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Thursday 21 September 2017

The hills are alive with the sound of music - the Joshua Tree thirty years on

As U2 re-issue 'The Joshua Tree' album to coincide with their world tour of that name, Barry Egan reassesses the record

The Joshua Tree
The Joshua Tree

It was Operation Desert Storm. The giant image of the Joshua tree in the Mojave desert - followed by the sun sinking into Death Valley - was framed cinematically behind Bono, The Edge, Adam and Larry.

With Or Without You seeped portentously out of the colossal amp stacks on either side of the stage at Seattle's Century Link Field stadium for the opening night in the USA of U2's Joshua Tree Tour. It was a chilly evening in Seattle.

Be that as it may, the sheer spirituality of the song seemed to warm the hearts and even the souls of just about everybody in the arena that night two weeks ago.

The song had been preceded by the two similarly well spiritually endowed tracks from U2's heroic landmark album The Joshua Tree - Where the Streets Have No Name and I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For - so the concert had a sense of a secular mass in what Bono called a concrete temple.

It was undoubtedly U2 de-constructing, or playing with perhaps, their own mythology. And why not?

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree, U2 are about to re-issue a bells-and-whistles super-deluxe edition of the 1987 album that sent them into a more rarefied air, through into orbit as the biggest band in the world.

The songs all had a sense of larger-than-life meaning and importance. At times that morphed - by dint of the testifying singer cum mullet-haired Jesus from Finglas - into larger-than-life self-importance and stony-faced self-regard. But that God-bothering over-earnestness was part of the package. That was part of the man's genius. He was shouting at God as well as invoking him.

You couldn't sing or write like Bono unless you have something true buried deep inside you that drove you from an early age - probably from the age of 14 when his mother Iris died. ("I have very little memory of my mother," Bono told me in an 2015 interview in Vancouver. "Because in our house we didn't talk about her. Because that is the way a lot of Irish people deal with it. So I didn't really have a lot of memory of her.") That rage is seismic when he is singing about how he felt about US involvement in Central America on Bullet the Blue Sky (In the howlin' wind? Comes a stingin' rain/ See it drivin' nails/ Into the souls on the tree of pain) or summoning up the souls of the dead, as Q Magazine put it, at the hands of corrupt regimes in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Argentina on the haunting Mothers of the Disappeared.

In the trees our sons stand naked, sings Bono, his voice racked with pain. Through the walls our daughters cry/ See their tears in the rainfall.

That pain is there in Bono's voice on Running to Stand Still when he sings of a couple living through the hell of smack addiction in Ballymun flats:

Sweet the sin, bitter the taste in my mouth/ I see seven towers, but I only see one way out.

"I just think the album takes you somewhere," Adam Clayton said. "It's like a journey. You start in the desert, come swooping down in Central America. Running for your life. It takes me somewhere, and hopefully it does that for everyone else."

"The Joshua Tree was the first album where we consciously went 'OK, we spent like four albums thinking about Europe, Ireland, but let's take a look at the roots of the form that we are inevitably a part of'," said The Edge in an interview with Rolling Stone. "And those were all American." And, for a short time, Jamaica. Legend has it that in the early demos of I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For - originally, according to Adam, "a one-note groove", called The Weather Girls or Under the Weather - The Edge sensibly rejected the song in that form because it was "a little like Eye of the Tiger played by a reggae band".

There was, however, deeper conflicts at play beneath the surface of one of the greatest albums of the 1980s than whether U2 briefly turned into a cod-reggae group. According to the received wisdom of Rolling Stone magazine, Bono wanted to explore rock & roll's American roots "while The Edge wanted to continue the expressionistic experimentalism of The Unforgettable Fire".

Out of that potentially divisive artistic tension emerged the brilliance of The Joshua Tree. "Two ideas were followed simultaneously," says the Edge. "They collided, and this record was born." Courtesy, it has to be said, of Messrs Eno and Lanois who produced the album.

The aforesaid Brian Eno upon listening to the final sessions of U2's 1991 album Achtung Baby - the album that Bono described "as the sound of U2 chopping down The Joshua Tree" - was said to have listed all the adjectives that he wanted to avoid: Earnest. Righteous. Linear. Rockist. In hindsight, you can see what Eno was allegedly getting at but I think The Joshua Tree does stand the test of time. With this album, U2 became more - much more - than an arena rock band with slogans and flags and mullets.

The extra goodies on this new release, on CD and vinyl, variously include - deep breath - The Joshua Tree Live at Madison Square Garden 1987, The Joshua Tree Remixes/ Out-takes/ B-Sides to... another deep breath... out-takes of I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For (Lillywhite Alternative Mix '87) and One Tree Hill Reprise (Brian Eno 2017 Mix) plus remixes of Bullet the Blue Sky 2017 Remix (Jacknife Lee), Red Hill Mining Town 2017 Mix (Steve Lillywhite - with brass band!), With or Without You 2017 Remix (Daniel Lanois) and Where the Streets Have No Name 2017 Remix (Flood) plus fancy photo booklets and whatever you're having yourself.

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