Mojo APRIL 2017 - by Tom Doyle


The Joshua Tree was the album that launched U2 into the stratosphere - musically, commercially - and consummated a love affair with the fifty states that even Rattle And Hum couldn't curdle. Thirty years on, in a rare mood of retrospection, they're taking it back on the road, only to find eerie parallels between 1987 and 2017. "It seems like we've come full circle," they tell Tom Doyle.

Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Arizona, December 20, 1987. It is the final night of the The Joshua Tree tour and, on-stage, in the hyper-alert minds of the four members of U2, the air is bristling with danger. The FBI are here, scanning the fifty-five-thousand-strong crowd for a potential gunman who has issued a death threat against singer Bono, declaring that he will be shot tonight if he dares to sing the third verse of Pride (In The Name Of Love), which directly addresses the assassination of Martin Luther King, nineteen years before. It is only seven years since the murder of John Lennon in New York, so the FBI are taking death threats against rock stars seriously. On-stage the twenty-seven-year-old singer is thinking: Is he in the building? Could he be on the roof of the bleachers? In the rafters?

Never ones to shy away from expressing their views, U2 had stirred up trouble eight months earlier when they'd chosen to begin the tour in Tempe, arriving in town to discover that the recently-elected Republican governor of Arizona, Evan Mecham, had cancelled MLK Day, a paid holiday for state employees in honour of King, claiming it had been illegally established by his predecessor. As a result, Stevie Wonder has already announced that he will boycott the state. Later, Public Enemy will go much further, on By The Time I Get To Arizona, a protest song with a video where they apparently affix a bomb to the underside of the governor's car.

Ahead of the tour opener at Tempe's twelve-thousand-capacity Activity Center back on April 2, U2 made a "sizeable financial contribution" to the Mecham Watchdog Committee, an organisation committed to removing him from power and, on the night, had promoter Barry Fey read out a statement from the band: "Mecham is an embarrassment to the people of Arizona..."

"We had a go at him," says Bono today, recalling the December 20 show. "The travelling circus had arrived and we're in a pitched battle for the honouring of Dr King. There were a lot of death threats and one of them was taken seriously. The FBI came and we were all spoken to: 'Do you wanna go ahead with the show?' And we did."

Seventeen songs in, U2 launch into Pride. In the third verse, Bono crouches at the front of the stage and closes his eyes to sing. "I looked up at the end of the verse and I clearly wasn't dead," he laughs. "But not only that... Adam Clayton was standing in front of me."

Astonishingly, U2's bassist had protectively stepped between Bono and the audience, ready to take a bullet or dissuade the shooter. "It's weird what goes through your head," says Clayton now. "Or maybe not even through your head. Maybe it's just an instinctive thing of daring someone to carry out a threat like that."

The Edge, with the guitarist's habitual gift for understatement, says, "I just thought, That's a mate..."

The original tour for The Joshua Tree was one filled with incident and drama. Now, thirty years on, U2 are readying themselves to do it all over again, in a near three-month-long American and European stadium jaunt which will see them play the album in full. Some of its songs - Exit, In God's Country, Trip Through Your Wires - have rarely been performed by the band. In the case of Red Hill Mining Town, which in Clayton's estimation suffered from a "mid-tempo problem", they'll be playing it live for the first time.

The announcement of The Joshua Tree Tour 2017 is a surprising one for two reasons. Firstly, U2 have always resisted classic-album nostalgia. Secondly, they had already spoken of their plan to release their in-progress album Songs Of Experience this year and resume their Innocence + Experience tour. So what changed? "Well, the new songs were about ready to go," says Bono, "and then the world changed. We ust had one of those moments where you go, 'Let's step back from this for a second.' It is a very personal album, and it's not gonna become a political album overnight. But it has to now go through the filter of what's happened in the rest of the world.

"We all thought, OK, we better give ourselves a moment to think about this. We really wanted to reflect on our response."

