INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Uncut OCTOBER 2003 - by Stephen Dalton
HOW THE WEST WAS WON
In 1987, U2 released The Joshua Tree, an album that saw the band catapulted to the highest level of success and finally conquer America. But there was a price to pay for their accomplishments...
So you finally managed to disgust even yourself. You pack up the car and take off, away from the city. Away from friends and family. Away from the monstrous jerk you see when you look in the mirror
It's July 1985. The footage of Live Aid is still fresh in your mind, a tide of nausea rising in your throat. All that messianic crap you promised you would not give in to again, moving through the crowd with your healing hands. With millions dying in Africa! For once, you have to agree with your sternest critics. That Bono from U2. What a prick.
You had to get out of Dublin, from people who know you too well, from yourself. You got in the car and drove to Ireland's rural heartland. A brief holiday from being rock's self-appointed head prefect, defender of the faith, keeper of the flame. Jesus, a conscience can sometimes be a pest. Away from the city, and not for the first time, you seriously consider quitting the band. The pointlessness of it all is eating you up. The importance of being over-earnest. The absurdity. The contradictions. The constant criticism. Some of it from yourself.
Then you meet a middle-aged man in County Wexford, a sculptor. He's working on a nude bronze inspired by your Live Aid antics. It's called The Leap. He's no rock'n'roll expert but he understands instinctively what you were reaching for. A connection. A spark. Shaking awake the sleeping conscience of a generation. You walk a little taller after that conversation. Maybe you won't quit U2 after all.
Instead, maybe you'll take the messianic mantle that Live Aid thrust upon you and run with it.. Turn history into music the way Dylan or Lennon or Hendrix did. Alchemise despair and doubt into a positive force for change. After all, U2 will become virtually the only act to reap long-term career rewards from the all-star charity bash. But can a band in their mid-twenties really revive '60s rock radicalism in '80s rock clothes? Can they summon up the ghosts of Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin and Woody Guthrie to overturn the apathy of the conspicuous consumption generation? Can Reagan's America be toppled by the moral force of its buried cultural heritage?
A barmy, overreaching ambition. But if anyone can pull it off, it will take a uniquely innocent and ignorant bastard like you. Even if it means two years of personal tragedy and public humiliation. Even if it brings death threats, drug busts and marital breakdowns. Even if you end up being photographed next to a giant fucking cactus dressed like Amish frontier settlers.
As you speed back towards Dublin, you can already hear the taunts. That Bono from U2. What a prick. You start to laugh, softly at first. Then with a loud, sobbing, deranged cackle.
Born from political, personal and spiritual turmoil, The Joshua Tree became one of the most uplifting and enduring rock touchstones of the last twenty years. It arrived in an era of Gorbachev and Glasnost, Thatcher and Reagan, property booms and share crashes. It is a recorded rooted emphatically in America and Americana. But it first began to take shape in the stark Biblical landscapes of Africa.
In September 1985, just weeks after Live Aid, Bono and his wife Ali spent a month in northern Ethiopia working on an educational project run by the charity World Vision. They kept a deliberately low profile, avoiding all publicity. Returning home, the singer later claimed, he experienced "culture shock" at the spiritual poverty of the rich Western nations. "They may have a physical desert, but we've got other kinds of desert," Bono told Rolling Stone in May 1987. "And that's what attracted me to the image of the desert as a symbol."
Initial sessions for the album began in November 1985, rolling on throughout 1986. Adam Clayton's house in Howth hosted the first meetings then a rented mansion called Danesmoate in Rathfarnham, six miles outside Dublin, which Clayton would eventually buy. Several months were spent shaping rough ideas before the familiar U2 production team of Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno were summoned. Late in 1986, Steve Lillywhite parachuted in to polish off several mixes.
Lengthy recording and live commitments, Bono later admitted, began to strain his marriage. "I live with a very strong person, and she throws me out occasionally," he confessed to Rolling Stone. "I hardly saw my wife Ali for a year. 1986 was an incredibly bad year for me. It's almost impossible to be married and be in a band on the road." The Daily Star picked up on this theme in April 1987. "We have a very stormy relationship," Bono said. "Ali will not be worn like a brooch, she is very much her own woman. My life is a mess. I haven't been able to handle juggling my marriage with recording and touring."
Around this time, tabloid gossip stories began to link Bono with various women, including Clannad's Máire Brennan and former Lone Justice singer Maria McKee. Both shared a stage and performed duets with the U2 frontman, and Bono even jokingly called McKee "my second wife". But he fiercely denied his marriage was on the rocks.
"You tell the press that Ali is her own person and very smart and not some dolly girl and that she doesn't take any shit from me," he protested in Rolling Stone, "and they read into it a marital breakdown. And I think, well, what sort of women are they married to?"
BP Fallon is a Dublin rock legend and DJ whose long history with U2 is covered on his website, www.bpfallon.com. "I think they just might have found the sonic tremolo of the underpants," Fallon says of the dark, brooding lust which haunts The Joshua Tree. "But I do emphasise that I know of no freelance mechanics going around with dipsticks. No third-leg boogie that was illegal."
Third-leg boogie aside, U2 had to weather a barrage of public attacks and tragic losses during 1986. In May, they were vilified in Ireland for Self Aid, an all-star Dublin charity concert organised by the national TV station RTE. Modelled on Live Aid, the event also featured Van Morrison, Christy Moore, the last show by The Boomtown Rats and other Irish legends. As Self Aid was ostensibly designed to help the city's unemployed help themselves, an angry editorial and cover story in the listings magazine In Dublin took U2 to task for lending their high-minded principles to such a reactionary, Thatcherite enterprise. The headline said it all: "Rock Against The People".
During the televised show, in front of 30,000 people, a boiling-mad Bono replied with a sour jibe about "cheap Dublin magazines" to the tune of Elton John's Candle In The Wind. John Waters, author of the offending editorial and now an Irish Times columnist, felt a perverse pang of pride as he watched from the safety of his room.
"I can understand why they were angry," admits Waters. "Angry about being criticised, and I think secretly angry about being duped into it, but they couldn't really say that. It was a pretty hard-hitting article. But I think what was most devastating about it was that it was actually true."
At the after-show party, Bono shook hands with one of his In Dublin critics, Eamonn McCann. Waters took longer to make peace with U2, but he eventually wrote the finest book on the band so far, Race Of Angels. "In a strange way, it straightened out their politics very fast," Waters says of the Self Aid spat. "They became much more angry. If you saw Bono on stage that night, that anger was the first time they showed anything other than a charismatic kind of blandness and bonhomie."
U2 were still angry about Self Aid two years later. "Sure we fucking knew what it was when we went into it," The Edge told NME in 1988. "It was a fucking hare-brained scheme from the beginning." Larry Mullen Jr added: "Talk to Christy Moore about why he did Self Aid. He's like the ultimate socialist who writes about the working class in his music all the time. He did it. See what answers you get from him."
In June, U2 took two weeks off from their ongoing album sessions to criss-cross America on Amnesty International's 25th anniversary tour, "A Conspiracy Of Hope". The six-day jaunt raised more than four million dollars and doubled Amnesty's US membership. Alongside Sting, Peter Gabriel and others, U2 played a short set of old favourites and cover versions. In San Francisco, Bono met the Chilean artist Rene Castro, a former torture victim who would later paint stage designs for the Joshua Tree and Rattle And Hum tours.
In the 1999 VH-1 show Classic Albums, Adam Clayton credits the Amnesty tour with adding a dash of blood and darkness to The Joshua Tree. This was not the idealised "Old West" but Ronald Reagan's shadow empire of military coups, Iran-Contra arms deals and CIA-backed death squads.
