The Joshua Tree. U2.
1987 Island Records. Producer: Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno
Purchased ca. 1989
IN A NUTSHELL – All of the sonic characteristics you’ve come to expect from U2 – weird ringing guitars, thumping drums, Bono in full-on Bono-mode. It’s a collection of so many great songs and cool sounds that it’s hard to believe they’re all on one record.
WOULD BE HIGHER IF – There was a bit more diversity of sound – and if the last two songs were placed differently on the record.
When I was a kid in the 70s, my sisters and I loved to read Mad Magazine. Mad in the 70s was The Simpsons or South Park of its day – irreverent satire that was equal parts childish and intelligent. It introduced Real World concerns to my 9 year old mind – like war, sex, racism, abortion – and did so with humor and wit and real intelligence. Mad Magazine made me want to learn more about the world even while I was laughing at the funny drawings of naked people and politicians.
Mad artists, like Don Martin, Dave Berg and Al Jaffee are still well-remembered by my sisters and me, and even today many conversations among us include the words, “It’s like that Mad Magazine bit, where …” The magazine is a touchstone.
One of the best-remembered pieces from our childhood is a two-page spread written by Tom Koch entitled “Rewriting Your Way to a PhD.” The piece brilliantly shows the progression of a boy’s story about visiting his uncle’s pig farm, beginning as a “What I Did Last Summer” essay by an eight year old, through secondary school refinements, and on into college and grad school, where that same story becomes a PhD thesis on pig farming.
It cleverly reincorporates a second-grader’s perceptions – the pigs’ tiny eyes, his uncle’s aroma – into increasingly complex essays. I have a memory of my sister reading it aloud to the rest of my family, and us laughing and laughing, ultimately reaching the highest goal possible for Family Laughter – the point at which my dad’s entire head turned bright pink and tears flowed from his eyes, forcing the removal of his glasses. When we reached that point, we knew that whatever the topic, it was destined to become a part of family lore.
We’d all been in the familiar circumstance of “improving upon” past school projects and handing them in to unwitting new teachers. The piece is particularly close to my heart because in three years of middle school I wrote a total of 8 book reports on the same two books – The Yogi Berra Story and The Don Drysdale Story. (I had two different English classes in 8th grade, providing me an extra go-around with both!)
My sisters and I still use the expression “Pigging it” when referencing a project at work in which we blatantly pull ideas from previous projects. As in “I didn’t have this year’s report ready, so I just took last year’s and Pigged it!”
As funny as I find the Pig piece, it also demonstrates an obvious (it would seem) truth: people improve as they age and gain experience. When you’re a second grader writing about your uncle’s pig farm, you have neither the skills nor brainpower to put together a decent essay. But with just a few years of growth and learning and experience, you can write a college level essay!
Think of all the things you like to do: woodworking, cooking, banjo playing, crosswords. Whether you are an expert, a novice, or somewhere in between, you can look back on the progress you’ve made from a year ago and most likely see marked improvement. And the more experience you have, the better-developed you expect your talents to be. As you tie off that last suture on your latest kidney transplant, you aren’t thinking to yourself, “Man, I was so much better at this when I did it the first time.” (If you are, keep it to yourself.)
And your patient is likewise happy to know this isn’t your first. In people’s minds, Age + experience = improvement.
Except when it comes to rock bands.
To many people, the worst thing any rock act can do is make a second record. The only thing worse than a second record is a third record.
I remember going into a record store in 1994 in San Francisco, a store on 16th St. in The Mission District called “16th Note.” A cool song was playing, and I asked the (hipster, naturally) clerk what it was.
“It’s the new record by Guided by Voices,” he said, almost making eye contact, but straining to remain aloof in the empty store.
“I never heard of them,” I said. “Are they local?”
The clerk suddenly looked at me, like a drill sergeant eyeing a new recruit. “They’re from Ohio,” he said with a dollop of disdain.
“I like this song.” I smiled.
He scoffed, audibly. “It’s okay. But their old stuff was so much better.”
Twenty-one years later, it’s hard to take that guy at his word. By 1994, it’s true, the band had recorded about half a dozen records. But only one of them was released on an actual record label, and all the others had pressings of a few hundred. Okay, maybe this guy had been their neighbor and was acquainted with their catalog.
A statement along the lines of “Their early stuff was much better” can say so much more about the person speaking than it does about the band itself. In the case of the record store guy, it said, “I think I’m better than you at listening to music.”2
“The early stuff was much better” can mean that a listener wants you to know they’ve been at it for the long haul. They may state it as a way of welcoming you into the club (“Let me play the good stuff for you!!”) or they may mean it as a way of stating you’ll never truly be part of the club (“Even if I play the good stuff, you’ll never really understand.”) Either way – welcoming or hostile – it’s evidence of a listener’s “Artist Clubhouse” mentality.