"Contextually," adds Clayton, "The Joshua Tree seemed to in some ways mirror the changes that were happening in the world during the Thatcher/Reagan period. It seems like we've kind of come full circle and we're back there with a different cast of characters."

U2's initial idea was to perform just a couple of Joshua Tree shows, possibly at festivals in the UK and the US, then the plan snowballed. An inspiration may have been Bruce Springsteen's acclaimed 2016 tour of The River - as much for the way it appeared to allow Springsteen to take stock as for its pecuniary success (The River was the highest-grossing tour of the year). "As Bruce Springsteen recently said," notes U2 drummer Larry Mullen Jr, "the songs take you back and they take you forward. I believe that."

"If you remember, I was the one who wanted to cut down The Joshua Tree," quips Bono. "But I think the experience of Songs Of Innocence had quite a profound effect on all of us. If you want to get on to the future, you're going to have to at least visit the past. You may not want to dwell there, but you're gonna have to visit."

The Joshua Tree - now nearing the thirty-million worldwide sales mark - was U2's ambivalent love letter to the US, an album written and released in the time of Reagan, now to be revived in the uncertain era of Trump. Back in 1987, Bono was quoted as saying that the lyrics on the record were about "my love of America and my fear of what America could become". Three decades on, it remains a potent statement.

When it comes to the newly-inaugurated forty-fifth President, U2 have already set out their stall, by including video grabs of the campaigning Trump in their two standalone shows of last year. In Las Vegas in September, during the song Desire, Bono echoed the Republican candidate's repeated phrase, "What do you have to lose?" with the response, "Everything!" In California the following month, the singer furiously dialogued with clips of Trump during The Joshua Tree's Bullet The Blue Sky before yelling, "Candidate... you're fired!"

"Well, y'know, my coming out against Trump was much more personal than political actually," Bono says now. "It was a matter of conscience for me. His threatening of protesters with violence had me on guard (laughs), as I'm naturally one of those protesters."

Of course, few predicted Trump would bag the presidency. But now that he holds high office, it presents Bono with a dilemma. As an artist, does he go on criticising Trump, knowing that, as a leading face of the ONE campaign against global poverty who has taken a bipartisan stance to deal with George W. Bush and Barack Obama, he might have to cool his ire if he's any hope of working with him? It's a question the singer is clearly still working out how to answer.

"I hope that the organisation can suffer me breaking ranks," he sighs. "But I'm an artist as well as a member of ONE, and at times, I have to stand up and speak the truth as I see it to power. In my work in the ONE campaign, if we can find common ground to work, I'd be very happy to. I had a messenger from a long-time associate of President Trump come to me and say, 'Look, we're not thinking about the past, we're thinking about the future, and please be ready to work together.'"

But can Bono really imagine doing that?

"My thoughts were... if there was something real behind that, and there were real commitments - and I know his daughter Ivanka's very keen on gender issues - then we would work together. But I still have very strong feelings about America and I'm not likely to stop, if you like, exhaling on this moment in time."

In other words, like the rest of us, Bono is watching this fast-moving news story unfold, and preparing himself for anything. He does, however, insist that the US leg of the Joshua Tree tour will be issues-based and a "meditation on America".

"So when I sing Red Hill Mining Town in wherever, it's resonant now," he points out. "The America that we came across in our early twenties is not unlike the one that's there now."

It was in the spring of 1985, when touring in support of The Unforgettable Fire took them from the major US cities and out into the heartland, that U2 first began to fall hard for America. Travelling on tour buses borrowed from country stars - the dark stained-oak interiors of which, as Adam Clayton remembers, "looked a bit like a western bar... invariably they'd have a set of cow horns somewhere" - the band members motored for miles through the vast continent.

Looking out on this endless, epic scenery, seeing their faces reflected in the glass of the tour bus windows, they began to wonder how they fitted into this enormous picture. "We didn't just come in, play the hip cities and fuck off," argues Bono. "We loved the landscapes we were travelling through. This mythic America, I think we were all lost to."