As with his Ethiopian mission after Live Aid, Bono followed up the Amnesty tour with visits to Nicaragua and El Salvador. The latter, he told NME in March 1987, was a hair-raising trip. "I was on my way to a village and the village was bombed and it scared the shit out of me. They were mortaring the village and there were fighters overhead... Troops opened fire above our heads, just flexing their muscles, and I literally felt sick. The idea that people at our concerts in America, their tax was paying for these instruments of torture was something I hadn't quite come to terms with."
In early July, tragedy hit U2 a lot closer to home. Greg Carroll, Bono's 26-year-old personal assistant and stage roadie, collided with a car in Dublin's Morehampton Road while riding the singer's Harley Davidson home. He died in hospital soon afterwards. The band were devastated. Bono, Ali, Larry and various U2 family members flew out for Carroll's traditional Maori funeral, a three-day affair in Wanganui, New Zealand.
"He was one of those guys you say is too good for this world," Bono told NME. "And he died doing me a favour. I don't know what to say. He further made 1986 the most paradoxical year o our lives. That's why the desert attracted me as an image. That year was really a desert for us. It was a terrible time... death is a real cold shower... it's followed me around since I was a kid and I don't want to see any more of it."
When it arrived nine months later, The Joshua Tree was dedicated to Carroll, his spirit commemorated on the track One Tree Hill. Such were the dark forces that would fuel U2's new musical vision, billed as a "gospel of heaven and hell".
As usual with U2, long discussion of the album's conceptual hinterland took place before a note was even recorded. Bono's twisted, love-hate feelings towards America became the prevailing spirit. As The Edge told Classic Albums, America's desert south-west became "a kind of location and a metaphor. At the time we were all interested in a lot of the American writers: Raymond Carver, the New Journalism, Norman Mailer... just the mood of those writers, they seemed to evoke so much poetry."
Add to that list Charles Bukowski, Walker Percy, Tennessee Williams, Robert Hayden, Sterling Brown, Jim House, plus various Native American poets and Deep South dirty-realists - especially Flannery O'Connor, whose Wise Blood was recommended to U2 by Bruce Springsteen. The elemental power of these Southern chroniclers with their Bible-steeped language, as Bono told NME in 1987, proved "helpful when you want to convey just what a wasteland last year was politically, especially in America."
From the trickle of literature came a mighty river of words and sounds, blues and country, soul and gospel. For a former new wave band raised on the Year Zero ethic of punk, uncovering the vast reservoir of American rock'n'soul was like discovering an overwhelming hoard of buried treasure. U2 had always joked that their record collections began in 1976, but the joke was wearing a little thin a decade later.
"They had a unique ignorance of rock'n'roll which was probably unparalleled," says John Waters. "But they turned that into a virtue in many ways. They had the excitement about it, this curiosity, this wonder about rock'n'roll, but they didn't know what it was. That's what The Joshua Tree was about."
Bono heard his first John Lee Hooker record in 1985, jamming with The Rolling Stones and The J Geils Band in New York. Embarrassed at his ignorance of the vintage licks being traded, the young Irishman wrote his first blues number just hours later. Set in a South African jail, Silver And Gold was recorded for the anti-apartheid Sun City album with Keith Richards and Ron Wood. A live version later surfaced on U2's 1988 double album Rattle And Hum, with Bono commanding Edge to "play the blues". Ouch. Not their finest hour, but this song helped ignite the rootsy-bluesy fuse that led inexorably to The Joshua Tree.
"Bono has fairly strong ideas," The Edge told Rolling Stone. "Lyrically, he wanted to follow the blues and get into America. I'd written off white blues in 1978. I was trying desperately to figure out ways to play without using white blues. I wanted to push the European atmospherics. But listening to Robert Johnson and other early blues, I could see what was there. I warmed to the idea."
According to BP Fallon, "It was natural to go back to the American sources. Just like The Beatles, the Stones, Them etc. had done. Just like The Sex Pistols with The Stooges' No Fun. You can only drink from the well by lowering the bucket."
In the Rattle And Hum spin-off book, Bono insists, "As an Irishman I have a right to be plugged into American music. A lot of it came from Ireland and crossed the Atlantic in the pockets and memories of the immigrants." In the same book, Bono claims America has "colonised our unconscious" via Hollywood, Coca-Cola, Harley Davidson and a million other cultural exports. "Growing up in Ireland, I was aware of America as a super-real place," he says. "When I got to America I found it was just as super-real as it was on TV. People were shooting each other dead on the streets and all that. There was the dream and the nightmare, side by side."
The desert and the dual nature of America, half-promised land and half-purgatory, became key images behind the album. Indeed, the record's working titles were Desert Songs and The Two Americas right up until the photo shoot for the sleeve in December 1986.
But for a fiercely ambitious band who had toured America religiously for half a decade, often to warmer welcomes than in Britain or Ireland, U2's fascination with The Big Country, also made commercial sense.
As manager Paul McGuinness explained in Classic Albums, The Joshua Tree "came out of this great romance the band had with America. We had spent most of the '80s in America, we used to tour America for three and four and five months a year, year after year. We loved America and we found it very liberating and the acceptance of U2's music on America was always gratifying."
When U2 later came to promote The Joshua Tree in America, they were careful not to ruffle any feathers. "We only get away with our criticisms of America because people know we love to be in America," Bono told Rolling Stone. "U2's attitude doesn't come from a typical European eyes-down-the-nose look at American life... because what I feel is a mixture of love and anger, and love and anger do not condescend. Miles Davis and Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix and the great bluesmen and the gospel singers and the wide-open spaces and the great writers like Tennessee Williams and poets like Robert Hayden and Sterling Brown would not let me - because America has given me much more than I could ever give it."
U2 began to assemble The Joshua Tree by sifting through tapes of sound-check jams from their 1984-5 Unforgettable Fire tour, seeking fragments to polish and recycle. But Bono and The Edge also made a conscious decision to tighten up their song-writing in a more classic vein, bringing many more finished ideas to the studio than on any previous U2 album. All four band members would arrive at the sessions with sacks full of cassettes.
Over time, the songs began to take the form of mythic landscapes. High desert plains. Blasted prairies. Crumbling city walls. It was more like making a movie than a record. "We used to call it cinematic music," The Edge said in Classic Albums. "Music that actually brought you somewhere physical as opposed to an emotional place."
Adam Clayton agreed. "The album takes you somewhere," he told Rolling Stone. "It's like a journey. You start in the desert, come swooping down in central America, running for your life. It takes me somewhere, and hopefully it does that for everyone else."
And swoop it does, out of Eno's ambient twilight, hitting the ground running with the scything, urgent, percussive call to arms of Where The Streets Have No Name. Bono would later relate his fable-like lyrics to both Belfast and Ethiopia, but the lean and muscular tune began as a solo sketch on The Edge's four-track home studio. One problem: his opening star-burst of sonorous, crystalline, criss-crossing guitars were composed in a different time signature to the body of the song, requiring weeks of studio surgery that almost drove Eno to despair.
"I have to say at the time I didn't appreciate the hours of thought that had gone into such an idea," Adam Clayton told Classic Albums. "It just seemed like a way of fucking the band up. We would spend interminable hours figuring out chord changes to get the two bits to join up, which is why it drove Brian mad.
According to U2 folklore, Eno had to be physically prevented from erasing the song entirely at one point. Not quite true, he told Classic Albums, but almost. "Probably half the time that whole album took was spent on that song," Eno recalled. "It was a nightmare of screwdriver work, you know? And my feeling was it would just be much better to start again - I'm sure we would get there quicker if we just started again. So my idea was to stage an accident to erase the tape so we would just have to start again. But I never did."
In an interview with Daniel Lanois in August 2003, the producer told Uncut: "Brian thought if he could just erase it from the tapes we could stop working on it. I'm sure they would have just come up with another song. It's interesting, sometimes the songs that receive the most attention are the ones that don't make it. You just hate to lose your investment. I'm not sure if Brian was right, but it did drive me a little bananas as well."