Many listeners form a deep emotional attachment to particular musical artists. This attachment can be particularly strong when the artist is new and not widely known. Fans of new acts have to work hard to listen to their music. This was particularly true before the dawn of digital music, long before services such as SoundCloud and Bandcamp allowed anyone with a mobile device to hear all the music from any band anywhere.
It used to be that if the radio didn’t play it, you had to find it in a record store big enough to carry obscure artists, because you sure wouldn’t find it in the record bin at Woolworth’s or JC Penney’s. And it was especially, triply difficult before MTV started playing weird, foreign bands in the early 80s, giving access to acts that just a year earlier would’ve faded quickly into obscurity.3 Before MTV (and for MTV era bands who didn’t look cool) non-radio bands were only accessible through word-of-mouth and extensive touring.
As a listener, having to work to find a band (whether by going to a concert or clicking on a “Suggestions For You” button on your music app) makes them a little more special to you. You’ve paid your dues, so to speak. Just like when you join a club. But the Artist Clubhouse feelings are tricky to manage. Because whether the year is 1973 or 2014, when you catch an artist that few people know about (yet?), when you experience a new band who excites you and moves you, you feel tingly and giggly and want to share the band with everyone you know. (Well … most everyone …)
You have power. A power borne of knowledge. Knowledge that few others hold, but that everyone will eventually HAVE TO know. You are like the first kid on the playground who knows – for real – how babies are made, and you get to decide which of the other kids can be trusted with the knowledge.
And which ones will just ruin it by telling everyone.
Because you don’t want EVERYONE to know since once EVERYONE knows, two things will happen: 1) It will no longer seem all that cool4 and 2) You will no longer be held in esteem for bringing the knowledge – you’ll just be one more kid who knows how it’s done.
That’s the inherent conundrum in liking an Unknown Band: you want everyone to know how great your New Favorite Band is, as their continued success likely depends on more and more people knowing about them. BUT – you don’t want EVERYONE knowing about them because then they won’t seem as cool. And neither will you, as you won’t be one of a couple hundred, you’ll be one of millions.
Once the club is that big, you’ll find yourself wistfully thinking back to a time when You Alone Held the Key. This may influence your opinion of the band’s new songs, and make you wish for the old days. “Their old stuff was better,” you’ll say.
However, it isn’t ALWAYS the Artist Clubhouse mentality that causes folks to lament a band’s newest work. Sometimes a band does change significantly in ways that you, the listener, just can’t appreciate.
I think most music fans are willing to give their favorite artists a break when they try new things. We humans are always changing, so it’s natural that a musician would reflect it in their art. Some musicians are constantly changing, and this change itself excites the fan base. A good example of this is Neil Young. His releases have included many genres: rock, country, new wave, 50’s rock and roll, blues, folk, whatever it was that Trans was … and his fans either love them or hate them, but either way can’t wait to see what Crazy Ol’ Neil will put out next.
But what about a band like, say, Genesis? If you only know Genesis as the purveyor of a string of Big 80s pop hits, with seemingly good-natured elf Phil Collins goofing his way through the videos, you may be surprised to learn that just ten years earlier they weren’t a Three-Suburban-Dads-Looking synth rock band, but were a full on Five-Hippies-Multiplexing-Drugs-Looking prog rock band!
And if you were a huge Genesis fan in 1974, going out to watch their crazy stage show, with front man Peter Gabriel dressed up as a flower or a transvestite fox or a lymph node thing or just a plain old weirdo, altering your mind on whatever psychotropic substance you liked in preparation for their 16-minute songs featuring intricate guitar/keyboard/drum/bass interplay, then certainly when you heard “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” in 1986, it would be understandable to hear you say, “Well … their old stuff was better.”5
I myself don’t like to think of art in terms of “Better” or “Worse.” I try to think of it as “stuff I like” and “stuff I don’t like.” And the fact is – better, worse, whatever – some bands just leave some listeners behind as they grow. For me, the band Radiohead comes to mind. They went from Rock to Not Rock over the course of 15 years6, and more power to them. But I couldn’t stay on that carnival ride.
Their old stuff was better. I liked their old stuff.
