“Subtle” has rarely been a word used to describe U2. But on July 5th, 1993, the band released Zooropa, a surprise EP-turned-LP that traded bombastic declarations and stadium-ready riffs for introspective lyrics and moody electric grooves. Zooropa went to Number One and was initially a critical success, but these days, it’s often overlooked. Neither an obvious highlight nor a clear misstep in the band’s discography, Zooropa is something weirder – a very good, occasionally great and unusually consistent U2 record with no top-tier singles. Maybe because of that last fact, along with the awkward Pop years that followed, the band seems to view the album as a strange detour. Bono would later refer to Zooropa as part of their “art rock phase”; in the band’s autobiography, U2 by U2, Adam Clayton calls it “an odd record” but also one of his favorites.
Yet the music has aged well. The band took genuine leaps in songwriting by embracing more of the electronic music playing in clubs and entering the mainstream. If Achtung Baby was Bono’s biblical vision of a discotheque at the end of the world, Zooropa is just a solid collection of songs to play alongside tracks by the Prodigy, Aphex Twin and the Orb. “It has captured the moment, for me at any rate,” the Edge told Pulse! a few months after the album came out. “Of all our records it probably is the most vital and current. It’s like a Polaroid of what was happening to us and what was happening around Europe at that time.”
To celebrate Zooropa‘s 25th anniversary, here are 10 things you might not know about this underrated gem.
1. The album was originally supposed to be an EP to support the Zoo TV tour.
In early 1993, U2 were coming off the first leg of their worldwide Zoo TV tour, an ambitious show that blew up the band’s video for “The Fly” into a postmodern, stadium-sized feast of sensory overload. The band wrote new material based on Zoo TV’s themes of advancing technology and mass-media saturation. They decided to keep their momentum going by recording the new tracks instead of taking a break before the remaining shows. “We thought we could go into a decompression chamber and come out the other end normal,” Bono told Spin in 1993. “But it turns out that your whole way of thinking, your whole body has been geared toward the madness of Zoo TV … so we decided to put the madness on a record.”
The Edge was happy for the project to exist as an EP, and at first, that was the plan. However, as more songs were written and recorded, the band realized they were now making a full-length. When they ran out of time, they flew to and from Dublin in between shows to finish the LP in sprints. “I’d be in the studio until 3 or 4 in the morning,” the Edge explained in 2002, “and then going home, getting up the next day and getting on a plane at lunchtime, going off doing a show, coming back at 1 a.m., staying up again till 4 a.m. [It] was pretty mind-numbing by the end.” But they pulled it off. Notorious for their meticulous planning, U2 surprised everyone – including their label – by dropping a new album out of nowhere.
2. The songs were constructed using a series of recorded samples and loops, a first for the band.
An unsung hero of Zooropa is Robbie Adams, an assistant engineer on Achtung Baby who was brought on to Zoo TV to record the tour’s soundchecks and satirical TV messages and turn the most interesting bits into loops, which the band made into demos. “U2 don’t use loops taken from other people’s records,” Adams told Sound on Sound in 1994, “so instead I made loops of Larry drumming. That worked quite well and several of the loops ended up on the record.” This approach was an exciting technical shift – guitar riffs aren’t nearly as prominent on Zooropa – and it intentionally matched Zoo TV’s theme of audiovisual expression as the new normal. “It’s always technology that spurs [rock & roll’s] mutations,” Bono told Hot Press in 1993. “It’s the fuzzbox that gave us the electric guitar, the sampler that gave us rap music and so on. And while I have respect for people who wish to ignore that ‘filthy modern tide’ I don’t want to, I couldn’t.”
The shift in songwriting was also philosophical. “A lot of what’s in this album comes from reading the work of William Gibson,” said Bono regarding the specific influence of the cyberpunk author’s “sort of fucked-up sci-fi.” The band shifted their narrative setting from real-life Berlin – where Achtung Baby was partially recorded – to an imagined sprawl they dubbed “Zooropa” after the name of their European tour. They wanted the writing process to reflect how art is born in a possible future controlled by media distortion and indulgent escapism.