Ironically, considering Where The Streets Have No Name later became a satirical hi-NRG disco cover by The Pet Shop Boys, U2's studio version originally throbbed to a Depeche Mode-style electronic pulse. "It was kind of the beginning of techno," Clayton claimed in Classic Albums.
The next track on The Joshua Tree is another shimmering single, I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, arguably U2's most glorious five minutes of ecstatic rapture. Built on a rock-steady strolling bass and drums lifted from another incomplete track, variously titled Under The Weather or The Weather Girls, Bono's spiritually questing lyric drew on the rich language of the Psalms. But the song's radiant glow is rooted in Lanois and Eno's passion for gospel music.
"It was a very non-U2 thing to do at the time, to go up the street of gospel," Lanois explained to Classic Albums, "but I think it opened a door for them, allowed them to experiment with their territory. Bono's singing at the top of his range and there's something very compelling about somebody pushing themselves. It's like hearing Aretha Franklin."
Equally, Eno was pressing for songs that were "self-consciously spiritual to the point of being uncool", he told Classic Albums. "I thought 'uncool' was a very important idea then, because people were being very, very cool. And coolness is a certain kind of detachment from yourself, a sort of defensiveness actually, not exposing something because it's too easy to be shot down. And, of course, everyone was in the process of shooting U2 down. Critically, they were not favoured, although they had a big public following."
For The Edge, gospel provided a bridge between U2's broadly Christian faith and the secular yearning of rock'n'roll. "Gospel music has strongly affected me," he told Rolling Stone in 1988. "It's exactly the opposite of what modern music is about. Modern music is hiding. It's all about stance and image. Gospel to me is total abandon, and that is the beginning of soul."
With Or Without You was the third track on The Joshua Tree, and another single. A nagging heartbeat of bass, a molten slick of The Edge's trademark "Infinite Guitar", and Bono's meditation on the sadomasochistic temptations of a love he both craves and fears. Scott Walker's ultra-bleak 1984 album Climate Of Hunter was named as an influence, although live airings of the tune sometimes mutated into Joy Division's thematically similar Love Will Tear Us Apart.
With Or Without You is probably the most personal statement on The Joshua Tree. In Rolling Stone Bono called it "a twisted love song" about "the violence of love, ownership, obsession, possession, all these things". It became U2's first US No 1 single, peaking at No 4 in the UK.
Freewheeling country-blues waltz Trip Through Your Wires also addresses sex and temptation, only in a more joyful manner, with Bono blowing dirty harmonica as he celebrates an encounter with some mysterious, lascivious siren. And In God's Country is another widescreen landscape that became a fourth US single from The Joshua Tree, gatecrashing the UK Top 50 on import. Bounding along on spangled riffs and snaking bass, it combines old-school U2 flag-waving with a call for "new dreams" to replace the divisive politics of Ronald Reagan.
One Tree Hill, the memorial to Bono's friend and roadie Greg Carroll, is the most simple and moving tune on the album, an airy jangle of gliding keyboards and choppy, crisp chords. Although the lyric also alludes to Flannery O'Connor and murdered Chilean freedom fighter Victor Jara, the title refers to one of the volcanic hills overlooking Auckland, a monument Carroll showed the singer when U2 played New Zealand in 1984. On the album's inner sleeve, Carroll's funeral date, July 10, 1986, is printed alongside the lyric.
The cacophonous blues of Bullet The Blue Sky delivers the album's most overtly anti-American statement. The gnarly, shuddering backdrop is Led Zeppelin by way of of Apocalypse Now, while Bono's testifying rant-rap summons up the terror of a Latin American village under a US military assault of Biblical dimensions: "Outside is America."
This juggernaut of righteous anger was born from Bono's travels in Central America, returning home with the po-faced exhortation for The Edge to "put El Salvador through the amplifiers". In NME, Bono explained the song was about "the other side of America - Amerika with a K. I saw American foreign policy affecting the everyday lives of farmers and children. I'd gone to America and embraced America and America had embraced U2. But now I had to rethink, and Bullet The Blue Sky is a result of that."
As with all U2's work, any genuinely radical statement is carefully vague. According to Mark Chatterton's book U2: The Complete Encyclopedia, an early version of Bullet The Blue Sky was recorded with "the world" substituted for "America" to avoid causing offence. But the song took on a fearsome emotional clout live, when it was prefaced by 43 seconds of Jimi Hendrix blow-torching The Star Spangled Banner.
Similar sentiments inform the soft, lyrical outrage of the final track, Mothers Of The Disappeared. A hymn to the Chilean women robbed of their sons, fathers and brothers by CIA-backed dictator Augusto Pinochet, it opens with a sinister keyboard hum from Brian Eno which Adam Clayton likens in Classic Albums to "sinister death squad darkness". A decade later, when U2 finally played Chile on their PopMart tour, dozens of the grieving mothers joined them on stage for the song.
Social problems closer to home are addressed in two of the album's more low-key tracks, Running To Stand Still and Red Hill Mining Town, both based on true stories. The first glides through the mind of a heroin-addicted couple in Ballymun high-rise blocks, the "seven towers" which overlooked Bono's childhood home in Dublin. As deceptively blissed-out as Lou Reed's Perfect Day, it ends with a lone-wolf yodel of opiated defeat. "It's amazing how cheap smack did Dublin in," Bono told Rolling Stone. "And when some of my best friends started... it all go a bit messy."
Red Hill Mining Town is probably the album's weakest track, a stilted treatise on the dignity of labour and the emotional fall-out of the miners' strike which shook Thatcher's Britain in 1984 and 1985. The title alludes both to Peggy Seeger's folk standard Springhill Mining Disaster and the work of campaigning journalist Tony Martin, who wrote about a post-strike pit community he called Red Hill.
"I was interested in the miners' strike politically, but I wanted to write about it on a more personal level," Bono told NME in March 1987. "The untold story of the coal strike is the number of family relationships that either broke down or were put under great strain. That was the final blow."
Red Hill Mining Town was considered as a possible single, and in early 1987 film director Neil Jordan shot a video for the song in Wales, featuring U2 dressed as coal miners. They decided against a single release and quietly shelved the video.
The Joshua Tree hits its heart of darkness on Exit, a barbed-wire murder ballad of sheared guitars, brooding silences and malevolent thoughts ripped from the mind of a maniac. Inspired by The Executioner's Song, Norman Mailer's celebrated book on serial killer Gary Gilmore, it marks the closest U2 have yet come to Nick Cave's glowering intensity.
"I can see where Nick Cave is coming from," Bono told NME. "There's a black beauty to his music, as William Burroughs put it. It's there in songs like Exit... but, ultimately, I do subscribe to the healing force of music. Woody Guthrie said that there's two types of music, one to live to and one to die to..."
These words would come back to haunt Bono four years later, in October 1991, when a disturbed young man called Robert Bardo told a Los Angeles court that Exit had driven him to murder actress Rebecca Schaeffer. A plea of insanity saved him from the death penalty. The "gospel of heaven and hell" indeed.
In a bolder marketing move, The Joshua Tree went on sale in several British and Irish cities just after midnight on March 9. The decision to withhold advance review copies had little effect on the record's rapturous reception - it became the fastest-selling album in history, topping the charts and hitting platinum sales of 300,000 within two days.
In Melody Maker, Simon Reynolds saluted the album's sonic adventurism: "U2 are massive but minimal, majestic but free of pomp or flourish. There are no solos, power chords, curlicues - just a weave of close-chording textures an exhilarating shimmer."
In NME, Jon McCready hailed "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 of them is volume and fireworks. U2 have long dispensed with such things."
