@U2 Home Page - U2 News, Lyrics, Tour Dates & more       https://www.atu2.com
[Skip to Content]
I quite like not having people who I don't know looking right into my eyes, as if they might find something out about me. -- Bono

The secret history of 'The Joshua Tree' (part 2)

Hot Press
[continued from part one]

With or Without You

The first single to be taken from the album, Bill Graham described "With or Without You" both as a "masterful pop song" and U2's "first real adult love song."

But for a song that is now considered a classic of its type, its origins were initially unpromising, as Lanois testifies.

"It started out with this Yamaha beat box we had at the time," he says. "It was really meant to be a guide and we got the nicest sound out of it that we could. And then Adam put on his bass, which was a kind of short-scale Ibanez bass that Eno always wanted but Adam wouldn't give him (laughs). It's an eight-note thing which happened to really connect with that rhythm, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. And then without having a lot of other instruments occupying the mid-range, Edge had just gotten the Infinite sustain and he plugged it in and suddenly it went whoooooo. He was kind of testing the instrument. He was in the control room, and I said, 'That sounded pretty cool,' so we listened back and I said, 'Jesus it's better than I thought.' It was like, 'Okay, let's go' and it was two takes right away."

Lending the song that distinctive guitar texture, the now infamous Infinite guitar was built by a Canadian friend of Daniel Lanois. "It's a normal six-string guitar but he turned the back pickup into a speaker," he explains. "It's a genius thing; you create a feed-back loop. Since then, of course, people have started mass-manufacturing them, but back then it was unexplored territory."

And as Lanois rightly points out, like most songs in the U2 canon, it doesn't have a chorus -- not in the traditional sense. "It has tension and builds like one of those great Roy Orbison songs, where every section is unique and never repeats. I like that kind of sophistication to be operating, out of step with the usual verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus. I think the moral of the story here is, you've got beautiful bottom-end on that [song] and then very beautiful top end with the Infinite sustain, leaving the mid-range open for Bono. So it's a little bit of genius in terms of clarity. It's kind of hymnal."

And so sonically unusual that the band's manager Paul McGuinness didn't think it was suitable single material and initially resisted releasing it. However, Gavin Friday managed to convince both him and the band that that it was a "certain No. 1." He was right. "With or Without You" became U2's first ever U.S. No. 1 single, also reaching No. 4 in the U.K., their second highest position at that point ("Pride in the Name of Love" had reached No. 3 in September '84).

Bullet the Blue Sky

The hardest, heaviest song on The Joshua Tree and one of the angriest of all U2's songs, "Bullet the Blue Sky" put paid to any notion that U2 had gone soft. The lyrical idea came from Bono's Amnesty-sponsored visit to the Central American countries El Salvador and Nicaragua, where he witnessed poverty and struggle. The title was a reference to the government fighter planes screaming overhead on a mission to quell an uprising somewhere in the hills.

According to Steve Lillywhite, who was brought in to mix a number of songs on the album, there was at one point two different versions of "Bullet."

"Edge wanted to fly over from one version to another version," he says. "Nowadays you have samplers...it's easy to move things around. Back then it wasn't so easy. We had to take it off one tape put it on the half-inch tape recorder and manually match the tempos. 'Bullet the Blue Sky' was never all played at the same time; it was a real mish-mash of two things."

Lanois: "That came out of a jam, a long twenty-minute jam and then we found the sweet spot. I remember really being dedicated to that piece of music and spending a long time on edits and building an arrangement for a song that was never a song, that was only ever a jam. It was one of those songs that was born partially by surgery -- the editing of the structure was a really big part of it.

"The Edge had these great dive-bombs [descending guitar sounds] on it and there was a great section where Larry was looking really good. As I recall, Flood [the engineer] went to Windmill Lane where they had access to a big warehouse next door and we built a PA in there and we put Larry's drums through the PA and re-miked it. It was a really elaborate kind of rock and roll chamber. Flood was really dedicated to getting that to sound as good as any rock record.

"Once we had it laid out then Bono was able to come up with his lyrics. Obviously, he was fascinated with the expansion of the American empire and what all empires do is to protect their business interests. I think it was Nicaragua at the time: 'Let's keep the peasants in the hills and if there's any uprising lets roll over them with a steam roller.' The horror of that really touched Bono."

Running to Stand Still

Possibly prompted by the death earlier in the year of Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott through drug abuse, "Running to Stand Still" was the third U2 song to deal directly with the subject of drugs and their destructive effect ("Bad" and "Wire" from The Unforgettable Fire being the others). But it was also undoubtedly inspired by the rapid growth in drug abuse they'd encountered in their hometown. By the mid-1980s parts of Dublin had become ravaged by cheap heroin. Some of U2's old friends had even fallen victim to the drug. The line, "I can see seven towers and only one way out," was a direct reference to the 1960s tower-blocks of the Ballymun council estate, near to where Bono had grown up. The area was a notorious heroin blackspot at the time the song was written. Most of the towers have now been demolished in a massive government rejuvenation scheme.

