Thirty years ago, when U2’s The Joshua Tree entered the Billboard album chart at No. 7 (it later reached No. 1, with the singles “With or Without You” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” going on to top the Hot 100), the band knew they had created something special. “We all kind of felt like it was going to be a breakthrough record for us,” bassist Adam Clayton told me in an interview for The Billboard Book of Number One Albums. “We were quite clear about the album we wanted to make at the time. We had this image of a spiritual desert, which was what we felt America had become in the mid-’80s. Greed and money was the big issue. We wanted to step back from that and look at the spirituality of the heart.”
And by doing so, the Irish band connected with America in a way it had never done before — or since. But at the time, Clayton and his bandmates had no idea how massive or lasting their fifth album’s impact would be.
“It was a real shock, but when that happens to you, you’re running so fast trying to keep up with the momentum that you don’t have time to dwell on it,” said Clayton. “I remember when we first arrived in the States for the preproduction of the tour, ‘With or Without You’ had gone to No. 1. I remember hearing it on the radio, I think it was on [Los Angeles alt-rock station] KROQ. We were in L.A. editing a video, and for that moment, I thought, ‘OK, this is really going to f*** with our lives for a while,’ and then it was back into whatever we were supposed to be doing.”
At the time, U2 were on a mission, ready to embrace the next phase of their career. And The Joshua Tree — released on March 9, 1987, in the U.S — found the band at a crossroads. They’d gone from promising young rock upstarts to the genre’s new messiahs, a status they reached with anthemic songs like “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and singer Bono’s white-flag-waving, often dangerous stage antics on the 1983 tour in support of their third album, War.
For their fourth album, 1984’s Unforgettable Fire, the group — which also includes guitarist the Edge and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. — dialed back the bombast a bit and focused inward, creating more of an ethereal sound thanks in large part to the new production team of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. While the band remained a huge concert draw, on the U.S. charts U2 had seemingly reached a plateau. War and The Unforgettable Fire failed to crack the top 10, and “Pride (In the Name of Love),” the Martin Luther King Jr. tribute from The Unforgettable Fire, was their lone top 40 hit at that point, stalling at No. 33.
Before recording The Joshua Tree, it’s important to note, the band put on some career-changing performances that would prime the pump for the band’s greatest triumph. Most notably, in July 1985, U2 performed at Live Aid at London’s Wembley Stadium, an event that brought their powerful live performance to a worldwide television audience. Then in January 1986, as U2 began work on their fifth album, another prime live opportunity came up: Amnesty International’s“A Conspiracy of Hope” tour, which featured Sting, Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed, Bryan Adams, Joan Baez, and Jackson Browne.
“We kind of got started on The Joshua Tree, but we had already committed to the “Conspiracy of Hope” tour, so we had to stop halfway through,” Clayton recalled. The tour put stress on the band, since they were already under pressure to deliver a new album, but there were also some benefits. “It was good for us, because we wanted to try out this new material, and we wanted it to be performance-based,” Clayton said. “We had the opportunity of going out on that tour and experimenting with a version of Dylan’s ‘Maggie’s Farm’ and trying out a few sort of guitar ideas [in soundchecks], and we got back from that tour and did the last couple of months on the album.”
Although The Joshua Tree’s iconic cover art, shot by noted photographer Anton Corbijn, might lead some to assume the album was made in the California desert, it was in fact recorded at a number of different locations in Ireland, including Windmill Lane Studios. The bulk was cut at Danesmoate House, which would later become Clayton’s home, in the Rathfarnham area of Dublin. “Rather than use a commercial studio, we set up a studio in a room that we liked the sound of, and we made the room work for us,” Clayton said. “We rented the house just for the album. We liked the room, and we liked working in sort of our own location with natural light, rather than being stuck inside a studio. And it worked really well for us, because the band played really well together.”
For The Joshua Tree, the band once again chose the production team of Lanois and Eno. “We explained to them our ideas of feeling that we wanted it to be very much about live takes and very much about capturing the moment and being in an environment that would inspire us,” Clayton said. “We wanted it to sound live, and we wanted the band sound captured as a group. Again, that’s why we wanted the ambience of good room. We were looking for ambient sound. In the mid-’80s, the fashion in studios had been very much to put down a click-track and build a song up from the kick drum to the final vocal, and we just didn’t want to work that way.”
