To mark the 30th anniversary of U2’s classic The Joshua Tree, we take an in-depth look at the creation of the iconic album.
Olaf Tyaransen recounts the extraordinary story behind the making of the record with help from producer Daniel Lanois, while the band themselves contribute to Niall Stokes’ track-by-track guide. Plus Maria McKee shares her experiences of supporting the group on tour, designer Steve Averill reveals how the famous sleeve was created, and celebrity fans Miriam O’Callaghan and Joseph O’Connor discuss their love of U2.
The Joshua Tree was the album that transformed U2 from being a big band into one of the most powerful and enduring forces in the history of rock music. On the eve of the 30th Anniversary of the release of the landmark album, OLAF TYARANSEN sets the scene, listens to some of the key players, and reflects on the extraordinary sonic magic that was conjured in a disused house in Rathfarnham, on the south side of Dublin, by a group of four Northsiders and their various musical accomplices…
It’s hard to believe that it’s been a full 30 years, but the calendar doesn’t lie. On March 23rd, 1987, six months after Garret Fitz-Gerald’s government passed the National Lottery Act 1986, the Irish National Lottery began its gaming operations with the release of the very first scratchcards.
Two weeks before that, though, four scruffy-looking Dublin rock stars had already hit the jackpot.
U2 were already a big band with a global reputation, by the time they released their fifth studio album on March 9th, 1987, but it really was the one that, as Rolling Stone put it, transformed them “from heroes to superstars.” Six weeks after The Joshua Tree
– produced by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois – hit the streets, the Irish fab foursome made the cover of Time magazine, described as “Rock’s Hottest Ticket. Even today, this would be a very big deal indeed. Back then, before the advent of social media, it was an historic landmark.
From a promotional perspective, with
The Joshua Tree, just about every angle was covered. Island Records spent a then-record $100,000 on store displays alone, to advertise and promote the album. The label’s president Lou Maglia called the campaign, “the most complete merchandising effort ever assembled.” It was no idle boast.
Spurred into action by the confidence and commitment of the record company, many European and American record stores – festooned with giant posters of Anton Corbijn’s now iconic black and white photographs of the four stony-faced Northsiders in a Californian desert – opened at a minute after midnight, on the morning of the release date.
Clearly, it was worth any extra cost incurred in overtime. After all, this was the very first new release to be made available on compact disc, vinyl record and cassette tape on the same date. With that unique status propelling it, The Joshua Tree became the fastest-selling album in British history, selling over 300,000 copies in just two days. It went to No.1 with a bullet in Ireland, England, the US – and, ultimately, in more than 20 other countries.
Every aspect of the promotional campaign seemed to come good. The lead single ‘With Or Without You’ was released a week after the album, on March 16th. It went to No.1 in Ireland, the US and Canada. The second single, ‘I Still Haven’t Found What
I’m Looking For’ also topped the US and Irish charts. Curiously, these two tracks remain U2’s only American No.1 singles.
The Joshua Tree scooped two Grammy awards the following year. It has gone on to sell over 25 million copies worldwide, and a further surge is guaranteed with the band planning to tour the record this summer, 30 years on. It is still one of the world’s bestselling albums ever – and rising.
In tandem with Island Records, the band’s then manager Paul McGuinness could deservedly claim much of the credit for masterminding a campaign that was brilliantly put together. But he wasn’t right about everything. According to U2’s friend and artistic advisor Gavin Friday, he certainly wasn’t right about the hit potential of ‘With Or Without You’. Paul wasn’t the only one who was uncertain about the track. So out of love with it were the band themselves, at one stage, that they were considering ditching the song entirely. When Eno and Lanois declined to work any further on it, the track was rescued
“The album’s sound was epic and cinematic. That widescreen vision was central to its success. But the lyrics were equally important."
only because Gavin believed in it so passionately. He and Bono worked separately to see if they could inject something into it that would convince the others. Whatever rearrangements they fashioned were enough to bring everyone back on board. Edge played the ‘Infinite Guitar’ that had been sent to him by the inventor Michael Brooks over the track, and it gelled. It was a breakthrough moment, in more ways than one.
