Subscribe

(Credit: Island Records)

Music

'The Joshua Tree': How U2 became the biggest band in rock music

A departure from their previous punk rock sounds, U2’s The Joshua Tree ticked multiple boxes for the newer styles and concepts they adopted as a group, both in terms of music as well as lyrics, for their fifth studio album. The band decided on following the conventional song structures with the hard-hitting sounds instead of their experimentations with ambient music for their now-iconic 1987 release. At the time, U2 referred to this strategy as working with the “primary colours” of rock music – going back to the classic accompaniments of guitar, bass and drums with the vocals. The group was insistent upon bringing about a change in their music pattern, especially something that would contrast the dominant synthpop and new wave music genres of the time.

Bono, U2’s lead vocalist and the primary songwriter for the album, was determined to use America as the central theme for Joshua Tree. While initially, the rest of the group was reluctant on following Bono’s vision for a more American sound, they eventually complied and agreed as the album started to take shape. Bono’s inspiration behind composing this LP came from various avenues. For starters, the band had toured the US extensively for five months in each year for the first part of the 1980s, thereby giving them a first-hand experience of interacting with the social and cultural affairs of the country. Adding to that was Bono’s humanitarian visit to Egypt and Ethiopia, which was really what opened his eyes to how hegemonic a grasp the US had on the rest of the world and how that affected the respective countries. As he said, “Spending time in the pits of 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… I saw the spoiled child of the Western World. I started thinking, ‘They may have a physical desert but we’ve got other kinds of deserts.’ And that’s what attracted me to the desert as a symbol of some sort”.

The image of the desert came up again and again in multiple songs on the album. Regarding the composition of the lyrics behind the songs, Bono explained: “I used to think that writing words was old-fashioned, so I sketched. I wrote words on the microphone. For The Joshua Tree, I felt the time had come to write words that meant something out of my experience.” The edge, U2’s lead guitarist, added: “We wanted the record to be less vague, open-ended, atmospheric and impressionistic. To make it more straightforward, focused and concise.” They wanted to work within limitation for this album, setting a distinct beginning, middle and end of the project. Yet, even with their creative rules, the thought behind the album took it a long way and made it revolutionary in a way that was different from what U2’s reputation projected them as. The Joshua Tree record was also quite politically-charged in the sense that the album attempted to portray the “bleakness and greed of America under Ronald Reagan” and America’s foreign policies.

The lyrics for each of the songs were very much rooted in the album’s sole lyricist, Bono, and his personal experiences and observations. The composition of the album was a time when he was plagued with personal troubles and losses. Going through a strained marriage, losing his personal assistant Steve Carroll to an accident, and the controversy due to the band’s involvement in the Self Aid organisation all had an effect on Bono’s songwriting process as well as the production of the album. Bono’s articulations in the lyrics, however, were more poignant than ever. ‘Bullet the Blue Sky’ was a direct reference to the conflict between the US-backed government and the local rebels in El Salvador during the Salvadoran Civil War. ‘Red Hill Mining Town’ was a song written by Bono from the perspective of a couple who had been affected by the 1984 UK mining strike. His personal struggles were reflected during the composition of ‘With or Without You’ when he struggled to find a balance between his domestic responsibilities and his engagements as a musician.

‘One Tree Hill’, another song on the album, was inspired when he visited New Zealand for Carroll’s funeral and, of course, the album was also dedicated to Carroll’s memory. Distinct Christian imagery also came through in songs like ‘In God’s Country’ referencing Cain, ‘Bullet the Sky’ with the lyrics “Jacob wrestled the angel” or ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ reflecting Bono’s own dilemma of having deep faith in the concept of the Kingdom Come but not having found it yet. With lyrics as heavily symbolic as these, coming up with a suitable tune was no easy task, but the band eventually composed some of the most magnificent tunes to go with the lyrics.

Much of Bono’s interest in roots, country and blues music worked its way into the album. For The Joshua Tree, the band wanted a sound that would capture and infuse both indigenous Irish music as well as American folk music. For instance, ‘Running to Stand Still’ incorporated American folk music with the lyrics talking about an Irish couple who were addicted to heroin. The music for ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’, on the other hand, was more gospel-influenced. ‘Running to Stand Still’ exhibited a beautiful piano ballad with and a bluesy guitar riff. Songs like ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’, ‘With or Without You’, and so on adopted a technique called the delay effect, which gave an almost echoing effect to the song. For the album, the band wanted a more organic sound and wished to record the vocals and instruments together instead of overlaying them during the production.

Speaking of production, it would be ignorant to not talk about the two main masterminds behind producing the album. Brian Eno and Daniel Larson had worked with U2 in their previous album, The Unforgettable Fire. Following the success of the album, the band hired them again to produce The Joshua Tree. Working with producers who inspired the artists to get on their feet was an essential aspect of having producers in the first place. Eno and Larson did just that, and more. Larry Mullen Jr., the drummer for the band, was especially excited to work with them because he felt they were the first producers who really “took an interest in the rhythm of the song”. Along with Mark Ellis (AKA “Flood”) as the recording engineer, the band was all set to have the grandest production team ever.

And finally, it was time for the album’s cover art. Photographed by Anton Corbijn and designed by Steve Averill, the album cover was just as incredible as the music itself. In fact, it was only after Corbijn told the band about the Joshua trees (which they came across in the Mojave Desert, while shooting) that Bono came up with the name for the album. It was also interesting because it fits both the symbolic as well as the literal thought process of the album. All in all, it was a series of wonderful coincidences and decisions that brought the album together as a whole. The Joshua Tree was one of the best-selling albums both in the UK and the US, as well as one of the fastest-selling records of all time. The band released a remastered edition of the album in 2007 and then again in 2017, and it has been a witness to U2’s most significant transformations as well as their development as individual artists and as a band.