While Lanois and Eno are only listed as producers on the album, their role didn’t stop there. At times they were the fifth and six members of the band, even singing backing vocals on the gospel-tinged “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Clayton explained, “There was always someone playing an instrument, and everyone else just kind of joined in as they saw fit, including Danny and Brian. It seemed like a time when the division of control room and playing room didn’t really exist. We moved freely between the two.”
Steve Lillywhite, who produced U2’s first three albums, was called in to mix “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “With or Without You,” and “Bullet the Blue Sky.” And Lillywhite’s then-wife, late singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl, was given the task of figuring out the album’s running order.
Released at a time when vinyl was still the predominant format (CDs were just starting to gain traction), The Joshua Tree has a near flawless, front-loaded Side 1. Beginning with the churchlike organ strains before the Edge’s familiar guitar kicks in, “Where the Streets Have No Name” introduces the new bigger, bolder, and broader U2 with a sound that combines the atmospherics of The Unforgettable Fire with Bono’s full-throated singing. The lyrics are drenched in spirituality and mystery. Was Bono singing of heaven or some sort of utopia? He explained it was inspired by growing up in Northern Ireland, where one is judged by the street where they lived. Bono imagined a world where no such judgment took place, hence the song’s title and key lyric. The song set the tone for The Joshua Tree and the biggest success of U2’s career.
That song is immediately followed by “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” which furthered the band’s spiritual quest — Bono, the Edge, and Mullen are devout Christians. Next is “With or Without You,” which examines Bono’s internal struggle as a rock star and a husband. With its midtempo and alternating chiming and howling guitars, it made an unlikely first single. The Edge’s guitar on the track sounds unique because he played a unique instrument — the Infinite Guitar, designed by film composer Michael Brook, which allows a guitar’s sustain to be held infinitely.
In “Bullet the Blue Sky,” U2 reshaped the Sturm und Drang of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” into a political indictment of American military intervention in El Salvador, where Bono had visited with his wife, Ali, prior to recording the album. (The mournful album closer, “Mothers of the Disappeared,” was also inspired by the El Salvador trip). “‘Bullet the Blue Sky,’ I think, really realized the potential of where Edge was going as a guitar player,” Clayton said.
It wasn’t just U2’s instrumental attack that reached new heights on The Joshua Tree. On other tracks, Bono examined such topics as drug addiction in the Side 1 closer, “Running to Stand Still,” and paid tribute to roadie Greg Carroll, who died in a motorcycle accident, on “One Tree Hill.” Clayton explained, “For Bono, it was really kind of a milestone as a record. He really managed to deal with some topics in a really clear way. ‘Running to Stand Still,’ ‘Still Having Found What I’m Looking For,’ and ‘With or Without’ were great lyrical milestones for him.”
Much has been made of the American influence on U2 during the Joshua Tree period. Bono and the Edge reportedly were reading books by such writers as Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor, and the explosive second-side rocker “Exit” was inspired by The Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer’s book about convicted killer Gary Gilmore. Musically, too, U2 were beginning to allow American influences to seep into their sound, most notably on “Running to Stand Still” and “Trip Through Your Wires,” the latter featuring Bono’s blues-inspired harmonica playing.
“We wanted to go back to the basics. That was what we really felt we wanted to connect with,” Clayton explained. “We needed to have an appreciation and understanding of that genre of music. Brought up through the punk movement, we didn’t really know what that stuff was about.”
The band would further explore American music in the film and companion album, Rattle and Hum, which documented 1987’s “The Joshua Tree” tour. On May 12, U2 will embark on a new Joshua Tree tour to celebrate the album’s 30th anniversary, playing venues designed to hold as many as 100,000 fans and sounding as relevant as ever. On June 2, Interscope will release an anniversary “super-deluxe collector’s edition” of The Joshua Tree, featuring an 84-page hardback book of the Edge’s unseen personal shots from the album’s Mojave Desert photo session in 1986; a live recording of the band’s 1987 Madison Square Garden concert; rarities from the album’s original recording sessions; and new remixes from Daniel Lanois, St. Francis Hotel, Jacknife Lee, Steve Lillywhite, and Flood.