The Meaning Behind “The Fly,” a Song that Ushered in a New Era for U2

Now that U2 is 15 studio albums deep into their discography, a clear pattern has emerged across its trajectory. Every three albums, they overhaul their sound. As the 1980s drew to a close, they had already undergone two of these three-album cycles. Coming off their sixth album Rattle and Hum, U2 were gaining a reputation for relying on nostalgia for earlier eras of American music. The band knew they wanted to chart a new course, but they weren’t sure how or what that course would sound like.

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They answered both of those questions in the course of making their 1991 album Achtung Baby. The early portion of the recording process was tense, with the quartet uncertain if they would continue as a band. After lots of trial and error, U2 found its new sound, and aside from those who got their hands on bootlegged recordings of some of the sessions, “The Fly” was most fans’ introduction to their new sonic landscape.

U2 chose the song as their first single from Achtung Baby because of how different it sounded as compared to their previous work, as it managed to be both more abrasive and danceable. Its lyrics were also a departure from the earnest prose Bono had become known for writing. Bono has referred to the song as “the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree.”

“An Obscene Phone Call from Hell”

Bono begins “The Fly” with a pair of lines that start with the phrase It’s no secret that, establishing a pattern that is repeated throughout the song. He creates the impression of someone who is drawing us in for some sort of learning or wisdom.

It’s no secret that the stars are falling from the sky
It’s no secret that our world is in darkness tonight

After Bono has rattled off his list of things that are not a secret, he draws us closer, singing They say a secret is something you tell one other person / So I’m telling you, child. But Bono’s purpose—or more accurately, the purpose of his character—is not to inform or educate us. As Bono explained to NME, he envisioned “The Fly” as being narrated from the perspective of someone making “an obscene phone call from hell, but the guy likes it there.” He added, “It’s a deranged kind of character. We have all these kind of people that we are, and there’s some that you just don’t want to let out in public. He’s one of them.”

“The Fly’s” Words of Warning

Bono’s character has fallen from grace, and he is calling to let us know that we could join him at any time. In U2 by U2, he clarified the imagery of a falling star—and that of a fly on the wall—is meant to evoke a futile attempt at reaching for a higher state. Bono explained, “It’s saying: ‘Scale this rock face at your peril. Lots have tried before you and have been left on the fly paper.’” With that perspective, we can hear the chorus as a discouraging message for anyone who aspires to love.

Love, we shine like a burning star
A man will beg, a man will crawl
We’re fallin’ from the sky tonight
On the sheer face of love like a fly on a wall
It’s no secret at all

Bono’s “Mega” Persona

“The Fly” wasn’t merely an introduction to a new version of U2. It was the inspiration behind a character Bono portrayed on stage during shows on the Zoo TV Tour. The Fly character, clad in leather with large sunglasses, was a send-up of outrageous, self-obsessed rock stars, a club to which Bono recognized he belonged. He told Rolling Stone The Fly “needs to feel mega to feel normal.” 

“The Fly” would not be the last time Bono would lampoon himself and his fellow rock stars. On “Stand Up Comedy”—a track from U2’s 2009 album No Line on the Horizon—Bono sings Stand up to rock stars / Napoleon is in high heels / Josephine, be careful of small men with big ideas. In an interview with Q magazine, he said, “I love the notion of standing up to rock stars. Because they are a bunch of f–king megalomaniacs.”

The Impact of “The Fly”

“The Fly” was the only one of five singles released from Achtung Baby to not reach the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 61. It received plenty of airplay on rock stations, however, going to No. 1 on the Alternative Airplay chart and No. 2 on the Mainstream Rock chart. “The Fly” may have succeeded in warming up a larger audience to U2’s new sound, as the next two singles, “Mysterious Ways” (No. 9) and “One” (No. 10), were both Top-10 hits on the Hot 100. Achtung Baby didn’t quite reach the bar for sales set by The Joshua Tree, which was Diamond certified, but it came close, selling over 8 million copies in the U.S.

Only a few artists have covered “The Fly.” One, former Virgin Prunes frontman Gavin Friday, gained some insight into why it hasn’t been covered more often, with a little help from U2’s guitarist. In a 2011 interview, Friday said, “The Edge rang me up and said, ‘Nobody wants to do “The Fly”—they’re all afraid of it.’ I think it’s because it has its own essence, sonically. It was the lead single and the point of reinvention.”

“The Fly” may not have been a hit on the level of “With or Without You,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” or “Beautiful Day,” but in defining U2’s legacy, it’s every bit as important. It ushered in a bold transition from a wildly popular era for the band to a new one that held no guarantees for success. As much as any other song, “The Fly” demonstrates U2’s ability to master a variety of styles while still maintaining an unmistakable identity.

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Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

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