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Friday 19 January 2018

U2's Joshua Tree revisit rooted in present turmoil

Reprisal: The Edge and Bono on the original Joshua Tree tour at Croke Park in 1987
Reprisal: The Edge and Bono on the original Joshua Tree tour at Croke Park in 1987
John Meagher

John Meagher

Michael Brook is a Canadian guitarist and composer who has worked with such leftfield musicians as David Sylvian, Robert Fripp and Iarla Ó Lionáird. But Brook has played his part in U2 history, too, even if his name is unlikely to register with many.

In the mid-1980s, Brook invented an instrument he called the infinite guitar, which allowed an electronic guitar note to be held with infinite sustain. His Canadian compatriot Daniel Lanois was intrigued by its capabilities and brought it to the attention of the Edge who, along with the rest of U2, was busy working on a follow-up album to The Unforgettable Fire.

That sustained-note technique would soon become very famous thanks to its use on 'With or Without You', the lead single of the resulting album, The Joshua Tree (both released in March 1987). The song is so well known by now that it's almost become sonic wallpaper, but listen to it with fresh ears and note how distinct Edge's playing is.

'With or Without You' has been a staple of the U2 live experience ever since, and it will feature at Croke Park on July 22 when U2 take The Joshua Tree on the road to mark its 30th anniversary.

It's the first time the band have toured a catalogue album but if there was one they were ever destined to showcase again, years later, it's this totemic 1980s release. Their biggest seller by far, it shifted 25 million copies and while I could make the case for both The Unforgettable Fire and Achtung Baby being even better albums, The Joshua Tree is, clearly, U2's most emblematic long player. Tickets go on sale on Monday at 9am and one can expect Joe Duffy to be fielding call after call on Liveline that afternoon from distressed U2 fans who weren't able to secure tickets amid the sales frenzy.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Edge said he couldn't say definitively if they'll play the album in sequence, but it would be quite a surprise if they didn't. And what a start it would be: the opening quartet - 'Where the Streets Have No Name', 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For', 'With or Without You' and 'Bullet the Blue Sky' - is the sound of U2 at their stadium-baiting best and each of the four has long been part of the furniture of their live shows.

But while these songs - not least the incendiary 'Bullet' - are perfectly calibrated for Croker's scale, much of what's great about The Joshua Tree is to be found amid the non-single album tracks. 'Running to Stand Still' is one of Bono's finest vocal recordings and its subject matter is rooted close to home. It was inspired by a Dublin that was being torn apart by a heroin crisis fuelled by such notorious criminals as Tony Felloni and 'Ma' Baker, and the line "I see seven towers but I only see one way out" referenced the Ballymun skyline from the vantage of a pre-fame Bono growing up in nearby Cedarwood Road.

'Red Hill Mining Town' is a portrait of a blue-collar Britain that got an unmerciful kicking by the Margaret Thatcher administration. Remarkably for such an anthemic song, it has never been played live by U2. "I think," Edge noted, "it was probably one of those songs that due to tempo and arrangement, never found a place within the live set."

And then there's 'One Tree Hill', which is the band's sweet homage to their New Zealander roadie, Greg Carroll, who perished in a motorcycle crash in Dublin in 1986. The striking image conveyed by the title refers to the volcanic peak of the same name in Auckland that Carroll had taken Bono to some years before.

For an album whose sound is regarded as so American, and whose Anton Corbijn-photograhed cover evokes the great expanse of its desert plains, it's striking to note just how many of the tracks are concerned with places outside of the US. Besides the three album tracks mentioned, 'Bullet the Blue Sky' is about the unrest provoked by American foreign policy while 'Mothers of the Disappeared' looked at the crimes of the Argentinian and Chilean dictatorships.

If the album captured much of the turmoil of 30 years ago, it's being revisited once more at another time of great unrest. The Edge has admitted as much, telling Rolling Stone this week: "That record was written in the mid-1980s, during the Reagan-Thatcher era of British and US politics. It was a period when there was a lot of unrest. Thatcher was in the throes of trying to put down the miners' strike; there was all kinds of shenanigans going on in Central America.

"It feels like we're right back there in a way [a reference to Brexit and Trump]. I don't think any of our work has ever come full circle to that extent. It just felt like, 'Wow, these songs have a new meaning and a new resonance today that they didn't have three years ago, four years ago.'"

U2 started work on The Joshua Tree in early 1986 with the same Brian Eno-Daniel Lanois production team behind The Unforgettable Fire. The first time the public heard any new material was on short-lived RTÉ series TV GAGA back in January 1986, when a seemingly stylist-free U2 played an embryonic version of 'Trip Through Your Wires' and something called 'Woman Fish' that was soon abandoned, never to be resuscitated. A wise move.

Plenty of material was recorded during the album sessions, as proved by the deluxe edition, from 2007, which gathered several B-sides and unused songs. But, intriguing as 'Spanish Eyes', 'Beautiful Ghost/Introduction to Songs of Experience' and the original version of 'The Sweetest Thing' are, it would be foolhardy to make the case that any should have been included on the original. Say what you will about U2, but they tend to know which of their songs should be released and which are destined for the recording-studio floor.

Culture shot

MARTHA WAINWRIGHT

Vicar Street, Dublin, Tuesday Some musicians have to escape the shadow of a famous father, but for Martha Wainwright, she's had to stand on her own feet in a family of celebrated songwriters - father Loudon Wainwright III, mother Kate McGarrigle, aunt Annie McGarrigle and brother Rufus Wainwright. Happily, Martha has not been eclipsed and her body of work is a pleasure for those of us who favour direct, brutally honest songwriting. She's a formidable presence in concert, too, and plays Vicar Street on Tuesday. Expect to hear plenty from her fourth album, Goodnight City, released in November.

THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN

Netflix, from today Speaking of famous relations, Strokes' mainman Julian Casablancas grew up in a household where his father was the king of his chosen profession. But the late John Casablancas was not a musician; he was modelling mogul who helped usher in the so-called supermodel era and is the subject of a new Netflix documentary, The Man Who Loved Women, out this weekend.

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