“Paul McGuinness didn’t want to release it as a single,” Friday told Hot Press editor Niall Stokes. “But I told
Bono that it was a certain No 1. It was one of the biggest arguments I ever had with Paul, and in the end Bono sided with me. In fairness to Paul, he did come up to me afterwards and apologise. He said, ‘You were right’. And of course I was.”
Sometimes it really is better to lose an argument.
EPIC AND CINEMATIC
Rewind. The seeds for what became an enduring music industry phenomenon had been planted in London’s Wembley Stadium around 20 months earlier, in the summer of 1985. Match-fit as they came towards the end of their lengthy tour in support of 1984’s The
Unforgettable Fire, U2 stole the show at Live Aid on July 13th, 1985.
In front of the biggest television audience for a live music event ever, Bono, Edge, Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton were introduced onstage by actor Jack Nicholson as “a group that’s never had any problem saying how they feel.” Over the course of an electrifying two-song, twelve-minute set, during which Bono broke all the rules by climbing down into the crowd, and choosing a girl from the audience to come onstage, they utterly transformed their career. Sales of The
Unforgettable Fire immediately soared. It was literally like manna from heaven.
The late surge in sales of The Unforgettable Fire was doubly fortuitous. The biggest bonus was that the ringing of the cash registers meant they didn’t have to rush the follow-up. They could take their time fashioning
The Joshua Tree.
It turned out that the timing was perfect. As the late, great Hot Press writer Bill Graham put it, U2 had been “surfing a wave” since their triumphant appearance at Live Aid: “Their Irish optimism, curiosity and adaptability JDYH WKHP D VSHFLDObHPSDWK\ ZLWK $PHULFDř WKH chance for their breakthrough arrived just as their recording and songwriting skills reached maturity.”
After a grueling 112 shows, U2’s Unforgettable Fire world tour ended just a fortnight after Live Aid. The rhythm section of Larry and Adam returned to Dublin to party and bask in their hard-won fame, but the guitarist and singer kept themselves busy in other ways. Edge went to work writing the soundtrack for
Paul Mayerberg’s film, Captive, while the footloose did a bit of freelance roaming. Being out on the road in a rock’n’roll band over extended periods can cut you off from everyday reality. This was an opportunity to reengage with life experiences, of a different kind.
In September 1985, wanting to witness the effects of famine firsthand in the wake of Live Aid, he and his wife Ali went on a humanitarian trip to Ethiopia. They spent about a month working at a World Vision camp in Ajibar, where they used songs to teach children about cleanliness and the benefits of eating healthily.
His experiences there provided much inspiration for the writing of the next U2 album. “Spending time in Africa and seeing people in the pits of poverty, I still saw a very strong spirit in the people, a richness of spirit I didn’t see when I came home,” he later reflected. “I saw the spoiled child of the Western world. I started thinking, ‘They may have a physical desert, but we’ve got the other kinds of deserts’. And that’s what attracted me to the desert as a symbol of some sort.”
Gradually, U2 were edging towards some kind of vision for what the album might be. Two early working titles for the work—in-progress were The Desert Songs and The Two Americas. The latter mostly referred to the extreme social divisions that exist in the United States. But after their African trip, Bono and Ali also travelled to Central America, under the auspices of Amnesty International, to observe and spend time in both El Salvador and Nicaragua. The singer’s experiences in that ‘other America’ would directly influence the writing of the incendiary ‘Bullet The Blue Sky’, a few months later, as well as the album’s concluding track ‘Mothers of the Disappeared’.
Although the heavily styled The Unforgettable Fire was largely considered their arty ‘European’ album, two of its songs were very much about the US (‘MLK’ and ‘Elvis Presley and America’). Clearly, the contradictions rife in the home of the brave and the land of the free had been playing on Bono’s mind for some time. By The
Joshua Tree, these contradictions had become the heart of the matter.
