"Basically, I think we're all nutters, but somehow it works."
The secret history of 'The Joshua Tree' (part 1)
November 21, 2007
For many people it is U2's greatest album. Twenty years on, to mark it's re-release, Colm O'Hare talks to Daniel Lanois and reflects on the extraordinary background to a monumental album.
For U2, The Joshua Tree, their fifth studio album, released in the spring of 1987, came at precisely the right time. Though already hugely successful, particularly as a live act, there was a feeling abroad that they had not yet delivered the definitive, classic album. As Hot Press writer Bill Graham put it, U2 had been "surfing a wave" since their triumphant appearance at Live Aid: "Their Irish optimism, curiosity and adaptability gave them a special empathy with America... the chance for their breakthrough arrived just as their recording and songwriting skills reached maturity."
The result of a new-found musical and personal exploration, these eleven songs made up U2's strongest and most cohesive collection of songs to date. Epic in scope and unlimited in its ambition, the album and subsequent tour saw the quartet rise to the major league of international rock stardom. The Joshua Tree had it all: songs of love and loss such as "With or Without You" and "One Tree Hill"; politically inspired polemics like "Bullet the Blue Sky" and "Mothers of The Disappeared"; gospel songs of hope and faith like "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For."
The decision to return to The Unforgettable Fire production team of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois on The Joshua Tree was easy. The pair had forged strong relationships with the band during the making of the previous album.
With the production team in place, the next question was where the LP would be made. The first three U2 albums had all been recorded at Windmill Lane, a high-spec facility located in a narrow street by the River Liffey in Dublin's (then) dilapidated docklands. For The Unforgettable Fire they had taken the unusual decision to work at Slane Castle, the ancestral pile of Lord Henry Mountcharles, located thirty miles north of Dublin. Slane was a once-off, and there seemed to be little enthusiasm for returning to Windmill Lane; the band, and Bono in particular, had often stated their distaste for the "sterile" environment of recording studios.
Instead, they elected to record in Danesmoate, a two-story-over-basement Georgian mansion in Rathfarnham on the southside of the city in the foothills of the Dublin Mountains. The house, a local landmark, was originally known as Glen Southwell after the family who once lived there. According to historical records, it was originally laid out with rustic follies, a viewing tower, and it even had a small stream flowing through the grounds. Curiously, the first recorded evidence of anyone living there is in 1787 -- exactly two hundred years before The Joshua Tree was released -- when it was occupied by a Capt. William Southwell. Danesmoate was familiar territory to at least one band member -- the house was adjacent to St Columba's College, Adam Clayton's alma mater. So impressed was he with the house during the recording sessions that he later bought it for use as his own home and has since carried out extensive restoration work to the listed building.
For Lanois, Danesmoate offered the perfect location for getting down to some serious work. "It was a really nice set-up," he recalls. "It has this large living room/drawing room, whatever you want to call it -- a big rectangular room with a tall ceiling and wooden floors. It was loud, but it was really good loud, real dense, very musical. In my opinion it was the most rock and roll room of the lot. The castle [Slane] was a fun idea and everything but it was a massive place. Danesmoate sounded better than the castle. I think it was the best place of all the experiments we tried 'cause we've always tried different sorts of locations [to record]."
What impressed Lanois most about the 200-year-old building was its unique sonic properties, particularly when it came to, what he describes as, "the low mid-range."
"The low mid-range is where the music lives," he explains. "In my opinion The Joshua Tree is a great rock and roll record, partly because of the beauty of the low mid-range of that room."
Sessions began in earnest in early August 1986 with the usual U2 working method of a combination of sifting through tapes, re-visiting soundcheck jams, and trawling through Bono's overflowing lyric book, as well as live jamming sessions. However, extracting new material from the band wasn't always easy, as Eno later admitted on the Classic Albums TV special. "There were quite a few things in the bag, and that's exactly where they were," he recalled. "I remember everyone used to walk in with these enormous bags of cassette tapes, especially Edge, who somehow or other had managed to connect his to a black hole located somewhere around Dublin. Because once tapes were in that bag they never reappeared."
Lanois arrived at Danesmoate about two weeks after the initial sessions had begun.
