6 Music's Andrew Collins writes about The Joshua Tree's powerful impact...
It’s March 1987. Terry Waite has been kidnapped in Beirut, rebels have taken the television and radio stations in Manila, and in Washington, the Irangate scandal unfolds. In Glasgow, Special Branch have raided BBC offices and seized tapes of a documentary about the Zircon spy satellite. Mrs Thatcher is in Moscow to talk disarmament with Mr Gorbachev. She also buys a loaf of bread and a tin of pilchards in a supermarket out of solidarity with ordinary Russians. A broom cupboard in London’s Knightsbridge is on the housing market for £36,000. We are very definitely living in the Eighties.
Into this troubled and troubling world, where ideology meets capitalism, protest meets tear gas, hedonism meets AIDS and Andy Warhol meets his maker (or so we’re told), comes U2’s fifth studio album, the first post-Live Aid, and one that will underline their claim to be the biggest band on the planet and make The Unforgettable Fire – released in 1984 and the first to road-test artful production team Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno – seem like a dry run.
It all seems so long ago now. Imagine a world in which albums come not in fiddly plastic cases but in gorgeous gatefold sleeves, all the better to capture the desert panoramas of photographer Anton Corbijn. Imagine a world, in fact, where albums have a side one and a side two, necessitating a trip from the bean bag to the hi-fi to flip them over. And where Bono is not yet regarded in certain sections of mainstream society as “a dick”.
To really appreciate what a magnificent achievement The Joshua Tree was, we must rebirth ourselves. In my case, it’s back to college, and to the halls of residence in Battersea, South London, I should have moved out of as a third year art student, but hadn’t. It was to a boxy study bedroom identical to this one that I had returned with my mint copy of The Unforgettable Fire as a wide-eyed first year, its ambient, impressionistic, full-blooded sound like central heating that bitter cold October. The weather outside the window was, of course, all the better for wearing long Oxfam overcoats – perhaps the defining garment of the mid-80s: frugal, practical, yet slightly cinematic with the collar turned up. (U2 albums still come out in the autumn or winter, as a rule.)
I had fallen for the English “raincoat bands” in a big way out in the provinces before venturing to London for higher education – the Cure, the Banshees, the Bunnymen, Teardrops Explodes – and although U2 were geographical outsiders, the minor-chord, melodrama in which they traded fit snugly. We didn’t call it “indie” in those days, but this music, big as it was, came from left field.
Just as it’s an increasingly tough call to explain how vital and life-changing the Stones were in the 60s and 70s to a generation who know them only in their wrinkled, self-parodic dotage, it’s getting harder to sell U2 to kids who only know them for retreating hairlines and ambassadorial photocalls. But The Joshua Tree captures them in their absolute prime, building on the experimentation that, on The Unforgettable Fire, allowed some fresh air into their trademark sound. It was Bono who, in 1982, had described guitar, bass and drums as the “primary colours”. Eno added a fourth.
Opener Where The Streets Have No Name comes floating in on a plangent wave of Eno – the subtlest of intros that as a reward is constantly talked over by radio DJs – building up into an insistent rattle over which Bono croaks from the pit of his soul, banging on about reaching out and touching the flame. Overfamiliarity has probably robbed this of its original power – likewise I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For – but listen again. The Sex Pistols claimed ironically to “mean it, man”, but if it’s rock music that beats with the same heart as the best soul, you’ve come to the right place. It’s a fiercely romantic album, with a fire in its belly, and when the time’s right, Bono is more than capable of killing his idols. On the most abidingly visceral cut, Bullet The Blue Sky, against a queasily discordant Edge riff, a stalking Clayton bassline and a restless Mullen beat, Bono rails against his beloved Uncle Sam, at the time wreaking covert havoc in Central America, slapping those dollar bills down. Red Hill Mining Town is its transatlantic twin, this time taking a marriage broken by our own miners’ strike as its theme. (It might have been de rigueur to don the flying picket’s donkey jacket in the 80s, but at least U2 had their own slant on this ugly episode in the history of industrial relations.)
Because the big tracks are so well known, it’s a treat to revisit some of the supporting players – the ones even fans sometimes forget – the distant Exit, the harmonica-fuelled Trip Through Your Wires, the almost jaunty One Tree Hill, and Mothers Of The Disappeared, which might have come off a movie soundtrack.
It’s too easy to say you had to be there to appreciate the glory of The Joshua Tree, but it’s necessary, I think, to move away some of the archetypes that still dog U2. Yes, he wore a cowboy hat and a waistcoat with nothing under it, but for the record, Bono was growing his mullet out into a shoulder-length bob by 1987. Yes, they were plundering the dressing-up box, but they were in their late twenties! They were having the time of their life.
We can see The Joshua Tree in context now. We know that U2’s next album, Rattle & Hum, was to be their first curate’s egg, the first to really divide critics and get up noses. We know that their love affair with widescreen, mythic America would almost blind them to what they got together in Larry’s bedroom for in the first place. We also know that four-to-the-floor stadium rock music would soon become deeply unfashionable within the pages of the inky music press (and it was inky in those days), as rave culture took hold and redrew the battle lines.
But for an instance, U2 had the world in the palm of their hand. None of the irony that would dog them in the 90s, less of the piety that still puts people off them, and more of the wonder. They had such a profound, moving, mobilising, even politicising effect on the young, grant-assisted, long-haired me, I will probably always love them, like the old Stones fans love the Stones.
The rebels were smoked out in Manila, house prices in the South East of England continued to spiral, and the President of the United States talked his way out of Irangate by claiming ignorance. How the world has changed in 20 years.
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