To kill their hours and hours of downtime, the band stepped themselves in Americana: reading Flannery O'Connor, Norman Mailer and Raymond Carver, tuning into local radio stations to hear country and blues, pulling into truck stops that sold stetsons and leather waistcoats. "We were part of the post-punk movement," says Edge, "which was a denial of the blues and American influences. It was like a wellspring of inspiration we were able to tap into."

At the same time, as their audiences grew to arena level and The Unforgettable Fire reached Number 12 in the US, the hits weren't happening there for U2, with Pride (In The Name Of Love) disappointingly stalling at Number 33 on the Billboard Hot 100. "We were trying to get on the radio and break a track," the band's then-manager Paul McGuinness admits, "and we didn't succeed in doing that."

Then, in the summer of 1985, came Live Aid, which U2 initially felt they'd botched. Bono disappeared off the stage during Bad - The Unforgettable Fire's extended addicts' elegy - as he laboured to pull a girl out of the audience for a slow dance. Meanwhile, their time slot evaporated, forcing them to cut Pride from their short set. But as the drama played out on nearly two billion TV screens, it was the performance that made them. "It had an enormous effect on U2's career," says McGuinness. "All the albums went into the chart the following day."

Much, then, was riding on the next U2 album. In January 1986, following a positive experience recording on location at Slane Castle near Drogheda with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois for The Unforgettable Fire, the same team entered Danesmoate, a Georgian manor house in the foothills of the Wicklow mountains, on the south edge of Dublin's sprawl. Removing the door between its high-ceilinged living and drawing rooms and replacing it with a sheet of Plexiglas, they fashioned a makeshift recording environment where they would be freed from the pressures of the ticking studio clock.

"Edge found it... I think he needed more rooms for his guitar equipment," jokes Mullen. "It was something different, with few distractions. The house had a special vibe about it."

In contrast to the punchy, increasingly digital productions of the '80s, Edge remembers that part of the sonic inspiration for The Joshua Tree came from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds' 1985 album The Firstborn Is Dead, recorded in the reverberant ballroom at Hansa Studios in Berlin. U2 drafted its co-producer, Mark 'Flood' Ellis, into their sessions. "We just thought, This is what we want... the sound of a room," says the guitarist. "That ambience, that nonclinical feel."

"It was our sound workshop," says Clayton. "We just turned up, we made noise and we let the chemistry of the band and Brian and Danny happen."

Then as now, U2 were a band without a creative formula, which was both to help and hinder them. Brian Eno admitted to this writer in 2006 that it was sometimes a hairy way to operate. "They were moving towards a more exploratory way of working," he remembered. "[But] then you get into that problem of going in the studio and there is really nothing to start from and that's a bit terrifying."

"For us the magic often happens at those moments where no one is paying attention," Edge explains. "It's about experimentation and exploration and discovery."

In addition, the crisis of confidence and commitment U2 had suffered around 1981's October - when they'd painfully wrestled with how life in a rock'n'roll band squared with the Christian faith that three out of four of them espoused - had still to be fully resolved. "We were and are still Bible-reading believers," Bono points out. "And that made you such freakish company. There was a little bit of... are we weirdos? And answer... yes. We were struggling for reasons to be in the band and to not let being in the band destroy our lives and our marriages."

Some of that anguish was to surface in With Or Without You, a song which caught Bono torn between a life of domesticity and free-spirited artistry. "I had some difficult emotional stuff going on," he confesses. "I didn't understand at that point the freedom that I would receive from a committed relationship. (Laughs) I was feeling guilty if I was talking to somebody in the record company who was really attractive. I was, y'know, just... everything was at 11. But that's why With Or Without You is so operatic, and that's OK."

Reference for the song originally came from studio playbacks of Suicide records (not least, Cheree from the New York electronic duo's eponymous 1977 debut) and the arrival of Lanois' friend Michael Brook's Infinite Guitar - a prototype instrument promising ultimate sustain that, if assembled wrongly, would give its player electric shocks. In The Edge's hands it produced the song's atmospheric, humming heart.

