"I find someone like [James] Joyce quite rock 'n' roll, because he was bending and messing with words."
Column: off the record ..., vol.17-757
March 08, 2017
Why does The Joshua Tree matter three decades on?
I have been wrestling with that question since U2 announced on Christmas Day that there would be special shows to commemorate the album. I’ve been having lively conversations with many on this very topic. It’s not merely an anniversary of a work that many have deemed U2’s finest, nor is it an opportunity to “glorify the past until the future dries up.” The Joshua Tree was both of its time and ahead of its time in ways that only now we are realizing. It’s also an album that demands the listener to be smack dab in the middle of the contradiction, which is where U2 tend to want to be themselves.
Culturally, The Joshua Tree defined a generation when it was released in 1987. U2’s audience grew at a time when empathetic support of social justice and human rights causes was part of the culture. The role music played in bringing attention to the famine in Africa, issues of American farmers, and the plight of prisoners of conscience was front-and-center in the mid '80s. Events like Live Aid, Farm Aid and Amnesty International’s Conspiracy of Hope tour were televised and deemed successful in message outreach. In 1986, there was Artists United Against Apartheid’s Sun City album, which received attention in the music media and on MTV. U2 also performed at Self Aid to raise awareness of the unemployment in Ireland. U2’s collective and individual involvement in these charity projects reinforced the values the band held, as well as attracted a fan base that was like-minded. Generation X embraced this album, which may factor into why it ranks at No. 3 on Rolling Stone’s 100 Best Albums of the 1980s list behind The Clash’s London Calling and Purple Rain from Prince and the Revolution.
Looking at the influences that went into The Joshua Tree, the overarching theme would indicate this album came from an expanded world view. Not only did the band members draw from personal experiences, but the members were also exploring the works of Flannery O’Conner, Truman Capote, Sam Shepard, Raymond Carver, Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Tennessee Williams, Langston Hughes, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Bukowski and Wim Wenders (just to name a few). With such a robust palette of inspiration, it is no surprise The Joshua Tree’s message felt universal. Here was a mature album that focused on the trinity of geopolitical, spiritual and personal written by men in their mid-20s who put their hearts on their sleeves at a time when doing so was embraced.
Band members have pointed out that The Joshua Tree appears to have come full-circle with a resonance that didn’t exist a few years ago, which is why this album is an important one to revisit. While the comparisons of Reagan/Thatcher and America First/Brexit, the UK miners’ strike in 1980s and the deterioration of the rust belt in the US today and others may have differing nuances, the same themes hold true across the geopolitical, spiritual and personal trinity. However, does this album matter like it did in 1987? Will it energize a generation to mobilize and become involved in the matters this album brought to light in a full-circle way?
I’m not certain it will impact millennials in the same way it did their parents; however it does point out that history has a nasty way of repeating itself unless you can learn from it. Perhaps The Joshua Tree can serve as a cautionary tale that the fight for social justice and human rights is never truly over, and to not make the same mistakes your parents made. In that way, perhaps The Joshua Tree was ahead of its time. Written by young men just growing into maturity, now revisited by men who have fully matured, The Joshua Tree now challenges the notion of the more things change, the more they stay the same. Are we doomed to be stuck in this generational cycle?
As I mentioned in a previous OTR, The Edge said in Rolling Stone that the activist-protest thread needs to reconnect with this generation, and he’s hopeful that a new crop of musicians will reignite the flame that the artists of the '80s had to shed light to social justice issues. In the age of social media, it seems ancient to sit down and write a letter like we did in the '80s on behalf of Amnesty International. However, organizations like Global Citizen and ONE have made it very simple to add your voice to get involved. U2 has inspired many to change with the times, and perhaps linking 1987 with 2017 in this way could be the start of a new trend, especially given the current geopolitical state of affairs. If there was ever a time for engagement in issues, it is now.
One of my many conversations on this topic was with a student at the Berklee School Of Music in Boston. He said that he was born in the early '90s, so The Joshua Tree was always there and U2 was always the best rock band in the world. He doesn’t recall a time when they were a scrapping garage band fighting for its voice. He said that the album, while it’s a classic, doesn’t have the cultural significance for his generation as it did the previous one. He said that U2’s your parents’ band, and they’re cool and all, but they aren’t the tastemakers they once were. His perspective helped me understand why some aren't as enthusiastic about the significance of this album coming full-circle because they didn't experience what it was like in 1987.
Rolling Stone’s Andy Greene said something similar regarding U2’s ability to have new hits on the radio in the @U2 podcast (around the 40:00 mark). For The Joshua Tree, songs from the album are already played on the radio across many station formats, as well as in most shopping center in-store music channels. It’s become so commonplace that there’s a risk the impact of the message might get lost. There’s nothing worse than being in aisle 8 at the grocery store and hearing “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and thinking to yourself, “You’re right – I still haven’t found the ketchup.”
Nonetheless, with 25 million copies sold, The Joshua Tree has certainly shown it’s an album that still resonates. I hope that revisiting it will reestablish the album as one that matters for the current generation. This isn’t your parents’ music, rather it’s an album that continues to hold a mirror up to society and challenges it to acknowledge social justice and human rights, the ills of trickle-down economics, and the risks we all take in the hopes of finding something better. Perhaps it matters more now than ever.
I have a confession to make. I finally populated my profile on @U2 Tours years after we’ve had it available on the site. Life gets in the way sometimes. I realized that despite hearing over 1,400 songs live across the many concerts I’ve been to, I have yet to witness any song from side B of The Joshua Tree. Sure, I’ve heard bootlegs and saw Rattle And Hum, but it’s different to have done it in person.
That being said, I don’t think any version of “Mothers Of The Disappeared” will top the one from Santiago in 1998. I hope the stadium sings the refrain “el pueblo vencerá.” I know I’ll be singing it in Vancouver.
As long as we’re looking back at The Joshua Tree, RTE’s Today Tonight program with Pat Kenny’s reporting from the Boston area in 1987 is well worth revisiting. You’ll find that the sentiments of the fans, topics of ticket touts and the band’s finances haven’t changed in 30 years. (Part 1 / Part 2)
The World In Action “Anthem For The 80s” U2 special is also a good stroll down memory lane.
And finally… with it being 30 years since The Joshua Tree was released, here’s what you would have seen had you walked into a record store to buy the album.
I hope you all find what you’re looking for this week. Long live the Dalton Brothers!
‘Til next time…
Any opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual author and do not necessarily represent the views of @U2 as a whole.