Music Features, Spotlights

Spotlight: U2 – The Joshua Tree


U2 - The Joshua Tree For more recent generations, it’s difficult to view Irish megastars U2 as anything other than annoying. From arrogantly gatecrashing Apple users’ iTunes accounts with their mediocre 2014 album Songs Of Innocence to listening to Bono’s incessant preaching as well as seeing him prance around pretentiously in the company of assorted US presidents, it’s not hard to see how and why the vitriol has risen over the years, with even the most ardent of fans appreciating that these escapades are not the best way to endear yourself to millions, despite laudable championing of good causes.

But, back in the days of post-punk rock that followed on from punk forerunners such as The Clash and The Ramones from the mid-1970s, U2 were, actually, pretty fantastic. Building on a cult following that was boosted by the excellent, raw and edgy Boy in 1980 – the opening track of which, I Will Follow, has enjoyed huge longevity in live performances ever since – they saw follow-up collection October almost break the UK Top 10 as major success seemed imminent.

In 1983, that promise was realised as third album War hit the top of the UK charts as well as reaching Number 12 in the US Billboard chart. War was a thrilling listen from start to finish; there had been a political standpoint on U2 records before, but this time it was amplified to the maximum. Amongst others, Lech Walenska’s Polish Solidarity Union inspired New Year’s Day, the album’s lead single, while Seconds featured shared lead vocals between Bono and The Edge for the first time as they tackled the threat of nuclear war, but the power and emotion contained within the album’s opening track, Sunday Bloody Sunday, was unrivalled. Its militaristic drumbeat coupled with Bono’s lyrics recalling the horrific events of the 1972 Easter Sunday massacre where 28 civilians were shot dead by the British Army in Northern Ireland is perhaps the band’s most recognisable track from the period. Eerily, a future recording of a new version of the song for the Rattle And Hum film would take place on the actual same day as another tragic moment in Northern Ireland’s history, the Remembrance Day bombing of Enniskillen by the IRA in 1987.

Despite the chart success of War, the US market had still only been moderately indented by U2. But all that would change with their performance at 1985’s Live Aid. There were several less heralded gigs around the world that ran in conjunction with the two main Live Aid events, but firstly eyes fell upon the famous twin towers of the now demolished original Wembley Stadium. At 12 noon in London, after a rendition of God Save The Queen by The Coldstream Guards, Status Quo launched the event with their version of John Fogerty’s Rockin’ All Over The World; just over five hours later U2 took to the stage.

Tellingly, the Irish band’s slot was key. The accompanying US gig at the John F Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia was now running in tandem with Wembley and although several performances across the two venues overlapped, U2’s allotted 18 minutes fell neatly between two of the biggest Philadelphia performances: Bryan Adams and The Beach Boys. Canadian Adams was massive at the time on both sides of the Atlantic, with his hugely successful Reckless album from late 1984 still riding high in the charts, and his four song set neatly finished as U2’s began. But what happened next took them to the next level.

Often recalled as being one of the bands that stole the entire show, U2 would in fact play just two songs and with closer scrutiny, their performance pales into comparison with the rejuvenated Queen’s medley-infused show-stopping set. But it didn’t turn out the way it should have. After a rousing rendition of Sunday Bloody Sunday, their three-song set moved on to Bad, a fan favourite and highlight from 1984’s second UK Number 1 album The Unforgettable Fire. But song three, Pride (In The Name Of Love) from the same album, never happened.

After an agonisingly long attempt by Bono to ‘physically connect with the crowd’ (insert yawn, tut or sigh here as required), he left the stage himself, eventually ‘connecting’ with Wham! fan Kal Kahlique, with whom he then proceeded to serenade with a slow dance. The band played on, not sure of what to do as their now missing frontman had taken it upon himself to break up their performance, and the incident very nearly broke the band in two also, with The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr and Adam Clayton all pissed off at the stunt as they readied themselves for the third song, which had at that time been their biggest charting single, reaching Number 3 in the UK.

Unexpectedly, the move captured the hearts of both British and American audiences rather than backfiring, and so U2’s seeds had now been firmly sewn into the US as their exposure to the much larger audience had been fully maximised. The adverse effect, however, was initial concerns amongst the band’s core following that their precious, closely guarded secret of just how good U2 were had been blown apart and ‘their’ band would soon be bigger than they (selfishly) wanted, as it is with most cult band followings.

The next couple of years would be quiet in comparison, but their new material was becoming increasingly yearned for. Released at the same time as first single With Or Without You, which is undeniably one of, if not the biggest song the band has ever recorded, album five The Joshua Tree hit the shops in March 1987.

Its impact was enormous. Both the single and album reached the top of the US charts, with the album following suit in the UK while the single peaked in the Top 5. From the iconic cover – taken during a three-day photo shoot in the Mojave Desert – to the Americana sound the band were now embracing, The Joshua Tree was drenched in all things American as the band’s fascination with the country grew following several tours. Coupled with The Edge’s recent tinkering to his guitar sound that was producing his now trademark echo-drenched tones from his delay-pedal exploits, the sound of The Joshua Tree was immense. Also, compact disc technology was still new and the crystal clarity the format brought to the record was notably impressive.