"I'm in one room experimenting with this thing," he recalls, "and [Virgin Prunes singer and U2 compadre] Gavin [Friday] and Bono are in the other room listening to With Or Without You. They're suddenly hearing me and I'm not hearing the track and they're like, 'What the fuck's that? That's amazing.'"

Another moment of inspired spontaneity came when the band were playing over a Mullen Jr drum part salvaged from an abandoned, Clash-aspiring track called Under The Weather Girls and Lanois began singing a soul-styled vocal hook in Bono's ear. "He said, 'OK, don't sing too much!'" Lanois remembers. "And then off he went." The result was the light-seeking, gospel-tinged I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, created virtually on the spot. "I don't think that would've happened if Danny wasn't in the room," Bono admits.

Working titles for U2's fifth studio album began to emerge - The Desert Songs, The Two Americas - partly informed by Bono's recent travels in Ethiopia and Central America; in El Salvador he witnessed first-hand the US's intervention in the country's civil war. "Yeah, the trips to Salvador and Nicaragua were really eye-opening," he says. "I went with this sort of leftist Christian group who were smuggling people out. But we also went into rebel-backed territory and got a fright when we witnessed, I guess from a distance, the firebombing of rebel territory."

The result was the thunderous, Zeppelin-shaped Bullet The Blue Sky, in which Bono depicted Ronald Reagan with "his face red like a rose on a thorn bush" slapping down hundred dollar bills. Before recording its skyscraping guitar solo, Edge was vividly instructed by Bono to "put El Salvador through your amp." Elsewhere, what Clayton calls the "death squad darkness" of Mothers Of The Disappeared was a hymn to those who had been "vanished" at the hands of regimes in Central and South America.

"It's kind of ominous," the bassist says of the song. "But there's an optimism in the melody that we can survive these dark forces, as well as an acknowledgement that those dark forces are demonic in these situations."

As the sessions for what was to become The Joshua Tree accelerated to an end point, one track was proving almost impossible to nail. Built around a triplet echo Edge guitar riff that slipped trickily from 6/8 to 4/4, it was conceived as a song that would sum up all the band's ideas for the record and walk tall in a live setting (no pressure, then). But the creation of Where The Streets Have No Name infuriated and exasperated all involved.

"It was more like Neu! than it was like anything that we'd done before," says the guitarist. "None of us had had to play with that sort of precision and discipline."

Daniel Lanois remembers having to "conduct" U2 through the song's changes, written on an enormous blackboard, which he pointed to at the appropriate points with the tip of a pool cue. "I think we could diplomatically and fairly say," he deadpans, "that U2 had not fully achieved their PhDs in music yet. And so I had to be science teacher."

But tinkering continued on the song's master tape, as chords and parts were endlessly changed. At the end of his rope, Eno tried to stage an "accident" to erase the track and force U2 to start again, only to be restrained from doing so by engineer Pat McCarthy. "Eno was not quite as patient as I was at the time," laughs Lanois. "He was a cranky old duck, even back then."

"It was a ridiculous saga, that song," Eno lamented. "God, it was terrible. I estimate that forty per cent of the time was spent on that one song. It became a kind of weird obsession. So I thought, Well if the tape got lost or damaged, we'd have to start again. [But] I didn't do it."

Into the final furlong, U2 brought in Steve Lillywhite - producer of their first three albums and a trusted pair of ears, especially where potential singles were concerned. "Brian and Danny were a bit fried," says Lillywhite today. "It was just a case of passing the baton." Especially important was Lillywhite's mix of With Or Without You. "It's like a flower opening," he says. "The whole song just keeps growing."

"A great 45, as they were known," says Bono. "We were never great at that kind of compression and coherence. It just wasn't U2's forte. Steve did a masterful mix and that suddenly came into focus. With Or Without You and I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For came together right at the very end. So now we've got two singles. The band that didn't usually have any. And the excitement of that... that's what I think changed everything for us."