"As I remember it, Eno and I had decided to go in at different times," he resumes. "Eno did a week or two and I went in and did a week or two. We did that on purpose. We said, 'You go in and do some work with them and then I'll go in and work with them and we'll see what we've got.' It's a nice thing I like to do with Brian, which is to do something impressive for the other man (laughs)."
Despite the serious business in hand, the atmosphere was anything but tense, and the start of The Joshua Tree sessions had something of a vaudeville touch.
"The band were already there, playing in the band-room when I arrived at the house," Lanois remembers. "I saw that there was a tray of tea about to be brought into the room, so I took the tray and walked in with the tea, just to get straight the fact that I was still in the trenches as the tea boy (laughs). I remember too that there was a bit of curiosity in the air because at the time I had a number one hit in America with Peter Gabriel (with the song 'Sledgehammer'). Edge looked over at me and said, 'Danny, you've got the number one hit in North America right now. You're going to be a rich man.' So humour is there right at the foundation of the sessions."
A makeshift control room to house the tape machines, mixing desk and the usual array of outboard equipment was created by taking down the large doors to an adjacent room and replacing them with a glass screen. But in keeping with the relaxed, "non-studio" ethos of the sessions, rather than call it a control room, it became known simply as the "lyric room."
"It meant we were able to jockey between the band room and what we called the 'lyric room'," Lanois explains. "At a certain point you've got to sit down and look at things like, 'How are the lyrics looking?' and stuff like, 'That couplet's great but you need another line here' etc. Danesmoate was really good for that, you didn't have to travel too far. As I recall, a lot of Edge's guitar overdubs would happen in the lyric room too. For example the guitar, the infinite sustained guitar part on 'With or Without You' was done in the lyric room."
Progress was swift at Danesmoate, and two of the key songs on the album, "With or Without You" and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," were nailed relatively early on in the sessions. "That was a big help," Lanois says. "Once you've got some strong songs under your belt you can relax a little bit and feel free to experiment."
Also on board was Flood, who occupied the engineer's chair during The Joshua Tree sessions. Initially recommended by Gavin Friday (he'd previously produced the Virgin Prunes), U2 had also been impressed by his work with Nick Cave.
Unusually, the songs were mixed as soon as they were recorded.
"It was house policy that we would do some really nice rough mixes along the way," says Lanois. "The way I feel philosophically, is that mixes done along the way are just as much candidates as mixes in the end. Taking snapshots along the way will be your friend in the end, because sometimes you go too far with something and then you think, 'Oh wait a minute, a couple of steps back, that was it!'."
Not long after work began on The Joshua Tree, a distinguished visitor arrived at Danesmoate. Robbie Robertson, the former guitarist and chief songwriter with The Band had come to Dublin to work on his first solo album. Since leaving The Band, Robertson had devoted much of his time since to working in films, both as an actor in movies such as Carny, and on soundtracks to the likes of Martin Scorsese's Color of Money. He was now keen to establish a solo career, with fellow Canadian Lanois in the producer's chair.
Lanois: "I had started a record with Robbie but I had to leave because it was taking so long. I went to work in Europe, first with Peter Gabriel and then with U2. I felt bad for Robbie that his record wasn't finished. So I said to him one day, 'Why don't you get out of Los Angeles, come out here and just visit for a couple of days?'"
Robertson arrived in Dublin in the middle of Hurricane Charlie, which resulted in the worst floods to hit the city in living memory. "There were cars floating down the streets," he recalled in an interview with Hot Press, "...it was really frightening. Thank God these guys [U2] were up for some spontaneous combustion!"
Each member of U2, as well as Lanois, contributed to two tracks that would eventually appear on Robertson's album, "Testimony" and "Sweet Fire of Love." "It was all done in the band room," as Lanois remembers. "We just put him in the corner and we all played together and it happened. I think we did well to get two songs in that short time -- he was here for only about a week on the outside, with drinks at either end. You hope to maybe get one track and we got two. In my opinion, they're the best sounding ones on Robbie's record. The guys were so sweet and kind to him, they just opened the door and he was able to step into that world."
As the sessions at Danesmoate progressed, Lanois began to note that each of the four members of U2 had made considerable advances in terms of their skills as musicians. This, he says, accounted for a more productive environment, with far less time wasted in trying to hone and shape the new material.