Two weeks later, U2 flew to America to begin touring the record, and rushed headlong into controversy. High above the Atlantic, they felt their first jolt of divine disapproval when lightening struck their airliner at 30,000 feet. "Don't worry," Bono told his anxious fellow traveller in First Class, Sophia Loren. "It was only God taking your picture."
The tour's unofficial christening took place on March 27 on the roof of a liquor store on 7th and Main in downtown LA The show was a legal video shoot for Where The Streets Have No Name, but the LAPD moved to shut it down when the huge crowds blocked surrounding streets. U2 were also collecting footage for the tour movie that later became Rattle And Hum, and film producer Michael Hamlyn was almost arrested during a stand-off with police. Still, it made for a dramatic promo, lending U2 a rare dash of rebel-rock credibility.
Just days later, U2 stumbled into a far less stage-managed scandal. Arriving at Arizona State University in Tempe for their first proper show, they were met by protesters incensed at the band's decision to play when Governor Evan Mecham had recently repealed Martin Luther King Jr's birthday as a state holiday. Other bands had already cancelled or moved shows to different states, adding insult to injury for U2, who had written two songs about King and endlessly lionised him in interviews.
U2 had acted quickly to limit the damage, donating money to the Mecham Watchdog Committee, a campaign group calling for the King holiday to be reinstated. The band also released a statement branding Mecham "an embarrassment to the people of Arizona", and Bono later claimed, "Had we known a few months in advance, I don't think we would have played Arizona. But we weren't aware of the exact situation until we got there."
Arizona was full of bad omens. During final rehearsals on April Fool's Day, Bono slipped from a stage ramp and gashed his chin on the portable spotlight that became a feature of The Joshua Tree tour. Dazed and bleeding profusely, the singer was instantly ushered backstage to a waiting ambulance.
The next night, Bono struggled through the opening show with a throat virus. Fearing further problems, U2 decided to postpone a show for the first time ever, pushing the April 3 date back by twenty-four hours. On their extra day of leisure, the band flew to Las Vegas, caught the Hagler-Leonard fight and dropped in on a Frank Sinatra show. When Sinatra gave the hotly-tipped rockers a public welcome, it was the start of a long and strange friendship between Bono and Ol' Blue Eyes.
The tour's opening two-month leg thundered on into Texas and California, then skipped across the Midwest to the eastern seaboard. Huge but stark, with none of the overtly theatrical gimmickry of the bands' '90s reinvention, the concerts were plagued by technical glitches but well received and reviewed.
Returning to Vegas in mid-April, U2 shot a video for I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, strolling through the streets looking like buskers. In Los Angeles several days later, Bob Dylan joined the band on stage, and began co-writing songs with Bono that would eventually appear on Rattle And Hum. And he was not the band's only celebrity visitor. The guest list included Muhammad Ali, Madonna, Sean Penn, Jack Nicholson and more.
Charlie Sheen also dropped in on one of the Arizona shows, only to be lectured about his dissolute lifestyle by Bono. Sheen was "plastered", as he told Premiere in 1988, and the U2 singer expressed his disapproval. Through his hangover the next morning, the Hollywood brat experienced a Damascene conversion: "Fuck it, man, enough." From that day onward, his soul cleansed by the power of Bono, Sheen embraced a pure life of cocaine and whores.
In late April, just as The Joshua Tree began its nine-week reign atop the Billboard album charts, U2 became the first rock band since The Who to appear on the cover of Time magazine. Writer Jay Cocks, a Martin Scorcese collaborator, gushed that "their songs have the phantom soul of The Band, the Celtic wonderment of their compatriot Van Morrison and some of the assertiveness of punk, refined into lyrical morality plays." America was eating out of their hand.
Europe was next. On May 27, the second leg of the tour kicked off at Rome's Stadio Flaminio, with U2's extended family flying out to witness them shift up from arena to stadium gear. "It was like a huge gospel show," Brian Eno told Musician magazine. "There were 60,000 people there and it was a fantastic feeling. Quite often Bono wasn't singing. He'd stop and the whole 60,000 people would sing the song. It was very, very emotional."
June 2 saw U2 play their first UK show since Live Aid at Wembley Arena. Introducing a ragged cover of Dylan's Maggie's Farm, Bono used the platform to lay into Thatcher on the eve of her third election victory. "You talk about our country being divided," he raved, "but your country is even more divided."
U2's media charm offensive took a surreal turn on June 25, when they conducted a studio interview in the nude - or so it was claimed - with Irish DJ Dave Fanning. But there was more flak two days later. As the band played the first of two shows at Dublin's Croke Park, they were profiled on a British TV World In Action special as semi-mystical saviours of Ireland.
"I grew up with violence in me," Bono claimed on camera. "It's still in me and I despise it... there's an anger on the streets of this city and this country of Ireland and I want to be a part of that anger." For most observers, the programme confirmed the popular caricature of U2 as posturing windbags.
As Bono protested in News Of The World on June 28, the band had also become a target for psycho stalkers. "I get threats from people who want to kill me, while others travel from all over the world to pinch Y-fronts from my washing line," he fumed. "Someone puts an arm around you, then you get a paternity suit." In Rolling Stone a few weeks later, the singer elaborated: "I go out and I don't know who I can talk to. I've got people who want to kill me, people who want to make love with me, so they can sell their story to the newspapers, people who want to hate you or love you or take a bit of you."
Even allowing for Bono's irrepressible talent for self-dramatising blarney, the death threats were no fantasy. For months, a mentally fragile Irish-American called Patrick Harrison had been demanding financial recompense for more than a hundred songs he claimed to have supplied to the U2 singer, including all of The Joshua Tree. Finally going public in 1989, Harrison told News Of The World that "most of them I provided in two long letters in 1986. But the last eleven I handed to him personally in a plastic carrier bag when he was appearing at Tempe, Arizona a year later." He also made veiled threats of revenge: "If I took a gun and shot him, that would get everyone's attention."
U2 returned to North America in September for the third and longest leg of the tour, which coincided with the British and Irish publication of Eamon Dunphy's semi-official band biography Unforgettable Fire. Although it was effectively commissioned by U2, the book misfired badly with revelations that mortified the band and factual errors that shamed Dunphy. The reviews were savage, from Neil McCormack's forensic demolition in Hot Press to Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone declaring the book "an embarrassment... full of breathtaking inaccuracies". That aside, Dunphy's book is essentially a positive U2 tribute. Certainly the troublesome details about the group's family backgrounds and religious beliefs barely raise an eyebrow by modern rock-biog standards. But the public fall-out between band and author was far more revealing.
"Bono wants to be seen as a Bob Dylan or Mick Jagger, but he's more like Des O'Connor," Dunphy told The Sun in October, branding the U2 singer a "pompous git" and a "bigot" who was ashamed of his relatively middle-class upbringing. "Theirs is a very hierarchical world which reeks of the old 'lord of the manor' thing. It is not in any way democratic. They don't think anything, for example, of keeping people hanging about them for a long time. A lot of the time they made me feel like a salesman."
U2 manager Paul McGuinness hit back at Dunphy in the band's official fanzine, Propaganda. "It's a pity that Eamon reneged on his promise to let us see the manuscript to correct errors but he was pressurised by his publisher," McGuinness claimed. "The coverage of people's personal and family lives is something that none of us anticipated."
In NME a year later, Bono said, "Eamon grew obsessed with defining Ireland via U2 - he had this thing about suburbia. He even wanted to call the book Suburban Heroes! Y'know? It all gets too absurd." Larry Mullen Jr added, "A lot of guys talk about honour and dignity but, in the end, they can't even spell them."
According to John Waters, who wrote one of the essays appended at the end of Unforgettable Fire, the bust-up only occurred because U2 failed to read Dunphy's manuscript in time for publication. Consequently, both felt exposed. "It got pretty vicious between them," says Waters. "At one point Bono said to him, 'You know what you are? Rat poison!' And Dunphy agreed, apparently, with his evaluation!"