Often cited as one of the greatest rock albums of all time, The Joshua Tree went straight for the jugular with its first three songs: Where The Streets Have No Name, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (a song that prompted Boy George to suggest Bono gaze in the direction of his drummer as he was “gorgeous”), and With Or Without You. One of the best three-song salvos to ever begin an album, the rest of the record inevitably found itself somewhat overshadowed by the magnificence of its opening. Immediately following With Or Without You came Bullet The Blue Sky, a bludgeoning, anti-war number. But its placement was questionable, the way the memory of With Or Without You was immediately eradicated by its successors’ cataclysmic power being a largely unwanted moment at that point in the record: positioning the track at the start of side two would surely have been a way to ensure the smooth flow continued rather than ending so abruptly and therefore preventing the first three tracks, coupled with the power of the fourth, from completely dominating the album.

The rest is far from poor, of course, but it could never live up to what had gone before. Beautiful ballad Running To Stand Still completed side one, leaving side two something of a b-side in itself. Red Hill Mining Town and One Tree Hill – inspired by the death of roadie Greg Carroll – were possibly the main highlights of the reverse side, whilst the harmonica employed during Trip Through Your Wires tapped into more Americana but comparably, side two was far behind side one, a fact that has been somewhat overlooked by critics and fans alike. Would anyone, for example, ever choose side two over side one if they had, say, just 25 minutes listening time to spare and wanted some Joshua Tree action, for example? Probably not many.

Ten years ago, a 20th anniversary edition of the album was released. The album was remastered for the occasion and now, as the album celebrates its 30th year, it sees a further celebratory release with three new packages on offer. On package one, the deluxe CD, you get the original album and also a live disc. Sadly, the 2007 remaster of the original album is the version included on all packages instead of a new remaster, or even better, a 5.1 surround sound version. The live disc, however, is much more welcome. Recorded at Madison Square Garden, New York in 1987, the selection of a US gig again relays the importance the record had in America, the setlist including all but three of the album tracks (One Tree Hill, the Argentinian inspired Mothers Of The Disappeared and Red Hill Mining Town, although the latter was never actually played live until this year).

Also within the setlist are five tracks that fans would already have a live version of if they own the rather brilliant 1983 live album, Under A Blood Red Sky. The New York concert was also the only show to feature two renditions of the same song – I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For – both included here, with the second being a gospel version featuring the New Voices Of Freedom choir. Perhaps the inclusion of a European show instead of the New York gig (if a suitable recording exists) would have made for an interesting alternative for European buyers, but even more of a nice touch would have been to include the entire gig; it would have had to have been done across two discs because one of the songs omitted from the final cut – Bad – was in itself nine minutes long, but an entire gig is something fans would have no doubt appreciated.

A super-deluxe CD version is also available. In addition to the two discs from the deluxe version, two more discs are included. Firstly, there’s a disc of remixes from the likes of Steve Lillywhite and Daniel Lanois; as can probably be predicted, though, the necessity of these remixes is dubious to say the least, with the Record Store Day 2017 Lillywhite remix of Red Hill Mining Town being the best of the six here by some distance. As for the other five, well, they’re not great…and unlikely to be played more than, er, once, particularly the dreadfully boring version of With Or Without You (remixed by Lanois) which literally rips the heart out of the track by discarding The Edge’s delay-laden guitaring completely; whoever thought that was a good idea needs their head tested.

Lastly, the fourth disc contains b-sides and outtakes but, wait for it, it’s virtually identical to the bonus tracks CD from the 20th anniversary release with the single edit of Where The Streets Have No Name this time missing, whilst an alternative Lillywhite mix from 1987 of I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For is included along with a new, short and largely pointless 2017 ‘reprise’ of One Tree Hill by producer Brian Eno. Milking a cash cow? As well as the four discs, an 84-page book of previously unseen photographs from the Mojave Desert shoots taken by The Edge is included as well as eight colour prints from Anton Corbijn. Once again though, several songs from the period have failed to surface, including Lucille, cover Wild Irish Rose and Womanfish, although with the latter being the song the band class as their worst ever, the omission of this one isn’t a shock. Perhaps all tracks are being held back in order to tempt buyers into the 40th anniversary edition, no doubt coming in 2027?

Lastly, if you’re feeling incredibly rich, you can splash out on a vinyl copy of the super deluxe version, although being spread across 14 sides of vinyl you might find that as well as your carpet taking a battering from trips to and from the turntable, you have some sides of vinyl considerably more worn than others, just like the original LP probably did in some houses, of course. Across the entire package, there are 25 previously unreleased audio tracks, including the 17 live tracks and the six remixes, so the two-disc version is likely to satiate the vast majority of fans.

U2’s sixth album, the hotch-potch, part-live, part-studio effort Rattle And Hum, aimed itself at the American market once more, most notably via the BB King collaboration When Love Comes To Town, but the transformation of cult Irish band to worldwide superstars was complete by this stage, the album again hitting the peak of both the US and UK charts. Although many fans consider earlier albums to be of better, consistent (and raw) quality than The Joshua Tree while others hold up 1991’s Achtung Baby as the band’s finest moment following another reinvention, the importance of the album to both the band and rock history is massive. So, put your views on Bono aside for a moment, and get one of rock’s all-time ‘every home should have one’ albums if you don’t already own it, and you will hear an excellent live performance from a band at their peak. Just make sure it’s the much more affordable two-disc version, unless you can afford to slap down those dollar bills like there’s no tomorrow.

U2’s The Joshua Tree 30th Anniversary Edition is released through Universal on 2 June 2017. The Joshua Tree tour dates and further information can be found here.




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