"On The Unforgettable Fire they were still kind of junior musicians," he says. "Now they were better players and they had more knowledge. I was able to speak with Edge on a much more evolved level. You have to understand that when I came in to work with them on The Unforgettable Fire I was pretty much an educated musical mind. I don't mean this to sound like I'm bragging, but hey, Danny Lanois went to school you know, while those guys had learned from the streets (laughs).
"The things I was talking to Edge about on The Unforgettable Fire, he knew what I was talking about on The Joshua Tree. We were able to fine-tune a record-making system. We could write out arrangements, do bar counts and say things like, 'Now we'll do the two-bar intro rather than the four-bar' -- that meant something to them at that point, whereas before it was mysterious. So they were able to fully comprehend anything that I would come up with in terms of lingo."
As well as having better musical chops, Lanois says that he also detected a change in the personalities of each of the band members, who by now had hit their mid-twenties. "They were just starting to establish their lives," he says. "It was a transitional time for everyone, a really great time of idealism and optimism. It was all about, 'What could we do? What are Eno and Lanois going to contribute?' They were a bunch of kids really and that's what's nice, thinking about it now. You can never repeat that as time moves on. There was a great balance; and the dedication was one hundred percent. The decorators had not yet moved in yet and you know, the cars were not as plentiful and the houses in France weren't there. I'm not being critical of where things have gotten to now or anything -- it's just that when you talk about rock and roll, it's largely about rolling up your sleeves and being there and wanting the best out of everybody and that's what we had at the time."
The sessions progressed through the autumn and winter of '86, moving between Danesmoate and Melbeach, Edge's newly-refurbished house by the sea in leafy Monkstown in South Dublin. The large house overlooking Dublin Bay, which was once owned by the Findlaters, a well-known Dublin merchant family, also became a key recording location for The Joshua Tree. "That's where songs like 'Mothers of the Disappeared' and what ended up as 'Bullet the Blue Sky' were born," Lanois recalls. "That was less of a rock 'n' roll room but we made it work. I think there were a lot of headaches, isolating people and having to build baffles around the place. The more that I talk about it, probably the bulk of the record was done at Edge's house. Even though the Danesmoate sessions were the backbone of the tonality of the record -- we got a lot of the drums done in there."
According to Lanois, most of the mixing of the album was also done at Melbeach.
"If I remember correctly, Eno was not around much for the mixing, and I think Flood had to leave early as well, so Pat McCarthy came in. We were mixing at Melbeach on an AMEK 2500 desk and Steve Lillywhite was mixing back at Windmill on the SSL desk. Yeah, now I remember it -- we didn't have automation at Melbeach so that's why we needed three guys at the console - it was more like performance mixing."
While the album was being recorded, both Eno and Lanois pushed the band in the direction of older songs, particularly American roots music, for guidance and sonic inspiration.
Lanois: "We would always be referencing classics. Eno and I were always bringing in American records to listen to, and they weren't contemporary ones by any means. We would always go back to listening to really good 'feel' records, soul records and I think that's still to this day a great reference point for anybody. We were also referencing Morrissey and Johnny Marr -- and their band the Smiths, that was a big reference for us and My Bloody Valentine as I recall were another big influence. We were fans of that textural guitar work."
After the most intense and most productive period of recording in the history of U2, The Joshua Tree was finally completed early in the New Year 1987. By all accounts the final few weeks were frantic.
"It's always stuff like, 'Hey Eno's leaving in a week, we've got to use him up and put him on things that can make a difference'," says Lanois. "It's really down to scheduling at a certain point."
Lanois now says he clearly remembers the feeling of exhaustion among the band and the production team when the album was finally put to bed. "If I remember right, the only person who was left standing at the end is the Edge," he laughs. "Everyone else is sick, overwhelmed, being carried out on stretchers and people have quit. Edge is the only man left standing because he's the librarian in the band; he can actually still be level-headed after something like that. So he goes off and sequences the album on his own and sends it off for mastering."
The eleven songs that eventually made the cut for The Joshua Tree showcase a band at the height of their artistic powers. More than any other U2 album before or since, they capture a feeling and a mood perfectly in tune with the times -- and yet completely at odds with the prevailing musical zeitgeist. As Bill Graham wrote in 1996: "It's the first conclusive evidence that the best young live band of their era had graduated as masterful pop mimics in the studio. With The Joshua Tree, their recorded work finally catches up and even outstrips their live reputation."
