"[T]he lyrics aren't literature; they are only part of the story."
Timeless, Too: The Joshua Tree Videos
March 09, 2017
The word “timeless” is often mentioned when reflecting on U2’s The Joshua Tree. It doesn’t sound like anything else from that era. It only sounds dated within the context of U2’s career as songwriters. It is part of a U2 era, but not part of a larger musical era. Even at 30, it doesn’t really sound like classic rock. It sounds like it could have been recorded 10 years ago or even yesterday. Not many albums from 1987 can make that same claim.
Surprisingly, with perhaps one exception, the videos from The Joshua Tree have also held up nicely over time. Until this album, U2 had never made much of an impact with their videos. They signed their first record deal at around the same time MTV became a reality, so videos were something that had to be figured out and second-guessed. The safest idea for any band was to make a simple performance video with, perhaps, some funky shadow or mirror effects. U2 stuck mostly to that kind of idea for their first few years (“I Will Follow,” “Gloria,” “Pride”). Here, with surprisingly few missteps, U2 figured out that the video can be as much a statement as a song -- and without being heavy-handed, overly simplistic or literal.
With Or Without You
A straight-up performance video made marketing sense for the album’s first single and, as such, this one is very good. It is also a mix of two different videos, one by Matt Mahurin and one by Meiert Avis. Mahurin’s video was shot in black-and-white and made it hard to see the band. Avis shot the color portion and the two have been merged together quite effectively. Bono’s brooding intensity is never overdone and Avis keeps his shots nice and fluid to contrast with Mahurin’s grainy flashiness (There was also the problem of nudity in Mahurin’s version, which would have barred it from MTV.) In the end, it was the right move to bring the band out of the darkness and have a video where they can be seen as performers. It’s a curious choice, though, to bring Larry out from behind the drum kit at the start. Perhaps executives at MTV thought he was too good-looking to stick in the background. Also, a fun bit of trivia, that’s Morleigh Steinberg as the girl. She would later be the belly dancer on the Zoo TV tour and go on to marry The Edge. They never met during this video and would not actually meet for another few years. Mahurin’s version never got much play and, until the release of the deluxe 25th anniversary box set for The Joshua Tree, had only been released through the U2 Video Sampler, which is a hard-to-find VHS collector’s item.
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
There are so many ways this could have gone wrong. Remember, this is 1987 and sincerity is still the key to winning over the public. Here is a song that could have seen Bono in all sorts of literal traps. What if they put him in a church? A bar? The desert? Brooding and full of despair? But passionate! Thankfully, the band decided to just film a video in Las Vegas one night after their first-ever show in that town. There is something so wonderfully poetic about their smiles as they wander around Fremont Street singing what we know is really a gospel song. Although they have been together for 10 years at this point, it is clear that rock ‘n’ roll has kept them young and there is much to be discovered in music and in life. There is joy in the search for transcendence, and Barry Devlin’s video effortlessly captures that effortlessly. Could they have made this same kind of video 10 years later when they were in Vegas during the PopMart tour? I doubt it. Not because of the stress of that time, but because this is a song of innocence.
Where The Streets Have No Name
The easiest thing to do here would be to make a video of U2 wandering the desert. Helicopter shots, wide vistas, Bono acting as a surrogate for Harry Dean Stanton’s character in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas. Ideas that are too obvious to be interesting. Instead, director Meiert Avis and the band hatched a plan to perform a mini concert on the roof of a liquor store in downtown Los Angeles The band performed many songs that day, but the purpose of the event was to make a video for “Streets,” which they performed a few times.
Of course, the concert-on-a-roof concept is not a new one. Comparisons to The Beatles’ similar stunt during the Let It Be sessions are inevitable. But the Fab Four’s performance carries with it a certain sadness; it would be the last time they would ever perform together. For U2, the occasion was celebratory and rather throw-away; simply an attempt to make a spontaneous music video to air on MTV in support of their most confident album yet. Spontaneity had been in short supply for the music video industry at a time when music videos had formulas that guaranteed success in terms of album sales. U2’s endgame was different. They didn’t go before the cameras in an effort to show how good they looked as rock stars. Here, the name U2 meant “You, the audience, are part of this, too.” Much like what Bono did during Live Aid, the band successfully bridged the gap between band and spectator, even if they were a few stories up. Bono made everyone who showed up feel welcome and important to this risky process. The result is a thrilling bit of drama as the police close in and shut it down, but not before the crew can get in one more take of the song. Okay, so it didn’t happen quite the way it’s depicted in the final cut, but isn’t it more fun to pretend it did?
In God’s Country
This video was part of Devlin’s documentary Outside It’s America, which followed U2 through the Southwest during the Joshua Tree tour. This a Bono-only video, but the images Devlin selected to accompany the song perfectly illustrate its meaning. We see images of an industrial revolution as well as the results of America’s attacks on foreign land during World War II. The film uses footage from, among other things, John Huston’s wartime propaganda film The Battle Of San Pietro. Appropriately enough, the video uses the clips of the kids after their homes had been destroyed. Huston’s film was edited in a way that shows the kids smiling while the narrator suggests that today is a new day and the smiles on their faces indicate that everything will be fine. This subtle dig at Reagan-era politics fits the song perfectly as it explores the dualities that exist within the American landscape, which was among the central themes of The Joshua Tree.
Another video shot for Devlin’s Outside It’s America documentary and it’s never been seen anywhere else. This B-side video, if nothing else, is the perfect counterpoint to the painfully serious “Red Hill Mining Town.” It’s a fun, innocuous bit of fluff that shows the band members enjoying themselves in the desert towns of Arizona and in Vegas.
One Tree Hill
U2 released this bit of raw footage, an outtake from Phil Joanou’s Rattle And Hum film, officially on the Best Of 1980-1990 VHS video collection, but never anywhere else. It’s an odd choice for them to release something that still exists in this form (with a timecode at the bottom of the screen). Considering how careful they are with their output, one would expect this to stay in the vaults. But it’s a fine performance of the song, and here’s hoping more outtakes of this kind from the film will be officially released in, oh, I don’t know, 2018? For the 30th anniversary? Maybe? Please?
Red Hill Mining Town
If ever a U2 video was ripe for a parody by Weird Al Yankovic, it’s Neil Jordan’s misbegotten video that stayed buried for two decades until the band saw fit to release it as part of The Joshua Tree’s 20th anniversary. It opens earnestly enough with old black-and-white footage of miners before the song kicks in at the 00:47 mark. That’s when the opening shot reveals Bono singing broodingly to a canary, and it’s all downhill from there. The obvious visual metaphor of the birds in the cages is rather cringe-worthy and beneath the otherwise accomplished Jordan. The shots of Edge and Adam setting the birds free in slo-mo only makes it worse. This video just didn’t work; the band were right to keep it under lock and key for so long. It would not have helped their image at all the following year when they were accused of taking themselves too seriously.
Overall, the band had the right look for the American Southwest. Appearance may not seem important when talking about an album that has spawned countless essays and think pieces. But when celebrating an album’s timelessness, it is the simplest thing that could thwart the shelf life of a work of art. I don’t think Bono with a mullet or Adam with the bushy blond hair would have looked right in the desert landscapes of America. Jeans, T-shirts, leather jackets, cowboy boots and simple haircuts suited them just fine in 1987 and have helped keep the videos from aging. They capture the moment in time when U2 were just starting to figure out how to be a band. Gone were the big hair and storm clouds of their early videos. This is U2 feeling the sunlight on their faces.
(c) @U2/Souter, 2017