Oh Berlin is one of those songs that you can definitely get stuck in your head, an ear-bug if you will. There is a college in the US called Oberlin College, I know nothing about it except that if I hear the name of the college I think of the song, and if I think of the song I think of the college. But then I go on and think of the rest of the song, and it really interests me. One of the better songs that U2 have released that haven’t been heard by the vast majority of people, although I also don’t think it would be very commercially acceptable, certainly not these days.
Oh Berlin came off the Achtung Baby b sides, but only on the remastered Achtung, and I can’t tell when it was actually recorded. Do I believe it was written at that time, yes, because there are so many references to Berlin, let alone the song title, where U2 recorded the album. I suspect though that it was recorded much later than that, maybe the band went back into the studio to re-record it, because it sounds a lot cleaner than the old days, and perhaps most interestingly Bono’s voice sounds much more recent than 25 years ago.
Things we know about the recording of Achtung Baby in Berlin include that they did just part of the album there, it was during Edge’s breakup with his wife, which caused a lot of darkness and grief within the band, and that they almost split up around that time. We also know that Berlin itself was on the verge of breaking up, and the band was trying to grab hold of the zeitgeist, and they in some ways did that amazingly.
Things we know about the song is that it grabs hold of that moment too, and splashes it all over the lyrics. From the opening line, the quietly spoken “Hansa, Hansa,” for the studio they were recording, to the address of the studio, which Bono says so well I imagine he said it a hundred times to taxi drivers (assuming he wasn’t driving a Trabant all the time). From the angel wings of the Wim Wenders movie, to the dropping of the name of some German poet that no-one has ever heard of, in the midst of a bunch of names that are well-known both within the U2 community and much more widely.
It is interesting looking at the psychology of the lyrics, too. Knowing the city by it’s name, that’s pretty clear, that everyone has just one immediate thought when they think of Berlin, but that it’s a whole different place to that. He does the “Stare and not be stared,” the idea that the band was very famous and they couldn’t go anywhere without being stared at, so they hide themselves away in Berlin to be able to do the staring themselves. And to “change location rather than change yourself,” a similar idea, perhaps the running away that Edge was doing at the time.
I also really like the way that the song splits between a singing and speaking voice, it works so well like this. My favorite part is the repeated “Every angel is terror,” for some reason that line grabs me every time. And through all that I’ve written I haven’t even mentioned the music, which works well too, I think it might work for different words and tone of voice too.
My rating for Oh Berlin: 7 / 10