In March 1987, With Or Without You began to fill the airwaves, and became U2's first US Number 1 single. But the group's transition from arenas to stadiums was not fated to be an elegant one. The U2 live show of 1987 was a high-wire act and, some nights, they fell off. "It was both exciting and terrifying," says Mullen. "To be honest, though, I think it had the biggest impact on the singer."

U2's inconsistency as a live band would some nights enrage Bono, whose attempts to connect with audiences often bore an air of desperation. "We were street fighters more than boxers," he reflects. "To be powered by the Holy Spirit is one thing. To be powered by the fumes of your own rage is another, and on a good night (laughs) we were the former. But oftentimes we just seemed to be a distance from the band we wanted to be. And I wasn't helping matters. I mean, I needed some sort of counselling. I definitely did. 'Cos these songs were unlocking all kinds of stuff in me.

"So we would play Exit [inspired by the murderer Gary Gilmore, as reflected in Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song], and it's a really dark song. I was really black, and I would bring the band into that blackness with me. Occasionally I'd end up in the audience or fall off the stage or do stupid shit and damage myself."

Bono's list of calamities included gashing open his chin on the hand-held spotlight he wielded during Bullet The Blue Sky at the first Tempe show and, later in Washington, DC, slipping over on a wet stage and detaching three ligaments from his left clavicle, forcing him to perform in a sling. In retrospect, was the singer's recklessness a form of self-harm by proxy?

"Yeah, it's not wonderful, and it's not psychologically sound," Bono concedes. "I do remember one of the shows we were playing somewhere and I got really bleak. Sometimes, if I really wanted to beat myself up, I would just almost stick my head in the bass drum (laughs). I'd face into the audience but with Larry's bass drum kicking my head in. And, man, he can kick your head in."

It's easy to forget how young the members of U2 were in 1987 - men just past the mid-point of their twenties, suddenly thrown in the deep end. "We were like, Wow! This is a steep learning curve," Edge remembers. "Doing this in public, out there in front of a stadium full of people."

"I just remember the utter misery of it," Clayton admits. "It's unfortunate to say, but that tour, at the time when we should have been enjoying ourselves and rejoicing in the success, we were trying to figure out how to perform the songs in stadiums in the days when there wasn't video reinforcement. And it was very hard."

Every night, as Paul McGuinness remembers, there would be an after-show post-mortem held where he and the band assessed their performance. Often, tempers erupted when it came to Bono's dangerous antics: "There'd be a row and he would promise not to do it again. But those promises were not always kept."

Night by night, U2 began to get their collective act together, to shine brighter. Demand was building, too, and in a summer European leg, they sold out two nights a Wembley Stadium. Meanwhile, The Joshua Tree had become the fastest-selling album in UK chart history. On their return to America, where the album had hogged the top spot for nine weeks, U2 scored their second US Number 1 single with I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For.

A moment for contented reflection, perhaps, but no - Bono's furies returned at the McNicols Sports Arena in Denver on November 8, 1987, when the news came through of the horrific Remembrance Day bombing in Enniskillen where eleven people, many of them pensioners, were murdered by the IRA, with a further sixty-three injured.

Far from home, on-stage, in an incensed speech Bono declared: "Fuck the revolution! What is the glory in bombing a Remembrance Day parade of old age pensioners? To leave them dying or crippled for life or dead under the rubble of the revolution that the majority of the people in my country don't want."

It was U2 versus the IRA: "We cost them money in America," says Bono today, "because we were campaigning against NORAID, the funding arm of the IRA. Speaking out about that meant in certain neighbourhoods [back home], we were not welcome."

Did the band fear reprisals? "That never really entered our minds," says Edge. "We just felt compelled."

"Y'know," Clayton sighs, "whenever you go up against a terrorist organisation or certainly a culture that has become used to the law of the gunmen, you're not dealing with rational people. But that's not a reason for not speaking out."

Amid this whirlwind, with The Joshua Tree topping the albums charts in twenty countries, U2 acclimatised to their new level of success. Well, more or less. "Looking back," says Edge, "I can see there were lots of things going on where we were starting to show the signs of the stress of it all and the impact on us as individuals."

