30 Years Ago: U2 Embrace the Good and Bad of America on ‘The Joshua Tree’
When The Joshua Tree came out on March 9, 1987, it represented a seismic shift, spearheaded by U2, in popular music. Up until that point, the ‘80s were mostly thought of, with a handful of exceptions, as a decade of style without substance, with MTV leading the charge in helping to popularize an endless parade of catchy, but empty, one-hit wonders.
But there was no confusing the material U2 put forth on The Joshua Tree with sing-a-long simplicity. The Irish foursome had become fascinated with the American landscape while touring incessantly in support of their four previous albums. Fans reciprocated, and everything aligned perfectly with The Joshua Tree being a sonic note to the country – not a love letter by any means – but a message that addressed all the perceived shortcomings and black marks along with the beauty and open plains the band members experienced.
“There was a love/hate relationship with America,” drummer Larry Mullen Jr. said in the book U2 by U2. “A lot of that album reflected Bono’s feelings coming back from El Salvador and the Conspiracy of Hope tour and seeing the brutal face of U.S. foreign policy. But calling the album The Joshua Tree, was in some ways an acknowledgement of the influence that American culture had on U2. America was having a bigger impact on us than we would ever have on it.”
“There was a lot to despise about America back then,” Bono added. “There was shameful conduct in defense of their self-interest…they were bad times. I described what I had been through, what I had seen, some of the stories of people I had met, and I said to [U2 guitarist] Edge: ‘Could you put that through your amplifier?’ I even got pictures and stuck them on the wall. I brought in film of the horrors and put it on a video and said: ‘Now do it!’”
Juxtaposed with an Irish sense of urgency, spirituality and depth, it’s no surprise the final work, which took shape over the 11 songs, would be a monumental effort. “I wanted something biblical,” Bono said.
His goal was accomplished, with a steady stream of hits shooting up the charts immediately upon release; “With or Without You,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “Where the Streets Have No Name” were all contenders for “song of the summer” in 1987, inescapable on radio, MTV and booming from cars in cities and suburban sprawls everywhere. They were also the first three cuts on the album.
Delving deeper into The Joshua Tree, the music grew darker and more potent, risking alienation of the people who didn’t want to think about the war in El Salvador, conflicted inner violence or the refugee crisis, all referenced respectively in the searing “Bullet the Blue Sky,” sinister “Exit” and haunting “Mothers of the Disappeared.” But it didn’t matter in the end; U2 had cast a spell over the mainstream, and nothing they did on the record would break it.
“I think we knew we had something special,” said the Edge. “It didn’t have any references to anything else that was going on in the ‘80s.”
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