"We formed bands at 15. We're not normal."
-- Gavin Friday, on himself and best friend Bono
Vintage 1987: The Joshua Tree
June 02, 2017
It’s time to uncork a 30-year-old vintage: The Joshua Tree. Replete with a robust body, resplendent with notes of yucca, The Joshua Tree is best paired with a trip down memory lane, an excellent high-fidelity system and a sweet set of headphones.
In 1987, no one could imagine the influence and reach The Joshua Tree would have globally. U2 offered a few thoughts about The Joshua Tree in issue 5 of their fan club magazine, Propaganda. Here are some excerpts from that early 1987 interview:
America -- the continent as opposed to the country. It has had quite an effect on me, and on my own life.
I think the feelings of last year are contained in the record, in as much as that I think people seem to have become a lot more politically aware over the past couple of years. People seem to realize that to not vote is the worst possible thing you can do, you've got to get involved in what's going on.
There isn't really an overall view of this album. Whereas with The Unforgettable Fire there was a real continuity between all the songs, this is slightly different. It's an album of songs, each song saying a different thing, touching areas that we haven't touched before. There's a lot more emotion, especially in the singing, that there hasn't been on any of the other records. It captures something that Bono has live, which we haven't done before.
Up to now our records have been a collection of things that were songs, and also things that were very definitely not songs -- experimental musical pieces, lyrically experimental as well as musically experimental. I think on this record we've really attempted to strip down the music so it really has that kind of trim, disciplined outline. I think we've managed to -- every track on the record has an identity of its own, but the record holds together as one. That's because they are songs rather than parts of one whole concept.
In that same Propaganda interview, Edge shared some insight into the band’s upcoming 1987 tour to promote The Joshua Tree:
I think it will be quite radically different to the Unforgettable Fire tour. I think it'll be probably closer to Live Aid and the Amnesty shows where there was an emphasis more on a dangerous feeling onstage, where we didn't really know quite what was going to happen. There was a certain energy that we were able to feed off. A feeling that literally anything could happen at any moment, and I, for one, really enjoyed that energy.
As a band we've always been very cautious about destroying the carefully prepared show that we'd been working on for a number of weeks or months on tour. Obviously within it there was space for improvisation, but there was a certain level that we always worked to. We'd improve the show to a very high standard and not tamper with it too much.
The reviews for The Joshua Tree were some of the best the band had received to date. Here are a few samples of what rock critics wrote in 1987:
Steve Morse of the Boston Globe: “Recorded at Windmill Studios in Dublin, where the band did its early records, the album has a contagious optimism despite its often grim subject matter.”
Lisa Hand of The Sunday Independent: “Within the arms of America. U2 have produced something new and spectacular in a world often buried by cliché and stereotyping. The Joshua Tree is still U2, but a U2 of altered moods, ideals and expectations. Although the band explore through song, rather than by wagon trail, The Joshua Tree is an example of pioneering to be proud of.”
Divina Infusino of The San Diego Union-Tribute: “This is not your typical breakthrough album. More than anything, it is a serious, unflinching look in the eye of unwelcomed truths. But the songs are there, the timing is right, and the world is ready. The Joshua Tree will vault U2 over the top.”
Don McLeese of the Chicago Sun-Times: “I'm not usually one for making predictions — it's tough enough trying to explain what has happened, without worrying about what will happen — but you can bet that this will be the year of U2. Maybe not on the scale of Michael Jackson in '83, or Bruce Springsteen in '84, but this is the year that the Irish band will move beyond rock stardom to become a cultural phenomenon. … Although the album finds the band moving in new directions, The Joshua Tree represents U2's most cohesive and coherent musical statement to date, as well as its most ambitious. The album takes its title from the tree that thrives in the desert of the American southwest, which makes a fitting symbol for the thematic thrust of the material. Throughout the album, Bono strives for faith amid a desert of doubt, for love amid despair, for a glimmer of light amid the surrounding darkness, for something that can quench the deepest thirst. Much of the material takes the form of a spiritual quest, where the goal is uncertain, perhaps even unreachable, but the search has its own value. The apocalypse rages, and answers that come easy aren't answers at all. … ‘All great music comes out of conflict in one sort or another,’ explained Bono by phone from Dublin after completing the album. ‘In all of U2's music, there's one theme running through it — it's love against struggle.’"
Bill Graham of Hot Press: “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. They've been misunderstood occasionally, even by their committed supporters -- but after The Joshua Tree, with its skill, and the diversity of issues it touches, one thing is absolutely clear: U2 can no longer be patronized with faint and glib praise. They must be taken very seriously indeed after this revaluation of rock.”
John McCready of NME: “The Joshua Tree will prove 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 from them is volume and fireworks. U2 have long since dispensed with such things.”
Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times: “In a time when the rock 'n' roll world feasts on the banality of such acts as Bon Jovi, The Joshua Tree is asking more of mainstream audiences than any pop-rock album since Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. But the band presents its case in such majestic, heartfelt and accessible terms that it is unlikely to encounter the radio or consumer resistance met by that stark LP. Indeed, The Joshua Tree finally confirms on record what this band has been slowly asserting for three years now on stage: U2 is what the Rolling Stones ceased being years ago -- the greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world. In this album, the band wears that mantle securely.”
Colin Hogg of the New Zealand Herald: “The Joshua Tree is water in a desert. There aren't many bands with the vision and the power of U2. There are even fewer who can translate that to record and sustain it for over 50 minutes.”
Richard Harrington of The Washington Post: “Will The Joshua Tree break U2 through to a wider mainstream audience as Born in the USA did for Springsteen? Chances are the answer is yes. Despite the absence of clear-cut anthems like "Pride," U2's personal, spiritual and political idealism is quite clear and ultimately inspiring. It is a Joshua tree in the wasteland of rock.”
The lyric “Time won’t leave me as I am, time won’t take the boy from this man” from How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb’s “City Of Blinding Lights” is an appropriate way to look at these three decades of The Joshua Tree. The 30-year anniversary release is a reminder that The Joshua Tree has aged much like a fine wine. You could say 1987 was a very good year, and hopefully in 2047 we can say that 2017 served this album well.