The opening title track is the clearest example of U2’s new approach. “Zooropa” is a hodgepodge of Jacques Brel–like piano, industrial beats, and trippy airport sheen that build into a faux-Madchester dance, with Bono repeating “what do you want?” and quoting Audi’s slogan to find his place in the world (“I have no compass/And I have no map/And I have no reasons/No reasons to get back”).
3. The Edge received his first production credit on a U2 record.
Daniel Lanois, one of U2’s go-to producers, was too busy touring his solo album to help with Zooropa, so the Edge took his place and earned co-production credit alongside Brian Eno and Flood. “I suppose I took on a level of responsibility that I haven’t on previous records,” the Edge told Rolling Stone in 1993. “That meant sitting in with Bono on lyric-writing sessions – just being the foil, the devil’s advocate, bouncing couplets around – down to completely demoing some pieces, establishing their original incarnations. … And then, generally, just worrying more than everyone else.” The Edge was still fresh from a divorce, so he had plenty of inspiration to draw from as his personal life matched the numbness Bono wanted to convey on Zoo TV. He also now fully embraced the drum machine, which he began playing with for The Unforgettable Fire and used more prominently on Achtung Baby. All this and his love of Massive Attack, Young Disciples and Sounds of Blackness inspired the Edge to use loops and hip-hop beats as instruments rather than just songwriting tools. “Edge was still exploring dance and hip-hop culture, club mixes, all that kind of thing,” Mullen said in 2006. “He was experimenting and U2 were his guinea pigs.”
The Edge is at the center of the album’s first single, “Numb.” Originally titled “Down All the Days” and born during the Achtung Baby sessions, the Kraftwerk-like leftover was updated by the Edge with a spontaneous mumble rap listing off several forbidden actions (“Don’t move/Don’t talk out of time/Don’t think/Don’t worry”) juxtaposed with Mullen’s vocal hook (“I feel numb”), Bono’s falsetto and Eno’s keys. “The song is about a monotone vocal with a cacophony of music and noises in the background,” said Robbie Adams. “That was quite a ballady song and in the end it was decided that it didn’t fit on Achtung Baby. Then Edge had this vocal idea that took the song in a different direction.” The Edge also got the rare spotlight in the track’s quirky music video, inspired by Elvis Costello’s “I Wanna Be Loved” clip, and during his first ever live solo performance when he played “Numb” at the 1993 MTV Music Video Awards.
4. “Numb” samples footage from Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will.
Zooropa is a sneaky political record in its views of a post–Cold War Europe grappling with the collapse of Communism, the rise of Neo-Nazism, the beginnings of genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the EC’s uncertain future. If Achtung Baby journeyed behind the old Berlin Wall, Zooropa questioned what would take its place. “Looking at all that,” said Bono, “Zooropa seemed like a great image of a European location that was surreal.” But rather than Bono screaming those questions from a mountaintop or dystopian concert stage, Zooropa would let the music do the talking.
An example is a sample in “Numb” of a Hitler Youth member playing drums during Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous and influential 1935 Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. “We [started] playing around with ideas from the Leni Riefenstahl film footage of Nazi Germany that we used on Zoo TV,” said the Edge. “[We were] really trying to ask the question of ourselves I suppose, as well as everyone else in Europe: ‘What do you want?’ That seemed to be the question that kept coming back to us during the making of the album. Suddenly we were back on the road, touring in Germany, and the whole racist xenophobia issue exploded while we were there.”
Zooropa is known for being U2’s “spontaneous” album, yet the band planned the Nazi sample from the start. Knowing they were going to play Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, which Hitler built for the Olympics, Bono wanted to play footage from Triumph of the Will and Riefenstahl’s 1938 film Olympia as Dadaist-like slaps at macho fascism. “I think it’s important to go to these places,” said Bono. “We had the sense that if there had been any demons, music had driven them out. I think fear of the devil leads to devil worship. And I don’t want to give fascists power to the extent that you might be afraid to go into a building where they once were.”