Both sonically and lyrically, "Running to Stand Still" is inspired by Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" and like "Bad" it would, in time, prove to be an intensely powerful live song.

Lanois played what he called his "scrape guitar" on the track. "It's one of those sounds you hide in the background and it offers a colour, it doesn't draw attention to itself as a guitar," he says. "It's one of those songs where people were gathered around in a huddle. Bono had the words written; this was a nice opportunity to get something live. I remember that tender moment, me playing that scrape guitar, Larry on the tom-tom. There was just a wonderful communication happening in the room at that time. I think it's what people feel on that record, there was really a presence of performance."

Red Hill Mining Town

Written against the backdrop of the hugely divisive miners strike in Britain in the mid 1980s, the song is not considered to be one of the album's finest, with Bill Graham describing it as "cluttered and literal, the least mysterious and open-ended." Rather than try to capture the feelings of the protagonists on both sides of the dispute Bono tried to personalise the song, bringing it down to the level of a relationship between a miner and his wife. However his efforts at getting into the hearts and minds of those affected by the strike didn't always go down well. "People beat me with a stick for that," he later told Hot Press. "But what I'm interested in is seeing in the newspaper or the television that another thousand people have lost their jobs. Now what you don't read about is that those people go home and they have families and they're trying to bring up children." Curiously, the song was once considered for a single release; a video was shot by acclaimed Irish film director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, Breakfast On Pluto) but apparently the band weren't happy with the results and the video and plans for a single release were shelved. The song also has the unique distinction of being the only track on The Joshua Tree never to have been performed live by U2.

In God's Country

Seen by many to be a companion piece to "Where the Streets Have No Name," the shortest song on the album (clocking in at just under three minutes -- almost half the length of "Streets) "In God's Country" brought the band back to more familiar territory. A sweeping, high-octane, headlong rush of sounds with Edge's chugging guitar and plucking harmonics predominating, the song's brevity undoubtedly played in its favour, lending it a sense of urgency. The title was a direct reference to America's strong religious tradition -- though Bono's reference to "crooked crosses" might be to dodgy TV evangelists in the U.S.

"'In God's Country' has a great high-speed feeling about it," says Daniel Lanois. "I forget where we cut the basics for that one. It was probably at Danesmoate but I think it was finished vocally back at Edge's house."

"In God's Country" was released as a U.S.-only single in December 1987, the last single to be taken from the album, reaching number 44. It did almost as well in the U.K. given that it was available as an import-only purchase, reaching number 48.

Trip Through Your Wires

The song which made its debut on the RT show TV Gaga early in 1986 was clearly inspired by the then emerging raggle taggle/roots movement made popular by outfits such as the Waterboys and Hothouse Flowers, who themselves were steeped in mid-period Dylan. In its original incarnation, "Trip Through Your Wires" had a loose, busky, almost throwaway feel. But the version that made the cut for The Joshua Tree was more studied and controlled. In his book Into the Heart, Niall Stokes describes it as, "a possible paean to the contradictory charms of America personified as a woman."

"I really like that one, though it probably has less of a melody than the other songs on the album," Lanois remembers. "I think most of that was done at Edge's house."

One Tree Hill

Inspired by the death of Greg Carroll, Bono's personal assistant and roadie, "One Tree Hill" is arguably the most poignant, emotionally-charged song U2 have ever recorded.

Sonically, "One Tree Hill" is the least instrumentally adorned song on the album, resplendent in a feeling of space and openness. Encouraged by the supple mid-tempo rhythm from Larry and Adam, the key signature is Edge's African-tinged, highlife guitar motif which runs through the song like a river.

Edge explained to John Waters how he stumbled across this sound: "We were jamming with Brian [Eno]. He was playing keyboards, I was playing guitar...we just got this groove going, and this part began to come through. It's almost highlife, although it's not African at all... the sound was for me at that time a very elaborate one. I would never have dreamt of using a sound like that before then, but it just felt right, and I went with it."


Like "Bullet the Blue Sky," "Exit" is angry and discordant, a murder ballad of sorts, written by Bono after he had read Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song, an account of the life of convicted killer Gary Gilmore (brother of Rolling Stone writer Mikal Gilmore), who was executed in 1977.

"I don't even know what the act is, in that song," Bono told Hot Press. "Some see it as murder, others suicide -- and I don't mind. But the rhythm of the words is nearly as important in conveying the state of mind."

With a bizarre and astonishing similarity to the Charles Manson "Helter Skelter" saga of two decades earlier, a man named Robert Bardo claimed in a Los Angeles court in 1991 that "Exit" had inspired him to murder a young actress, Rebecca Schaeffer. The twenty-one year old Schaeffer, who had appeared briefly in Woody Allen's Radio Days, was shot by Bardo, a paranoid schizophrenic, in April 1989 after he arrived at her apartment with a gun. It later transpired that he had become obsessed with the actress and had been writing to her for several years. With even more sinister shades of John Lennon's murder, she had apparently signed an autograph for him twenty minutes earlier. After he shot her he ran onto a freeway in an apparent suicide attempt, but was caught and arrested. His claim about the effect of "Exit" on his state-of-mind was never pursued, as he pleaded insanity and received a life sentence. One result of Schaeffer's murder was the classification of stalking as a felony in California.

