For some, the last great U2 album was 1987's "The Joshua Tree." For those souls, 1991's "Achtung Baby" was nothing more than the sound of a dozen Trabants colliding.
For others, me included, the back-to-back releases of "Achtung Baby" and "Zooropa" were a revelation. They were the drugs of empowerment and mind expansion that drove me to enter BonoNonAnon, that's Bonoholics Non-Anonymous to the uninitiated.
Sure, Madonna is often credited as being a master of reinvention. But with Zoo TV, those four Irish lads who gained renown for wearing their hearts on their sleeves cut those sleeves off and let it rip. To this day, Zoo TV makes Madonna's various incarnations look like nothing more than a parade of dresses and sensual wear pilfered from Victoria & Albert's fashion wing.
Zoo TV wasn't just the reinvention of a band on the verge of breaking up following the meteoric success of "The Joshua Tree" and the subsequent muted reception of "Rattle and Hum," Zoo TV was a total reengineering of the concert-going experience.
And for me, it was the tour that kicked me in the arse, dragged me to the light, and showed me how everything I knew was so painfully wrong. It was life-altering in every sense of the term.
Taking the last flight into East Germany before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, U2 arrived in Berlin for some recording sessions and to figure out where it was headed. Heavily influenced by its surroundings during the tense and storied recording of "Achtung Baby," U2 turned that influence into inspiration for the tour, using Trabants as stage lights and creating a whole world of its own, the magical realm of Zooropa. It was the ultimate result of Bono's own declaration at the end of the Lovetown Tour that the band had "to go away and dream it all up again."
Concert staging concepts come and go; the details of the staging and assorted production values of the typical concert are usually forgotten and it's the memory of the performance that lingers in the mind. But with Zoo TV, it was the ultimate package deal. The staging was more than elaborate; it was a monumental undertaking that, unlike the vast majority of concerts, is actually more relevant now than ever.
Before the world became inundated with mass media outlets like DirecTV, TiVo, Video on Demand and the proliferation of the internet, Zoo TV questioned the constant bombardment of entertainment and the messages being sent out on the airwaves.
It also gave Bono a fantastic opportunity to indulge himself. During the early legs of the tour, as Mirrorball Man, Bono took on the airs of a cartoonish televangelist and at once lampooned those cultural curiosities along with his own preacher-like inclinations ("I had a vision... television," he would declare like a hellfire and brimstone Baptist preacher). Later on, as Mr. Macphisto, it was a total flip-flop as Bono indulged the devil inside. Thanks to the new two-disc DVD, which handily trumps all the previous home video renditions of the show, both incarnations are now on hand.
Yes. The "limited edition" two-disc Zoo TV set is a great thing indeed.
For one there is, obviously, the concert itself. Now in glorious speaker-blowing DTS 5.1 surround (as well as Dolby Digital 5.1 and PCM stereo), the Sydney show has never, ever sounded better outside of the football stadium itself. Granted, the picture isn't always up to today's high-definition standards, but the DVD's presentation makes the most of the source video.
The concert provides relatively rare live performances of Zooropean classics like "Numb," "Lemon," and "Dirty Day." They're songs that are underappreciated in the U2 canon; it was a terrific treat when the band pulled "Zoo Station" out of mothballs during the Vertigo Tour.
Ah, "Zoo Station." Bono's entrance at the start of Zoo TV is in itself a splendid salute to excess and symbolism. Backlit by the flag of the European Union then TV static, Bono stumbles around in a faux drunken stupor then moves into a full-blown swagger. From there, the show becomes an unstoppable juggernaut that mixes mass media and technology with the very heart and soul of U2—the tunes.
Disc 2 includes four worthwhile bonus tracks in terms of documenting the sheer madness of the tour. No one performance can capture all the insanity, so it's great to see "Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World" (which incorporates a champagne montage of a bevy of ladies plucked from the floor to dance on stage with Bono) and "Desire" (featuring the aforementioned Mirrorball Man), both taken from the Yankee Stadium TV special. There are also alternate versions of "The Fly" and "Even Better Than the Real Thing," the latter includes Bono pointing out, on the eve of U2's planned trip to Sellafield, how the visit's cancellation by the powers that be only helped give Greenpeace more publicity than they otherwise ever would have garnered.
The bonus tracks are in two-channel stereo, but they also feel more raw and spontaneous, without the pressure of having to be "perfect" for a home video release.
If a complaint is to be made, it's that too much is never enough. More bonus tracks would've been welcome.
Also on view on Disc 2 are three short documentaries, "A Fistful of Zoo TV," Zoo TV—The Inside Story," and "Trabantland." As a whole, they provide a nice behind-the-scenes tour through the underbelly of the Zoo TV machine. It's particularly hilarious to watch longtime U2 manager Paul McGuinness take on the aura of a BBC journalist as he investigates the materials used in making the original Trabants.
Wallpapers, screensavers and web links to some of U2's favorite causes are on tap as DVD-ROM content.
Rounding out the set is a five-minute sampling from the Zoo TV Confessional. For those unfamiliar with the tour, there was a confession both where visitors could unload their most intimate secrets. Then some of those confessions would be broadcast over the Zoo TV airwaves. Long before "Survivor" and "Big Brother," U2 and ZooTV had the whole reality TV concept down pat.
As for the packaging, there's a booklet that mimics the feel of the tour's program; it's a concept U2 have used in prior DVDs, including the "Vertigo Live from Chicago" set. This time, that feel extends to including stickers similar to those found in the original Zoo TV tour book. They're clever, those Irishmen.
Overall, it's an oddly delayed DVD set that does an excellent job of documenting a phenomenal, one-of-a-kind extravaganza. A must-have for hungry U2 fans and general music fans alike that enjoy and appreciate a stunning, thought-provoking and these-days-altogether-rare, utterly satisfying example of how it's done.
• Originally published at Interference.com.
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