"Your way of fitting into the world and evaluating things is just thrown for a while," says Clayton. "Unfortunately my response to that was you become a bit of an asshole (laughs). And then eventually you calm down."

U2's discovery of tequila certainly helped. Somewhere in the midst of the Joshua Tree tour, thanks to the socially-lubricating Mexican spirit, the band began to loosen up and have fun. "We discovered the upside-down tequila," Edge remembers. "Somebody puts their head back and they get salt poured in their mouth, a lime squeezed, two shots of tequila. Their head is shaken and then they stand up and swallow."

Post-show, the party would roll on into the small hours. By 5am, U2 were often looking for a hot tub. "You would see the sun come up from the dubious cleanliness of a jacuzzi," Clayton recalls, shared with all your mates." Another channel for blowing off steam was The Dalton Brothers, the hokey and under-rehearsed country and western band they impulsively put together to open for themselves one night in Indianapolis when support act Los Lobos were delayed due to bad weather. In crap wigs, shades and cowboy hats, as Alton Dalton (Bono), Luke (Edge), Duke (Larry) and Betty (Adam), they performed shonky covers of The Eagles' Tequila Sunrise and Hank Williams' Lost Highway, to the boos of their own fans who didn't recognise them.

"Again, I think, without video reinforcement, nobody could see us really," Clayton chuckles. "All they heard was some kind of duff country band."

"We did take the work incredibly seriously," says Edge. "But we never took ourselves seriously. Y'know, we always had a laugh. We always understood that difference."

Elsewhere, being embraced by the world of Hollywood showbiz took some time for U2 to get used to. When Jane Fonda threw a party in their honour, the band, misunderstanding the etiquette, turned up hours late when most of the guests had left. In Las Vegas at the Golden Nugget Casino, seated at a front row table for an intimate Frank Sinatra show, it suddenly dawned on them that they were woefully underdressed. At one point the star asked for a light to be shone on U2's table, offering the wry words, "They may be Number 1 but they haven't spent a dime on their clothes."

"I remember Bono grabbing me," says Paul McGuinness, "saying, 'Oh God, what do we do?' I said, You get up, take a bow."

"Frank was genuinely shocked at the lack of sartorial elegance he had just introduced to his diamond-encrusted crowd," says Bono. "We did look like a bunch of vagrants. But that was a big moment."

Less welcome was Michael Jackson's growing obsession with U2 after The Joshua Tree beat Bad to 1988's Album Of The Year Grammy. Later, he put in a request to U2's management asking to send a private film crew to Dublin to record the band at work in the studio. "Michael wanted to observe us in our natural habitat," notes a still incredulous Bono. "I thought it was a little creepy," says McGuinness. Understandably, they said no.

In fact, U2 had their own movie plans, with a crew shadowing them throughout The Joshua Tree tour, filming what would become Rattle And Hum, a self-financed film venture that ran away from them when Paramount became involved. Edge remembers alarm bells ringing at a meeting with the studio heads where six-foot-high promotional posters of the band members were presented to them: "They'd airbrushed all my stubble."

Subsequently disparaged as an unfortunately po-faced and slavish surrender to Yankophilia, Rattle And Hum nevertheless had its iconoclastic and punkish moments, not least when U2 were seen hastily working out the chords to Dylan/Hendrix's All Along The Watchtower minutes before taking the stage at an outdoor concert in Justin Herman Plaza in San Francisco.

"I was so embarrassed because I had only two strings working [on my guitar]," winces Bono. "But I thought it was quite cool to do something so, so garage band. Bob Dylan would always say, (bone-dry Dylan drawl) 'Thank you for that All Along The Watchtower. I never got to finish it...'"

Nonetheless, the heavily-hyped Rattle And Hum - the film, the album, the T-shirt - spent much of the credit that The Joshua Tree had accrued.

