U2's The Joshua Tree turns 25

Categories: Music History

U2's Joshua Tree, released March 9, 1987, turns 25 today.

It's difficult to imagine, but U2 used to be cool. Not just cool, but one of the most innovative, inspiring and mysterious bands of its generation. The group challenged the sounds, look and emotional resonance of rock music, forever redirecting the cultural stream for good or ill. Today, while many of the songs on The Joshua Tree, released a quarter-century ago tomorrow, might invoke an eye-rolling lack of enthusiasm, much of that is due to the fact that the sound of the album has been imitated so many times that it now seems about as novel as a used paper towel.

Coming on the heals of The Unforgettable Fire -- the compact, ambient sounds of which represented a new direction for the act -- the members of U2 were looking for something more disciplined, something with a vast, cinematic feel. Having toured America for a half-dozen years, they had the imagery of expansive deserts and failed dreams on their minds, and so they used America as the prism through which the songs were filtered. After digesting the beats at a young age, Bono was discovering American authors like Norman Mailer, Flannery O'Connor and Charles Bukowski, becoming fascinated with the ambition and illusions of the world's most powerful country.

The U2 frontman was also spending more time with groups whose sounds were rooted in Southern blues and traditional folk music. After an embarrassing night drinking and attempting to play songs with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Bono discovered he knew next to nothing of American roots music -- his sound being more grounded in late-'70s British punk. The young Irishman was further humbled when his new friend Bob Dylan invited him on stage to perform "Blowin' in the Wind" with him, only to discover that Bono was unfamiliar with the song (he improvised whole verses on stage).

Inspired by a newfound obsession with the music of Robert Johnson, Billie Holiday and Pete Seeger, a coupled with an intense loathing of the crippling domestic and foreign policies of the Reagan administration, the working title of the album became "The Two Americas." During a break between recording and touring, Bono took his new wife on a tour through war torn El Salvador and Nicaragua, dodging bullets and cursing America's intervention in a civil war. Later, while recording the damning "Bullet the Blue Sky," Bono would tell the Edge to "put El Salvador through the amp."

Describing musical notes to be very "expensive," the Edge developed his signature minimalist sound through the recording of The Joshua Tree. Coming at a time of the guitar virtuosity of Van Halen and the bombastic machismo of hair-metal, the Edge wanted to move toward more ambient, emotionally complex sounds. Using delays and a dancing arpeggio of notes, he achieved the "expansive, spiritual desert" sound Bono and Brian Eno were looking for. This reaches its zenith on the album opener, "Where the Streets Have No Name," a song about the veiled caste system of Belfast, where a person's income and religion can be traced to which street they live on.

Seeing America essentially as a place of contradiction, Bono injects his own personal experience into the paradoxes on songs like "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For", "With or Without You" and "Running to Stand Still". Bono loved America, but after becoming one of the nation's most popular bands, he began to see what he described as "two Americas: the mythic America and the real America."

For the cover of the album, photographer Anton Corbijn spent two days in the Mojave Desert, searching for locations to match the sound of "the spiritual desert" that the group worked so hard to achieve (another working title for the album was "The Desert Sessions"). After raving about the look of the joshua trees scattered throughout Mojave, Bono was enthused about the religious resonance of the name, coming from Mormon settlers who saw the upstretched limbs of the plant reminding them of the Old testament prophet Joshua.

The following day, Bono would declare that the album would be called "The Joshua Tree." The band would be photographed in the Mojave Desert, and the shot was packaged on the LP sleeve as a panoramic shot with them isolated on one side with the expansive desert surrounding them, giving the men a lonely, unsettled feeling, evoking the struggle of a spiritual journey (criminally, the CD cropped the image to only feature the band).

The Joshua Tree went on to sell 25 million copies, one of the best selling records of all time. A historic $100,000 was dropped by Island Records on promotion, and for the first time an album was triply released on CD, vinyl and cassette all at once. "With or Without You" and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking for" would be the band's first -- and last -- number one singles. The album landed the band on the cover of Time and garnered countless critical praise.

