@U2 Home Page - U2 News, Lyrics, Tour Dates & more       https://www.atu2.com
[Skip to Content]

[T]here are so few artists owning up to what it's like to have both fears and faith. -- Bono

How The West Was Won - The Faces That Shaped The Joshua Tree

Uncut Magazine

The Greatest?

Could The Joshua Tree really be the best album ever made?

In November 2001, The Joshua Tree proved its staying power by topping a VH-1 poll of the All-Time Greatest Albums. Of almost 40,000 votes collected from viewers and music industry figures, it received around one-fifth of the total -- 6,000 clear of its nearest rival, Michael Jackson's Thriller. Oasis, Madonna, Nirvana, Stevie Wonder and Radiohead also made the Top 10, with two showings for the Beatles.

"We were surprised," says VH-1 senior producer Paul King. "Because we are part of the industry, we were expecting people to quote Revolver, Dark Side of the Moon, Songs in the Key of Life, Pet Sounds -- and of course those records featured. But when it came to the viewers, the demographic age group who were buying records in the '80s and '90s, U2 was miles ahead."

Other awards for The Joshua Tree included two Grammys and a Brit in 1988. Rolling Stonealso awarded U2 Best Album of 1987, Best Artist, Best Album Cover, Best Live Performance, Best Bass Player, Best Drummer, Sexiest Male, the top two Best Videos and top three Best Singles. A complete grandslam.

"I still think it's one of the all-time great rock albums," King says. "Everyone automatically thinks '60s, '70s, blah blah. But if we're looking at a 40-year history, The Joshua Tree does stand right up there."

"Like A River To The Sea"

Greg Carroll, 1960-1986

Brendan Fitzgerald first met Greg Carroll during his days as a drummer on Auckland's early-'80s band scene. He was a "super crew/roadie dude" who worked all the music venues and, unusually for a Maori, followed all the latest post-punk bands.

"He used to have startling mohawk-style haircuts and dye jobs on his curly mop," recalls Fitzgerald, who swapped New Zealand for London in the late '80s.

"I remember him as a great guy to hang out with -- energetic, funny, enthusiastic, and really pro when he had a gig on. He was always working, and if he wasn't he'd be in the audience of whoever was playing. He loved music."

Carroll came to U2's attention during the band's Auckland rehearsals for their Unforgettable Fire tour. Bono needed a fearless, reliable roadie to keep him out of danger during his manic stage-diving episodes.

"The band were patchy on the opening nights," Fitzgerald remembers. "The Edge took the bass off Clayton at the start of '40' because the 'unsteady' bassist was more interested in waving his magnum of Moet about. But there was Greg getting amongst it, hands high over his head, feeding out the mic lead."

When they departed for Australia, U2 offered Carroll a full-time job. He seized the chance and soon became integral to the band. Check out their Live Aid set -- that's Carroll shadowing Bono's every step as he plunges into the crowd. In Dublin, he effectively became the singer's personal assistant and soul mate. He also began dating Katie McGuinness, sister of U2 manager Paul.

But then, early in July 1986, tragedy struck. "I heard about his death right after it happened," says Fitzgerald, who was still in New Zealand. "The wildfire story which did the rounds in Auckland was that he was in a Dublin pub with sundry U2 types when Bono asked him to nip out and bring his motorbike back from somewhere nearby. Greg readily set off and on the way back -- legend has it within sight of the pub -- he was run down on the bike and killed."

A devastated Bono, Larry, Ali, Katie McGuinness and others in U2's orbit flew out for the three-day maori funeral in Carroll's marae (home town) of Wanganui. The Joshua Tree was dedicated to Carroll, while the track "One Tree Hill" celebrates his memory and a landmark peak overlooking Auckland.

"New Zealand pioneer Sir John Logan Campbell built a memorial obelisk alongside it to commerate the Maori people as a dying race," Fitzgerald notes. "Maybe Greg told this hideous fact to Bono, who featured it in his lyrics for his Maori friend after he died. Who knows...?"

U2 vs. America - Dylan

Dylan was the living embodiment of the soulful, questing, mystical protest-folk spirit that U2 were trying to mine in their Joshua Tree period. Bono first met him when he interviewed him for Hot Press, and later they duetted together on stage at Slane Castle near Dublin in 1984. The Old Groaner proved far more schooled in roots music than the young pretender, and Bono later admitted: "He was the one that sent us on this journey into the past that ended up with Rattle and Hum."