Bono got his wish on June 15th, 1993, when the band played Riefenstahl’s footage in the same stadium where it was recorded. The audience’s reception was cool – the younger people had probably never seen the footage – but everyone got the message during “Bullet the Blue Sky” when the Zoo TVs transformed the burning crosses (“see the flames higher and higher”) into flaming swastikas. “This will never happen again!” Bono yelled to 40,000 stunned Germans. “It was a trip,” he said. “There was an uproar. There were people at the gig who could be – and probably were – the sons and daughters of the people in the film. But we wanted to point out, before anyone else did, the similarities between rock gigs and Nazi rallies.”
5. “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” was a tribute to Frank Sinatra.
The most traditionally U2-sounding song on Zooropa is also one of the band’s best, and it was a tribute to Ol’ Blue Eyes. The track was also born from the Achtung Baby sessions and was titled “Sinatra,” named after the Edge’s attempt to “summon up [the singer’s] spirit” with a Tin Pan Alley piano melody. The song found a home when German filmmaker Wim Wenders – for whom the band had remixed “Until the End of the World” to feature in his 1991 film of the same name – asked them to write the theme for his 1993 film, Faraway, So Close! “The film was about angels who want to be human and want to be on Earth,” said Bono. “But to do so, they have to become mortal. That was a great image to play with – the impossibility of wanting something like this, and then the cost of having it.” The song was added to Zooropa and became the album’s third and final single. Wenders also directed the song’s mostly black-and-white music video, which featured the band as angels in Berlin and footage from the film. (The film was panned, but the song was nominated for a Best Original Song Golden Globe.)
6. “The Wanderer” features guest vocals from Johnny Cash, before his Rick Rubin–produced comeback.
U2 tapping Johnny Cash to appear on their record could have been as dicey a move as Bono wearing a cowboy hat while screaming at poor B.B. King to play “the blues, man!” in Rattle and Hum. In 1993, however, before the Rick Rubin-produced American Recordings and “Hurt,” featuring Cash on a rock song was a bold gesture and not a guaranteed success. But while Bono was struggling to come up with a vocal part for a keyboard arrangement written by the Edge already titled “The Wanderer,” he realized Cash would be perfect for the part. (At one point, the song was even called “Johnny Cash on the Moon.”)
Bono and Cash had collaborated before, and as luck would have it, the Man in Black was playing Dublin soon. The band met him backstage and asked him to come to their studio to try out the song. Cash agreed, and everything clicked. In the song, Cash sings as an Old Testament survivor out of the book of Ecclesiastes, wandering “under an atomic sky” and preaching over a synth bass played by what the Edge described as “the Holiday Inn band from hell.” The album closer brings Zooropa full circle as Cash seems to portray a version of Bono’s “I don’t have a compass” character from the opening track but as an older and wiser man who decides to carry on into the unknown – a traveler Bono calls “the antidote to the Zooropa manifesto of uncertainty.”
“If you imagine the album being set in this place, Zooropa,” said Flood, “just when you’re expecting the norm to finish the album, you get somebody who’s outside the whole thing, wandering through, discussing it. It’s like the perfect full stop. It throws a whole different light on the conceptualization of the record.”
The following year, Cash released the first of many Rubin collaborations, kickstarting a career revival that lasted until his death in 2003. However, U2 gave Cash a place in the new world before a new generation caught on; Cash would return the favor in 2000 with his cover of “One.”
7. The album cover features Achtung Baby‘s “Astrobaby” and recreates the European flag on top of images of famous European leaders.
Charlie Whisker’s Astrobaby cartoon first appeared on Achtung Baby‘s CD cover and served, along with the candy-colored Trabant, as the unofficial symbol of the new U2. (In his 1995 U2 biography, Bill Flanagan also claims the cartoon is Cosmo, the Soviet cosmonaut who was in space when the USSR fell and was left floating for weeks while the new government figured out who should bring him home.) On Zooropa, the cartoon is front and center, surrounded by 12 stars imitating the European flag and laid over a collage of distorted images of European leaders including Vladimir Lenin, Benito Mussolini and Nicolae Ceaușescu. The album’s themes of technological uncertainty and European unrest blend into what the design team Works Associates called an “electronic flag.” “The logo has a whimsy and intrigue that is appealing,” the team later explained. “It can be understood without words and somehow its human smallness nicely represents the largesse and technicality of the Zooropa tour.”
