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The secret history of 'The Joshua Tree'

For many people it is U2's greatest album. Twenty years on, to mark it's re-release, Colm O'Hare talks to Daniel Lanois and reflects on the extraordinary background to a monumental album.

Colm O'Hare, 21 Nov 2007

For U2, The Joshua Tree, their fifth studio album, released in the spring of 1987, came at precisely the right time. Though already hugely successful, particularly as a live act, there was a feeling abroad that they had not yet delivered the definitive, classic album. As Hot Press writer Bill Graham put it, U2 had been “surfing a wave” since their triumphant appearance at Live Aid: “Their Irish optimism, curiosity and adaptability gave them a special empathy with America… the chance for their breakthrough arrived just as their recording and songwriting skills reached maturity.”

The result of a new-found musical and personal exploration, these eleven songs made up U2’s strongest and most cohesive collection of songs to date. Epic in scope and unlimited in its ambition, the album and subsequent tour saw the quartet rise to the major league of international rock stardom. The Joshua Tree had it all: songs of love and loss such as ‘With Or Without You’ and ‘One Tree Hill’; politically inspired polemics like ‘Bullet The Blue Sky’ and ‘Mothers Of The Disappeared’; gospel songs of hope and faith like ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’.

The decision to return to The Unforgettable Fire production team of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois on The Joshua Tree was easy. The pair had forged strong relationships with the band during the making of the previous album.

With the production team in place, the next question was where the LP would be made. The first three U2 albums had all been recorded at Windmill Lane, a high-spec facility located in a narrow street by the River Liffey in Dublin’s (then) dilapidated docklands. For The Unforgettable Fire they had taken the unusual decision to work at Slane Castle, the ancestral pile of Lord Henry Mountcharles, located thirty miles north of Dublin. Slane was a once-off, and there seemed to be little enthusiasm for returning to Windmill Lane; the band, and Bono in particular, had often stated their distaste for the ‘sterile’ environment of recording studios.

Instead, they elected to record in Danesmoate, a two-story-over-basement Georgian mansion in Rathfarnham on the southside of the city in the foothills of the Dublin Mountains. The house, a local landmark, was originally known as Glen Southwell after the family who once lived there. According to historical records, it was originally laid out with rustic follies, a viewing tower, and it even had a small stream flowing through the grounds. Curiously, the first recorded evidence of anyone living there is in 1787 – exactly two hundred years before The Joshua Tree was released – when it was occupied by a Capt. William Southwell. Danesmoate was familiar territory to at least one band member – the house was adjacent to St Columba’s College, Adam Clayton’s alma mater. So impressed was he with the house during the recording sessions that he later bought it for use as his own home and has since carried out extensive restoration work to the listed building.

For Lanois, Danesmoate offered the perfect location for getting down to some serious work. “It was a really nice set-up,” he recalls. “It has this large living room/drawing room, whatever you want to call it – a big rectangular room with a tall ceiling and wooden floors. It was loud, but it was really good loud, real dense, very musical. In my opinion it was the most rock and roll room of the lot. The castle [Slane] was a fun idea and everything but it was a massive place. Danesmoate sounded better than the castle. I think it was the best place of all the experiments we tried ‘cause we’ve always tried different sorts of locations [to record].”

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