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Mojo JANUARY 2008 - by Danny Eccleston
U2: The Joshua Tree - four new versions of U2's best record: remastered; remastered with outtakes CD; all the above plus bonus DVD; or double-vinyl for sound-heads. Danny Eccleston decides that, as ever, original is best.
Type www.apple.com/downloads/dashboard/reference/oblique.html into your browser and you're in for a weird treat. It's a downloadable set of Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies flashcards, a desktop version of the system he invented in 1975 to disrupt conditioned thought-processes and spark creativity. Long before bogus business gurus began exhorting their gullible clients to "think outside the box", Eno was telling Talking Heads to "Tidy up".
This Oblique Strategies widget squats on my laptop as I write, goading me with its gnomic utterances. "Change specifics to ambiguities," instructs one. "Do something boring," challenges another. A line has two sides," declares a third, enigmatically. You can see how it might have enlightened U2, stuck in their mid-'80s pomp-rock rut in the wake of their breakthrough War album. I imagine the quartet struck by the relevance of one particular OS conundrum: "Where is the edge?"
In the spring of 1986, The Edge was ensconced in Danesmoate - a "modest country pile" in a posh Dublin suburb - preparing to begin U2's second album with Eno and his sonic partner Daniel Lanois. Their collaboration had already produced 1984's swirling, nebulous The Unforgettable Fire, an album which had seemingly transformed horny-handed navvies into art ponces par excellence. Notwithstanding Pride (In The Name Of Love), it reeked of Eno and Lanois ambient interests, and until the sales rolled in, U2's record label - even Island's notoriously artist-friendly boss Chris Blackwell - had hated it.
The Joshua Tree would hone TUF's sonic template - resplendently, as the toiled-over remastering vouchsafes. But it can also be read as a reassertion of U2's core values over Eno's, the air-punching navvies' slight return. Whilst barely the less interesting sonically, its songs are stronger, more focused and - sod it - more uplifting. It remains U2's best-loved, most-bought album, and for good reason.
It's all there in Where The Streets Have No Name, the song which Eno estimates absorbed over forty percent of the time spent on The Joshua Tree. Listening today, there's still something miraculous about the twitter of Edge's multi-delayed guitar and the pulse-quickening blat of Larry Mullens four-on-the-floor bass drum. It retains a spine-tingling, drug-flashback quality - but so bogged-down did its recording become that at one stage Eno considered wiping the tapes "accidentally" so that they'd have to start all over again.
In its finished incarnation, Streets shares with its parent album a fascination for America and its music,, whether that's gospel (I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For), bluegrass (Trip Through Your Wires) or Ry Cooderish blues (Running To Stand Still). A post-punk band, U2 were playing roots music for the first time, but it was distorted by their Eno-buffed Europrism. Bullet The Blue Sky pairs Bono's impressionistic collage of American evils with Edge's shattered version of bottleneck riffage - Robert Johnson selling his soul to Keith Levene. Mothers Of The Disappeared follows US hemispheric interests southwards to Chile, but does so atop an exquisitely melancholy synth line, a near cousin of Kraftwerk. Meanwhile, a subtle layer of dust and grime settles on the whole, a tribute to the engineer on the Joshua Tree sessions, Nick Cave old boy Mark Ellis AKA Flood.
While results were pleasing, U2's recording process appeared as chaotic as ever, Rather than entering the studio with a batch of recognisable "songs" to be polished and arranged, they had arrived with fragments: something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. Miles of tape spooled and unspooled, but the outcome was an elegant sufficiency of finished songs, and U2 fans drawn to the Deluxe Edition for its bonus CD should beware. There is no alternative universe in which The Joshua Tree sounds different, or better.
In fact, the album's most fully realised off-cuts are already well-known. Silver And Gold was the B-side of Where The Streets Have No Name, and remains a glowering item, U2's Midnight Rambler. Another Streets B-side, Sweetest Thing, always seemed anomalous; a birthday ditty for Mrs Bono, Ali Hewson, it was lost amid the moody vistas of The Joshua Tree, but found its métier as a 1998 single, indicating the economical pop probings of All That You Can't Leave Behind.