In world politics, the 1980s were the apex of the Reagan/Thatcher era. In many respects, the unstable political climate was not so different from the one ushered in recently by the election Donald Trump as POTUSA. Back then, US foreign policy – supporting right-wing regimes and counter-revolutionaries across Central and South America in particular – was a constant source of concern that frequently tipped over into outrage. Certainly, Bono could have been talking about
either US president when he told Hot Press, “I still believe in Americans. I think they’re a very open people. It’s their openness which leads them to trust a man as dangerous as Ronald Reagan. They want to believe he’s a good guy. They want to believe he’s in the cavalry, coming to rescue America’s reputation after the ‘70s. But he was only an actor. It was only a movie. I think the picture’s ended now and Americans are leaving the cinema a little down in the mouth.”
The album’s sound was epic and cinematic. That widescreen vision was central to its success. But the lyrics were equally important.
With the intention of creating the aural equivalent of the Great American Novel, Bono had immersed himself in American literature, citing the likes of Flannery O’Connor, Truman Capote, Sam Shepard, Raymond Carver, Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer as major influences in interviews (See the Books pages for a full feature on the literary influences on The Joshua Tree). Later on, in ‘The Fly’ – the opening track on
Achtung Baby! – Bono might observe that ambition bites the nails of success. But here, the desire to creat something truly great was just what the circumstances demanded.
UNIQUE SONIC PROPERTIES
In between his trips to Africa and Central America, Bono travelled to New York, to add his vocals to the Artists Against Apartheid Sun City record. While he was there, Peter Wolf of The J. Geils Band took him off to meet Keith Richards and Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones. The legendary English rockers ended up having a serious influence on the young Dublin singer’s songwriting chops.
Bono later jokingly referred to the meeting as “the Night of the Long Knives.” In a Manhattan studio, Mick and Keith were casually jamming through some old blues standards for their personal entertainment and they inquired if Bono had any songs or party-pieces of his own. He didn’t. Without Edge, Larry or Adam to assist, he suddenly felt musically naked, embarrassed almost. He went back to his hotel bedroom for a sleepless night, writing the ghostly and chilling Ō6ilYer And *oldō in some seizure of spontaneous creative combustion.
The experience hastened a serious reassessment of his art. To the young punkinspired groups of U2’s generation, the blues had generally meant long-haired bar bands, filling up the Dublin dates they hungered for. Now, Bono knew that U2 had inherited a skewed tradition. Already interested in gospel, he realised finally that he would have to check out the blues. Those new insights and the prodding of friends like T-Bone Burnett and newly arrived Dublin resident, Mike Scott of The Waterboys, hardened his and the other membersō conYictions about the inadeTuacies of U2’s previous approach to songwriting.
“We had experimented a lot in the making of The Unforgettable Fire,” Edge later recalled. “We had done quite revolutionary things like ‘Elvis Presley and America’ and ‘4th of July’. So we felt, going into The Joshua Tree, that maybe options were not a good thing, that limitations might be positive. And so we decided to work within the limitations of the song as a starting point.” Instinctively, the band wanted the record to be less atmospheric and impressionistic. In Edge’s words, they wanted to make it more focused and concise.
Having first worked with them on the dreamscape that was The Unforgettable
Fire, U2 again chose to enlist Brian Eno and his sorcererōs assistant, 'aniel /anois, to help craft their new musical direction. Larry Mullen, for one, was particularly happy about this: he knew the pair had a great respect for percussionists.
With the production team in place, the next question was where the album would be made. The first three U2 albums (Boy, October and
War) had all been recorded at Windmill Lane Studios, located in a narrow street by the River /iffey in 'ublinōs then dilaSidated docklands. For The Unforgettable Fire they had taken the unusual decision to work in Slane Castle, the ancestral pile of Lord Henry Mountcharles, located thirty miles north of Dublin, where the Slane Festival takes place. Slane, however, was a once-off, and there seemed to be little enthusiasm for returning to Windmill
Lane; the band, and Bono in particular, had often expressed a distaste for the ‘sterile’ environment of recording studios.
