Entertainment Music

Tuesday 16 October 2018

Bono's desert blooms again

As U2 prepare to re-release their most iconic album -- The Joshua Tree -- John Meagher recalls how the music captured the mood of the time

Now and then: U2 in California's Mojave Desert in 1987
Now and then: U2 in California's Mojave Desert in 1987
At last year's Grammy awards
Bandana republic: Bono and the band in action a year before U2 released arguably their best album
John Meagher

John Meagher

'The Joshua Tree is U2's most varied, subtle and accessible album, although it doesn't contain any sure-fire smash hits." That was Rolling Stone's assessment of U2's fifth album when it delivered in March 1987, and Steve Pond, who penned the review, may still be haunted by it.

Few rock albums of the 1980s have had so many sure-fire smash hits. The opening three songs alone, Where the Streets Have No Name, I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For and With Or Without You were all big-selling singles, songs whose ubiquity in 1987 ensured that The Joshua Tree would become U2's biggest-selling album, with 20 million copies sold to date. And the three anthemic songs have been staples in U2's live sets ever since.

Now, 20 years on and in time for the Christmas market, The Joshua Tree has been remastered and re-released with a 14-track bonus album featuring B-sides and unreleased material from the sessions. It's likely to cement its position in the rock canon.

Today FM presenter Tom Dunne was making waves of his own in 1987 as the frontman of Something Happens and felt The Joshua Tree came like a bolt from the blue. "I was floored by it," he says. "U2 were getting better with every album and there was a real sense with The Joshua Tree that they had made something very special that was going to make them even bigger than they already were. The sound was so big and vast; the production flawless. It's one of those rare moments when you hear an album and straightaway you know that you have heard something that would be talked about for years."

The album seemed to capture the mood of the times and U2 -- who had become a major Irish export with 1983's War, that Live Aid performance two years later and Rolling Stone's pronouncement in a 1985 cover story that they were the "band of the 80s" -- would become arguably the world's biggest band. Time magazine, referring to Bono et al as Rock's Hottest Ticket, put them on the cover.

"I was proud of the fact that an Irish band had become the biggest in the world," Tom Dunne says. "Sure they had their critics -- and a lot of Dublin bands at the time seemed very jealous of their success -- but I thought it was great that a local band was putting the country on the map. Ireland was in a very depressed state then and here were a bunch of people achieving huge things. That was very inspirational."

Unlike many self-consciously "indie" albums of the time, The Joshua Tree aimed big. In a way, it attempted to be the aural equivalent of the Great American Novel. Much has been made of the fact that it was inspired by the power and vastness of America, with songs that show this Promised Land can also be a place of emptiness and disillusion. Bullet the Blue Sky is the angriest song they have ever written, a damning indictment of US foreign policy.

"We had all fallen under the spell of America, not the TV reality but the dream, the version of America that Martin Luther King spoke about," the Edge writes in the band's autobiography, U2 By U2. "Bono had been reading Flannery O'Connor and Truman Capote. The language of the American writers particularly struck him, the kind of imagery and cinematic quality of the American landscape became a stepping-off point."

"I started to see two Americas," Bono writes. "The mythic America and the real America. It was an age of greed, Wall Street, button down, win, win, win, no time for losers. New York was bankrupt. There was a harsh reality to America as well as the dream. So I started working on something which in my own mind was going to be called The Two Americas."

The themes may have been big and sometimes dark, but there's an undeniably uplifting mood throughout the album, a sense of hope on the anthemic Where the Streets Have No Name. The title itself concerns a giant cactus that survives in the harshest desert conditions of the American Southwest, and Bono spoke at the time about parallels between this plant and man's triumph in the face of adversity.

"I wanted to describe this era of prosperity and Savings and Loans as a spiritual drought," he says. "I started thinking about the desert and what came together was quite a clear picture of where I was at, as a person a little off-kilter in my emotional life and as a commentator on what I saw around me, my love of America and my fear of what America could become."

The album is also concerned with events closer to home. Running to Stand Still was motivated by the chronic heroin problem in Dublin in the late 1980s. The spectre of Ballymun provides one of the album's lyrical standouts: "I see seven towers, but I see only one way out." The inspiration for One Tree Hill, meanwhile, was the death in a motorcycle accident of young New Zealand roadie Greg Carroll, who had become a key member of the "U2 family".

Both songs lack the tub-thumping of the album's better-known offerings, but are perhaps The Josha Tree's finest moments. "What makes those songs stand up 20 years later is that you don't need to know any of that history," US rock journalist Bill Flanagan writes in the liner-notes. "Running to Stand Still is for anyone who feels trapped in an impossible circumstance by overwhelming responsibility. Bullet the Blue Sky is as true in Iraq as it has been in Bosnia, Chechnya, Rwanda or Darfur since the music was first played."

Not everyone is as enthused as Flanagan. Satirist Paul Woodfull believes the album exposes Bono's lyrical frailities. "Some of the lines are excruciating," he says. "And there are moments on that album and especially [follow-up] Rattle & Hum where Bono comes across as a messianic figure that is just made to lampoon." And lampoon U2 he did. Along with Fr Ted creator Arthur Mathews and his brother Kieran, Woodfull created comedy band The Joshua Trio,who sent up U2 in hilarious fashion.

"I don't listen to The Joshua Tree that much now, although if any of the songs came on the radio, I wouldn't turn it off," he says. "I think there is real musical talent there, in particular the Edge, who really does seem to be the genius in the band."

More than any other U2 album, The Joshua Tree is seen as the one where the Edge stamped his trademark guitar all over it, not least on With Or Without You, where he used a new gizmo called the Infinite Guitar to create that memorable, and much imitated sound. It's little surprise, then, that he has penned an essay especially for the re-issue. He writes about the recording of the album in Dublin in 1986, and in particular the fact that a stately Dublin mansion, Danesmoate, was the setting for the bulk of the sessions. That house has been home to Adam Clayton ever since.

Tom Dunne believes The Joshua Tree's standing as one of the great albums of all time is justified, although he says he is "one of those people" who prefers a later U2 album, Achtung Baby. "It holds up incredibly well," he says. "There's hardly a bum note on it. I remember at the time people saying that its success was down to the fact that Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois had produced it and that they were working with the best video directors, but the reality is the songs were just really very good and it's the talent of U2 themselves that makes it such a special release."

Today, there is a great deal of pride in the U2 camp about The Joshua Tree, although just four years after it was released the band were keen to distance itself from it. When promoting their 1991 comeback album, Achtung Baby, Bono said, in typically quotable fashion: "It's the sound of four men trying to chop down The Joshua Tree."

A remastered, expanded edition of The Joshua Tree will be released next Friday.

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