"Instead of U2 paying homage as amateurs," says Bono, "it was a bit like 'U2 now think they're experts on American music'. We were discovering that 'authenticity' in the kind of easy reading of that word was not where U2 should be. Standing there as 'real musicians' with other much better real musicians (laughs), dressed as troubadours. We could never compete in that world of so-called authenticity. We were from a different tradition. We were from no tradition."

Famously, from the stage of their 1989 New Year's Eve gig at The Point in Dublin, the singer announced that U2 were going to go away and "dream it all up again". One track on the Rattle And Hum album perhaps pointed the way forward - the thumping, drum machine-assisted, strikingly modernist God Part II, particularly its telling couplet, "Don't believe in the '60s, the golden age of pop / You glorify the past when the future dries up." A message to themselves, then and now?

"Well, that's the badge," says Bono, owning up to mixed feelings about their pending bout of retrospection. "We should make T-shirts of that for this tour... because that's it. If we're looking in the rear view mirror for much longer than this summer (laughs), somebody should call the cops."

With 1.1 million tickets sold within twenty-four hours of on-sale, the Joshua Tree anniversary tour returns U2 to stadiums, and reminds us - and them - of who they were as a band in a time that was very different and, in some ways, much the same. For Bono, preparations have meant going back to the original album and encountering a former self. It hasn't been an entirely comfortable experience.

"I can hear some of the artists I would've been listening to," he says, "whether it was Nick Cave or Echo And The Bunnymen. I can hear it in the lyrics. I can also hear it, rather annoyingly, in the singing. It's big singing and I get that, and I get that it's declarative and it's open. But it slightly spoils my fun."

Which explains why, for a brand new mix of Red Hill Mining Town helmed by Steve Lillywhite and earmarked for an upcoming release, Bono has gone back to the master and re-recorded his vocal. "We've also brought out the colliery brass band which was recorded at the time," says the singer. "You can't hear it in the original mix."

In some ways, of course, we'd all like to revisit the past and change things. U2 are in a privileged position. "I think these shows this summer," says Clayton, "will be about taking back the Joshua Tree tour and perhaps infusing that repertoire with some fun and lightness that was never in the original. So I think we'll be reclaiming it."

Some things, however, deserve to remain emphatically in the past.

"An unforgivable mistake was made," declares Bono, mischievously. "I think it's important to own up to this. But we did start wearing cowboy boots. And I know that there are people, particularly readers of Mojo and some of them, y'know, respected figures in the world of great songwriting, like Paul Weller, who have never forgiven us for the cowboy boots...

"And I'm here to say to them," he firmly concludes, "you're right. There are things worth bearing a grudge about, and that's one of them. The cowboy hat I have worn since. I might wear it again, but I promise, I will never wear cowboy boots. I'm ready to take a few punches. I think it's time."


I didn't know much about U2 before they got in contact with me. I knew one or two of their songs. I liked Sunday Bloody Sunday a lot. I was living in America at the time and I hadn't really been thinking much about producing. It came as a surprise to me actually that they got in touch.

I remember the first conversation I had on the phone with them. I said to Bono, The only thing is, y'know, if I work with you, I'm probably gonna push the music in a completely different direction.' He said, 'That's exactly what we want to do.' I still felt quite cautious about the whole thing because I'm very opinionated. I've never been the kind of producer who sits there and smiles while something is going on that I don't like. I always think my responsibility is to try to make the best music that I can imagine.

We came from quite different musical backgrounds. I had been moving towards quieter and quieter music which was the opposite direction of where they were going. They had an obvious career trajectory in front of them if they wanted to take it and they didn't. They wanted to do something more than that.

The working relationship, as always, took a little while to settle down. The different roles that people took fell into place fairly quickly. Of course, Bono is very,very visionary and ambitious. I think one of the things that impressed me about the band was that they were very reluctant to settle for anything less than absolutely brilliant. They're very hard working. Very determined and obstinate. Pig-headed almost. You tend to think, Gosh they make it hard on themselves sometimes.

