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"'Streets' is the gift that keeps on giving. The way it reinvents itself every tour is probably part of the magic — we've never got bored with it." — Willie Williams

Cactus World View


The Joshua Tree is a giant cactus that grows in the deserts of southern California. It's also the title of U2's latest LP -- a record that tackles issues like Central America, the miners' strike and heroin addiction with a new, prickly realism. Adrian Thrills talks to the boys with the thorns in the songs.

In a cramped Dublin bedroom, four musicians hover nervously over a modest set of drums and guitars. In one corner stands a small amplifier, in another a cassette recorder. The bedroom is that of the band's drummer, a country and western fan, who is impressing on his colleagues the importance of that sometimes magical form of vocal composition, the song.

Heeding his pleas, a stubbled singer is poring over a set of scribbled lyrics while the guitarist and bassman tread tentatively through a fresh chord sequence. A song is starting to take shape.

It could be a young group almost anywhere in the world, rehearsing for a prestigious local pub date or perhaps a first demo tape. It could be. But it is more than that.

It is a group called U2, a group from Dublin who are now one of the biggest groups in the world; a group who are right up there with Prince and the Revolution and Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band; a group whose next tour will take in "local pubs" like Wembley Stadium; a group whose records sell in millions.

Yet they still gather in their drummer's bedroom, planting the seeds of their "simple songs about everyday lives" as the bass player calls them. This is rock 'n' roll at base camp, a world away from the wall of sound that fills Americans stadiums. But the musicians behind it are the same. As the saying goes, a band that plays together, stays together...

A year later, with their fifth studio album on the horizon, the band are rehearsing in Dublin again. This time they are in Windmill Lane Studios. surrounded by banks of modern equipment and the pinpricks of light that decorate a mixing desk, they are preparing for a tour that will take them through to the end of the year.

The group run through an album track called "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," a song that was probably written back in that bedroom.

They crank up an awesome sound and, though they limit themselves to the three "primary colours" of bass, guitar and drums, U2 still action-paint a wonderfully vivid musical landscape.

It is a scene perfect for the band's renewed belief in the power of the song. And that fact is pretty important, as Bono reiterates during a break from the rehearsal.

"We heard about this thing called the song, and we thought it would be nice to have a few of them. So Larry, who is probably the most song-oriented member of U2, nudged us in that direction. Larry wanted to just get the guys together in his room and simply play music. So we started writing songs. We sat down and wrote these chords and the words. After all these years, we decided to come clean..."

A pair of Irish eyes twinkle as the singer warms to his topic, his boundless enthusiasm looming almost larger than life. He emphasises that U2 are a band in the truest sense of the word. All four members are equal and have been so since their debut in Dublin nine years ago, a spirit of harmony that is a clue to their longevity. Bono, too, is now far more relaxed about his role in the quartet.

"Around the time of October and War, we weren't even sure if we wanted to be in a band. I thought rock 'n' roll was really just vanity and there didn't seem to be a place in it for some of the spiritual concerns in my writing.

But I've since realised that a lot of the artists who inspired me -- Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Patti Smith, Al Green and Marvin Gaye -- were in a similar position. They all had three sides to their writing -- sexual, the spiritual and the political. In our own way, U2 have that same three-dimensional thing. That's why I'm more at ease."

The new U2 album is called The Joshua Tree, so named after a giant cactus that grows in the deserts of southern California. The band are pictured in front of one such bush of the badlands on the gatefold sleeve of the LP. As for the record itself, it is the strongest and most complete they have ever released. The "Boy" of their debut has now surely emerged from the shadows as a man.

Produced, like The Unforgettable Fire, by the Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois partnership, with a few remixes by Steve Lillywhite, it throws up some stark contrasts with its predecessor. A much more direct record, both musically and emotionally, its 11 songs work within defined limitations -- those "primary colours" again -- rather than attempting to push back the frontiers. The Joshua Tree contains nothing quite as anthemic as "Pride" or ambient as "4th of July." Within its walls, however, there is still a remarkably accomplished and inventive record. Almost a full decade into their career, U2 are producing their finest and most consistent work.

One crucial change was their attitude to the studio. Forsaking the usual "layering" approach where each instrument would be recorded separately, all but two of the songs were recorded "live," the emphasis on interaction rather than definition.

Harking back to the chemistry of Larry's house, U2 tried to capture the intimacy of a band playing in a room. And they found a willing partner in their producer.

"We wanted to try and capture a place as well as a mood," says Larry. "We wanted to give each song a sense of location. That's something that Eno is very good at, getting into the ideas behind a song.