Back in America, as The Joshua Tree dates rumbled to a climax, touring madness began to take its toll. Film-maker Phil Joanou, a former Steven Spielberg protégé, was now on board to direct the movie of the tour that would become Rattle And Hum.
Nicknamed "E.T." by the band, the 26-year-old director was on hand on September 25 when Bono dislocated his shoulder on stage at Washington's Kennedy Stadium, even following him into the ambulance afterwards. Hence the singer's arm sling two days later when Joanou filed Harlem's New Voices Of Freedom choir rehearsing their soaring gospel version of I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For with U2 before a guest appearance at their Madison Square Garden shows.
Joanou's cameras caught many moments of unabashed joy and idolatry. A trip to Graceland to pay homage to Elvis, Spinal Tap style. A meeting with legendary bluesman BB King in Texas to duet on When Love Comes To Town. A clandestine five-hour recording session at Sun Studio in Memphis, the birthplace of rock'n'roll, laying down tracks for Rattle And Hum. A version of the exquisite love ballad She's A Mystery To Me, written for Roy Orbison, was also recorded there.
For two shows in November, U2 donned hats and wigs to play a short support set for themselves as bogus Texas country band The Dalton Brothers. Few people recognised them. And yet, as Bono later admitted, the tour had its darker side, too. "It was one of the worst times of our musical life," he recalled in the Rattle And Hum book. "We were on the run the whole time and I busted up my shoulder and was in a lot of pain. And I found that I was drinking a lot just to stop the pain."
The singer dropped even murkier hints in a Rolling Stone interview in October 1987. "Members can get a bit out of control on a tour and forget where they've come from and who they've left behind... you can start to live out the music a little too much sometimes, where the demons you're exorcising in the songs sort of follow you home.
Warming to the notion of trashing his goody-goody image, Bono claimed he was taking "bastard lessons" and confessed, "If you could see into the dressing rooms and the offices of a lot of bands in our position, you would see the real abuse of power. Like making a promoter crawl because you are paying his wages. Like the sexual abuse of people who are turned on by your music. I don't know whether I am guilty of all of those. Maybe I am. But that is the type of power I worry about in rock'n'roll."
In NME some months later, Adam Clayton confirmed U2's reputation for backstage Bible-reading had given way to more traditional rock hedonism. "The excess is always there," he said. "It's unnatural to be away for three months and living out of a suitcase. It's not something you can legislate about. There's none of this 'no drugs on the road' or whatever. People get through it the way they do. A lot of people do fuck themselves up, and it's not just in rock'n'roll bands."
Joanou shot black-and-white concert footage at Denver's McNichols Arena on November 7 and 8, as well as U2's impromptu "Save The Yuppies" free show in downtown San Francisco on November 11. With their official stage gear on the way to Vancouver, the band borrowed equipment and crew from The Grateful Dead and played a free show to 20,000 people on the back of a truck. As the nine-song set ended, Bono climbed on a sculpture and spray-painted "Rock & Roll - Stop The Traffic".
San Francisco Mayor Diane Feinstein, conducting a war on graffiti at the time, was outraged. "I am disappointed that a rock star who is supposed to be a model for young people chose to vandalise the work of another artist," she told reporters.
A warrant is issued for Bono's arrest, but dropped when he apologised and agreed to pay to clean up the graffiti. But Bono's climb-down was not wholly sincere. Returning to play nearby Oakland Stadium three days later, he told 60,000 cheering fans: "Somebody should explain to Mayor Feinstein there is a big difference between graffiti art and an act if vandalism."
The Joshua Tree tour ended where it began - Tempe, Arizona. For two cold nights, December 19 and 20, the Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe was filled to capacity after a bargain five-dollar price was set in order to ensure impressive crowd scenes for Joanou's cameras. In the Rattle And Hum spin-off book, Bono described the concert as "like Apocalypse Now, but without so many helicopters".
The first night went badly, with Bono departing from the pre-agreed set list in order to hype up a lukewarm crowd. In an emergency backstage post-mortem, Joanou declared the show a "total disaster". But the second night soared along, a triumphant finale in front of family, friends and Island Records boss Chris Blackwell. Closing the tour on a special note, U2 aired their festive cover version of Phil Spector's Yuletide pop gem Christmas - Baby Please Come Home.
And then, after nine months on the road, playing 110 shows in 72 venues to over three million people, it was all over. America had been courted, colonised and all but conquered. All they needed now was a killer sequel to secure the throne.
John Waters coined a word for U2's ambitions for The Joshua Tree. They were aiming to "pantheonise" themselves, to pole-vault into rock's premier league alongside Elvis, Dylan, Dylan, Hendrix, the Stones and all the rest. By standing on the shoulders of giants, jamming with elder statesmen and writing songs for rock'n'soul legends, they might pass for cultural giants themselves. It was an audacious plan. All the more so because it worked - to the tune of 14 million album sales.
In America, The Joshua Tree became the third biggest-selling album of 1987. In interviews, Bono took credit for subverting the mainstream by reviving '60s-style passion in an era of plastic pop like Debbie Gibson, Mel & Kim and Rick Astley. But U2's sculpted retro-classicism did not arrive in a vacuum. Springsteen and Live Aid had already made fist-pumping stadium compassion huge. Rock nostalgia was everywhere, from Fleetwood Mac's comeback to the Travelling Wilburys to jean-advert hits for Ben E King, Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke. In the year that MTV launched in Britain, the same punters buying Def Leppard and T'Pau and Terence Trent D'Arby were also buying The Joshua Tree.
Still, Bono could afford to boast. "Soul Music," he told the Grammy crowd in February 1988 (The Joshua Tree won Best Album). "That's what U2 wanted to make. It's not about being black or white, or the instruments you play, or whether you use a drum machine or not. It's a decision to reveal or conceal."
Collecting the Best Group gong, a semi-coherent The Edge thanked a long list of friends and heroes including Martin Luther King, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Flannery O'Connor, Walt Disney, John the Baptist, "sumo wrestlers around the world" plus "Batman and Robin" - U2's nickname for Lanois and Eno.
Bono also popped up at the Brits in March to collect U2's Best International Group award. But otherwise, the Dublin quartet laid low for most of 1988. Initially tipped for a spring release, the Rattle And Hum film and soundtrack album were pushed back to autumn. Early in the new year, The Edge and Bono spent some time in a cottage in western Ireland writing songs to complete the record, a sprawling consummation of the band's romance with American roots music.
One product of this session was All I Want Is You, the elegant love ballad which closes the album with exquisite orchestral strings courtesy of legendary arranger Van Dyke Parks. Several live versions of tracks from The Joshua Tree were augmented by leftovers from the album sessions, notably the dreamy serenade Heartland.
But Rattle And Hum is also haunted by ghosts in the shape of cover versions and naked homages. Hendrix and Dylan jostle for attention in a ragged live assault on All Along The Watchtower, featuring a cheesy improvised rap from Bono about fighting his righteous battles with "three chords and the truth". Dylan also appears on the bouncy lament Love Rescue Me, originally bashed together with Bono during U2's June 1987 dates in Los Angeles, and on the whirling anthem of sexual frustration, Hawkmoon 269.
The name "Hawkmoon" was taken from a Dakota backwater town that U2 passes on Amnesty's "Conspiracy Of Hope" tour, while the "269" refers to the number of takes it required in painstaking studio revisions.
"We actually physically wore the tape down doing that number of mixes," Bono told Niall Stokes of Hot Press. "We were recording in Sunset Sound, with all the shit that happens around there going on. Search-and-destroy choppers looking for drug busts. Sunset Strip. Hookers. Every neon sign advertising sex in some shape or form. You could feel that all coming through in Hawkmoon."
