Tuesday 17 July 2018

Search for the Joshua Tree

In 1986, the U2 collaborator Steve Averill travelled to America with the band to scout locations for their iconic The Joshua Tree album cover. He tells our reporter how 30 years later he found a lost roll of film from the trip

Ghost towns: An abandoned gas station
Ghost towns: An abandoned gas station
The wreckage of a car in Death Valley, California @Steve Averill
The Joshua Tree
John Meagher

John Meagher

The cover artwork of U2's least-sounding U2 album, Pop, features close-up photos of the four band members with each famous face treated in a different colour.

To anyone unfamiliar with the design process for major studio albums - especially A-list names like U2 - it's easy to assume that the eventual cover was arrived at quickly and executed without much effort.

But Steve Averill, who designed every U2 album from Boy to Songs of Innocence (their most recent album, Songs of Experience, was done by Averill's colleague, Shaughn McGrath), quips that it's a bit more complex than that.

"For working on an album like Pop," he says, "when we heard the direction the music was taking, we [McGrath and Averill] produced something like 75 different album sleeves for a presentation.

"We had tried something that was a little more dance orientated in terms of graphics, but they didn't work - it didn't feel like U2. So from that 75, we got it down to five that were really strong working possibilities."

Some of those unused possibilities - for other albums, too - are collected in his book on U2's visual aesthetic, Stealing Hearts from a Travelling Show.

And it was Averill - who co-founded a Dublin punk band, The Radiators from Space, around the time that U2 were taking their first, tentative steps - who helped fashion the iconic sleeve that featured on the band's bestselling and most emblematic album, The Joshua Tree.

"Sleeves," he corrects. "That was the first U2 album where I designed for three formats - vinyl, cassette and CD - and the cover artwork was quite different on each one."

The photography - by the band's long-term Dutch collaborator Anton Corbijn - remains iconic, but Averill was there in November 1986 when the band and Corbijn travelled to frontier-country USA in order to scout locations for a shoot that would provide the aesthetic for an album that was still some way from completion.

"I'd had a vague idea of the music [that would appear on The Joshua Tree], it wasn't finished at that stage. But travelling with them was a revealing experience in understanding what would happen with them, and where they were going, sonically and lyrically.

"The working title of the album at the time was The Two Americas and we were looking for a place where civilisation and primitive America collided, and we thought that a ghost town would be a good place to do something like that. We went initially to a town called Bodie in Sierra Nevada. It's a town that was abandoned in the 1920s - it had been a thriving mining town in the 1890s. The rail track was removed from the area… then it was completely abandoned."

Inspiration there led them further into wild America and to the edge of the Mojave Desert where the Joshua Tree National Park is located. "And that one particular tree really stood out," he says. "It had enormous visual appeal."

It's timely that Averill is speaking once more about his work on The Joshua Tree because an exhibition of his work - inspired by that trip with U2 and Corbijn - will be shown at the inaugural Vinyl festival at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin, next weekend.

Death Valley 86 features a selection of evocative photographs that Averill shot that week, 32 years ago.

"I'd filed them away because I didn't have any use for them," he says. "When The Joshua Tree was re-issued last year [for its 30th anniversary and to coincide with U2's world tour in support of it], their management said, 'We know you took some pictures - do you have those? So I made an active search to find where they were. I knew I had the contact sheet and then I found the negatives."

Averill has designed album covers for a slew of artists - everyone from Depeche Mode to The Script and on to the latest Finbar Furey record - but he's best known for his partnership with U2. It was Averill, after all, who first suggested that the band - known as The Hype in their early years - change their name to U2.

"Generally speaking, the album cover you see - that actually made it to the shelves - was the point where the band, and ourselves, and Anton, or whoever the photographer might have been, reaches a point that we're strong. The individual members of the band might have a different tangent but the one we all sign off on is the one where we said, 'Yeah, we can all live with that'." Averill says he wanted to be a musician and designer by the time he was 12. He started his career working for the commercial art department of advertising agencies - and for a time he worked with future members of Horslips at the Dublin practice, Arks.

When he first started to cut his teeth as a designer favoured by bands, vinyl was king and he got to see his work in all the glory of 12-inch sleeves. But despite the decline and subsequent re-emergence of vinyl, he's no Luddite - nor does he hanker for past times.

"The CD had taken over as the format around the time of The Joshua Tree and it meant that you had a whole range of other design things to think about, such as the CD booklet. With the album cover on vinyl, you often just had the front and back to play with, but suddenly with the CD, you could have page after page to work on - some of the U2 CDs had 36-page booklets."

The U2-Averill relationship is one of the longest running in rock history - only Pink Floyd's collaboration with the late Storm Thorgerson runs it close. Averill says there is a loyalty there, but also an onus to deliver strong work every time.

"From the very first album, they said to me, 'We reserve the right to go elsewhere if we're not happy with what you've done' and on several of the album covers we had done they had asked other design companies to come up with ideas. We only learnt about that later. It just turned out that we had a greater understanding about what their visual language was."

He had no involvement in the Songs of Experience album. "I had retired from [the company he co-founded] AMP Visual in 2015. I stepped back a bit - and the situation had changed: the management was now in Los Angeles [following the departure of long-term manager Paul McGuinness] - and it wasn't as direct as it had been before."

Averill will speak about his work at Vinyl and he is heartened to see that several other high-profile designers, such as Malcolm Garrett (responsible for artwork for Buzzcocks and Peter Gabriel), will be in attendance.

"People might say now that print is dead but every band needs graphic design and you still need a strong visual identity - especially on your website," he says. "The role of the graphic designer in music now is every bit as strong now as it was in the past."

The inaugural Vinyl festival is at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin next Saturday, Sunday and Monday

Indo Review

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment