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Celebrity can magnify, but it can also trivialize. -- Bono

How The West Was Won (Part 1)

Uncut Magazine

In 1987, U2 released The Joshua Tree, an album that saw the band catapulted to the highest level of success and finally conquering America. But there was a price to pay for their accomplishments...

So you finally managed to disgust even yourself. You pack up the car and take off, away from the city. Away from friends and family. Away from the monstrous jerk you see when you look in the mirror. It's July 1985. The footage from Live Aid is still fresh in your mind, a tide of nausea rising in your throat. All that messianic crap you promised you would not give in to again, moving through the crowd with your healing hands. With millions dying in Africa! For once, you have to agree with your sternest critics. That Bono from U2. What a prick.

You had to get out of Dublin, from people who know you too well, from yourself. You got in the car and drove to Ireland's rural heartland. A brief holiday from being rock's self-appointed head prefect, defender of the faith, keeper of the flame. Jesus, a conscience can sometimes be a pest. Away from the city, and not for the first time, you seriously consider quitting the band. The pointlessness of it all is eating you up. The importance of being over-earnest. The absurdity. The contradictions. The constant criticism. Some of it from yourself.

Then you meet a middle-aged man in County Wexford, a sculptor. He's working on a nude bronze inspired by your Live Aid antics. It's called The Leap. He's no rock 'n' roll expert but he understands instictively what you were reaching for. A connection. A spark. Shaking awake the sleeping conscience of a generation. You walk a little taller after that conversation. Maybe you won't quit U2 after all.

Instead, maybe you'll take the messianic mantle that Live Aid thrust upon you and run with it. Turn history into music the way Dylan or Lennon or Hendrix did. Alchemise despair and doubt into a positive force for a change. After all, U2 will become virtually the only act to reap long-term career rewards from the all-star charity bash. But can a band in their mid-twenties really revive '60s rock radicalism in '80s rock clothes? Can they summon up the ghosts of Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin and Woody Guthrie to overturn the apathy of the conspicuous consumption generation? Can Reagan's America be toppled by the moral force of its buried cultural heritage?

A barmy, overreaching ambition. But if anyone can pull it off, it will take a uniquely innocent and ignorant and arrogant bastard like you. Even if it means two years of personal tragedy and public humiliation. Even if it brings death threats, drug busts and marital breakdowns. Even if you end up being photographed next to a giant f****** cactus dressed like Amish frontier settlers.

As you speed back towards Dublin, you can already hear the taunts. That Bono from U2. What a prick. You start to laugh, softly at first. Then with a loud, sobbing, deranged cackle.

Born from political, personal and spiritual turmoil, The Joshua Tree became one of the most uplifting and enduring rock touchstones of the last 20 years. It arrived in an era of Gorbachev and Glasnost, Thatcher and Reagan, property booms and share crashes. It is a record rooted emphatically in America and Americana. But it first began to take shape in the the stark biblical landscapes of Africa.

In September 1985, just weeks after Live Aid, Bono and his wife Ali spent a month in northern Ethiopia working on an educational project run by the charity World Vision. They kept a deliberately low profile, avoiding all publicity. Returning home, the singer later claimed, he experienced "culture shock" at the spiritual poverty of the rich Western nations. "They may have a physical desert, but we've got other kinds of desert," Bono told Rolling Stone in May 1987. "And that's what attracted me to the image of the desert as a symbol."

Initial sessions for the album began in November 1985, rolling on throughout 1986. Adam Clayton's house in Howth hosted the first meetings, then a rented mansion called Danesmoate in Rathfarnham, six miles outside Dublin, which Clayton would eventually buy. Several months were spent shaping rough ideas before the familiar U2 production team of Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno were summoned. Late in 1986, Steve Lillywhite parachuted in to polish off several mixes.

Lengthy recording and live commitments, Bono later admitted, began to strain his marriage. "I live with a very strong person, and she throws me out occasionally," he confessed to Rolling Stone. "I hardly saw my wife Ali for a year. It's almost impossible to be married and be in a band on the road." The Daily Star picked up on this theme in April 1987. "We have a very stormy relationship," Bono said. "Ali will not be worn like a brooch, she is very much her own worman. My life is a mess. I haven't been able to handle juggling my marriage with recording and touring."

Around this time, tabloid gossip stories began to link Bono with various women, including Clannad's Maire Brennan and former Lone Justice singer Maria McKee. Both shared a stage and performed duets with the U2 frontman, and Bono even jokingly called McKee "my second wife." But he fiercely denied his marriage was on the rocks.

"You tell the press that Ali is her own person and very smart and not some dolly girl and that she doesn't take any shit from me," he protested in Rolling Stone, "and they read into it marital breakdown. And I think, well, what sort of women are they married to?"

B.P. Fallon is a Dublin rock legend and DJ whose long history with U2 is covered on his website, www.bpfallon.com. "I think they just might have found the sonic tremolo of the underpants," Fallon says of the dark, brooding lust which haunts The Joshua Tree. "But I do emphasise that I know of no freelance mechanics going around with dipsticks. No third-leg boogie that was illegal."

Third-leg boogie aside, U2 had to weather a barrage of public attacks and tragic losses during 1986. In May, they were villified in Ireland for Self Aid, an all-star Dublin charity concert organised by the national TV station RTE. Modelled on Live Aid, the event also featured Van Morrison, Christy Moore, the last ever show by the Boomtown Rats and other Irish legends. As Self Aid was ostensibly designed to help the city's unemployed help themselves, an angry editorial and cover story in the listings magazine In Dublin took U2 to task for lending their high-minded principles to such a reactionary, Thatcherite enterprise. The headline said it all: "Rock Against the People."

During the televised show, in front of 30,000 people, a boiling-mad Bono replied with a sour jibe about "cheap Dublin magazines" to the tune of Elton John's "Candle in the Wind." John Waters, author of the offending editorial and now an Irish Times columnist, felt a perverse pang of pride as he watched from the safety of his front room.

"I can understand why they were angry," admits Waters. "Angry about being criticised, and I think secretly angry about being duped into it, but they couldn't really say that. It was a pretty hard-hitting article. But I think what was most devastating about it was that it was actually true."

At the after-show party, Bono shook hands with one of his In Dublin critics, Eamonn McCann. Waters took longer to make peace with U2, but he eventually wrote the finest book on the band so far, Race Of Angels. "In a strange way, it straightened out their politics very fast," Waters says of the Self Aid spat. "They became much more angry. If you saw Bono on stage that night, that anger was the first time they showed anything other than a charismatic kind of blandness and bonhomie."

U2 were still angry about Self Aid two years later. "Sure we f****** knew what it was when we went into it," the Edge told NME in 1988. "It was a f****** hare-brained scheme from the beginning." Larry Mullen Jr. added: "Talk to Christy Moore about why he did Self Aid. He's like the ultimate socialist who writes about the working class in his music all the time. He did it. See what answers you get from him."

In June, U2 took two weeks from their ongoing album sessions to criss-cross America on Amnesty International's 25th anniversary tour, A Conspiracy of Hope. The six-date jaunt raised more than $4 million and doubled Amnesty's U.S. membership. Alongside Sting, Peter Gabriel and others, U2 played a short set of old favourites and cover versions. In San Francisco, Bono met the Chilean artist Rene Castro, a former torture victim who would later paint stage designs for the Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum tours.

In the 1999 VH-1 show Classic Albums, Adam Clayton credits the Amnesty tour with adding a dash of blood and darkness to The Joshua Tree. This was not the idealised "Old West" but Ronald Reagan's shadow empire of military coups, Iran-Contra arms deals and CIA-backed death squads.

As with his Ethiopian mission after Live Aid, Bono followed up the Amnesty tour with visits to Nicaragua and El Salvador. The latter, he told NME in March 1987, was a hair-raising trip. "I was on my way to a village and the village was bombed and it scared the shit out of me. They were mortaring the village and there were fighters overhead...Troops opened fire above our heads, just flexing their muscles, and I literally felt sick. The idea that people at our concerts in America, their tax was paying for these instruments of torture was something I hadn't quite come to terms with."

In early July, tragedy hit U2 a lot closer to home. Greg Carroll, Bono's 26-year-old personal assistant and stage roadie, collided with a car on Dublin's Morehampton Road while riding the singer's Harley Davidson home. He died in hospital soon afterwards. The band were devastated. Bono, Ali, Larry and various U2 family members flew out for Carroll's traditional Maori funeral, a three-day affair in Wanganui, New Zealand.

"He was one of those guys you say is too good for this world," Bono told NME. "And he died doing me a favour. I don't know what to say. He further made 1986 the most paradoxical year of our lives. That's why the desert really attracted me as an image. That year was really a desert for us. It was a terrible time...death is a real cold shower...it's followed me around since I was a kid and I don't want to see any more of it."

When it arrived nine months later, The Joshua Tree was dedicated to Carroll, his spirit commemorated on the track "One Tree Hill." Such were the dark forces that would fuel U2's new musical vision, billed as a "gospel of heaven and hell."

As usual with U2, long discussion of the album's conceptual hinterland took place before a note was even recorded. Bono's twisted, love-hate feelings towards America became the prevailing spirit. As the Edge told Classic Albums, America's desert southwest became "a kind of location and a metaphor. At the time we were all interested in a lot of the American writers: Raymond Carver, the New Journalism, Norman Mailer...just the mood of those writers, they seemed to evoke so much poetry."

Add to that list Charles Bukowski, Walker Percy, Tennessee Williams, Robert Hayden, Sterling Brown, Jim House, plus various Native American poets and Deep South dirty-realists -- especially Flannery O'Connor, whose Wise Blood was recommended to U2 by Bruce Springsteen. The elemental power of these Southern chroniclers with their Bible-steeped language, as Bono told NME in 1987, proved "helpful when you want to convey just what a wasteland last year was politically, especially in America."

From the trickle of literature came a mighty river of words and sounds, blues and country, soul and gospel. For a former new wave band raised on the Year Zero ethic of punk, uncovering the vast reservoir of American rock 'n' soul was like discovering an overwhelming hoard of buried treasure. U2 had always joked that their record collections began in 1976, but the joke was wearing a little thin a decade later.

"They had a unique ignorance of rock 'n' roll which was probably unparalleled," says John Waters. "But they turned that into a virtue in many ways. They had an excitement about it, this curiosity, this wonder about rock 'n' roll, but they didn't know what it was. That's what The Joshua Tree was about."

Bono heard his first John Lee Hooker record in 1985, jamming with the Rolling Stones and the J. Geils band in New York. Embarrassed at his ignorance of the vintage licks being traded, the young Irishman wrote his first blues number just hours later. Set in a South African jail, "Silver and Gold" was recorded for the anti-apartheid Sun City album with Keith Woods and Ron Wood. A live version later surfaced on U2's 1988 double album Rattle and Hum, with Bono commanding Edge to "play the blues." Ouch. Not their finest hour, but this song helped ignite the rootsy-bluesy fuse that led inexorably to The Joshua Tree.

"Bono had fairly strong ideas," the Edge told Rolling Stone. "Lyrically, he wanted to follow the blues and get into America. I'd written off white blues in 1978. I was desperately trying to figure out ways to play without using the white blues. I wanted to push the European atmospherics. But listening to Robert Johnson and other early blues, I could see what was there. I warmed to the idea."

According to B.P. Fallon, "It was natural to got back to the American sources. Just like the Beatles, the Stones, Them, etc. had done. Just like the Sex Pistols with the Stooges' 'No Fun.' You can only drink from the well by lowering the bucket."

In the Rattle and Hum spin-off book, Bono insists, "As an Irishman I have a right to be plugged into American music. A lot of it came from Ireland and crossed the Atlantic in the pockets and memories of immigrants." In the same book, Bono claims America has "colonised our unconscious" via Hollywood, Coca-Cola, Harley Davidsons and a million other cultural exports." Growing up in Ireland, I was aware of America as a super-real place," he says. "When I got to America I found it was just as super-real as it was on TV. People were shooting each other dead on the streets and all that. There was the dream and the nightmare, side by side."

The desert and dual nature of America, half-promised land and half-purgatory, became key images behind the album> Indeed, the record's working titles were Desert Songs and The Two Americas right up until the photo shoot for the sleeve in December 1986.

But for a fiercely ambitious band who had toured America religiously for half a decade, often to warmer welcomes than in Britain or Ireland, U2's fascination with the Big Country also made commercial sense.

As manager Paul McGuinness explained in Classic Albums, The Joshua Tree came out of this great romance the band had with America. "We had spent most the the '80s in America, we used to tour America for four or five months a year, year after year. We loved America and we found it very liberating and the acceptance of U2's music in America was always gratifying."

When U2 later came to promote The Joshua Tree in America, they were careful not to ruffle any feathers. "We only get away with our criticisms of America because people know we love to be in America," Bono told Rolling Stone. "U2's attitude doesn't comme from a typical European eyes-down-the-nose look at American life...because what I feel is a mixture of love and anger, love and anger do not condescend. Miles Davis and Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix and the great bluesmen andthe gospel singers and those wide-open spaces and the great writers like Tennessee Williams and poets like Robert Hayden and Stirling Brown would not let me -- because America has given me much more than I could ever give it."

U2 began to assemble The Joshua Tree by sifting through tapes of soundcheck jams from their 1984-5 Unforgettable Fire tour, seeking fragments to polish and recycle. But Bono and the Edge also made a conscious decision to tighten up their songwriting in a more classic vein, bringing many more finished ideas to the studio than on any previous U2 album. All four band members would arrive at the sessions with sacks full of cassettes.

Over time, the songs began to take the form of mythical landscapes. High desert plains. Blasted prairies. Crumbling city walls. It was more like making a movie than a record. "We used to call it cinematic music," the Edge said in Classic Albums. "Music that actually brought you somewhere physical as opposed to an emotional place."

Adam Clayton agreed. "The album takes you somewhere," he told Rolling Stone. "It's like a journey. You start in the desert, come swooping down in Central America, running for your life. It takes me somewhere, and hopefully it does that for everyone else."

And swoop it does, out of Eno's ambient twilight, hitting the ground running with the scything, urgent, percussive call to arms of "Where the Streets Have No Name." Bono would later relate his fable-like lyrics to both Belfast and Ethiopia, but the lean and muscular tune began as a solo sketch on the Edge's four-track home studio. One problem: his opening starburst of sonorous, crystalline, criss-crossing guitars were composed in a different time signature to the rest of the song, requiring weeks of surgery that almost drove Eno to despair

"I have to say at the time I didn't appreciate the hours of thought that had gone into such an idea," Adam Clayton told Classic Albums. "It just seemed like a way of f****** the band up. We would spend interminable hours figuring out chord changes to get the two bits to join up, which is why it drove Brian mad."

According to U2 folklore, Eno had to be physically prevented from erasing the song entirely at one point. Not quite true, he told Classic Albums, but almost. "Probably half the time that whole album took was spent on that song," Eno recalled. "It was a nightmare of screwdriver work, you know? And my feeling was it would just be much better to start again -- I'm sure we would get there quicker if we just started again. So my idea was to stage an accident to erase the tape so we would just have to start again. But I never did."

In an interview with Daniel Lanois in August 2003, the producer told Uncut: "Brian thought it he could just erase the tapes we could stop working on it. I'm sure they would have just come up with another song. It's interesting, sometimes the songs that receive the most attention are ones that don't make it. You just hate to lose your investment. I'm not sure if Brian was right, but it did drive me a little bananas as well."

Ironically, considering "Where the Streets Have No Name" later became a satirical hi-NRG disco cover by the Pet Shop Boys, U2's studio version originally throbbed to a Depeche Mode-style electronic pulse. "It was kind of the beginnings of techno," Clayton claimed in Classic Albums.

The next track on The Joshua Tree is another shimmering single, "I Still Haven't Found What I'l Looking For," arguably U2's most glorious five minutes of ecstatic rapture. Built on a rock-steady strolling bass and drums lifted from another incomplete track, variously titled "Under the Weather" or "The Weather Girls," Bono's spiritually questing lyric drew on the rich language of the Psalms. But the song's radiant glow is rooted in Lanois and Eno's passion for gospel music.

"It was a very non-U2 thing to do at the time, to go up the street of gospel," Lanois explained to Classic Albums, "but I think it opened a door for them, allowing them to experiment with their territory. Bono's singing at the top of his range and there's something very compelling about somebody pushing themselves. It's like hearing Aretha Franklin."

Equally, Eno was pressing for songs that were "self-consciously spiritual to the point of being uncool," he told Classic Albums. "I thought 'uncool' was a very important idea then, because people were being very, very cool. And coolness is a certain kind of detachment from yourself, a sort of defensiveness actually, not exposing something because it's too easy to be shot down. And of course everyone was in the process of shooting U2 down. Critically, they were not favoured, although they had a big public following.

For the Edge, gospel provided a bridge between U2's broadly Christian faith and the secular yearning of rock 'n' roll. "Gospel music has strongly affected me," he told Rolling Stone in 1988. "It's exactly the opposite of what modern music is about. Modern music is hiding. It's all stance and image. Gospel to me is total abandon, and that is the beginning of soul."

"With or Without You" was the third track on The Joshua Tree, and another single. A nagging heartbeat of bass, a molten slick of the Edge's trademark "Infinite Guitar," and Bono's meditation on the sadomasochistic temptations of a love he both craves and fears. Scott Walker's ultra-bleak 1984 album Climate of Hunter was named as an influence, although live airings of the tune sometimes mutated into Joy Division's thematically similar "Love Will Tear Us Apart."

"With or Without You" is probably the most personal statement on The Joshua Tree. In Rolling Stone Bono called it a "twisted love song" about "the violence of love, ownership, possession, all these things." It became U2's first U.S. No. 1 single, peaking at No. 4 in the U.K.

Freewheeling country-blues waltz "Trip Through Your Wires" also addresses sex and temptation, only in a more joyful manner, with Bono blowing dirty harmonica as he celebrates an encounter with some mysterious, lascivious siren. And "In God's Country" is another widescreen landscape that became the fourth U.S. single from The Joshua Tree, gatecrashing the U.K. Top 50 on import. Bounding along on spangled riffs and snaking bass, it combines old-school U2 flag-waving with a call for "new dreams" to replace the divisive politics of Ronald Reagan.

"One Tree Hill," the memorial to Bono's friend and roadie Greg Carroll, is the most simple and moving tune on the album, an airy jangle of gliding keyboards and choppy, crisp chords. Although the lyric also alludes to Flannery O'Connor and murdered Chilean freedom fighter Victor Jara, the title refers to one of the volcanic hills overlooking Auckland, a monument Carroll showed the singer when U2 played New Zealand in 1984. On the album's inner sleeve, Carroll's funeral date, July 10, 1986, is printed alongside the lyric.

The cacophonous blues for "Bullet the Blue Sky" delivers the album's most overtly anti-American statement. The gnarly, shuddering backdrop is Led Zeppelin by way of Apocalypse Now, while Bono's testifying rant-rap summons up the terror of a Latin American village under a U.S. military assault of Biblical dimensions: "Outside is America."

This juggernaut of righteous anger was born from Bono's travels in Central America, returning home with the po-faced exhortation for the Edge to "put El Salvador through the amplifiers." In NME, Bono explained the song was about "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 rethink, and 'Bullet the Blue Sky' is a result of that."