Since then, Dylan and U2 have shared a stage on numerous occasions, jamming and writing songs together during the Joshua Tree tour. In June 1987, the two singers sang ragged duets of Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" and "Knockin' On Heaven's Door." "I used to make up my own words to Bob Dylan songs," Bono announced, "but Bob said it was okay."

Dylan collaborated on "Love Rescue Me" and "Hawkmoon 269" for Rattle and Hum, while U2 have covered several of his tunes, notably "Maggie's Farm," "All Along the Watchtower" and "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall."

"I don't care what Dylan does in his free time," Adam Clayton told NME in 1988, "but when he puts an instrument in his hand, he has something, That's what we're interested in."

U2 vs. America - Elvis

"Elvis is Alive," Bono insists in B.P. Fallon's interview notes for U2's Zooropa tour. We're dead."

The King of Rock 'n' Roll is so rich in musical and metaphorical importance, U2 can hardly keep away from him. The fascination first surfaced in the semi-improvised rant "Elvis Presley and America" from 1984's The Unforgettable Fire album, which treated Presley's rise and fall as an allegorical, almost divine parable. Bono addressed similar themes in a poem called "American David," lending Elvis further biblical significance, and again on "Elvis Ate America" for the U2 offshoot project Passengers. U2 have also covered the Presley standards "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" "His Latest Flame," "Suspicious Minds," and "Can't Help Falling In Love With You."

It was the lean, mean '50's Elvis whose spirit haunted Rattle and Hum. Larry Mullen Jr., who named his son Aaron Elvis, paid homage at the King's Graceland grave during the movie, while the B-side to "Desire" was titled "A Room at the Heartbreak Hotel" and Presley's young face watched from the walls as U2 recorded at Sun Studios in Memphis.

But by the time of the Zoo TV and Zooropa tours, Bono was performing karaoke King tunes in a gold lame devil costume. But behind the bloated kitsch of Vegas Elvis, the U2 frontman claimed in a recent TV special, was "the gravitas of a guy who's actually run out of life and love: he became an opera singer."

Zoo TV encores ended with a jokey but revealing announcement: "Elvis is still in the building."

"Why Have You Brought Us To This Shitty Place"

Anton Corbijn on the truth behind the Mount Rushmore of album sleeves.

The Joshua Tree Monument near Palm Springs is a notorious site of rock 'n' roll pilgrimage. A vast national park full of thousand-year-old cactus plants given their Biblical name by Mormon pilgrims, it passed into folklore when former Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers member Gram Parsons overdosed in a nearby motel in September 1973. According to a secret pact, Parson's body was later kidnapped and returned to Joshua Tree for a ceremonial burning.

But contrary to popular myth, U2 did not shoot their most famous album sleeve in Joshua Tree itself. Anton Corbijn's iconic monochrome band shots were mostly taken 100 miles northwest, in Death Valley, where the Dutch photographer spotted a lone tree against a vast desert backdrop. "I've never been back because I'm dreading that people took a bit of the tree," says Corbijn. "That's why I never told people where it is."

Starting in Reno, Nevada, the shoot took place during a three-day bus trek across the wintry Californa hinterland in December 1986. The album was still provisionally titled Desert Songs or The Two Americas. After consulting his Bible, Bono agreed. For added comedy value, the band cracked up each time the heavily-accented snapper pronounced "Joshua" as "Yoshua."

"Larry was too embarrassed to tell his girlfriend that we were going to call the LP after this clump of prickles in the desert," Bono told NME in March 1987. "The thought of the world waiting for The Joshua Tree is a bit ridiculous. It sounds as if it will sell about three copies..."

Corbijn rented a special landscape camera for the shoot. "I think it was called a Horizon, a Russian camera that took big landscapes," he says. "I'd never shot with it before, so I took a risk. On the shoot for the gatefold sleeve I had no idea how to focus it properly. I focused on the background and the band are slightly out of focus. Fortunately there was a lot of light. You also see my case on the ground -- I had no idea it was in the shot."

On the third day of the journey, December 15, U2 were anxious to make Peter Gabriel's show at the L.A. Forum. Corbijn pressed for more portraits in remote, snowy ghost towns. "Bono was furious with me," Corbijn laughs. "He said, 'Why have you brought us to this shitty place? Why the hell did you bring us here?' He was really angry. Later they realised there was a very good reason."

Corbijn's shots became classics -- and symbols of U2 at their most po-faced.

