ON THIS DATE (25 YEARS AGO)
March 9, 1987 – U2: The Joshua Tree is released.
# ALL THINGS MUSIC PLUS+ 5/5
# Allmusic 5/5
# Rolling Stone (see original review below)
The Joshua Tree is the fifth studio album by U2. It was produced by Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, and was released on 9 March 1987 on Island Records. In contrast to the ambient experimentation of their 1984 release The Unforgettable Fire, U2 aimed for a harder-hitting sound on The Joshua Tree within the limitation of strict song structures. The album is influenced by American and Irish roots music and depicts the band’s love-hate relationship with the United States, with socially and politically conscious lyrics embellished with spiritual imagery.
Inspired by American tour experiences, literature, and politics, U2 chose America as a theme for the record. Recording began in January 1986 in Ireland, and to foster a relaxed, creative atmosphere, the group recorded in two houses, in addition to two professional studios. Several events during the sessions helped shape the conscious tone of the album, including the band’s participation in A Conspiracy of Hope tour, the death of roadie Greg Carroll, and lead vocalist Bono’s travels to Central America. Recording was completed in November and additional production continued into January 1987. Throughout the sessions, U2 sought a “cinematic” quality for the record that would evoke a sense of location, in particular, the open spaces of America. They represented this in the sleeve photography depicting them in American desert landscapes.
The album received critical acclaim, topped the charts in over 20 countries, and sold in record-breaking numbers. According to Rolling Stone, the album increased the band’s stature “from heroes to superstars”. It produced the hit singles “With or Without You”, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, and “Where the Streets Have No Name”. The album won Grammy Awards for Album of the Year and Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal in 1988. The group supported the record with the successful Joshua Tree Tour. Frequently cited as one of the greatest albums in rock history, The Joshua Tree is one of the world’s all-time best-selling albums, with over 25 million copies sold. In 2007, U2 released a 20th anniversary remastered edition of the record.
Before The Joshua Tree, U2 had released four studio albums and were an internationally successful band, particularly as a live act having toured every year in the 1980s. The group’s stature and the public’s anticipation for a new album grew following their 1984 record The Unforgettable Fire, their subsequent tour, and their participation in Live Aid in 1985. U2 began writing new material in mid-1985 following the Unforgettable Fire Tour.
Band manager Paul McGuinness recounted that The Joshua Tree originated from the band’s “great romance” with the United States, as the group had toured the country for up to five months per year in the first half of the 1980s. In the lead up to the album sessions, lead vocalist Bono had been reading the works of American writers such as Norman Mailer, Flannery O’Connor, and Raymond Carver so as to understand, in the words of Hot Press editor Niall Stokes, “those on the fringes of the promised land, cut off from the American dream”. Following a 1985 humanitarian visit to Ethiopia with his wife Ali, Bono said, “Spending time in Africa and seeing people in the pits of poverty, I still saw a very strong spirit in the people, a richness of spirit I didn’t see when I came home… I saw the spoiled child of the Western world. I started thinking, ‘They may have a physical desert, but we’ve got other kinds of deserts.’ And that’s what attracted me to the desert as a symbol of some sort.”
In 1985, Bono participated in Steven Van Zandt’s anti-apartheid Sun City project and spent time with Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. When Richards and Jagger played blues, Bono was embarrassed by his lack of familiarity with the genre, as most of U2’s musical knowledge began with punk rock in their youth in the mid-1970s. Bono realised that U2 “had no tradition”, and he felt as if they “were from outer space”. This inspired him to write the blues-influenced song “Silver and Gold”, which he recorded with Richards and Ronnie Wood. Until that time, U2 had been antipathetic towards roots music, but after spending time with The Waterboys and fellow Irish band Hothouse Flowers, they felt a sense of indigenous Irish music blending with American folk music. Nascent friendships with Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Richards encouraged U2 to look back to rock’s roots and focused Bono on his skills as a songwriter and lyricist. He explained, “I used to think that writing words was old-fashioned, so I sketched. I wrote words on the microphone. For The Joshua Tree, I felt the time had come to write words that meant something, out of my experience.” Dylan told Bono of his own debt to Irish music, while Bono further demonstrated his interest in music traditions in his duet with Irish Celtic and folk group Clannad on the track “In a Lifetime”.
The band wanted to build on the textures of The Unforgettable Fire, but in contrast to that record’s often out-of-focus experimentation, they sought a harder-hitting sound within the limitations of stricter song structures. The group referred to this approach as working within the “primary colours” of rock music—guitar, bass, and drums. Guitarist The Edge was more interested in the European atmospherics of The Unforgettable Fire and was initially reluctant to follow the lead of Bono, who, inspired by Dylan’s instruction to “go back”, sought a more American, bluesy sound. Despite not having a consensus on musical direction, the group members agreed that they felt disconnected from the dominant synthpop and New Wave music of the time, and they wanted to continue making music that contrasted with these genres. In late 1985, U2 moved to drummer Larry Mullen, Jr.’s newly purchased home to work on material written during The Unforgettable Fire Tour. This included demos that would evolve into “With or Without You”, “Red Hill Mining Town”, “Trip Through Your Wires”, and a song called “Womanfish”. The Edge recalled it as a difficult period with a sense of “going nowhere”, although Bono was set on America as a theme for the album.