"Sometimes Brian gets a little too heady, a little too conceptual. But, at the same time, he is into gospel and traditional Irish music, both of which are more direct. He can balance his intellectual side with a sense of directness. He can get into music on a gut level as well as a conceptual level."

The coupling of a rock band like U2 with a master of meditative ambient music like Eno remains slightly incongruous. The band first approached the High-Browed One in 1983 and were turned down flat. But they persisted, nagging and sending him tapes until a meeting was arranged. And, as Eno himself explained it in the official U2 fan magazine, Propaganda, it was Bono's "intelligent and inspiring attitude to the studio" that finally convinced him. The relationship, however, it not the traditional producer one.

"There's no strict demarcation," explains the Edge. "Obviously, Larry will play drums and Adam will play bass, but both Eno and Daniel Lanois might also play keyboards or guitar. Everybody performs and then everybody sits back and discusses what we hear. During recording, they become almost part of the band."

And the Steve Lillywhite remixes?

"They were basically small changes," says Adam. "We'd given ourselves a deadline, because we wanted to release the LP as early in the year as possible. It was really just a fresh pair of ears coming in and adding finishing touches."

In keeping with the live feel of the new LP, the Edge again concentrates his creative energies on the guitar, abandoning the occasional keyboards he contributed in the past. One of the few truly inventive rock guitarists still active, he feels his playing has recently acquired a greater rhythmic thrust, a dexterity he puts down to his rediscovery of the classic soul beat.

"None of us really grew up with dance music," he explains. "And, in the past, U2 were always thought of as the band with the anti-dance stance. But that is something we're discovering far more now. I'm really into Jimmy Nolan, the guy that used to play guitar with James Brown."

Are there any contemporary guitarists that he admires?

"I listen to anything from old blues guys to Johnny Marr. I'm into the highlife thing in Johnny Marr's playing. It's very light and rhythmic, which is good. Tom Verlaine used to be an influence, not so much for his technical ability, but for the fact that he would try things that no one else was doing.

"I worked on a lot of different sounds and ideas before I found something that seemed to suit my style. Now a lot of people seem to be copying that, the Famous Edge Style, which misses the point altogether. I never wanted to create a new standard. We wanted to do something new."

Just as the sounds of The Joshua Tree are harder-edged than those of The Unforgettable Fire, so the words contain a raw, gritty streak that was far less conspicuous on the previous album. Bono is a great admirer of the mood of "dirty realism" that has crept into modern American literature and writers like Walker Percy, Robert Hayden and Jim House have certainly had an influence on his own words, as have the rough and violent portrayals of the Deep South in Flannery O'Connor's Wiseblood, a book recommended to the U2 man by Bruce Springsteen.

"The new LP is probably the most literate record yet," stresses Bono. "But it is literate in a basic way. The new American writers, particularly the Southern ones, tend to write in a very direct way. They also use a lot of Biblical imagery and, as someone who has read The Bible, I can see a lot of power in that elemental imagery.

"Everyone can relate to those simple powerful images. They are helpful when you want to convey just what a wasteland last year was politically, especially in America."

Hence the cover image and album title? The tree growing in the desert to offer some kind of hope, a way out, in true U2 tradition?

"Like The Unforgettable Fire, the image of a desert can also be quite positive. Even though the mood of a lot of the songs is very bleak, there is also a feeling of pure joy in there. I was worried that it might all seem too arid, but there is still a feeling of coming up for air."

More so than any other U2 record, The Joshua Tree is about the United States of America. The Promised Land has been a fascination of this Dublin band ever since the October album, not least because they spent so much of their time touring it. Their observations, however, have never been as clearly focused as they are now.

"Your perspective on America changes the more time you spend there," reflects the Edge. "The first time, all you notice is the terrible television, the awful radio and the fast food shops. But America is dozens of different faces."

The American connection is not one of total admiration. There are songs on the new LP that stand as stark indictments of America today. "In God's Country" uses the Statue of Liberty -- her dress torn in ribbons -- as a metaphor for America.

"Bullet the Blue Sky," meanwhile, is an anguished howl of protest at the Reagan regime's activities in Central America. A line about "the arms of America" provides a bleak pun that is all the more pertinent in the wake of the Iran arms-Contra aid scandal currently shaking the White House.