As with all U2's work, any genuinely radical statement is carefully vague. According to Mark Chatterton's book U2: The Complete Encyclopaedia, an early version of "Bullet the Blue Sky" was even recorded with "the world" substituted for "America" to avoid causing offence. But the song took on a fearful emotional clout live, when it was prefaced by 43 seconds of Jimi Hendrix blowtorching "The Star Spangled Banner."

Similar sentiments inform the soft, lyrical outrage of the final track, "Mothers of the Disappeared." A hymn to the Chilean women robbed of their sons, fathers and brothers by the CIA-backed dictator Augusto Pinochet, it opens with a sinister keyboard hum from Brian Eno which Adam Clayton likens in Classic Albums to "sinister death squad darkness." A decade later, when U2 finally played Chile on their PopMart tour, dozens of the grieving mothers joined them on stage for the song.

Social problems closer to home are addressed in two of the album's more low-key tracks, "Running to Stand Still" and "Red Hill Mining Town," both based on true stories. The first glides through the mind of of a heroin-addicted couple in Ballymun high-rise blocks, the "seven towers" which overlooked Bono's childhood home in Dublin. As deceptively blissed-out as Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" it ends with a lone-wolf yodel of opiated defeat. "It's amazing how cheap smack did Dublin in," Bono told Rolling Stone. "And when some of my best friends started...it all got a bit messy."

"Red Hill Mining Town" is probably the album's weakest track, a stilted treatise on the dignity of labour and the emotional fall-out of the miners' strike which shook Thatcher's Britain in 1984 and 1985. The title alludes both to Peggy Seeger's folk standard "Springhill Mining Disaster" and the work of campaigning journalist Tony Martin, who wrote about a post-strike pit community he called Red Hill.

"I was interested in the miner's strike politically, but I wanted to write about it on a more personal level," Bono told NME in March 1987. "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."

"Red Hill Mining Town" was considered as a possible single, and in early 1987 film director Neil Jordan shot a video for the song in Wales, featuring U2 dressed as coal miners. They decided against a single release and quietly shelved the video.

The Joshua Tree hits its heart of darkness on "Exit," a barbed-wire murder ballad of sheared guitars, brooding silences and malevolent thoughts ripped from the mind of a maniac. Inspired by The Executioner's Song, Norman Mailer's celebrated book on serial killer Gary Gilmore, it marks the closest U2 have come yet to Nick Cave's glowering intensity.

"I can see where Nick Cave is coming from," Bono told NME. "There's a black beauty to his music, as William Burroughs put it. It's there in songs like 'Exit'... but ultimately, I do subscribe to the healing force of music. Woody Guthrie said that there's two types of music, one to live to and one to die to..."

These words would come back to haunt Bono four years later, in October 1991, when a disturbed young man called Robert Bardo told a Los Angeles court that "Exit" had driven him to murder actress Rebecca Schaeffer. A plea of insanity saved him from the death penalty. The "gospel of heaven and hell" indeed.In a bold marketing move, The Joshua Tree went on sale in several British and Irish cities just after midnight on March 9. The decision to withhold advance review copies had little effect on the record's rapturous reception - it became the fastest-selling album in history, topping the charts and hitting platinum sales of 300,000 within two days.

In Melody Maker, Simon Reynolds saluted the album's sonic adventurism: "U2 are massive but minimal, majestic but free of pomp or flourish. There are no solos, power chords or curlicues - just a weave of close-chording texture, an exhilarating shimmer."

In NME, Jon McCready hailed "a better and braver record than anything else that's likely to appear in 1987. It's the sound of people confronting their own ghosts in a country where they can if they wish become a dusty speck on the landscape. It's the sound of people still trying, still looking, when all the world wants of them is volume and fireworks. U2 have long since dispensed with such things."

Two weeks later, U2 flew to America to begin touring the record and rushed headlong into controversy. High above the Atlantic, they felt their first jolt of divine disapproval when lightning struck their airliner at 30,000 feet. "Don't worry," Bono told his anxious fellow traveller in first class, Sophia Loren. "It was only God taking your picture."

(Continued in Part 2)