Even more supercharged with lust is Desire, a three-minute crosstown traffic jam of raucous, tumescent, bluesabilly swagger set to a Bo Diddley back-beat by way of Buddy Holly, the Stones and The Stooges. In October 1988 it gave U2 their first ever UK No 1 single, later reaching No 3 and winning a Grammy in the US.
Another killer single, Angel Of Harlem, dated back to the band's Sun Studios session with the Memphis Horns in November 1987. A Stax-heeled stomper dedicated to Billie Holliday, it also features cameos from John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. "It's a jukebox song," Bono claimed in Hot Press. "That's one that people play in bars."
The BB King duet When Love Comes To Town, another future single, reaches similar heights of soul-fired abandon. Completing a guest list that reads like a Rock'n'Roll Hall Of Fame VIP party, Little Richard's testifying intro was directed over the phone by The Edge. Even The Beatles got a look in on the punchy opening cover of Helter Skelter and the soul tirade of God Part II. Nodding to God from John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band album, it finds Bono railing against dirt-digging biographer Albert Goldman for his scabrous Lennon and Presley biographies. When U2 ran into Yoko Ono, she said, "That was a nice cover version you did of John's song."
In Rolling Stone, Anthony DeCurtis found it "calculated in its supposed spontaneity... the album ably demonstrates U2's force but devotes too little attention to the band's vision."
In The Village Voice, Tom Carson decried "an awful record" bogged down with "half-baked, overweening reality" and "know-nothingism". And Jon Pareles of The New York Times claimed the album was "plagued by U2's attempt to grab every mantle in the rock'n'roll hall of fame... each attempt is embarrassing in a different way."
Many UK critics were similarly scathing, although NME's Stuart Bailie was a notable exception, awarding 8/10 to a "crazy, turbulent beast of a thing" from a band "reaching back to traditional sounds with a winning enthusiasm." Curiously, Bailie's review replaced a stridently negative 4/10 notice by Mark Sinker branding Rattle And Hum "the worst album by a major band in years", and accusing U2 of "treating BB King like their butler".
That last-minute substitution reflected NME market research which showed that a U2 cover could boost circulation by 30,000 copies. Sinker left the paper in disgust, although with hindsight he admits his review was a deliberate act of provocation. "I set them up to make fools of themselves," Sinker laughs today. "But I thought, absolutely correctly as history has proved, that it was an appalling record. Within a year, Record & Tape Exchange was full of unsold copies."
Ultimately, though, the Rattle And Hum album proved critic-proof. A transatlantic chart-topper, it became the first double-album to hit Billboard's top spot since Springsteen's The River eight years previously. It had shifted five million copies by year's end, and continued to sell steadily, eventually matching The Joshua Tree with total sales of 14 million.
Iain Johnstone in The Sunday Times branded it "possibly the worst rock documentary ever made... U2 emerge as the most bland, uninspiring and uninteresting quartet of musicians assembled since somebody shook The Monkees out of their plaster casts." Andy Gill of The Independent complained, "We never get close to U2 at all, never find out anything about them... in their urge to avoid looking daft, they have re-edited their reality to the point of solemnity."
Meanwhile, US critics found U2's celluloid bid for American icon status presumptuous and preposterous. Hal Hinson of The Washington Post quipped that it was "a tad early for the band to be lobbying for admission to the pantheon", and wondered if there had "ever been an entertainment figure more in love with his upper arms than Bono?" meanwhile, David Fricke in Rolling Stone noted "an uncharacteristic lack of focus" and "the band's inability to reconcile the difference between discovering America and conquering it."
As an extra kick in the teeth, several newspapers claimed IRA paramilitaries had put Bono on a hit-list for his "fuck the revolution" speech following the Enniskillen bombing outrage that left 11 dead and 63 injured on November 8, 1987. The singer had been advised to cut his on-stage outburst from the Rattle And Hum film but, to his credit, it stayed. Some papers suggested the film's charity London premiere, on October 31, would have to be cancelled. It wasn't and U2 all turned up, although their attempts to busk in Leicester Square were prevented by rowdy crowds and police. Another day, another death threat.
In the US, Rattle And Hum made just $8.3 million on 1400 screens over its opening Thanksgiving weekend - a perilously poor showing for its budget of $5.6 million. As it was pulled from screens, both band and film-makers went on the defensive. Although U2 had control of the final cut, Joanou took the blame for the documentary's relentlessly serious tone.
"The movie was meant to be a fairly serious depiction of their music," Joanou told Rolling Stone. "I have footage that could have changed that, but my plan was to do an aggressive, grab-people-by-the-throat-and-shake-them kind of movie rather than a romp through America with U2. A romp with U2 wasn't something I could swallow, so I went for an overly serious, pretentious look at U2. That's a fair criticism, but what the hell?"
On the question of U2 ranking themselves alongside the elder statesmen of rock'n'soul, Bono did himself few favours. "Let's get down to The Beatles here," he seethed in Rolling Stone. "We're not saying we're a better band than The Beatles, but we are more of a band than The Beatles. We are. There's four of us - a street gang, essentially, who drew no lines."
Digging himself an even deeper hole, the singer continued. "As an Irishman, I feel a real closeness to the black man because we both have soul and the spirit to spit it out," Bono said. "The Irish have been described as white niggers, and I take that as a compliment. A lot of my heroes happen to be black artists... it's just a bummer, me buying all these black records and them not buying any of ours."
For years afterwards, U2 would dismiss Rattle And Hum as "compromising" and "embarrassing". But in fairness, the documentary has enjoyed a healthy shelf-life, and remains an exciting, technically excellent snapshot of a huge band at a crucial turning point in their career.
By the time of the band's next album, Achtung Baby, U2 had more gracious things to say about their big-screen folly. In 1992, Bono defended Joanou in Rolling Stone. "He was into the Big Music," the singer said. "He gave the music the same weight Scorcese gave the boxing ring in Raging Bull. You may not like it, but it was a strong point of view."
The backlash against U2 in the wake of Rattle And Hum was more critical than commercial, but the project left a sour aftertaste for band and fans alike. America had been in the palm of their hand with The Joshua Tree, only for it to roundly pan the sequel's self-aggrandising mix of flattery and cultural appropriation. Not so much unrequited love as an elephant flicking away a bothersome fly. Hmmm... a fly? That sounds like a possible new direction...
It wasn't just Americans who found Rattle And Hum ridiculous. In Dublin, a clutch of journalists from Hot Press magazine formed a comedy covers band called The Joshua trio specifically to mock Bono's self-serious screen image. Wearing religious robes and re-enacting key scenes from U2's life, the trio even featured in Rolling Stone.
"This is when U2 were at their most pompous," recalls Arthur Matthews, a Joshua Trio founder who went on to co-write the cult TV comedy Father Ted. "They subsequently did lighten up, and whether we had anything to do with that I have no idea. Possibly Rattle And Hum lends itself to satire, the whole messianic thing with Bono. But I grew up with U2, I'm more or less the same age, and I feel they're almost part of the family. You fall out with them at times, but at the end of the day you make up again. When they started off, they were very un-self-conscious and un-cynical. And that was very un-Irish - they weren't prone to a lot of the Irish neurosis. They were willing to take chances and be laughed at. People would laugh at them, you know? I certainly did."
Mocked and chastened, U2 were already looking for a new identity by the time they played their final live dates of the decade in 1989. Postponed from the end of the original The Joshua Tree tour, the four month Love Town jaunt finally brought the show to Australia, New Zealand and Japan, along with a smattering of European shows.
