in darkness tonight
They say the sun is sometimes eclipsed by the moon
You know I don’t see you when she walks in the room
It’s no secret that a friend is someone who lets you help
It’s no secret that a liar won’t believe anyone else
They say a secret is something you tell one other person
So I’m telling you, child

One

Just after high school, I was in an emotional relationship; a strong mix of love and hurt between two people who had both to give, certainly some type of codependency. In U2’s song “One” I found a sort-of comfort in hearing words from another that described so well what we had. When in the car with my next girlfriend, this song came on the radio and I mentioned that. She said it was also the song for one of her previous relationship.

What Bono has done with these lyrics is described a commonly set of emotions in a way that many can relate and apply to their own situation. The narrative details of the couple and the events in their lives are completely missing, the actual story is a vast ambiguous cloud waiting for the listener to fill it in. Even their genders are absent. Instead, he reserves his use of detail for the visual imagery for the emotions.

He also combines this with religious allusions, in the third verse, to describe how the other brings their own hurt and needs to the relationship. This verse is tied to the bridge, where the other talks of love as a temple. Despite their praise of the sanctity of love, their own hurt means that loving them is more of a sacrifice than a blessing.

Have you come here for forgiveness?
Have you come to raise the dead?
Have you come here to play Jesus
To the lepers in your head?
[…]
You say love is a temple, love a higher law
Love is a temple, love the higher law
You ask me to enter, but then you make me crawl
And I can’t be holding on to what you got
When all you got is hurt

The Doors’ “The Doors”

Album cover for The Doors' self-titled debut album

I’ve been listening to the Doors‘ 1967 self-titled debut album this week. My real introduction to the Doors came around 1992 from the soundtrack to Oliver Stone’s biopic.  Around the same time, I saw a documentary about Andy Warhol that introduced me to Velvet Underground. Their song “Heroin” was also featured on the soundtrack.  As a high school freshman, I found great inspirations for creativity. Among those were Warhol and Morrison.

I soon read Jerry Hopkin‘s biography of Jim Morrison, “No One Here Gets Out Alive.” It was years before I actually saw The Doors movie. Of course, I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t as good as Hopkin’s book. The teenage poetry scrawled in my notebooks became slightly less self-centered as I tried for more mystical universal themes. My dreams of going to film school were inspired by Jim Morrison, Stanley Kubrick, and William S. Burroughs. I didn’t really hear much of the Doors beyond what was featured on the soundtrack, but listened to it over and over again. It was years before I actually saw the movie and I didn’t like it as much as Hopkin’s book.  From the soundtrack, I was enamored with “Ghost Song“, “Riders on the Storm“, “Love Street“, “When the Music’s Over“, and especially “The End.” This was rock music tinged with otherworldly exoticism fronted by an intelligent poet who exuded a heady sense of danger.

I finally acquired a copy the Best of the Doors compilation album in my early 20s. At some point, I lost appreciation for Jim Morrison and the Doors and so managed to miss out on some tracks on this debut album.  I laugh to realize now how into them I was without having ever owned proper album.

“Soul Kitchen” is one of the most Doors sounding Doors songs. It features many stylistic elements found in their songs, as well as some of the better lyrics on this album. Morrison, considering himself a poet,often follows strict rhyme schemes. I can’t say the results are always good. I think their hit song “Light My Fire” has terrible lyrics, though Morrison’s not to blame here, as guitarist Robby Krieger wrote them.

The song opens with organ playing a riff that emphasizes the 1st, 2nd beats, and then dances with syncopation across the 3rd. It’s very similar to the organ in their later song “When the Music’s Over” which is also one of my favorites. The bassline bounces down and up from the 1st and 3rd beats of each measure. Drums join in, playing a standard 8 beat rock rhythm with guitar adding some bluesy rhythm riffs.

The Doors did not have a bass-player, but rather organist
Ray Manzarek played a bass synthesizer with his left-hand. This is often how pianists play, with the left-hand providing bass-lines and the right-hand play chords and/or melodies. What’s unique about Manzarek’s playing, though, is that the bass is a separate instruments and he often maintains a separate personality for each. He provides more soul-funk basslines, claiming Ray Charles as a big influence. However, the right-hand plays a variety of styles, often combining influences from blues, classical, jazz, and even middle-eastern music.

I could write a whole thing on just this song and the lyrics of most of the tracks. So, I will not do that, but I do want to point out one of my favorite verses, which is from “Soul Kitchen.”  The second verse. The four lines are two couplets of perfect rhymes, which in turn are slant rhymes with each other. The first line speaks of the fingers of the owner of the soul kitchen, describing their movements as if weaving minarets. Not a word frequently found in rock lyrics, minarets are skinny towers from which the call to prayers are made. Beautifully ornate Arabic lettering frequently covers these towers and their accompanying mosques. It’s possible that Morrison’s “secret alphabets” is both a reference Arabic calligraphy as well as suggestion that there is a covert shared conversation with the owner.

Well, your fingers weave quick minarets
Speak in secret alphabets
I light another cigarette
Learn to forget, learn to forget

This album closes with one of the Door’s more infamous track,s “The End.” The band also frequently ended concerts with the song. It begins as a goodbye to a lover with “This is the end, beautiful friend […] Of our elaborate plans, the end. Of everything that stands, the end. No safety or surprise, the end. I’ll never look into your eyes again.”

Then, from there, Morrison and the Doors take us on a mystical journey along the California highways. But the journey becomes increasingly sinister, like the boat ride in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.  Until in a fairly similar way, the singer speaks for the listener, “Driver, where you taking us?” This takes us to the Oedipus section of the song. Morrison is known to have been involved in a school production of Oedipus Rex, and the Fruedian idea of Oedipus Rex was still widely discussed at the time. Apparently Morrison tied some additional ideas to the “Kill the father, fuck the mother.” He saw this as a metaphor for doing away what from the past was holding us back, and returning to embracing nature and the Earth. 

The killer awoke before dawn
He put his boots on
He took a face from the ancient gallery
And he walked on down the hall
He went into the room where his sister lived, and then he…
Paid a visit to his brother, and then he…
He walked on down the hall, and
And he came to a door
And he looked inside
“Father?”
“Yes, son?”
“I want to kill you. Mother? I want to…”

While he does censor himself during this section, he chants “fuck” several times throughout the song otherwise like a rhythmic punctuation. It manages, however, to make this section so much more dark and sinister that he leaves out the verbs for bad things the killer does. Much the way good horror films like 1968’s “Rosemary’s Baby” lets the more disturbing imagery happen in the imagination rather than on the screen.

I’ll jump back now from the last song on the album to the third, “The Crystal Ship.” This beautiful song  of lost love allows Morrison’s voice to lean a little more towards his crooning. I know that he idolized Elvis Presley, but I learned this week that he also felt the same for Frank Sinatra. This track does combine some elements of both of those singer’s slowerly songs.

As with many albums of the time, the Doors’ self-titled album has hard-panned instruments either all left or all right. Thankfully, unlike the Beatles’ “Rubber Soul“, this keeps vocals in the center, and often another instruments like piano to join. This means there are three positions in the stereo field utilized. Unfortunately, the Doors seemed to have been recorded with greater isolation than the Beatles, so those instruments that are hard left or hard right feel extremely unnatural in headphones.

I’m glad to have spent a full week with this album, I’ve come to love the Doors again. Also, it was good to really hear all of these songs enough times to get to know them. Great stuff, the Doors.