- 06 Mar 17
On March 9, it will be 30 years since the release of The Joshua Tree, a record that transformed U2 into the biggest rock band in the world. In this issue of Hot Press, we look back to the genesis of the album, how it was put together and and what made it work. And ask: has it stood the test of time?
Thirty years. It’s a long time. So many days and nights. So many hours and minutes. Seconds stretching into infinity almost. Can it really be that long since all of this happened?
Sometimes, you look at the clock and wonder might it be wrong. It gets late so early! You stare at the diary. Look at the year. Do the maths. The result is always different only the same. The ticking never stops. It is always later than you think. And so you reach for the play button. It really is 30 years. The world changed then. The centre of gravity shifted. No longer peripheral to what was going down, Ireland felt closer to the heart of the contradiction. And it was.
The world looked at us differently as a result of The Joshua Tree. Mary Robinson was elected President soon afterwards and things shifted again. The momentum towards peace in the North gathered pace. Ireland kept producing great singers, great bands. The power of the Church began to crumble.
All of that didn’t happen because of this.
That’s not the way things hinge. But this we can say: nothing would ever be the same after it. U2 had played their part in style. The Joshua Tree was epoch making. Some years later, writing U2: The Stories Behind Every Song, I had to try to explain it...
July 13, 1985. Live Aid. In front of the biggest television audience for a live music event ever, U2 stole the show. Sales of their fourth album, The Unforgettable Fire, soared. Suddenly U2 were not just a big band. They were one of the biggest in the world. It gave them some breathing space. The Edge wrote the soundtrack for Paul Mayerberg’s film Captive. Bono went travelling; listened to the blues; did ‘Silver and Gold’ for the Sun City album project with Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood; recorded ‘In A Lifetime’ with Clannad. The whole band did two tracks in a Dublin studio with Robbie Robertson, formerly of The Band, for his eponymous solo album.
In ‘86, they emerged in fits. For TV Gaga. The Conspiracy of Hope tour in the US. Self Aid in Ireland. A different band! They did dirty, loud, noisy cover versions of Eddie Cochran (“There ain’t no cure for the summertime blues!”) and Bob Dylan (“I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more”). They’d travelled a long, long way from the cultivated European atmospherics of The Unforgettable Fire.
Bono was listening to roots music, folk, the blues. He was thinking about songs, reading about the Deep South. The Edge had looked east on Captive. The band moved west with The Joshua Tree. Into the arms of America. Bono’s songwriting had more focus now. Greater depth. He was dragging himself up there alongside Dylan, Morrison, Lou Reed.
“It’s our most literate record yet,” he said. That was a whopper of an understatement. It went straight to No.1 in the US and the UK. In America, it became the fastest-selling album of all time. It also delivered the first platinum-selling CD.
In the arid wasteland of the Nevada desert, the Joshua tree survives despite the dirt, bone-dry sand and stone in which it is embedded. Somewhere down there is water. Somewhere down there is the source of life.
Somewhere down there is hope. The challenge is to find it. With Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois on production duties, U2 went drilling.
Flashback 2: ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’
The Edge held a party in his newly reconstructed house in Monkstown on the south coast of Dublin, on New Year’s Eve, 1986. By this stage the bulk of the work on The Joshua Tree was done and the band were relaxing. But Bono couldn’t quite let go. One of the U2 singer’s most endearing qualities is the naked enthusiasm he shows for the band’s own music. And so he explained to me that this was an album of songs, that U2 had finally learned what the word meant, and that he was convinced that they had just made by far their best album to date as a result. “There’s one in particular,” he explained, “that’s amazing.” And then he started to sing it to me. “It goes like this: ‘I have climbed/ the highest mountain/ I have run/ through the fields/ only to be with you/ only to be with you’. And it’s got this refrain,” he expanded and sang on till he came to it. “‘But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’.”
The bass drum of some thumping dance track was whacking away next door, and the hubbub of party voices reigned all around – and yet I’ll swear that I could hum the song the next day. It was immensely catchy. A perfect piece of pop music, it went to No. 1 in the US when it was released there as a single, and no one could have been in the least bit surprised. From the start, Bono clearly knew that he was onto a winner.
The song had entered the world with another title, ‘Under the Weather’. It also had a different melody. But once The Edge had come up with the title, and the theme of spiritual doubt had crystallized in Bono’s imagination, the momentum became inescapable. My brother Dermot Stokes had given him a tape of blues and gospel music, including tracks by The Swan Silvertones, The Staple Singers and Blind Willie Johnson. Eno, who had listened to a lot of gospel, further stimulated his growing enthusiasm. Bono knew that ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ had to have its roots in gospel. But he also sensed that the theme was big enough to allow him to go for broke, to write a big tune, an anthem.
‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ is beautifully written and elegantly constructed. The band trip lightly along, on a groove that’s a model of restraint, with an acoustic rhythm guitar break from The Edge where others might have preferred an instrumental solo. Bono’s singing is soulful and heartfelt. No one puts a foot wrong. How long did it take them to make that happen?
“I used to think writing words was old fashioned,” Bono confessed. “So I sketched. I wrote words on the microphone. For The Joshua Tree, I felt that the time had come to write words that meant something, out of my own experience.”