As a harbinger of the less sanctimonious, more hedonistic U2 that would emerge in the '90s, the tour began with the band's first ever drugs bust. Discovered by police officers sitting in the open boot of his Aston Martin outside a Dublin pub in August, Adam Clayton was found to have nineteen grammes of cannabis. But unlawful possession charges were dropped at a court hearing in September after the besuited bassist agreed to pay £25,000 to a local charity.
A few years earlier, even this minor rock'n'roll infraction might have shattered U2's saintly image. But as the '90s dawned, they were already in reinvention mode. "It's a very interesting time for U2," Bono told Rolling Stone in 1989. "There is a sense of 'up drawbridge', cut ourselves off, and a sense of feeling misunderstood. Rattle And Hum was the end of something... As far as we're concerned, the '80s were just a rehearsal."
At the band's New Year's Eve show in Dublin, Bono told the crowd, "This is the end of something for U2... we have to go away and just dream it all up again."
The afterlife of The Joshua Tree has been instructive. U2 spent most of the '90s trying to ditch their stone-faced pilgrims image. The skin-shedding began with the scrambled, ironic, twisted grooves of Achtung Baby, an album Bono described as "the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree".
"Even I would have probably hated us then," Bono admitted to Rolling Stone in 1992. "What was scary to me was that people who were criticising us weren't really listening to the records. The records were not propagating any kind of 'men of stone' thing. The Joshua Tree is a very uncertain record. I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For is an anthem of doubt more than faith."
"You could say they were the first post-modern rock band," says John Waters. "They knew all the moves. They created a past, then they created a future. But were they ever a real rock band. Or were they simply a kind of Monkees with integrity?"
Either way, The Joshua Tree remains a high watermark for U2 disciples and dissenters alike, and still tops "greatest album ever" polls in the 21st century. And it can't be overlooked that, after their journey into techno-irony unravelled messily with 1997's Pop, U2 embraced the new millennium with a return to Biblical allegory and monochrome monumentalism on All That You Can't Leave Behind. Some critics called it a failure of nerve, a cynical bid to regain their virginity. But it became U2's biggest success yet. The prodigal return.
In the '90s people started getting scared about wearing their hearts on their sleeves," says Daniel Lanois. "But with All That You Can't Leave Behind, I just think everybody finally matured enough to realise the main commodity of U2 is heart and soul."
U2 took a huge bite out of rock history with The Joshua Tree. But, in the end, they got greedy.
"Why can't we have it all?" Bono protested to Rolling Stone in 1989. "Why can't rock'n'roll dance like Elvis Presley, sing like Van Morrison, walk like The Supremes, talk like John Lennon, roar like The Clash, drum like Keith Moon and play guitar like Jimi Hendrix? Why?"
It was a fantastically ambitious dream. It made them superstars in America. But it couldn't and shouldn't have lasted. Disgusted once more by their own reflection, U2 set off in search of new dreams. They still haven't found what they were looking for.
In November 2001, The Joshua Tree proved its staying power by topping a VH-1 poll of All-Time Greatest Albums. Of almost 40,000 votes collected from viewers and music industry figures, it received around one-fifth of the total - 6,000 clear of its nearest rival, Michael Jackson's Thriller. Oasis, Madonna, Nirvana, Stevie Wonder and Radiohead also made the Top 10, with two showings for The Beatles.
"We were surprised," says VH-1 senior producer Paul King. "Because we are part of the industry, we were expecting people to quote Revolver, Dark Side Of The Moon, Songs In The Key Of Life, Pet Sounds - and of course those records featured. But when it came to the viewers, the demographic age group who were buying records in the '80s and '90s, U2 was miles ahead."
Other awards for The Joshua Tree included two Grammys and a Brit in 1988. Also awarded U2 Best Album of 1987, Best Artist, best Male Singer, Best Songwriter, Best Guitarist, Best Album Cover, Best Live Performance, Best Bass Player, Best Drummer, Sexiest Male, the top two Best Videos and top three Best Singles. A complete grand-slam.
"I still think it's one of the all-time great rock albums," King says. "Everyone automatically thinks '60s, '70s, blah blah. But if we're looking at a 40-year history, The Joshua Tree does stand right up there."
"Like A River To The Sea": Greg Carroll, 1960-1986
Brendan Fitzgerald first met Greg Carroll during his days a a drummer on Auckland's early-'80s band scene. He was a "super crew/roadie dude" who worked all the music venues and, unusually for a Maori, followed all the latest post-punk bands.
"H used to have startling mohawk-style haircuts and dye jobs on his curly mop," recalls Fitzgerald, who swapped New Zealand for London in the late '80s.
"I remember him as a great guy to hang out with - energetic, funny, enthusiastic, and really pro when he had a gig on. He was always working, and if he wasn't he'd be in the audience of whoever was playing. He loved music."
Carroll came to U2's attention during the band's Auckland rehearsals for their Unforgettable Fire tour. Bono needed a fearless, reliable roadie to keep him out of danger during his manic stage-diving episodes.
"The band were patchy on the opening nights," Fitzgerald remembers. "The Edge took the bass off Clayton at the start of 40 because the 'unsteady' bassist was more interested in waving his magnum of Moët about. But there was Greg getting amongst it, hands high over his head, feeding out the mic lead."
When they departed for Australia, U2 offered Carroll a full-time job. He seized the chance and soon became integral to the band. Check out their Live Aid set - that's Carroll shadowing Bono's every step as he plunges into the crowd. In Dublin, he effectively became the singer's personal assistant and soul mate. He also began dating Kate McGuinness, sister of U2 manager Paul.
But then, early in July 1986, tragedy struck. "I heard about his death right after it happened," says Fitzgerald, who was still in New Zealand. "The wildfire story which did the rounds in Auckland was that he was in a Dublin with sundry U2 types when Bono asked him to nip out and bring his motorbike back from somewhere nearby. Greg readily set off and on the way back - legend has it within sight of the pub - he was run down on the bike and killed."
A devastated Bono, Larry, Ali, Katie McGuinness and others in U2's orbit flew out for the three-day Maori funeral in Carroll's 'marae' (home town) of Wanganui. The Joshua Tree was dedicated to Carroll, while the track One Tree Hill celebrates his memory and a landmark peak overlooking Auckland.
"New Zealand pioneer Sir John Logan Campbell built a memorial obelisk alongside it to 'commemorate the Maori people as a dying race'," Fitzgerald notes. "Maybe Greg told this hideous fact to Bono, who featured it in his lyrics for his Maori friend after he died. Who knows...?"
U2 vs America: Dylan
Dylan was the living embodiment of the soulful, questing, mystical protest-folk spirit that U2 were trying to mine in their Joshua Tree period. Bono first met him when he interviewed him for Hot Press, and later they duetted together on stage at Slane Castle near Dublin in 1984. The Old Groaner proved far more schooled in roots music than the young pretender, and Bono later admitted: "He was the one that sent us on this journey into the past that ended up with Rattle And Hum."
Since then, Dylan and U2 have shared a stage on numerous occasions, jamming and writing songs together during the Joshua Tree tour. In June 1987, the two singers sang ragged duets of Dylan's I Shall Be Released and Knockin' On Heaven's Door. "I used to make my own words up to Bob Dylan songs," Bono announced, "but Bob said it was okay."
Dylan collaborated on Love Rescue Me and Hawkmoon 269 for Rattle And Hum, while U2 have covered several of his tunes, notably Maggie's Farm, All Along The Watchtower and A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall. "I don't care what Dylan does in his free time," Adam Clayton told NME in 1988, "but when he puts an instrument in his hand, he has something. That's what we're interested in."
U2 vs America: Elvis
"Elvis is alive," Bono insists in BP Fallon's interview notes for U2's Zooropa tour. "We're dead."
