When U2 found what they were looking for

As Bono and co get ready to revisit The Joshua Tree, Ed Power looks back on a classic album that really has stood the test of time

Part of the cover of The Joshua Tree album, with Anton Corbijn's photo of the band.

THEY were chilled to the marrow, which is why they all seemed so miserable. “It was freezing and we had to take our coats off so it would at least look like a desert,” reminisced Bono later. “That’s one of the reasons we look so grim.”

He was referring to the iconic cover shot of The Joshua Tree album, in which U2’s singer gazes into the distance and Larry Mullen Jr faces the camera and scowls as though trapped on the worst holiday ever.

The record has been the subject of renewed attention this week. Earlier this week, U2 announced they would mark The Joshua Tree’s 30th anniversary by bringing the LP on the road, with a stop-off at Croke Park on July 22. Tickets go on sale Monday and you can take it the concert will quickly sell-out.

The desert photoshoot was the idea of photographer Anton Corbijn, who had done so much to emphasise the austere side of U2’s musical personalities through the 1980s.

At that point, the band had been toying with the working title of Desert Songs for the LP; hence the trip into the Mojave Desert with Corbijn to work out ideas for the cover.

As they mucked about and cycled through their repertoire of moody poses, Corbijn mentioned a place nearby where some Joshua trees grew. U2 were intrigued, as Corbin elaborated that the plant survived in places otherwise hostile to life.

It seemed the perfect metaphor for what U2 were attempting in drawing positivity from the darkness of the late Cold War era and the upheavals of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and Thatcherism in the UK.

From its release in March 1987, The Joshua Tree divided opinion. At a time when irony was becoming a force in rock , this album was unashamed in its earnestness. It drew on gospel and blues; the video to first single ‘With Or Without You’ looked like a showcase for Bono’s ponytail and leather waist-coat.

And yet it found its audience almost immediately, with listeners across the world responding to U2’s sincerity and the forcefulness with which they articulated a fundamentally upbeat and deeply spiritual message.

“At that time we felt very disconnected from what was happening musically,” bassist Adam Clayton reminisced in an edition of the Classic Albums TV show devoted to the record in 1999. “It was a time of synth pop… new wave, as the Americans referred to it.”

Despite misgivings over the strident positivity, it proved an immediate hit. In the UK, the album shifted 300,000 units in just two days; in the US it topped the charts for nine consecutive weeks. It would be the first album to sell more than a million CDs in America.

“Looking back, I can see it was so out of step,” remembered Bono. “It was mad…ecstatic music — gauche and uncool but with a ‘highness’ to it that works so well live.”

‘With Or Without You’ exemplified how strange the record was, he says. Today it is a U2 staple. At the time it was unlike anything else on radio. “”It’s a very odd song,” said the singer. “It kind of whispers its way into the world. It is an unusual sounding record.”

The Joshua Tree was a response to the band’s previous long player,the more austere and experimental Unforgettable Fire.

Where that album had tapped the band’s European influences and their love for new wave rock, the later project specifically American in its influences. One catalyst for this change had been a budding friendship between U2 and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

It was while swapping ideas with the Rolling Stones, that Bono and the Edge, especially, realised just how incomplete their knowledge of roots and blues music was.

Raised on punk, they had a rudimentary grasp of the rock’s formative sounds.

Going into the sessions in Rathfarnham and at Windmill Lane Studios, with producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, the ensemble were determined to dig deeper into rock’s soulful past.

“The Joshua Tree came out of this great romance the band had with America,” their manager Paul McGuinness later explained.

“We would tour three, four, five months a year. We loved America and found it very liberating. The acceptance of U2’s music in America was always gratifying.”

“It’s not coming from an ’80s mentality,” the Edge commented. “It’s from somewhere completely different.”

Yet for all the band’s passion for America, in its heart The Joshua Tree was powerfully Irish

“The Joshua Tree is not Irish in any of the obvious senses,” Bono said. “In a much more mysterious way it is very Irish. The ache… the melancholy is uniquely Irish.”

Tickets for U2 at Croke Park on July 22 go on sale Monday at 9am

TRACKLIST

  • Where The Streets Have No Name
  • I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
  • With Or Without You
  • Bullet The Blue Sky
  • Running To Stand Still
  • Red Hill Mining Town
  • In God’s Country
  • Trip Through Your Wires
  • One Tree Hill
  • Exit
  • Mothers Of The Disappeared

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