Nov. 16 (Bloomberg) -- U2 was almost splitting up as Germany reunified. The four Irishmen kept their rift secret as they flew into East Germany on Oct. 3, 1990, on a British Airways flight, the last before the country ceased to exist.
Bono’s men saw the Berlin visit as a final chance to make an album. All this is revealed in full on a new version of “Achtung Baby,” which goes way beyond being a reissue. It adds Davis Guggenheim’s documentary “From the Sky Down” and a wealth of songs that show how close they came to prematurely entering the pop graveyard known as “musical differences.”
It was only three years after U2 was branded as “Rock’s Hottest Ticket” on the cover of “Time” magazine. The arguments between the ambitious “hats” (Bono and the Edge) and “haircuts” (the no-nonsense rockers Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jnr.) were thrown into focus by the underrated “Rattle and Hum” and attacks on its self-righteous stadium sound.
They decided to try something different, as Bono tells us in the film, even though it sounded like commercial suicide. This was “the sound of four men chopping down ‘The Joshua Tree,”’ which has sold more than 25 million copies, he says.
U2 was determined to lighten up and do the unexpected, such as dressing in drag for a photo shoot, restlessly moving between Morocco, Ireland and Berlin, and developing an industrial rock sound on the opener “Zoo Station” and “The Fly.”
The song “Heaven and Hell” shows one approach, with a moody doo-wop style. “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” in various new mixes, improves on the version we know. The reunification visit to Hansa studios proved a success. Bono knew they had cracked it with “One.”
More than four decades on, we get the final release of the Beach Boys LP “Smile,” which also does its bit to rewrite rock history.
This much we know. “Pet Sounds” in 1966 was a pop masterpiece partly eclipsed by the Beatles’ “Revolver.” Brian Wilson drove his siblings to do even better on the planned follow-up in 1967.
He scrapped the project weeks before his British rivals released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” He became a recluse. The others reworked some of the tapes as the inferior “Smiley Smile.”
More of the tracks turned up on a box set and Wilson’s re-recordings in 2004. The latest version is pieced together with help from Mike Love and Al Jardine.
The biggest edition of the new release is strictly for serious fans. It includes more than 30 takes of “Heroes and Villains,” which started with the obsessive Wilson, sitting in his sandbox playpen, bashing out a piano demo. Soon he is adding saxophone, duck whistles and barbershop singing, telling the others “there’s no rules to this.”
The fifth disc has 24 takes of “Good Vibrations” devised over six months of experiments. One of the best-known singles of all time nearly sounded very different: a harmony section was scrapped and a weird electro-theremin was added.
The overambitious album was supposed to incorporate each of the four elements. “Cool, Cool Water” was one, while “Wind Chimes” represented air and “Vega-Tables” covered earth. Wilson dropped the symphonic “Fire” sequence after several mystery blazes near the studio (perhaps something to do with the handfuls of amphetamines and industrial amounts of hash he said that they were consuming at the time).
For most of us, the two-disc version is quite enough. “Surf’s Up” and “Wonderful” are superior ballads and “Cabin Essence” shows that classy music can grow from chaos.
Rating: **** for the two-disc edition, *** for the five-disc set.
What the Stars Mean: ***** Exceptional **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
U2 is on Mercury, the Beach Boys are on Capitol/EMI.
The U2 is available as a 2CD deluxe edition priced about $22, with a disc of new music adding to the original album; as a vinyl box set for about $100; or a Super Deluxe Edition for $130 with 10 discs including the follow-up “Zooropa,” B-sides, demos, more sessions and videos, hardback book and 16 art prints. The limited numbered Uber Deluxe Edition at about $440 adds vinyl singles, a magazine, four badges, stickers, and a pair of Bono’s “The Fly” sunglasses.
The Beach Boys album (sometimes written “SMiLE”) is available as a double CD for $24, or a $140 box with five CDs, two LPs, two singles and a book.
(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at firstname.lastname@example.org.