You could sense it straightaway. ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ was the real thing – though not everyone seemed to agree with that. In 1991, Negativland, an underground band based in San Francisco, released a record entitled U2. It was a piece of attention-seeking pop larceny: they had re-mixed and re-modelled ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking’For’, interspersing it with excerpts of an interview conversation between Bono and the American DJ, Casey Kasem. That it was a scam, both creatively and commercially, was underlined by the fact that U2’s logo dominated the cover. Island Records stepped in and took out an injunction to prevent further sale or distribution of the record. Negativland pleaded that there was no breach of copyright because the record was a parody. And they argued that U2 were defining themselves as corporate rock animals by crushing what was essentially a subversive artistic statement. Is it always the case that when you aim high people take pot shots? No matter. “What was scary to me was that people who were criticising us weren’t really listening to the records,” Bono told David Fricke of Rolling Stone. “The records were not propagating any kind of ‘men of stone’ thing. The Joshua Tree is a very uncertain record. ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ is an anthem of doubt more than faith.”
Flashback 3: ‘Mothers Of The Disappeared’
During 1986, U2 had agreed to participate in the Conspiracy of Hope tour in the USA with Sting, Lou Reed, Bryan Adams, Peter Gabriel and Joan Baez, amongst others. The tour was both a money-raising and a consciousness-building expedition, undertaken on behalf of Amnesty International.
The band had developed a close relationship with that organisation through Jack Healey, an Irish-American former priest, who put together the Conspiracy tour. He had helped in making connections for Bono in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Now, in a variety of shapes and guises, Amnesty concerns were resurfacing on The Joshua Tree. Bono had been stunned by the accounts he’d heard of murder squads operating under the Argentinian military junta through the ’70s and early ’80s. Those bleak decades – before the Falklands War, or the war in the Malvinas, precipitated a return to democracy – represented a time during which hundreds of student opponents of the military regime had been arrested and were never seen again, dead or alive. In Argentina they became known as “the disappeared”, and an organization called Mothers of the Disappeared had been formed to campaign for full disclosure of what had happened to those who had been lifted during the “dirty war” – and to work towards the arrest and trial of the police and military personnel who had been responsible for fashioning and carrying out the State policy of torture and murder.
‘Mothers of the Disappeared’ continues the tradition of ‘40’ and ‘MLK’, of ending a U2 album with a more measured, reflective track – but it is less a celebration, and less a lullaby, than a lament. It enters with disturbing sound effects courtesy of Eno, and it never loses its ominous, mournful quality. The Edge’s guitar is barbed wire, and Bono sounds like Bob Dylan’s Man of Constant Sorrow, his yodel a high, lonesome sound, a caoineadh if ever there was one. The song is an act of witness – but there is no optimistic note of reassurance, as might have been struck by U2 in the past, with which to close the album. Too much evil in the world. Some things just can’t be explained.
Even Bono was prepared to acknowledge that now.
A long time. So much whiskey under the bridge of the nose since. But these desert songs still resonate with an astonishing power. Some – I’m thinking of the gorgeous, loving, deeply moving ‘One Tree Hill’, of ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’, of ‘With Or Without You’, of ‘Running To Stand Still’ and ‘Bullet The Blue Sky’ for starters – have entered the canon. The rest are not far behind.
With The Joshua Tree, U2 captured the imagination of millions all over the world, in a way that must have taken even the members of the band themselves by surprise. This, of course, is what you get involved in rock’n’roll for. You want hit records. You want the maximum number of people to hear your songs. You want them to listen to your music. And to be moved.
U2 never made any secret of their ambitions in that regard. From the start, they made it clear that they wanted to be the biggest band in the world and they would not be gainsaid. They drove themselves as far as they could. Instead of abandoning the car out west, they drove on further, into the desert, for inspiration. It was all part of the grand plan that they made up on the hoof.
Except, by the time they arrived up there, to joust with The Rolling Stones for that coveted title, they were another sort of band entirely, and one that had just made a very different kind of global platinum smash hit record into the bargain. The old certainties were done for, deflated, abandoned. Ultimately, The Joshua Tree was an album of great moral generosity and all too human anxiety and doubt.
The resentment of U2’s success in Ireland has always seemed to me to be especially toxic. There are people I know who hate U2 quite irrationally. They should go back and listen to The Joshua Tree with an open heart and a clear mind, free of the blinkers of animosity. I have never had any doubt whatsoever about its claims to greatness. But it is often a very beautiful record too.
I have never doubted either that music influences people. That it can change our perspectives. Help to heal. And bring to our attention those things about which we should properly feel disquiet and unease. The Joshua Tree did all of these things and a lot more besides.
Even thirty years on, its legacy is powerful, enduring and ultimately affirmative. Because, for everyone who resents U2 and what they achieved by making a troublesome racket, there are a hundred whose lives were enriched by the songs and the music on The Joshua Tree and who were inspired by it, and by U2’s slant on things, to take a different, better, more engaged, egalitarian and moral stance on the world and how they should act, or be active, in it. Who wanted to make a positive difference as a result of how it spoke to them.
There aren’t many works of art about which that can be said with real confidence. There aren’t many works of art of which that is definitively true. “I can’t change the world/ But I can change the world in me,” Bono had reflected, in ‘Rejoice’, a track on their second album, October, released in 1981.
With The Joshua Tree, U2 proved that sentiment wrong. They changed the world. And they changed the world in me too.
Niall Stokes. March 2017.
The ‘flashbacks’ contained in this piece are taken, with minor edits, from U2: The Stories Behind Every Song by Niall Stokes. To mark the 30th Anniversary of The Joshua Tree, Hot Press has secured a special discount on this unique book for readers! To secure a 30% discount off the RRP (£9.99) of the paperback edition of U2: The Stories Behind Every Song, all you have to do is use the voucher code U2 in the online shopping basket on carltonbooks.co.uk. Please click here: https://www.carltonbooks.co.uk/u2-stbs-pb.html