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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

Steve Lillywhite is under no illusions as to what made it popular with a mainstream audience. “I think what made The Joshua Tree the big seller that it was, was the fact that they had the radio songs, the hits, and it was all stuff that they could play live.”

Lanois’ reputation also soared into the stratosphere in the wake of his production triumph on Joshua Tree. By now considered one of the most important producers to have emerged in the 1980s, he went on to midwife hugely acclaimed albums for Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, The Neville Brothers and many others. He has maintained his connection with U2, working on their most recent albums All That You Can’t Leave Behind and How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb.

Asked how he feels about The Joshua Tree over twenty years later, he pauses to gather his thoughts before elaborating.

“Well, I’ve been hurt more on other records than I was on that record,” he says. “You know where you actually take a kicking, as I did when I made Bob Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind. I certainly felt that at every stage of The Joshua Tree there were no major personal disappointments. I like the sound of the early U2 records that we made. It’s the sound of commitment.

“Modern day record production – because people have access to so many sounds – has kind of fallen into the hands of stylists. ‘Let’s have that little beat and this little texture and you come up with them in, like, minutes – that should work with this, that’ll be nice here and let’s hang that over there’. And it makes a very nice first impression, like, ‘Jeez we didn’t have to do any work and we’ve got that big, symphonic U2 sound that they got in the 1980s’. But what you don’t get is that ramp-up of dedication to get to that place.

“It’d be like if you buy a barren piece of property and you push a button and end up with a full orchard. Consequently, you end up with instant gratification, but you may not have a connection with it, it might actually not belong to you, at all. You can employ a stylist for a photo-shoot but I don’t think you should employ one for the making of a record. Those U2 records, they have big ramp-ups, they’re filled with philosophies. And we got to those places because we believed in an idea and not because we liked someone else’s idea.”

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