The unreleased material will intrigue the U2 scholar more. Desert Of Our Love is most tantalising, being the acorn from which the mighty I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For would grow; but it's an object lesson in how you can be so near, and yet so far. Beautiful Ghost (with Bono intoning Blake over the top) and Drunk Chicken are atmos-drenched doodles, heavy on the Eno, which would have made for diverting The Unforgettable Fire intermissions, à la Promenade.
Wave Of Sorrow (Birdland) is the strangest fish of all. An all-in jam from the relaxed end of the sessions, Edge remembers it as promising enough to justify twelve takes, and Bono likes it well enough to have recorded a brand new vocal. Yet Edge's caveat that it is "maybe a bit over-earnest and intense" should be all the more cautionary coming from a member of U2, and its value rather hangs on one's tolerance for a clunking synth piano that's straight outta the mid-1980s.
Concluding our survey of box set fan bait, the DVD combines documentary footage, promos and a July '87 show at Paris's Hippodrome de Vincennes that cannot be counted among the band's best. The forty-minute documentary, following the band through America in the spring of '87, is the nugget of gold, offering the vivid impression what it was like to be U2 at the cusp of their biggest breakthrough, drunk in a Houston night-club, singing I Walk The Line. More boyish than they are generally remembered, they are still four Irishmen (or technically, two Irishmen, a Welshman and a limey) peering into the mesa, inventing a half-informed, half-intoxicated version of what America might possibly be.
America had seduced U2, but in 1987 U2 felt obliged to dig her in the ribs (in the doc, the band begs their Phoenix audience to recall Arizona Governor Evan Mecham, still refusing to recognise Martin Luther King Day). Meanwhile, the band's music teetered on a pinnacle. Ahead lay Rattle And Hum, with its rank obeisance to US roots-rock models. But for the moment a balance had been struck, one where Kraftwerk and the McPeake Family gave as good as Hendrix and Mahalia. If they made music as good again, they made none better.
• Each package contains unseen pictures by Anton Corbijn and essays by the band and accomplices. Top Fact: Corbijn first saw a Joshua Tree cactus when shooting Captain Beefheart in 1980.
• Bassist Adam clayton liked Danesmoate so much he bought the house, and still owns it.
• The working title of Trip Through Your Wires was Woman Fish, while I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For started life as Underneath The Weather Girls.
• Key Tracks: Where The Streets Have No Name / Bullet The Blue Sky / In God's Country
"'We're going to be rich!'" - Joshua Tree co-producer Daniel Lanois talks to Danny Eccleston.
What had changed since The Unforgettable Fire?
"I'd worked with Peter Gabriel on the Birdy soundtrack and the So album - I think the day we began The Joshua Tree Sledgehammer was Number 1 in America. I remember walking in with a tray of tea, Edge looked at me and said, "It's Dan! We're going to be rich!"
How did the approach differ this time?
"We started with beatboxes. In the past we had bashed things out in the band room, so this was a new approach. For With Or Without You we had the rhythm and the chords, then we were testing Michael brook's Infinite Guitar invention. I asked Edge just to play a little something with it. He did two takes and those are the ones in the ultimate mix of With Or Without You. Beautiful sounds, stratospheric."
Did you sense the growing influence of American roots music on U2?
I think historically Bono has a fascination with America. Obviously America means a lot in Irish culture. But I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For is very much a gospel song. Bono's a churchman of sorts and he understands the power of singing on top of your range. It's an exorcism."
Where The Streets Have No Name had a tricky birth.
"It was a bit of a tongue-twister for the rhythm section, with strange bar lengths that got everybody in a bad mood. I can remember pointing at a blackboard, walking everybody through the changes like a science teacher. There's a part of Eno that likes instant gratification. He'd rather throw something difficult away and start something new."
He's mentioned his plan to wipe the tape...
"Yeah, there were a few instructions like that that the assistants never followed, thank God. I've collected some good Troggs moments over the years, lots of grief about drum fills from our wannabe drummer, Mr Hewson [Bono]."
What role does The Joshua Tree play in their canon?
"I think it touched a lot of hearts. It's a monument and it's certainly a monument to the dedication of all the U2 members. There was some synchronicity at play. The boys got good on their instruments. Eno and myself were on a roll. Everybody was grown-up but not suffocated by it."
Is this their best record?