One of the things that I brought with me very much was that modern music is made in studios. So you're possibly missing a lot of opportunities if you just rehearse your music and stand in front of microphones and perform it. A lot of the things that they were listening to and enjoying musically really were products of the studio, for instance the Talking Heads records. They were starting to understand that there are things you can do in studios that you can't do otherwise.

I didn't want The Joshua Tree to sound like a band. I'm never very happy when I'm listening to music and I get the picture of four people playing instruments in my head. What I want is something different from that. I want a film of some kind. I always wanted to create bigger pictures in people's minds and one of the ways I thought about doing that was to say, I don't want the music to have a clear edge to it. I don't want people just to hear guitar, bass, drums, voice. I want those sounds to be located within a sonic world of some kind. That was my thought - to try to expand the music in some way to make for a bigger picture.


Back in the studio, U2's work on Songs Of Experience continues.

Bono was already talking up the imminent release of the second part of the William Blake-inspired Songs Of Innocence/Songs Of Experience diptych as soon as the first arrived in September 2014. But it wasn't until last year, after the completion of what the band still consider the first leg of the Innocence+Experience tour (it'll return in spring 2018) that U2 properly got down to work.

Then, at the end of 2016, following the shock of the US election, work stopped, leading to a rethink of the creative process. "I mean, I've been writing and changing things a little bit," says Bono. "Just tinkering. Edge too."

"A couple of tunes may get lyric updates," says Edge, "and we might even write a new song or two. We have to regroup and just compare notes and see how we all feel about it and what the implications are, based on where the world is at."

"I'd say we're at the eighty-five percent mark," reckons Clayton. "We have probably about fifteen, sixteen songs that could justify a place on the record. We have to cut it down to twelve, and it's a case of moving songs in and out of the narrative, if you like."

More surprising, perhaps - and yet perhaps not - after reported sessions with producers Andy Barlow of Lamb and Jacknife Lee (who worked on 2004's How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb),U2 have been re-rehearsing the tracks for Songs Of Experience, with a view to cutting some of them again live at Electric Lady Studios in New York in March with Steve Lillywhite.

"The band are rehearsing now," says Bono, "so they'll be coming from a rehearsal phase into a recording phase. I'll be in and out. They don't really like me around rehearsals (laughs).

"Once we'd decided we're doing this, I went in to hear them rehearse. They're really good. They're better than good. They may be even better than great. I mean, they have the thing that you just can't learn or practise or whatever. When they play as a band and they're really committed, it's kind of... jaw-dropping. So I'm interested to see where it goes. It references the past but it's about where we're at right now."

Of the songs Bono currently imagine swill make the final track-list, his current favourite is The Showman. "It's like something from Rubber Soul," he enthuses. "It's about singers. It's not me." To illustrate his point he quotes the song's lyrics to Mojo: "The showman gives you front row to his heart / The shaman prays that his heartache will chart / Making a spectacle of falling apart / Is the heart of the show."

Other likely inclusions are The Best Thing About You Is Me and The Little Things That Give You Away, while both Red Flag Day and Summer Of Love reference the refugee crisis in Europe. "Two songs that have a similar theme," says Bono, "about people running for their lives on the sameMediterranean that we're running through the shallows. Summer Of Love is achingly beautiful and empty. It could be a big song and it's tiny. These are real tunes. The progressive rock lurgy has been defeated. It's dead. But not the spirit of innovation, not the spirit of experimentation."

Clayton says lessons have been learned after Songs Of Innocence: "There wasn't clarity to some of the mixes and we needed to be a little bit more inventive sonically. I mean, that record, when we performed it live, the songs became very, very masculine and very tough and we didn't really capture that on the record. So again one of the reasons why we're trying to slow this down a bit is we really want to get the mixes right. We don't want a soup. We want a consommé."

The plan, for now, is that Songs Of Experience will be released in the latter half of 2017. Famous last words, of course, as Bono himself acknowledges. "I mean, the only rush was the hubris of me telling everyone that this time I'm serious, the Songs Of Experience will be out shortly.And of course (laughs), the public flogging and the humiliation of the singer only delighted the band even more."