Instead, they elected to record in
Danesmoate, a two-story-over-basement Georgian mansion in Rathfarnham, on the southside of the city, in the foothills of the Dublin Mountains. The house, a local landmark, was originally known as *len 6outhwell, after the family who once lived there. According to historical records, it was originally laid out with rustic follies, a viewing tower, and it even had a small stream flowing through the grounds. &uriously, the first recorded eYidence of anyone living there is in 1787 – exactly 200 years before
The Joshua Tree was released – when it was occupied by a certain Capt. William Southwell.
Danesmoate was familiar territory for at least one band member – the house was adMacent to St Columba’s College, Adam Clayton’s alma mater. So impressed was he with the house during the recording sessions that he later bought it for use as his own home, and he has since carried out e[tensiYe restoration work to what is a beautiful listed building. But there were happy endings to this saga long before thatř
For Daniel Lanois, Danesmoate offered the perfect location for getting down to some serious work. “It was a really nice set-up,” he later told Hot Press writer Colm O’Hare. “It has this large living room/drawing room, whatever you want to call it – a big rectangular room with a tall ceiling and wooden floors. It was loud, but it was really good loud, real dense, very musical.
“In my opinion it was the most rock and roll room of the lot,” he added. “The castle [Slane] was a fun idea and everything, but it was a massiYe Slace. 'anesmoate sounded better than the castle. I think it was the best place of all the experiments we tried, ‘cause we’ve always
"The desire to create something truly great was just what the circumstances demanded"
tried different sorts of locations [to record].”
What impressed Lanois most about the 200-year-old building was its unique sonic properties, particularly when it came to, what he described as ‘the low mid-range’.
“The low mid-range is where the music lives,” he explained. “In my opinion The Joshua Tree is a great rock and roll record, partly because of the beauty of the low mid-range of that room.”
INCREDIBLY BAD YEAR
Sessions began in earnest in early August 1986, with the usual U2 protracted working method, of a combination of sifting through tapes, re-visiting soundcheck jams, and trawling through Bono’s overflowing lyric book – as well as launching into live jamming sessions.
Extracting new material from the band wasn’t always easy, according to Brian Eno, discussing the album on the Classic Albums TV special. “There were quite a few things in the bag, and that’s exactly where they were,” he recalled. "I remember everyone used to walk in with these enormous bags of cassette tapes, especially
Edge, who somehow or other had managed to connect his to a black hole located somewhere around Dublin. Because once tapes were in that bag, they never reappeared.”
Hard at work on the album, and struggling to reinvent their sound, U2 kept a relatively low profile during 1986. The first hint that fans were given of the nascent new direction came in January of that year, when they appeared on the RTÉ show TV Gaga, which was hosted by
Hot Press journalist Liam Mackey (now soccer correspondent with the Examiner) and musician and actor Maria Doyle Kennedy – best known now for her starring role in Orphan Black.
A lot of U2 fans were knocked for six by what they saw. It wasn’t quite an image-change on a David Bowie-esque scale, but – put it this way – Bono was wearing a red bandana, hadn’t shaved and was drawling in what sounded suspiciously like an American accent. It was all a very far cry from their more clean-cut incarnation of yore.
U2 played three songs during that TV Gaga appearance, including ‘Trip Through Your Wires’, the first genuine public taste of the as-yet-untitled new album. No one was sure what to make of it. On this showing, the thought that U2 might be headed down a cul-de-sac at high speed couldn’t be fully discounted.
The band further divided opinion when they performed at Self Aid – a sort of a ‘jobs aid’ benefit to counter unemployment, held in the RDS, Dublin on May 17th. Was the gig a good idea? Should they have done it?