The King Of Rock'N'Roll is so rich in musical and metaphorical importance, U2 can hardly keep away from him. The fascination first surfaced in the semi-improvised rant Elvis Presley And America from 1984's The Unforgettable Fire album, which treated Presley's rise and fall as an allegorical, almost divine parable. Bono addressed similar themes in a poem called American David, lending Elvis further Biblical significance, and again on Elvis Ate America for the U2 offshoot project Passengers. U2 also covered Presley standards Are You Lonesome Tonight?, His Latest Flame, Suspicious Minds and Can't Help Falling In Love With You.
It was the lean, mean, '50s Elvis whose spirit haunted Rattle And Hum. Larry Mullen Jr, who named his son Aaron Elvis, paid homage at the King's Graceland grave during the movie, while the B-side to Desire was titled A Room At The Heartbreak Hotel and Presley's young face watched from the walls as U2 recorded at Sun Studios in Memphis.
But by the time of the Zoo TV and Zooropa tours, Bono was performing karaoke King tunes in a gold lamé devil costume. But behind the bloated kitsch of Vegas Elvis, the U2 front-man claimed in a recent TV special, was "the gravitas of a guy who's actually run out of life and love: he became an opera singer."
Zoo TV encores ended with a jokey but revealing announcement: "Elvis is still in the building."
"Why Have You Brought Us To This Shitty Place?"
Anton Corbijn on the truth behind the Mount Rushmore of album sleeves.
The Joshua tree Monument near Palm Springs is a notorious site of rock'n'roll pilgrimage. A vast national park full of thousand-year-old cactus plants given their Biblical name by Mormon pilgrims, it passed into folklore when former Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers member Gram Parsons overdosed in a nearby motel in September 1973. According to a secret pact, Parsons' body was later kidnapped and returned to Joshua Tree for a ceremonial burning.
But contrary to popular myth, U2 did not shoot their most famous album sleeve in Joshua tree itself. Anton Corbijn's iconic monochrome band shots were mostly taken 100 miles north-west, in Death Valley, where the Dutch photographer spotted a lone tree against a vast desert backdrop. "I've never been back because I'm dreading that people took a bit of the tree," says Corbijn. "That's why I never told people where it is."
Starting in Reno, Nevada, the shoot took place during a three-day bus trek across wintry California hinterland in December 1986. The album was still provisionally titled Desert Songs or The Two Americas until Corbijn suggested The Joshua Tree. After consulting his Bible, Bono agreed. For added comedy value, the band cracked up each time the heavily-accented snapper pronounced "Joshua" as "Yoshua".
"Larry was too embarrassed to tell his girlfriend that we were going to call the LP after this clump of prickles in the desert," Bono told NME in March 1987. "The thought of the world waiting for The Joshua Tree is a bit ridiculous. It sounds as if it will sell about three copies...
Corbijn rented a special landscape camera for the shoot. "I think it was called Horizon, a Russian camera that took big landscapes," he says. "I'd never shot with it before, so I took a risk. On the shot for the gatefold sleeve, I had no idea how to focus it properly. I focused on the background and the band are slightly out of focus. Fortunately there was a lot of light. You also see my case on the ground - I had no idea it was in the shot."
On the third day of the journey, December 15, U2 were anxious to make Peter Gabriel's show at the LA Forum. Corbijn pressed for more portraits in remote, snowy ghost towns. "Bono was furious with me," Corbijn laughs. "He said, 'Why have you brought us to this shitty place? Why the hell did you bring us here?' He was really angry. Later they realised there was a very good reason."
Corbijn's shots became classics - and symbols of U2 at their most po-faced.
"I'm proud of the pictures, I'm happy to be part of them," he says. "But I guess people felt they took themselves too seriously. It was definitely the most serious, I think, that you can photograph a band. You couldn't go any further down the line unless you start photographing graves."
U2 vs America: Sinatra
He was a superstar from a different age, but somehow Frank Sinatra got sucked into U2's orbit following their Las Vegas encounter at the start of the Joshua Tree tour. Backstage, when Larry Mullen Jr started chatting about drummer Buddy Rich, Ol' Blue Eyes was hooked. Bono later duetted with him on I've Got You Under My Skin and awarded Sinatra his Living Legend Grammy in 1994. ("Sinatra is America!" Bono boomed in his speech).
Bono and The Edge penned the Chairman of the Board a tribute tune, One Shot Of Happy, Two Shots Of Sad. Frank never lived to record it, but his Irish admirer sang it to him one night at a Mexican restaurant in Palm Springs.
"Frank's the man," Bono told a New Jersey crowd in 1997. "We're all guests on this planet, as far as I'm concerned." In a TV interview later, Sinatra said: "Lyrics are the soul of a song... Bono shows he's hip to this. He's a good man and I wish him many, many shots of happy."
"We Made It In A Very Loud Drawing Room"
Daniel Lanois on producing The Joshua Tree.
"I knew within the first two weeks this record was going to be something special," Daniel Lanois tells Uncut. "One never knows how far a record will reach commercially, but I knew it was going to be something special musically. It's an emotional thing. For example, we had With Or Without You quite early on, the feeling was already in existence. The Edge had his Infinite Guitar, invented by a Canadian friend of mine. And as soon as we put those stratospheric guitars on top of that pulsating undercurrent, I knew we had something special.
"Brian [Eno, co-producer] and I do very different things. I operate entirely by feel, and Brian is very good with technology. He just has a way of getting into those boxes and getting some soul out of them. But even though he had a lot of patience for sculpting sounds,Brian would probably be less interested than me in getting a good vocal, for example.
"Everyone was looking to break new sound sonically. That's what took the time. In my opinion, that's the best-sounding environment we had on any U2 record I worked on. It's Adam Clayton's house. We rented it for the record and he fell in love with it. It has a very loud wooden drawing room, this mega-sized room. A great rock'n'roll room, we could do no wrong in there. If a room is inspiring to a musician and singer, things can just snowball.
"You Can be Any Colour To Play The Blues"
BB King on playing with U2.
"U2 came by one of my shows once when I was in Ireland," recalls Riley "Blues Boy" King, a Mississippi-born living legend still touring at the ripe young age of 76. "I asked Bono if he would write a song for me and he said yes. About a year later, the group was touring in the US and asked if I would open the show, and I said gladly. Bono said, 'I have this song for you.' He brought it out and I thought it was a very deep song for him, being such a young man. But I liked it very much. The lyrics were very heavy."
Bono later claimed the lyric to When Love Comes To Town was written an hour before the meeting, but King still plays it live to this day.
King and U2 toured together again in 1989, and The Edge awarded the blues godfather a Lifetime Achievement MOBO in 1998. "Edge is a great guy, he's a rhythm section all by himself," says King. "I was grateful to them because they really put me out there. I started seeing a lot of different people who had never heard of BB King prior to this, Younger people, too, fans of U2, had a chance to be introduced to me through them. U2 have been very good friends to me."
But can white Irishmen play the blues, BB? "Blues is not prejudiced. You can be any colour to play the blues. Most people say it's a simple music, I won't argue that. I say everybody can play it, but that doesn't mean that everybody's gonna like it. I think U2 did a very good job. I thought it was great and I still do."
U2 vs America: Hendrix
Although he had already been dead for seventeen years, James Marshall Hendrix became a vital touchstone for the vivid, raging dualities of America that U2 were trying to capture during their late-'80s US odyssey.
Unsurpassed '60s icon and savage musical revolutionary, Hendrix's flame-grilled overhaul of Dylan's All Along The Watchtower was covered by the band on the Joshua Tree tour, while his love-hate shredding of The Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock in 1969 was sampled as the opening fanfare for live renditions of Bullet The Blue Sky.
"It's just a shame that in 1987 there are 16-year-olds who have never heard of Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin," Bono protested in Rolling Stone. "If Jimi Hendrix came along now, he wouldn't get a deal. The companies would file him under 'Black and confused' and 'Out of Tune'."