Thoughts of music fans, and their interest in a band’s “old stuff” will – for me – forever be attached to U2’s The Joshua Tree. This record came out in 1987, my second year in college. I had gotten into U2 in high school, and they were one of three contemporary bands (R.E.M. and Van Halen being the other two) whose new records I looked forward to. Most of my other favorite bands‘ best days were behind them.7I had loved U2’s album War, and most of The Unforgettable Fire, and I was hoping – as was rumored – that the next record would be a return to the helicopter guitars and anthemic vocals that I loved so much about the band.
I can still recall the Spring of ’87, leaving the PCPS gym and crossing Woodland Ave. with my girlfriend, having heard “With or Without You” for the first time on the gym’s PA system, and asking “What was that song?” And her replying, “U2’s new one. It’s really bad.” And me saying, “I’ll say. Man. Their old stuff was so much better!” That’s the opinion I held about The Joshua Tree for a long time. “Their old stuff was better.”
As I said, I was waiting for “Sunday Bloody Sunday, Part II,” and – let’s be honest: “With or Without You” is not that!
Of course, the song became a huge hit, their first Number 1. But to a guy waiting for something different, the song sounded like some crappy ballad. Maybe it still does. But to my ear, the song has improved greatly with age. (Maybe because I turned it off the first million times I heard it in the 80s and 90s!) The song has a lot of what most U2 songs offer – cool sounds and an impressive build-up to a sonic release point. I find a lot of U2 music sounds very similar, and usually that’s a bad thing for me. But with U2 I find it easier to take.
Many of their songs – fast or slow – have a march beat to them, as if John Phillip Sousa were whispering in drummer Larry Mullen’s ears; and chiming guitars from Edge that often don’t sound all that much like guitars; and a simple Adam Clayton bass line that finds the right notes underneath it all to support what’s happening up top.
And then there’s Bono. He sings with an earnestness, with a commitment to the lyrics (whatever they may be) that is, obviously, ripe for mocking. But there are far worse things to be than earnest in this world. Bono’s a conduit between Bruce Springsteen in the 70s and Eddie Vedder in the 90s – the wailing white guys who are gonna belt it out, and believe the shit out of it, regardless of what you or I might think.
“With or Without You” has all of these characteristic U2 features, and also that classic U2 build, this time finding the apex at about 3:01, with Bono’s wailing “Oh-oh-oh-oh.” I’ve gotten over the fact that it doesn’t sound like an outtake from War. And after I heard four or five more songs from the record – The Joshua Tree was a HUGE HIT on rock radio – I decided that maybe it was as good as the old stuff after all!
The track that really caught my ear was the opening track, “Where the Streets Have No Name.” There’s a scene in the movie (and book) High Fidelity in which the record store geeks select their Top Five “Track 1, Side 1” songs. “Where the Streets Have No Name” would definitely make my Top Five.
It seems a little silly now, but I remember my friends and I LOVING that video, feeling inspired by it, somehow empowered by it. We didn’t know what the lyrics were about – and it seems theories still abound – but something about the band on a roof, with throngs of Los Angelinos tying up traffic, and police not sure what to make of the whole thing, Bono singing “burning down love, burning down love” … just trust me, it meant something to us in 1987. The coolest thing about the song, to me, is The Edge’s intro and outro guitar riff. It’s just six notes played over and over, but with delay and effects it ends up sounding like he’s playing four guitars at once. Once the lyrics begin, Edge switches to his typical “Chukka-chukka-chukka” guitar strum8 that is unmistakably the U2 Sound. This song also has a familiar build and release, to about the 4:54 mark.
The Chukka-chukka-chukka of The Edge is also prominent on the excellent “In God’s Country.”
I love Adam Clayton’s bass line in this song. As all his lines are, this one is simple (I count four distinct notes), but it provides a nice counter-melody to the vocals – it’s usually the melody going through my head when I think about this song. There is also a noise at the end of the line, a percussive clunking – like someone with a sinus problem making glottal noises. I don’t know if it’s a bass noise – I don’t know what it is, but it’s always interested me. The song is propelled forever onward by the guitar, bass and drums, a particular kind of energy that I associate with U2 songs.
I’ve always found Bono’s lyrics somewhat perplexing, sometimes amusing.9 They’re often political, and frequently deeper than I guess I can go. I figure the depth has to do with him being Irish, as Ireland has a long history of symbolic verse and allusive poets. In the case of “In God’s Country,” the lyrics are really pretty, with lots of desert imagery. Although for years I thought he was singing “Sleep comes/Like a Drum” and I wondered how drumming and sleep could ever be related – or if the point was that they WEREN’T related, and therein lay the point! I was quite relieved to learn the actual lyric is “Sleep comes/Like a drug.” It makes much more sense.