For reasons that remain unclear, in advance of the gig, they were singled out for what seemed like highly personalised criticism. The attacks weren’t really about the songs, or the music; they were about U2’s newfound success. You could argue, indeed, that the uniquely
Irish phenomenon of U2 begrudgery – which continues to this day – really started then. Either way, it fed into their performance at the RDS, which was darker and angrier than anything they had done before, including a raw and incendiary reworking of Bob Dylan’s ‘Maggie’s Farm’ – which had to be interpreted as a gut-twisting excoriation of the economic devastation caused by the British Prime Minister, Maggie Thatcher.
“There was a very interesting reaction afterwards,” Bono told Hot Press editor Niall Stokes. “The people who believe in U2 are very ordinary people, working-class people. The only flak we get for being in a privileged position is from the middle-class. I felt: how can I write a song about being unemployed when I am fully employed, how can I stand on stage at an unemployed benefit when I know U2 are not short of cash?
“But one guy came up to me afterwards and said: ‘I’m really pissed off about what you said on stage’. And I said what do you mean? And he said: ‘You said you don’t know what it’s like to be unemployed. We didn't want to hear that - because we know you know what it’s like, even if you don’t’. It was amazing, the last thing I expected to hear. And then I heard all these stories about people singing ‘Maggie’s Farm’ on the dole queue on the Monday morning, which I found funny. I don’t know whether they were slagging us off or just enjoying the song.” The month after Self Aid, alongside Sting,
Lou Reed, Bryan Adams and other acts, U2 participated in A Conspiracy of Hope, a short six-date tour of the US, organised on behalf of Amnesty International. The purpose of the tour was not to raise funds, but to increase awareness of human rights and of Amnesty’s work on its 25th anniversary – and thereby to inspire a new generation to get involved in the global campaign to free prisoners of conscience. Needless to say, these Amnesty concerns would resurface in the lyrics of many of the new songs – most especially on the moving album closer ‘Mothers of the Disappeared’.
There was a personal tragedy, too, when Bono’s PA, the personable New Zealand Maori, Greg Carroll, to whose memory the anthemic ‘One Tree Hill’ is dedicated, died in a motor-bike accident when he crashed Bono’s Harley into an unlighted car in July.
His shock death had a profound effect on the band. So too did that of Thin Lizzy’s Philip Lynott, who had died in January 1986. His passing must have filtered into the drug-themed ‘Running To Stand Still’, The Joshua Tree’s sequel to ‘Bad’. But it also underscored a growing sense, felt within the band, that the old certainties were crumbling. No matter what you chose to believe, the spectre of doubt had to be acknowledged. Human affairs were inescapably bleak in a way that much of U2’s early work had been designed to counter. There are some arguments you simply can’t win.
Bono was clearly upset about Lynott’s death. As he confessed to Niall Stokes, he had bumped into Philip on numerous occasions out in Howth, where they both lived. They had exchanged promises that they’d have dinner in one house or the other. But it was too late now. The grim reaper had intervened. Philip was dead.
Ultimately, Bono described 1986 as “an
incredibly bad year” for him – and that was reflected in the lyrics on The Joshua Tree, songs in which an element of tragedy, bordering on despair, began to surface. His marriage to Ali was apparently under strain, in part due to the album’s long gestation period. The media criticism following Self Aid had stung him badly. And the deaths of Lynott and Carroll had shaken the entire band. On the surface, things might have seemed to be going extraordinarily well.
But deep down, there were demons on the loose. “That’s why the desert attracted me as an image,” Bono said. “That year was really a desert for us.”
Just prior to the release of The Joshua
Tree, Bono was stricken with panic. He was so paranoid about the artistic calbre of the completed album, and so uncertain that U2 had made the right calls musically, that he actually contemplated calling the production plant to order a halt to the manufacturing of the record. Maybe he in his heart he knew that it was all too far gone to change anything – but he had to quell those particular demons of doubt. He let the presses roll.
