In Chapters 2 and 6 of Atomic Tunes, we discuss how musicians travelled to Cold War hotspots and found themselves in the middle of Cold War events. For example, Joan Baez travelled in Hanoi, North Vietnam in December 1972 to help distribute Christmas letters to American POWs but spent most of her time in air raid shelters during Operation Linebacker II, the heaviest bombing raid after World War II. In this article we explore how U2 found themselves in Berlin during Germany’s reunification in 1990. They also found themselves in a car, the Trabant, that came to symbolize the dreadful living conditions East Germans had to contend with under Soviet communism.
After the lukewarm reception of their 1988 album and film Rattle and Hum, U2 felt the need to redefine their sound and “dream it all up again,” as Bono stated at a concert in Dublin near the end of their LoveTown tour in December 1989. The band decided to begin working on what would be their next album Achtung Baby at Hansa Tonstudio in West Berlin, a recording studio made famous among Western rock musicians by David Bowie and Iggy Pop. As a result of being in Berlin, U2 had a front row seat to witness the official reunification of Germany. They were on the last flight into East Berlin on the night it ceased to exist, October 3, 1990. After they landed, they wanted to join the celebration and perhaps dream of a peaceful Irish reunification some day in the future. They ended up at the wrong party. As Bono recounts, "We went looking for the celebrations because we’re Irish and we like to go out. We ended up at a huge mass rally but people didn’t really look like they were having a very good time. It was grim, very grim. We discovered that we weren’t at the celebration for the Wall coming down. We were at a protest meeting to put the Wall back up!"
The Wall had begun to be dismantled almost a year earlier, and the initial euphoria about German reunification had worn off. While fireworks went off during the night of October 3, the difficult work of making Berlin one again had caused a general atmosphere of malaise in the city. The atmosphere affected the band as well. U2 rehearsed and recorded from October to December 1990 at Hansa but struggled to make progress on the album until they stumbled onto the song “One.” From then on, the album had a clearer direction. Although “One” has often been thought of as a love song, band members have said on many occasions that it is just as much about difference and disunity as it is about oneness. The tenuous and fragile unity of Germany in the years after the fall of the Wall is subtly reflected in the song: “We’re one, but we’re not the same.” Yet the band’s time in Berlin was not all gloomy. During their time at Hansa Tonstudio, the band lodged in an East German guest house that had hosted Soviet dignitaries such as Leonid Brezhnev, so Bono got to brag about sleeping in Brezhnev’s bed. They also had fun dressing in drag like trashy cabaret singers for the music video for “One,” and driving around in Trabants.
Rock music and fast cars have gone together like hand in glove since the early 1950s. Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats’ “Rocket 88” (1951), which celebrated the Oldsmobile 88 and its powerful V8 engine, is among the contenders for being not only the first rock and roll record about a car, but the first rock record and roll period. The list of rock songs about fast cars is a long one, including The Beach Boys’ “Little Deuce Coupe,” Ronny & the Daytonas’ “G.T.O.,” Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally,” Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz,” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac” and “Cadillac Ranch.” ZZ Top’s 1933 red Ford Coupe, seen blazing across the screen in their early 1980s music videos like “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” is as recognizable a symbol of the band as their long beards.
When one thinks of rock and roll cars, the East German Trabant is an unlikely candidate for consideration. Eli Rubin writes, “Before 1989, the Trabant, with its two-stroke engine, plastic fiberglass body, and terrible quality, was for many West Germans, and Westerners in general, the most potent symbol of socialism’s incompetence and inferiority in comparison with their own world.” Yet in the early 1990s, U2 found a way to make this decidedly uncool and un-fast car an integral part of their Achtung Baby album and Zoo TV concert tour.
The band’s photographer Anton Corbijn came up with the idea of using Trabants as a thematic element for the album cover of Achtung Baby and the Edge thought they might benefit from a colorful splash of paint. Corbijn said, “When we were in Berlin, I really thought the Trabant was a playful thing, a visual element, but it also stood for the fall of the East.” Three Trabants are shown on the Achtung Baby album cover, two painted by Thierry Noir who became famous for being among the first street artists to paint murals on the Berlin Wall, discussed in the section on Sting in chapter six of Atomic Tunes. Noir told us in an interview, “I painted about 15 Trabants. Each Trabant had its own design.” The booklet of the Achtung Baby CD contains a photograph of drummer Larry Mullen Jr. leaning on a Trabant and Bono leaning on a Mercedes-Benz, the two cars showing the two separate German worlds coming together. Band manager Paul McGuinness said, "The Trabant cars became one of the enduring images of the artwork and the tour. These cars were made of compressed wood pulp and smelt like wet cabbage. Somehow they became part of the imagery representing the fall of communism. We saw them everywhere in Berlin." The Edge recalls, “Every morning we’d drive into the studio and there’d be a new burned-out Trabi on the side of the road. [Someone’s] car had just made it from some obscure part of East Germany and he just had to leave it on the side of the road.” For U2, the Trabants earned the reputation of “The Little Engine that Could,” transporting East Germans out of communism and into a wider world with greater freedoms and possibilities.
When ideas were being thrown around for the stage design of the Zoo TV tour, U2’s set director Willie Williams found a way to suspend the cars and use them as spotlights to shine down on the band and the audience. Matt DeLorenzo from Autoweek magazine described the Trabants in action this way, "The effect of the Trabants-as-lights during the concert itself, is, well, moving. Through some of the numbers, the cars are unobtrusive, positioned high above the action, a single spotlight beam eerily emanating from the car’s bowels to illuminate the action on stage. Other times, they’re lowered and come to life seemingly possessed by some evil that shoots beams of lights in all directions in the manner of some weird death ray."
