Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 26, 2006)
15 years after the fact, it seems hard to remember what a shock U2’s early 90s transition was. They left behind the super serious, painfully earnest rockers of the 80s and suddenly embraced irony and a winking sense of humor. They also took on a more electronic bent in their music with 1991’s Achtung Baby.
Some fans resented the change, but for most of us, we fully embraced the New U2. Achtung became a smash hit, and the following 1992-93 redefined their scope as a live act. A serious multimedia extravaganza, the “ZooTV” tour began with US arenas in the winter/spring of 1992, shifted to European arenas in May and June, and graduated to American stadiums that summer and fall. From there, ZooTV played European stadiums in the spring and summer of 1993 before the tour finished with a smattering of fall shows in Australia and New Zealand before the tour ended in Tokyo – the 157th concert over 22 months.
I saw ZooTV in person twice. I took in an indoor show in Philly and an outdoor one in DC. Though the tour consistently received rave reviews, I can’t say my live experiences with it left me impressed. Frankly, it was a lot to take in, especially via the enormous sensory overload of the stadium show. U2 threw so much visual information at the fan that it became tough to know where to focus.
I embraced the tour much better on home video via this ZooTV Live from Sydney production. Shot at the Sydney Football Stadium on November 27 1993, the program came from the very end of the long tour. In fact, the ZooTV trek lasted so long U2 had time to produce another album along the way; summer 1993’s Zooropa appeared during a break in shows.
This means Sydney boasts a few Zooropa tunes. We get “Lemon”, “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)”, “Daddy’s Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car”, “Dirty Day” and “Numb”, a rare lead vocal showcase for the Edge. Plenty of Achtung material still appears. We find “Zoo Station”, “Mysterious Ways”, “One”, “The Fly”, “Until the End of the World”, “Love Is Blindness” and “Even Better Than the Real Thing”. The covers of Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love” and Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love” come from this period. The former popped up on the single for “One”, while Bono did “Falling” solo for the Honeymoon in Vegas soundtrack.
Moving into the band’s back catalog, 1988’s Rattle and Hum generates “Angel of Harlem”, and the band also covered “Unchained Melody” in that era; it originally appeared as a B-side with “All I Want Is You”. We get a smattering of tunes from U2’s breakout release, 1987’s The Joshua Tree. It gives us “Where the Streets Have No Name”, “Bullet the Blue Sky”, “With or Without You” and “Running to Stand Still”. “Pride (In the Name of Love)” stems from 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire, while “New Year’s Day” originally appeared on 1983’s War. We find no tunes from 1982’s October or 1980’s Boy.
For reasons I’ve never understood, Sydney drops one song from the original concert: Achtung’s “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World”. This tune appeared during the 1993 pay-per-view broadcast but never made it onto the 1994 VHS or LD editions. It also fails to show up here. Why not reinstate it? I don’t know, but it remains absent.
Since 14 of the show’s 22 songs – including the two Achtung-era covers – first appeared within the two years prior to this concert, obviously ZooTV went with a real emphasis on the then-new. U2 would find it tough to do a set with so much current material today. Granted, they involve more new tunes on their tours than most long-establish acts of their stature. For instance, eight of the numbers from 2005’s Vertigo tour emanated from 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. That’s a much better percentage than you’d get from most decades-old acts.
Still, ZooTV found the band at a point where they could much more heavily emphasis the current. That’s largely because Achtung was such a big hit, but it also worked due to the nature of the ZooTV production. The band’s early 90s material fit the high-tech nature of the show better than their earthier prior tracks. Of course, they meld the older tunes into the concert well, but the techno tone of Achtung and Zooropa makes a lot of sense within the performance’s themes.
While remembered as a massive visual spectacular, ZooTV’s greatest pleasures stemmed from its musical prizes. The DVD offers a mix of what I consider to be virtually definitive versions of some songs. After all these years, I thought I’d started to become immune to the appeal of “Bullet the Blue Sky”. It’s battled with “Zoo Station” as my favorite U2 song for years, but I must admit overexposure at U2’s live shows had begun to make me a little sick of it.
The fiery rendition from Sydney reminded me why I love the song so damned much. So aggressive and incendiary, each time I listen to it, the tune makes me want to beat the crap out of somebody. As odd as it sounds, I mean that in a good way. This edition packs such a potent wallop that it always gets under my skin.
I especially like the sequencing and transitioning found during Sydney. “Dirty Day” is a forgettable Zooropa number, but it works well as a lead-in to “Bullet”. The latter then moves smoothly into “Running to Stand Still”. Indeed, the aggressiveness of “Bullet” acts as a great contrast to the dreamy darkness of “Running”. From there we move moodily into a rousing “Where the Streets Have No Name” for a great four-song sequence.
Speaking of segues, I love the move between “Until the End of the World” and “New Year’s Day”. In subsequent years, U2 have paired those two songs, but for unknown reasons, they never link them in this way anymore; they always stop “World” before they launch “Day”. This makes no sense to me since the transition works so damned well. Like “Bullet”, I’ve threatened to tire of “Day” due to overexposure, but this rendition soars. It’s a truly thrilling take on the song that breathes new life into an old warhorse.
Really, the entire second half of the show offers a slew of auditory highlights. I love the concert’s ending. The studio Love Is Blindness never did a lot for me, but the live rendition is searing and emotional. From there, the gentle Bono and Edge version of “Can’t Help Falling In Love” ends the show on a warm and romantic note. Elvis fans will disagree, but I think this live take is the definitive one.
ZooTV boasts plenty of interesting visuals as well. The show’s opening may well be the coolest concert start ever. It’s amazing to see Bono’s goose-stepping Strangelovian routine – this is the same earnest seeker from a few years earlier? It’s a dynamic opening to the concert that remains stunning after all these years.
Bono startles again with his bizarre “MacPhisto” character. A wry, jaded take on the Devil, MacPhisto pops up for the encore and reminds us again how much changed with the band. I find it remarkable to see how successful that transition was. U2 turned into a very different band in the early 90s, and they not only kept their audience, but also they expanded their fanbase. Is MacPhisto over the top? Sure, but he creates an interesting persona who adds zip to the proceedings.
All that and a sexy bellydancer too! (She eventually married the Edge, by the way.) Veteran concert director David Mallet reins in the ZooTV excesses to present a surprisingly coherent take on the show. Mallet offers efficient direction without too many visual gimmicks or gratuitous audience shots. The concert comes across with clarity as it depicts the events.
I dearly wish I could see ZooTV on stage again. As I mentioned, I wasn’t wild about it the two times I watched it in 1992, but it really grew on me via this video rendition. The show succeeds in both the visual and auditory realms to become a truly memorable performance.