Just as well. U2’s time was now. Upon its release, on one level at least, the band found what they were looking for. Reviews for The
Joshua Tree were almost universally positive. Some were ecstatic – a response that was, in U2’s case, unprecedented. In Hot Press,
Bill Graham waxed even more lyrical than usual in his extended review. “One thing is absolutely clear,” he summarised. “U2 can no longer be patronised with faint and glib praise. They must be taken very seriously indeed after this re- valuation of rock". For the full original Bill Graham review, turn to Page 30).
Steve Lillywhite, who mixed the album, is under no illusions as to what made it work for a mainstream audience. “I think what made The Joshua Tree the big seller that it was, was the fact that they had the radio songs, the hits – and it was all stuff that they could play live,” he reasoned.
Daniel Lanois’ reputation also soared, in the wake of his production triumph on The
Joshua Tree. By now considered one of the
most important producers to have emerged in the 1980s, he went on to midwife hugely acclaimed albums for Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, The Neville Brothers and many more. He has maintained his connection with U2, subsequently
working on All That
You Can’t Leave
Behind and How To
Dismantle An Atomic Bomb.
Asked in 2007 by Hot Press’s Colm O’Hare how he felt about The Joshua Tree over twenty years later, he offered a special kind of perspective. “Well, I’ve been hurt more on other records than I was on that record,” he reflected. “You know, where you actually take a kicking – as I did when I made Bob Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind. I certainly felt that, at every stage of The Joshua Tree, there were no major personal disappointments. I like the sound of the early U2 records that we made. It’s the sound of commitment.”
In terms of understanding the powerful, enduring appeal of the record, he was emphatic in defending the values with which the recording was imbued.
“Modern day record production – because people have access to so many sounds – has kind of fallen into the hands of stylists,” he stated. “‘Let’s have that little beat and this little texture’ and you come up with them in, like, minutes – 'that should work with this, that’ll be nice here and let’s hang that over there’. And it makes a very nice first impression, like, ‘Jeez, we didn’t have to do any work and we’ve got that big, symphonic 8 sound that they got in the sō %ut what you don’t get is that ramp-up of dedication to get to that place.
“It’d be like if you buy a barren piece of property and you push a button and end up with a full orchard. Consequently, you end up with instant gratification, but you may not have a connection with it, it might actually not belong to you, at all <ou can employ a stylist for a photo-shoot – but I don’t think you should employ one for the making of a record.
“Those U2 records, they have big ramp-ups,” he concluded. “They’re filled with philosophies. And we got to those places because we believed in an idea – and not because we liked someone else’s idea.”
Thirty years on from its release, The Joshua
Tree still stands the test of time. Yet for all of its American themes, the album was still very much the work of four Irishmen.
“The Joshua Tree is not Irish in any of the obvious senses,” Bono later reflected. “In a much more mysterious way, it is very Irish. The ache, the melancholy is uniquely Irish.” Four years later, when they released
Achtung Baby! in 1991, the singer laughingly commented that their new album was “the sound of four men chopping The
Joshua Tree down.”
But that’s another story, for another time, another place. Right now, it is right that we should celebrate U2’s first masterpiece – and listen to it again with open hearts. The band wouldn’t have wanted this, of course, but 30 years on, it feels newly relevant, and horribly of the moment, in a world that has tilted ominously back to the 1980s.
“I want to run, I want to hide,” Bono sings on the opening track, ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’. In 2017, as never before, there is no hiding place. It is time to take up the megaphones again..
"The Joshua Tree is not Irish in any of the obvious senses. In a much more mysterious way, it is very Irish. The ache, the melancholy is uniquely Irish"
Bono: outside it's America
Rehearsing in Dublin's Point Theatre and (right) The Joshua Tree producer Daniel Lanois
Ali Hewson, Liam Mackey and Bono on the set of TV Gaga
(Clockwise from bottom left) Christy Moore, Ronnie Drew of The Dubliners, Larry Mullen, the Edge and Bono, at the Late Late Show special tribute to The Dubliners, on which they performed Peggy Seegers ’Springhill Mining Disaster’.