"I'm proud of the pictures, I'm happy to be part of them," he says, "But I guess people felt they took themselves too seriously. It was definitely the most serious, I think, that you can photograph a band. You couldn't go any further down that line unless you start photographing graves."

U2 vs. America - Sinatra

He was a superstar from a different age, but somehow Frank Sinatra got sucked into U2's orbit following their Las Vegas encounter at the start of the Joshua Tree tour. Backstage, when Larry Mullen Jr. started chatting about drummer Buddy Rich, Ol' Blue Eyes was hooked. Bono later duetted with him on "I've Got You Under My Skin," and awarded Sinatra his Living Legend Grammy in 1994 ("Sinatra is America!" Bono boomed in his speech).

Bono and the Edge penned the Chairman of the Board a tribute tune, "One Shot of Happy, Two Shots of Sad." Frank never lived to record it, but his Irish admirer sang it to him one night at a Mexican restaurant in Palm Springs.

"Frank's the man," Bono told a New Jersey crowd in 1997. "We're all guests on this planet, as far as I'm concerned." In a TV interview later, Sinatra said: "Lyrics are the soul of a song...Bono shows he's hip to this. He's a good man and I wish him many, many shots of happy."

"We Made It In A Very Loud Drawing Room"

Daniel Lanois on producing The Joshua Tree

"I knew within the first two weeks this record was going to be special," Daniel Lanois tells Uncut. "One never knows how far a record will reach commercially, but I knew it was going to be something special musically. It's an emotional thing. For example, we had 'With or Without You' quite early on, the feeling was already in existence. The Edge had his Infinite Guitar, invented by a Canadian friend of mine. And as soon as we put those stratospheric guitars on top of that pulsating undercurrent, I knew we had something special.

"Brian [Eno, co-producer] and I do very different things. I operate entirely by feel, and Brian is very good with technology. He just has a way of getting into those boxes and getting some sound out of them. But even though he had a lot of patience for sculpting sounds, Brian would probably be less interested than me in getting a good vocal, for example.

"Everyone was looking to break new ground sonically. That's what took the time. In my opinion, that's the best sounding environment we had on any U2 record I worked on. It's Adam Clayton's house. We rented it for the record and he fell in love with it. It has a very loud wooden drawing room, this mega-sized room. A great rock 'n' roll room, we could do no wrong in there. If a room is inspiring to a musician and a singer, things can just snowball."

"You Can Be Any Colour To Play The Blues"

B.B. King on playing with U2

"U2 came by one of my shows once, when I was in Ireland," recalls Riley "Blues Boy" King, a Mississippi-born living legend still touring at the ripe young age of 76. "I asked Bono if he would write a song for me and he said yes. About a year later, the group was touring in the U.S. and asked if I would open the show, and I said gladly. Bono said, 'I have this song for you.' He brought it out and I thought it was a very deep song for him, being such a young man. But I liked it very much. The lyrics were very heavy."

Bono later claimed the lyric to "When Love Comes to Town" was written an hour before the meeting, but King still plays it live to this day.

King and U2 toured together again in 1989, and the Edge awarded the blues godfather a Lifetime Achievement MOBO in 1998. "Edge is a great guy, he's a rhythm section all by himself," says King. "I was grateful to them because they really put me out there. I started seeing a lot of different people who had never heard of B.B. King prior to this. Younger people, too, fans of U2, had a chance to be introduced to me through them. U2 have been very good friends to me."

But can white Irishmen play the blues, B.B.? "Blues is not prejudiced. You can be any colour to play the blues. Most people say it's a simple music, I won't argue that. I say everybody can play it, but that doesn't mean everybody's gonna like it. I think U2 did a very good job. I thought it was great and I still do."

U2 vs. America - Hendrix

Although he had already been dead for 17 years, James Marshall Hendrix became a vital touchstone for the vivid, raging qualities of America that U2 were trying to capture during their late-'80s U.S. Odyssey.

Unsurpassed '60s icon and savage musical revolutionary, Hendrix's flame grilled overhaul of Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" was covered by the band on the Joshua Tree tour, while his love-hate shredding of "The Star Spangled Banner" at Woodstock in1969 was sampled as the opening fanfare for live renditions of "Bullet the Blue Sky."

"It's just a shame that in 1987 there are 16-year-olds who have never heard of Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin," Bono protested in Rolling Stone. "If Jimi Hendrix came along now, he wouldn't get a deal. The companies would file him under 'Black and Confused' and 'Out of Tune'."

Uncut Magazine, 2003.