"We approached arranging and producing each song like it was unique," Edge told Hot Press, "We just hoped the album would have a sonic cohesiveness based on the idea that we were playing it. There was definitely a strong direction but equally we were prepared to sacrifice some continuity to get the rewards of following each song to a conclusion. I hate comparisons but like the Beatles at their height, in terms of unusual production techniques, we wanted to do what was right for the song."
Where the Streets Have No Name
Structurally, the opening song on the album is complex, with tricky chord changes and unconventional time signatures. Not surprisingly, it was the one that caused the most grief in the arranging and recording process. "Oh yeah, I remember that one alright, that was the science project song," Lanois laughs. "I remember having this massive schoolhouse blackboard, as we call them. I was holding a pointer, like a college professor, walking the band through the chord changes like a fucking nerd. It was ridiculous."
The song is also the subject of one of the most enduring Joshua Tree myths: that Eno became so frustrated by the song's tricky gestation, he tried to erase it. Flood confirmed this on Classic Albums: "Pat [McCarthy, tape operator] had gone out of the room while they were working on 'Streets' to make a cup of tea, came back with the tea and Brian had all the tape machine ready to go into record. Pat had to drop the tea, run up and grab Brian physically and hold him back from doing this. So he was completely freaked out at the junior member of the team attacking the senior member of the team and saying, 'Maybe it's not a good idea Brian to wipe the entire song'."
For his part, Eno attempted to set the record straight. "That story has been told a lot of times, now I shall tell you the truth about it," he said. "That song was recorded so there was a version of it on tape. That version had quite a lot of problems. What we kept doing was spending hours and days and weeks, actually probably half the time that the whole album took was spent on that song, trying to fix up this version on tape. It was a nightmare of screwdriver work. My feeling was that it would be much better to start again. I'm sure we would get there quicker if we started again. It's more frightening to start again...my idea was to stage an accident to erase the tape so that we would have to start again. But I never did."
Released in September 1987 "Where the Streets Have No Name" was the third single to be taken from The Joshua Tree. It reached No. 4 in the U.K. and No. 13 in the U.S. The B-sides included the tracks "Silver and Gold," "Sweetest Thing" and (on the 12" single and CD single) "Race Against Time."
I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For
Regarded as one of the most fully-realised songs the band have ever written and certainly among the most enduring of all of U2's hit singles, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" is rooted in the gospel of the Staples Singers, the Swan Silvertones and The Mighty Clouds Of Joy.
The working title was actually the far more secular-sounding "Under the Weather," due mainly to the fact that the drum rhythms were taken from a previously-abandoned song called "The Weather Girls," which was rescued by Lanois.
"It was a very original beat from Larry," he explains. "We always look for those beats that would qualify as a signature for the song. And that certainly was one of those. It had this tom-tom thing that he does and nobody ever understands. And we just didn't want to let go of that beat, it was so unique. Edge wrote a chord sequence and he overdubbed the acoustic on top of the drums with a lot of power in the strumming. And we built on top of that trying a bunch of melodies. It just started sounding more like a soul song all the time."
The background vocals on the song consist of Edge, Lanois and Eno, their voices multi-tracked several times over. "That was the singing team, as it was for many other records since then, like 'Beautiful Day' for example", says Lanois. "We had a theory about it at the time which I think holds true today. And that is, you do your own background vocals, with the people in the room that are actually making the record. Even though if you compare us to the Pointer Sisters we might not hold up (laughs), we're actually connected with the project. You're not going to get that sound of, 'Oh they brought in some soul singers' if you know what I mean. Our hearts and souls are already there. If we sing it'll sound more real."
The single became U2's second U.S. No. 1, also hitting No. 6 on the U.K. singles chart. It came in third in the 1987 Rolling Stone Readers' Picks for Best Single and was nominated for two Grammies as Best Single of the Year and Best Record of the Year.
Lanois has a theory about "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" which he says puts it way ahead of its time. "Let's put it this way," he explains. "If we were doing that in 2006 we would be doing hip-hop. We didn't know what hip-hop was then but it's very much at that tempo. So the song might have been a premonitional moment about hip-hop."
[continued in part two]
© Hot Press, 2007.