Mothers of the Disappeared

The closing song on The Joshua Tree grew out of the band's close association with Amnesty International and their participation in the Conspiracy Of Hope tour during the summer of 1986. Bono wrote it following his visit to Central America later that year. He was particularly moved by the plight of the hundreds of opponents of regimes in several countries throughout the '70s and '80s who had seemingly disappeared without trace. An organisation, Mothers of the Disappeared, had emerged to highlight this injustice and Bono responded by honouring their cause with a song.

One of the more experimental songs on the album, Eno came up with a sampled drum-loop fashioned by utilising a piano as a percussive instrument. But the key sonic element of the recording is the drone-like texture running through it, evoking an abstract sense of evil and dread.

Though it didn't make it onto the album, one of the best-known songs to have emerged from The Joshua Tree sessions was "Sweetest Thing" -- one of U2's most pop-oriented songs. The original version appeared on the B-side to "Where the Streets Have No Name" and much later became a hit single when it was rescued, re-mixed and embellished for The Best of 1980-1990 compilation. It's tempting to speculate that, had it been included on the arguably weaker side of the album in place of say, "Trip Through Your Wires" or "Exit," The Joshua Tree would have been an even stronger album than it was.

"The fact is we never finished it at that time," reveals Lanois. "It always had the, 'oh-oh- oh, the sweet-est thing' part and that beat. But it was much later when Bono added the 'oh-la-la' section. There's always that slightly uncomfortable part of the record-making [process] where something that holds so much promise is not finished and you just have to accept that and move onto something that is more finished. We always cut more than we need for every U2 record -- God knows there's days of jamming and recordings, lovely things actually that are not fully baked cakes, but they always spill into the next album. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb had things that we never finished on All That You Can't Leave Behind and there were left-overs from The Joshua Tree that made it onto Achtung Baby. We never set out to occupy a certain time-slot. In the end you want to put your best foot forward."

The Joshua Tree was released in Britain and Ireland on March 9, 1987. In a clever marketing tactic, that hadn't been overused at the time, it was made available in some record shops in Britain and Ireland at midnight. The fans responded in droves with hundreds queuing out in the cold to get their hands on the hugely anticipated new album.

The effect was almost instant -- within two weeks of its release The Joshua Tree hit Number One in the U.S., Britain and twenty-one other countries worldwide. Within months of its release U2 made the cover of Time magazine with the headline "U2 - ROCK'S HOTTEST TICKET," confirming their new-found status in the premier league of rock acts. The reviews for The Joshua Tree were universally ecstatic and in U2's case unprecedented.

In Hot Press, Bill Graham waxed even more lyrical than usual in his extended review: "The Joshua Tree rescues rock from its decay, bravely and unashamedly basing itself in the mainstream before very cleverly lifting off into several higher dimensions," he wrote. "...with its skill, and the diversity of issues it touches, one thing is absolutely clear: U2 can no longer be patronised with faint and glib praise. They must be taken very seriously indeed after this revaluation of rock."

Steve Lillywhite is under no illusions as to what made it popular with a mainstream audience. "I think what made The Joshua Tree the big seller that it was, was the fact that they had the radio songs, the hits, and it was all stuff that they could play live."

Lanois' reputation also soared into the stratosphere in the wake of his production triumph on Joshua Tree. By now considered one of the most important producers to have emerged in the 1980s, he went on to midwife hugely acclaimed albums for Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, The Neville Brothers and many others. He has maintained his connection with U2, working on their most recent albums All That You Can't Leave Behind and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.

Asked how he feels about The Joshua Tree over twenty years later, he pauses to gather his thoughts before elaborating.

"Well, I've been hurt more on other records than I was on that record," he says. "You know where you actually take a kicking, as I did when I made Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind. I certainly felt that at every stage of The Joshua Tree there were no major personal disappointments. I like the sound of the early U2 records that we made. It's the sound of commitment.

"Modern day record production -- because people have access to so many sounds -- has kind of fallen into the hands of stylists. 'Let's have that little beat and this little texture and you come up with them in, like, minutes -- that should work with this, that'll be nice here and let's hang that over there.' And it makes a very nice first impression, like, 'Jeez we didn't have to do any work and we've got that big, symphonic U2 sound that they got in the 1980s.' But what you don't get is that ramp-up of dedication to get to that place.

"It'd be like if you buy a barren piece of property and you push a button and end up with a full orchard. Consequently, you end up with instant gratification, but you may not have a connection with it, it might actually not belong to you, at all. You can employ a stylist for a photo-shoot but I don't think you should employ one for the making of a record. Those U2 records, they have big ramp-ups, they're filled with philosophies. And we got to those places because we believed in an idea and not because we liked someone else's idea."

© Hot Press, 2007.