U2 continued on with the American cowboy aesthetic for their following project, a film and live album featuring big American collaborations with B.B. King, Bob Dylan and a cover of The Beatles "Helter Skelter," -- Bono brazenly saying "this is a song Charles Manson stole from The Beatles, we're stealing it back." At a cost of over a million dollars, Rattle & Hum has gone down in history as a bloated blunder, critics taking them to task for going to far with the whole We Are American Irishmen concept.

After a New Years Eve concert in Australia in 1989, Bono told the crowd, "We have to go away for a while and dream it all up again." U2 would never again try and become the socio-historic mouthpiece for America, going a much more post-modern, Euro-pop direction, preferring cynicism and irony over bleeding heart social commentary. Just as the outfit contrasted the sparkly hair-metal of the late 1980s with emotionally rich, pastoral music landscapes, U2 would actively distance themselves from the straightforward, anti-pop "realness" of early '90s grunge with slick, dance-y production, a glitzy, Televangelist in Vegas on a popper-binge hilarity.

Though if you can overlook the deflated, forgettable acts the album inspired (Creed) The Joshua Tree remains one of the most creatively successful albums of rock history, a tightrope act of virtuosity and restraint, of believing "in the kingdom come" while still "holding hands with the devil." If you have the sociological muscles to turn off your cynicism and pretend you haven't heard the songs on classic rock radio a billion times since you were ten, The Joshua Tree album is a sonic experience to be treasured.

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In my opinion, this is the greatest album of all time!!!  U2 will be cool forever!!!!  And...Billions of people think so!!!!  I find it amusing that wanna be journalists who intern for a short period of time, feel they have the right to impose their personal feelings on others.  Edge had his guitar sound in 79!!!  The sycophantic slags who jump on board at The Joshua Tree and claim to have some sort of right to profess anything really need to try to wiggle free of Mommies apron strings.  Rather than wallowing in the epitome of intellectual mediocrity and stealing words from geniuses like Bono so they themselves might sound like they have THAT kind of charisma, perhaps they should simply pay homage to people like Bono and the band U2.  They have earned it!!!!  They deserve it!!!!  They have provided a model for the entire world to live by!!!!!  The Joshua Tree is....indeed .......  a sonic experience to be treasured!!!!  I trust all readers will feel that this comment is too!!!!!!   TJT.... is timeless!!!!!!!!  


How many other people like it, how many times I've heard it, who was inspired by it - none of that matters. The album stands on it's own merits, period.

It's an amazing album, it was shocking at the time for it's unique sonic landscape, lyrical intensity, and passion. If it fails to amaze now it's because the listener's frame of reference has changed which, again, detracts nothing from the album's genius.

Vinny Tillo
Vinny Tillo

It was "With or Without You", not "Streets" which was the other #1 single along with "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For".


@VOX And so everyone must "pay homage". What about literary critics? Do they just page homage to Shakespeare or Tolstoy or do they try to learn something from them and fairly critique the work in a comparative style. Of course the album is great but people have a right to "fairly" critique it and furthermore, who cares that people jump on board later?  Why does that matter to anyone?  as if it only counts if you were there in Boston during the Boys tour..


Vox is right - Edge had his sound already.  His expansive sound - single notes played through delay/echo were on full display on 1980's Boy, 1981's October and 1984's The Unforgettable Fire and on the singles released in '79. 

And Bono was already in over his head lyrically on The Unforgettable Fire but we forgive him for his presence, great voice and actual OCCASIONAL lyrical brilliance (more on full display on Achtung Baby than Josua Tree).  And we can forgive his messianic tendencies because at least the guy is earnest. 

But yes, Joshua Tree was an awesome album, definite masterpiece.  And you really HAD to be there (I was 15 when I got the album on release day!).  But let's not forget the albums before and after it by this great band.  Maybe I listened to it way too much earlier on but these days I'd rather listen to Achtung Baby or Zooropa. 

And lets not forget that Simple Minds, a band U2 was always sort of unfairly compared to, was making really cool Euro-dancey music long before Achtung Baby and it was actually BETTER (see: Empires & Dance, Sons & Fascination, New Gold Dream). 


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