"I love America and I hate it," says Bono. "I'm torn between the two. Last year I spent some time in El Salvador and Nicaragua and saw some of the other side of America -- Amerika with a 'k.' I saw American foreign policy affecting the everyday lives of farmers and children. I'd gone to America and embraced America and America had embraced U2. But now I had to re-think and a song like 'Bullet the Blue Sky' is a result of that. I have two conflicting visions of America. One is a kind of dream landscape and the other is a kind of black comedy."

Another song to come out of Bono's travels in El Salvador is "Mothers of the Disappeared," the last track on the LP and a simple, plaintive lament of stunning beauty and sadness. It concerns the thousands of young men and women who "disappear" every year in many Central and South American states, to be tortured and ultimately murdered by the death squads of military dictators. The song ties in with U2's involvement in Amnesty International. Along with Sting, Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Bob Geldof and Dave Stewart, the band played six major Amnesty International concerts in the U.S. last year.

"The aim of the tour was to make Amnesty International a bit clearer in the minds of the American public," says Adam. "A lot of Americans see Amnesty as a communist organisation. But they don't just strive to free people being imprisoned by pro-American regimes. They are active all over the world and the tour tried to emphasise that."

"Something like Amnesty International isn't really about left or right, or the light and shade of political philosophy," continues Bono. "It is about truth on a higher level. The notion that there are people in the world still being tortured on the scale of Nazi Germany is a truth that is still being generally resisted in 1987."

Contact addresses for the Irish, British and American sections of Amnesty are given on a lyric sheet that comes with The Joshua Tree.

Despite its American-sounding title, the track "Red Hill Mining Town" moves the focus of the LP at least slightly closer to home. Inspired by the 1984 miners' strike led by Arthur Scargill, it would seem to allude to coal board chairman Ian McGregor as the villain of the piece: "Through hands of steel/And a heart of stone/Our labour day has come and gone..."

As Bono explains, the song -- which takes the name Red Hill from a mythical doomed pit village in a book written about the 1984 dispute -- is actually about the breakup of a relationship under the strains of the strike.

"I was interested in the miners' strike politically, but I wanted to write about it on a more personal level. A cold statistic about a pit closure and redundancies that follow is drastic enough on one level, but it never tells the full human story. I wanted to follow the miner home and write about that situation in the song.

"The untold story of the coal strike is the number of family relationships that either broke down or were put under great strain. That was the final blow. Men would lose their pride in themselves and wouldn't be able to face their children or sleep with their wives."

The story of love set against a backdrop of struggle has been a recognisable trait in Bono's writing since songs like "New Year's Day" and "Two Hearts Beat As One." Less talked about are the unashamedly sexual images that often permeate U2's songwords.

"Rock 'n' roll is obsessed with sex in the back seat of a Chevrolet," offers Bono. "Now, I'm sure sex in the back seat of a Chevrolet is pretty good for those involved, but I'm more interested in writing about relationships past that point. I'm interested in the mental conflict of a relationship."

A human problem on their own doorstep, the heroin epidemic in Dublin, is the subject of "Running to Stand Still." A poignant lament, with musical echoes of Lou Reed's "Berlin" and Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska," it is -- like "Red Hill Mining Town" -- written in the third person.

Other songs on the record are of a more directly personal nature. "One Tree Hill" commemorates Greg Carroll, a member of the U2 road crew who died tragically in a motorcycle accident last year.

For a band of such immense international standing, U2 are still refreshingly idealistic. They are remarkably free of the cynicism that riddles so much rock music. Bono -- some might say naively -- still believes in the power of music to act as a catalyst for social change.

He views Live Aid and Artists United Against Apartheid as examples of pop's potential in that respect, and he was, unsurprisingly, heavily involved in both projects.

As a consequence of Live Aid, he and his wife Alison also spent six weeks as helping hands in a camp in Ethiopia, cleaning up and helping to educate people on health and hygiene through a series of songs and short plays. His conclusion on returning was that he had gained from Africa far more than he had given.

And yet he still sees Band Aid and Live Aid as watershed projects in '80s pop, ones that still have important ramifications for U2.

"For Bob Geldof, the sight of little bits of black plastic actually saving lives was something of a shock. He had always thought of pop music as something wonderful in itself, but nothing more. I wasn't quite as taken aback by the success of it all. The '60s music that inspired me eventually helped to stop the Vietnam War, and there is no reason why contemporary music cannot have a similar importance.

"I've always believed that music could help to change things, not in any melodramatic way, but certainly as part of a movement of positive protest. There are new problems and we need new solutions."

And a restless desire continues to burn:

"But I still haven't found what I'm looking for..."

© NME, 1987.