Several Trabants were used to light Zoo TV, each festooned in whimsical, surreal trimming. One had the lyrics to U2’s song “The Fly” painted on it. One was covered in hundreds of small mirror squares, making it some sort of bizarre disco ball. One was covered in fake tiger fur. One was painted green and named “Kermit.” It took a monumental effort by the road crew to transport, maintain, suspend, and remotely-control the movements of the Trabants during the tour. Yet it was worth the trouble. The Trabants along with the mobile TV studio, satellite linkups, gigantic screens, massive sound system, and the band’s innovative songs and charisma made Zoo TV one of the greatest concert tours in the history of rock music.
Some of the Trabants used for the Zoo TV tour found their way into the Roll and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. Suspended from the beams of I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid, these Trabants have greeted visitors to the main lobby of the Rock Hall since its opening in 1995. As U2 show designer Willie Williams eloquently describes them, "The “Zoo TV” sign and the fluorescent strips [on the cars] are illuminated 24 hours a day and at night the car headlights come on, so the humble Trabbies are exalted in all their glory. Not only that, but being [in] a glass building, the cars and sign are visible from outside on the plaza and even from the freeway. Quite a magnificent end for some East German family’s little runabout."
During the Zoo TV tour, in which U2 spent almost two years playing 157 concerts in 23 countries, these Trabants became mechanized metaphors for East Germany’s acclimation into the world beyond the Wall. Their bright headlights explored an environment new to them, a Western capitalistic paradise. They were dressed up for the occasion too. Shedding their drab colors, each Trabant was decked out in its own unique paint scheme and given an individual identity, something they did not have when they emerged as anonymous clones from their factory in Zwickau. Although they had their engines removed for the tour, they traveled more kilometers than their manufacturers could ever have dreamed. They even transcended the prescribed pathways of street and highway and became airborne, suspended from cables and shining down on the cheering crowds below. Instead of putt-putting down the autobahn, with Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs whooshing past them, they were given a cushy ride in the trailers of eighteen-wheeler trucks, and in comfy jets when the tour went overseas between Europe, America, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. U2’s Trabants symbolized East Germany set free to cruise the main drags of the Western world. Even if they were nothing more than a toy for a Western rock band to play with, they earned the admiration of anyone staring up at them at the concerts, or entering the main lobby of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. ZZ Top’s red hot rod must have been green with envy.
 U2 by U2: Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jr., with Neil McCormick (London:
HarperCollins, 2006), 213.
 U2 by U2, 216.
 Bono in [U2]: From the Sky Down: A Documentary Film by Davis Guggenheim. Director’s Cut. Universal Music Distribution, B0016396-09, 2011, DVD, 46:41-47:12.
 U2 by U2, 221.
 U2 by U2, 224.
 Bono, Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas, with a foreword by Bono (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005), 268.
 Eli Rubin, “Understanding a Car in the Context of a System: Trabants, Marzahn, and East German Socialism,” in The Socialist Car: Automobility in the Eastern Bloc, edited by
Lewis H. Siegelbaum (Ithica, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2011), 124.
 Bono and Anton Corbijn, from “Trabantland” documentary on U2: Zoo TV: Live from Sydney. Universal Music, B0007394-09, 2006, DVD, 13:14-13:52.
 Anton Corbijn, from “Trabantland” documentary on U2: Zoo TV: Live from Sydney, 14:01-14:13.
 Thierry Noir, email interview with Tim and Joanna Smolko on September 1, 2016.
 Paul McGuinness in U2 by U2, 237.
 The Edge in [U2]: From the Sky Down, 48:20-48:34.
 Matt DeLorenzo, “Lowly Trabants Get a Shot at the Big Time as Stage Lighting on U2’s Zoo TV tour,” AutoWeek (April 20, 1992). http://www.atu2.com/news/in-the-name-of-light.html
 Willie Williams, “But is it Art?” Propaganda, Issue 23 (August 1, 1995). http://www.atu2.com/news/but-is-it-art.html
In anticipation of the release of our book Atomic Tunes in May, here is another article we wrote a few years ago and had published on the peer-reviewed online music blog, The Avid Listener, hosted by W. W. Norton & Co. In chapter 4 of the book, we have a section on Tom Lehrer, one of the greatest musical satirists of the 20th century. If you grew up in the 1970s, like Tim did, you may remember Lehrer's song "Silent E," (a little hug becomes HUGE instantly!) from the groovy kids' show The Electric Company. Daniel Radcliffe, of Harry Potter fame, is a big fan, and memorized "The Elements." Lehrer is still alive, at the ripe old age of 92, and recently released all of his lyrics and music into the public domain. To start reading the Atomic Tunes preview, go here.
To learn more about our book, go here.
In anticipation of the release of our book Atomic Tunes in May, here is the second of three articles we wrote a few years ago and had published on the peer-reviewed online music blog, The Avid Listener, hosted by W. W. Norton & Co. In chapter 6 of the book, we recount the story of how Bruce Springsteen played to approximately 300,000 people in communist East Berlin in 1988. He used Bob Dylan's iconic song "Chimes of Freedom" to express a wish that would come true a year later. To start reading, go here.
To learn more about our book, go here.
In anticipation of the release of our book Atomic Tunes in May, here is the first of three articles we wrote a few years ago and had published on the peer-reviewed online music blog, The Avid Listener, hosted by W. W. Norton & Co. This section, about Doris Day's song "Tic Tic Tic," is from the fourth chapter on novelty songs. To start reading click here.
To find out more about the book, click here.
Joanna & Tim
Welcome to our blog!