A different type of song on the record, and probably my favorite, is the bluesy (for U2) style of “Trip Through Your Wires.”
A word should be said here about The Edge’s singing. He’s sung lead on a few U2 songs over the years (most memorably “Numb,” from 1993’s Zooropa) but I really like his work as a harmony vocalist. For me, he’s up there with The Stones’ Keith Richards and Van Halen’s Michael Anthony as all-time great rock harmony singers.10 These skills are on display throughout “Trip Through Your Wires.” It’s a simple song, a love song (I think) and also features Bono playing harmonica. There’s not a lot to the song, yet I find it irresistible. It’s a slow song, with lots of space, and features a cool break filled by Mullen’s bass drum triplets. In addition to sounding different from typical U2, the song also does NOT have the typical “U2 buildup.” It’s one of their least flamboyant songs.
Another great, simple slow song, which includes my favorite vocal performance on the record, is “Red Hill Mining Town.”
It’s a song about the plight of miners during the UK coal mining strikes in the 80s. It’s got Bono’s earnest vocals and Edge’s chiming guitars and Clayton’s understated bass and Mullen’s Sousa drums and that patented build and release (4:00). It’s got the whole U2 package.
There are so many great songs on The Joshua Tree. One that I often forget about, but then hear and think, “I love this song!!” is Bono’s ode to a dead friend and his New Zealand home, “One Tree Hill.”
This song features The Edge’s guitar trickery, but it’s more subtle this time, and holds up really well on repeated listens. In fact, I find I hear something different in his guitar each time I listen.
Of course, the album’s biggest song was the worldwide super-smash hit “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
I worked in a Hershey’s Chocolate warehouse (it wasn’t a warehouse made of chocolate, but it was where chocolate was warehoused) in the summer of 1987, third shift – 11 pm to 7:00 am – for three months. A diverse group of people worked there, with diverse musical tastes – including Contemporary Christian, Country, R&B, Heavy Metal and College Rock – and there was only one radio. So – of course – the radio station that was least offensive to the most number of people was selected to accompany the drudgery of chocolate factory work: Top Forty. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” was making its climb that summer, all the way to the Number One spot in August, which means Top Forty radio played the song about twice every hour, every day. That means I heard it about 16 times a night. It was like being inside a bunker under siege by US forces.
To this day, when I hear the song’s quiet opening notes and that gentle tambourine I flash back to the smell of cardboard boxes, old chocolate and hot forklift engines; to the uneasy feeling of sleep deprivation and forced chit-chat with people whose names and faces I knew I’d forget when the summer ended. I can’t really hear the song objectively anymore, but I feel like I should at least mention that it’s on this record.
So, The Joshua Tree was not exactly like what had come before from U2. And time has shown that the band had a lot more changes up its collective sleeve in the 25-plus years since its release. One song that hinted at where the band would go next, sonically, was the intense and noisy (and INCREDIBLE-to-see-them-play-live) “Bullet the Blue Sky.”
I’ve seen U2 play this live several times, and it’s always intense and excellent. In some ways, this song is the one I was looking for in 1987 when I was hoping for a return to War. It has a million guitars, sounding like jets and devastation. The lyrics, about the US’s role in El Salvador’s civil war, echo the sounds. The song is driving and powerful, and Mullen and Clayton’s rhythm section nails down a musical feeling of unsettling dread. But the song’s sound has a fuller quality to it than was heard on previous records. It has a depth of sound – whether from more overdubs or more synthesizer use, or just better production methods – that had been missing from previous albums. In the band’s next album, 1991’s Achtung, Baby, this fuller sound was built upon, with more synths and overdubs coming into play. I see “Bullet the Blue Sky” as the transition song – a bridge between the 80s U2 and the 90s U2.
It’s clear that in The Joshua Tree, U2 was not simply “Pigging It.” True, they built on what came before, but it was different and new. But maybe – come to think of it – they were, because maybe all development is “Pigging It.” We tweak and change, we hope we’re improving, but it’s the perspective of the reader/listener that decides what’s good. I’m sure that second grader’s mom MUCH preferred the essay about his uncle’s farm to his windy blabberfest about swine. In 1987 I thought “new” U2 meant “bad” U2. But at some point it became “the old (good) stuff.” And nowadays, I don’t think it’s Bad or Good. It’s just what I like!
Where the Streets Have No Name
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
With or Without You
Bullet the Blue Sky
Running to Stand Still
Red Hill Mining Town
In God’s Country
Trip Through Your Wires
One Tree Hill
Mothers of the Disappeared