The cover could also be seen as a recreation of “Babyface,” a song inspired by the growing ease of feeling close to strangers through TV (“Watching your bright blue eyes/In the freeze frame/I’ve seen them so many times/I feel like I must be your best friend”). “It’s a song about watching and not being in the picture,” said Bono. “About how people play with images, believing you know somebody through an image.”
8. The album cover also accidentally includes tracks recorded for Zooropa but left off at the last minute.
Also like Achtung Baby, Zooropa‘s album cover includes layers of text manipulated on top of a series of photographs. The cover’s purple lettering included the album’s track list along with “Wake Up Dead Man,” “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” and “If You Wear That Velvet Dress.” However, those three tracks didn’t make it onto the record – the final album track list was updated after the designers finished the cover. “This text was comprised of the upcoming album’s track titles provided to us as we were designing the sleeve,” the designers wrote. “Somehow lost in the rush, we managed to not to update this track list so that several songs that didn’t make the final cut got left behind in the embedded piece.”
These songs would eventually find life after Zooropa. Both “Wake Up Dead Man” and “If You Wear That Velvet Dress” ended up on Pop, and “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” was rewritten for the Batman Forever soundtrack. Ironically, “Hold Me” became a bigger hit than anything off Zooropa.
9. Zooropa won the Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album in 1994 – and Bono was not happy.
Whereas most artists would be OK with winning one Grammy, Bono begrudgingly accepted the band’s sixth Grammy while dropping a rare F-bomb. “Yeah, ‘alternative,'” began Bono, rolling his eyes with the “Best Alternative Album” award in hand. After shouting out the Smashing Pumpkins and college radio, Bono delivered what he believed to be Zooropa‘s mission. “I think I’d like to give a message to the young people of America, and that is we shall continue to abuse our position and fuck up the mainstream. God bless you.” Bono’s issue wasn’t winning – Zooropa beat out Nirvana’s In Utero, R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People, the Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream, and Belly’s Star – but that his band didn’t even get nominated for Album of the Year. (This was Whitney Houston’s year thanks to the Bodyguard soundtrack.) “I thought of Zooropa at the time as a work of genius,” said Bono in 2006. “I really thought our pop discipline was matching our experimentation and this was our Sgt. Pepper. I was a little wrong about that.”
Zooropa was a success, but not by U2 standards. “Lemon” and “Numb” went Top Five, but only on the Modern Rock radio chart, and “Lemon” went Number One only on the Billboard Dance Club Play charts. “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” was the only song to make the Billboard Top 100, but it only reached Number 61. (Achtung Baby managed to land five tracks onto the Billboard Top 100.) U2 aimed to fuck up the mainstream, but instead, after a brief moment at Number One, Zooropa ending up becoming their worst-selling album in the U.S. since October, though they would later beat that dubious record with Pop.
10. David Bowie praised U2 for Zooropa.
“They might be all shamrocks and deutsche marks to some,” Bowie said of U2 to The Irish Times in 1993, “but I feel that they are one of the few rock bands even attempting to hint at a world which will continue past the next great wall – the year 2000.” Bowie wasn’t always friendly towards U2’s music – he visited the band after they finished recording “The Fly” and told them to redo it – but he praised the band for how both Achtung Baby and Zooropa picked up where his own Berlin trilogy left off.
Bowie’s influence on Zooropa goes deeper. Willie Williams, U2’s longtime set designer who created the sensory overload of Zoo TV, helped design Bowie’s 1990 Sound+Vision Tour, which featured new transparent projection screens playing pre-recorded images along to Bowie’s songs. Williams would take this new technology and multiply it by 40 oversized screens to create a Blade Runner–like landscape for U2. And like Bowie, Bono created characters like the Fly, MacPhisto and the Mirrorball Man to free himself through outlandish performances. “I’ve played at being a rock & roll star,” said Bono in Rolling Stone just after Bowie’s passing, “but I’m really not one. David Bowie is my idea of a rock star.” Bono also thanked Bowie for opening the doors to Brian Eno, Berlin and Hansa Studios, all factors that led to U2’s growth, their eventual Nineties reinvention and Zooropa itself.