Just prior to the release of The Joshua Tree, Bono was stricken with a sudden panic that the completed album was not good enough. He contemplated calling the production plants to order a halt of the record’s pressing, but he ultimately held off. Island Records spent over $100,000 on store displays advertising the album; President Lou Maglia called it “the most complete merchandising effort ever assembled”. The Joshua Tree was released on 9 March 1987, the first new release to be made available on the compact disc, vinyl record, and cassette tape formats on the same date. Record stores in Britain and Ireland opened at midnight to accommodate the large amount of fans who had queued outside to buy the album.
Following the release of The Joshua Tree, U2 staged the worldwide Joshua Tree Tour. It began in April 1987, and comprising 109 shows over three legs, it continued through December. The first and third legs visited the US, while the second leg toured Europe. The band had previously been more successful as a live act than as record-sellers, but The Joshua Tree elevated them to a new level of popularity. The tour sold out arenas and stadiums around the world—the first time they consistently performed at venues of that size—and it played to over 3 million people. Songs from the album became staples of the tour’s setlists, as the group regularly performed eight of the record’s eleven tracks, and the only song not to be played was “Red Hill Mining Town”.
Like their previous tours, The Joshua Tree Tour was a minimalistic, austere production, and U2 used this outlet for addressing political and social concerns. One such issue was Arizona Governor Evan Mecham’s canceling the state’s observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Throughout the tour, the group continued to explore American roots music: they collaborated with folk artist Bob Dylan, blues musician B. B. King, and Harlem’s New Voices of Freedom gospel choir; U2 also visited Graceland and Sun Studios in Memphis, where they recorded new material. These new songs and the band’s experiences on tour were documented for the 1988 Rattle and Hum album and Phil Joanou-directed motion picture.
The tour grossed $40 million, but despite its commercial success and positive reviews, U2 were dissatisfied creatively, and Bono believed they were musically unprepared for their success. Mullen said, “We were the biggest, but we weren’t the best”, and for Bono the tour was “one of the worst times of [their] musical life”. On the road, the group dealt with death threats, along with injuries that Bono sustained from performing. The band hinted that the stresses of touring led them to enjoy the “rock and roll lifestyle” they previously avoided.
ORIGINAL ROLLING STONE REVIEW
The stakes are enormous, and U2 knows it. Its last album, The Unforgettable Fire, contained “Pride (In the Name of Love),” its biggest-selling single ever, and last year the band was the musical heart of Amnesty International’s Conspiracy of Hope tour. Now, it seems, U2 is poised to rise from the level of mere platinum groups to the more rarefied air above. For a band that’s always specialized in inspirational, larger-than-life gestures – a band utterly determined to be Important – The Joshua Tree could be the big one, and that’s precisely what it sounds like.
That’s not to say that this record is either a flagrantly commercial move or another Born in the U.S.A. The Joshua Tree is U2’s most varied, subtle and accessible album, although it doesn’t contain any sure-fire smash hits. But in its musical toughness and strong-willed spirituality, the album lives up to its namesake: a hardy, twisted tree that grows in the rocky deserts of the American Southwest. A Mormon legend claims that their early settlers called the Joshua tree “the praying plant” and thought its gnarled branches suggested the Old Testament prophet Joshua pointing the way to the Promised Land. The title befits a record that concerns itself with resilience in the face of utter social and political desolation, a record steeped in religious imagery.
Since U2 emerged from Dublin in 1980 with a bracing brand of hard, emotional, guitar-oriented rock, its albums have followed a pattern. The first and third (Boy and War) were muscular and assertive, full of, respectively, youthful bravado and angry social awareness; the second and fourth studio albums (October and The Unforgettable Fire) were moody and meandering and sometimes longer on ideas than on full-fledged songs.
But The Joshua Tree isn’t an outright return to the fire of War. The band ruled that out years ago: Songs like “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day” hit with driving force on the 1983 album and subsequent tour. But U2 saw itself in danger of becoming just another sloganeering arena-rock band, so the group closed that chapter with a live record and video. The band swapped longtime producer Steve Lilly-white for Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois and, with The Unforgettable Fire, declared its intention to no longer be as relentlessly heroic.
On the new album, U2 retains Eno and Lanois, brings back Lillywhite to mix four songs and weds the diverse textures of The Unforgettable Fire to fully formed songs, many of them as aggressive as the hits on War. U2’s sonic trademarks are here: the monumental angst of Bono’s voice, the driving pulse of Adam Clayton’s bass and Larry Mullen Jr.’s drums and the careening wail of the Edge’s guitar. But for every predictably roaring anthem there’s a spare, inventively arranged tune, such as “With or Without You,” a rock & roll bolero that builds from a soothing beginning to a resounding climax.
The band still falls into some old traps: Bono’s perpetually choked-up voice can sound overwrought and self-important; some of the images (fire and rain, say) start to lose their resonance after a dozen or so uses; and “Exit,” a recited psychodrama about a killer, is awkward enough to remind you that not even Patti Smith could regularly pull off this sort of thing.
More than any other U2 album, though, The Joshua Tree has the power and allure to seduce and capture a mass audience on its own terms. Without making a show of its eclecticism, it features assertive rock (“Where the Streets Have No Name”), raw frenzy (“Bullet the Blue Sky”), delicacy (“One Tree Hill”), chugging rhythms (“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”) and even acoustic bluesiness (“Running to Stand Still”) – all of it unmistakably U2.
But if this is a breakthrough, it’s a grim, dark-hued one. At first, refreshingly honest, romantic declarations alternate with unsettling religious imagery. Then things get blacker. The raging, melodramatic “Bullet the Blue Sky” ties Biblical fire and brimstone with American violence overseas and at home. In the stomping, harmonicaspiked rocker “Trip Through Your Wires,” what looks like salvation could easily be evil seduction; “One Tree Hill” is a soft, haunting benediction on a U2 crew member who died in a motorcycle accident; and “Red Hill Mining Town” echoes Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” in its unsparing look at personal relationships savaged by economic hardship – here, the aftermath of the largely unsuccessful British miners’ strike of 1984.
But for all its gloom, the album is never a heavy-handed diatribe. After the first few times through “Running to Stand Still,” for instance, you notice the remarkable music: the wholly unexpected blues slide guitar, the soft, Nebraska-style yelps, the ghostly harmonica. It sounds like a lovely, peaceful reverie – except that this is a junkie’s reverie, and when that realization hits home, the gentle acoustic lullaby acquires a corrosive power that recalls “Bad,” from the last LP.
The Joshua Tree is an appropriate response to these times, and a picture bleaker than any U2 has ever painted: a vision of blasted hopes, pointless violence and anguish. But this is not a band to surrender to defeatism. Its last album ended with a gorgeous elegy to Martin Luther King Jr.; The Joshua Tree closes with a haunting ode to other victims. “Mothers of the Disappeared” is built around desolate images of loss, but the setting is soothing and restorative – music of great sadness but also of unutterable compassion, acceptance and calm. The Unforgettable Chill, you might call this album, and unforgettable is certainly the right word.
~ STEVE POND (April 9, 1987)
While the band and crew were working on the album’s mixing, Lillywhite’s wife, singer Kirsty MacColl, volunteered to set the running order for the album. The band told her to put “Where the Streets Have No Name” first and “Mothers of the Disappeared” last, with the rest sequenced according to her preference.
All lyrics written by Bono, all music composed by U2.
1. “Where the Streets Have No Name” 5:38
2. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” 4:38
3. “With or Without You” 4:56
4. “Bullet the Blue Sky” 4:32
5. “Running to Stand Still” 4:18
6. “Red Hill Mining Town” 4:54
7. “In God’s Country” 2:57
8. “Trip Through Your Wires” 3:33
9. “One Tree Hill” 5:23
10. “Exit” 4:13
11. “Mothers of the Disappeared” 5:12
The bonus audio CD features 14 additional tracks, including the B-sides “Luminous Times (Hold on to Love)”, “Walk to the Water”, “Spanish Eyes”, “Deep in the Heart”, “Silver and Gold”, “Sweetest Thing”, and “Race Against Time”. Two versions of “Silver and Gold” are included—the B-side version, and the original recording from the Sun City album, with Keith Richards and Ron Wood. The edited single version of “Where the Streets Have No Name” appears on the bonus CD. “Beautiful Ghost/Introduction to Songs of Experience” features lyrics from the introduction of William Blake’s Songs of Experience, and was previously released in The Complete U2 digital box set in 2004. “Wave of Sorrow (Birdland)”, “Desert of Our Love”, “Rise Up”, and “Drunk Chicken/America” are all previously unreleased recordings from The Joshua Tree sessions. “Wave of Sorrow (Birdland)” is a completed version of the demo “Birdland”, and “Drunk Chicken/America” features an excerpt of Allen Ginsberg’s recitation of his poem, “America”.
All written by U2 except noted
1 Luminous Times (Hold on to Love) (U2, Eno) 4:35
2 Walk to the Water 4:49
3 Spanish Eyes 3:16
4 Deep in the Heart 4:31
5 Silver and Gold (Bono) 4:38
6 Sweetest Thing 3:05
7 Race Against Time 4:03
8 Where the Streets Have No Name (single edit) 4:50
9 Silver and Gold (Sun City) (Bono) 4:43
10 Beautiful Ghost/Introduction to Songs of Experience (U2, William Blake) 3:50
11 Wave of Sorrow (Birdland) 4:06
12 Desert of Our Love 4:59
13 Rise Up 4:08
14 Drunk Chicken/America (U2, Allen Ginsberg) 1:31