Q AUGUST 2006 - by Tom Doyle


Jacko wanted to film them, Sinatra wanted to name a racehorse after them. Here's how The Joshua Tree made U2 the biggest band on the planet.

On a roof-top in downtown Los Angeles, U2 are about to take on The Beatles. It's 27 March 1987, 3.30pm, and the Dublin quartet - already dubbed Band of the '80s by Rolling Stone - are here to echo the Fab Four's Let It Be farewell concert in London eighteen years earlier.

Unlike The Beatles, U2 have applied for a licence to perform. Not that it makes much difference. When LA radio station KROQ breaks the news of the free gig, fans from all over the city head downtown to the corner of 7th and Main Street - not one of your more fun neighbourhoods, warns the DJ. Soon thirty-five-thousand people crush onto the sidewalks in the blazing heat, waiting to see what will happen. High above on the roof of a liquor store, U2 launch into Where The Streets Have No Name and the cameras begin to roll on the most memorable video of their career. Office employees hang out of windows and construction workers punch the air, as officers of the LAPD vainly attempt to keep the traffic flowing. When the fans flood the roads, the police officers snap. "I think we're being shut down," Bono announces to a chorus of boos.

Nevertheless, the job has been done. Bono, Edge, Adam and Larry have aligned themselves with John, Paul, George and Ringo. U2's message is clear: we are now the biggest band in the world.

Nearly twenty years on, U2 remain the most successful group on the planet, the only band who could possibly have opened Live 8. But U2 as we've come to understand them - grand statements, big ideas, campaigning zeal - were born with The Joshua Tree, the blockbuster fifth studio album that finally put them on the map.

U2's ascendance didn't happen overnight. Neither was it entirely smooth. The band felt it had made a hash of its slot at Live Aid in 1985, as Bono disappeared into the Wembley Stadium crowd to dance with a girl while the rest of the band played on through Bad, wearing rictus grins. In fact, the opposite was true. Live Aid made U2. It had a pretty explosive effect on our profile, reflects manager Paul McGuinness today, in characteristically business-like, if laid-back manner.

In autumn 1985, inspired by the moment that rock music found its conscience and stepped onto the global stage, Bono and his wife, Ali, travelled to Ethiopia for a month to help the famine relief effort. Working in a refugee camp in the north of the country, the couple helped devise programmes to educate the locals in the ways of safe childbirth, farming, even relatively simple tasks such as preparing the fruit and vegetables arriving in sacks. It was to prove an eye-opening experience. "I got more than I gave to Ethiopia," Bono later said. "My head was in the clouds and my feet were not on the ground."

A year later, Bono travelled to Central America after being similarly moved by the stories of civil war and torture he'd heard through U2's involvement with Amnesty International's A Conspiracy Of Hope Tour in summer 1986 (alongside The Police, Peter Gabriel and Lou Reed). In Nicaragua, he heard Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega address a rally, and witnessed first-hand the effect of civil war - fuelled by the US-backed Contras - on the ordinary people. Elsewhere, in San Salvador, he watched American-funded mortars rain down on villages in the hills. As the ground shook, one nonchalant farmer tried to reassure him. "That is over there," he told the terrified rock star. We are over here.

"I felt like such a fool in the face of it," the singer recalled. "Those guys lived with it all their lives and it meant nothing to them. But the fear I felt that day..."

Ultimately, Bono's trips gave him a sense of the bigger picture, informing everything that would follow. "I had culture-shock coming back," he said. "I saw the spoiled children of the Western world. I started thinking, They may have a physical desert [in Ethiopia], but we have other kinds of deserts. And that's what attracted me to the desert as a symbol."

Originally conceived as The Desert Songs, The Joshua Tree mirrored this worldly outlook, as well as the band's fascination with the US. As for any band, the key to world-wide success lay in cracking the States.

Throughout the '80s, the band spent two to three months of each year on the road in the US in a prolonged campaign that McGuinness describes as being almost military in its design. If there was a city that was resisting, he laughs, we would revisit them and do things to make them topple. Cities that were considered weak for the band would soon find themselves being played more often, their radio stations relentlessly plugged.

On these long tours, particularly supporting The Unforgettable Fire album in the Southern States in 1985, the band travelled on garish coaches rented from country and western stars. These buses were decked out in just the most incredible Americana, recalls Edge now. We were discovering the country through the freeway, reading Flannery O'Connor, Raymond Carver, Norman Mailer.

The Joshua Tree would be informed by these experiences. But it was less the America of Ronald Reagan and MTV that the band were keen to represent, more the pioneers of the US, the ghosts on the vast expanses the band were viewing through their tour-bus windows.

As a band, U2 were out of steps with the '80s. Edge admits as much. "We felt totally at odds with the mainstream culture - Material Girl and the 'me generation'. We were coming in at a different angle and it's now seen as being quintessentially '80s, but at the time it really felt like we were doing something totally different from everybody else."

If anything, U2 were hungry for a sense of history, having arrived in the post-punk era where any reference points before 1976 were viewed as the death of credibility. Meeting Bob Dylan for the first time in Dublin in July in 1984, Bono had hung onto the singer's every word as he talked up traditional Irish musicians such as The Clancy Brothers and The McPeake Family. Bono told Dylan, "What I envy of you is that my music, the music of U2, is in space somewhere. There's no particular musical roots or heritage that we plug into."

As a result, many of the songs on The Joshua Tree seemed to find U2 looking to America's past, the land of immigrants, many of them Irish. By the time of its release, these four twenty-something men had recast themselves on the record's cover as early settlers or Dust Bowl refugees, captured in the widescreen panorama of the Mojave Desert.

Psychologists would surely have much to say about the fact that when Adam Clayton became a multi-millionaire rock star, he bought the twenty-roomed Georgian manor house neighbouring his old, much-hated private boarding school, St Columba's College in Rathfarnham, six miles outside of Dublin. Back in January 1986 though, before the bassist owned it, Danesmoate was in a sorely neglected state, though its huge, high-ceilinged rooms were considered perfect for the recording of The Joshua Tree. So U2 rented the place. "It had two almost orchestra-sized rooms," co-producer Daniel Lanois recalls, "which we separated with a sheet of Plexiglass. That became the studio."

Producers Brian Eno and Lanois had already worked on 1984's The Unforgettable Fire, creating a sound for U2 that was atmospheric, experimental and very stadium-proportioned, though entirely at odds with the glossy, FM-rock productions of the '80s. Their relationship with U2 was not so much as traditional producers, more as musical catalysts and artful co-conspirators, keen to coax the band down creative roads less travelled.

The duo had first met when Lanois engineered Eno's innovative 1982 album Ambient 4: On Land, a record designed to replicate the sounds the latter half-remembered from his childhood in the Suffolk countryside. For The Joshua Tree, U2 wanted the team to help them create aural backdrops that suggested rural America. Edge remembers, "The beginning of Exit was Brian programming on a synthesizer the sound of crickets at night in the Deep South. With every song, we were trying to summon up an atmosphere with a location in mind."

In addition, Eno inspired Edge to further explore his minimalist attitude to rock guitar, the polar opposite of the widdly-fingered axe hero. In With Or Without You, Edge used an Infinite Guitar, a modified instrument created by ambient musician Michael Brook, designed to create endless sustaining notes and employed to sparing, haunting effect in the song. In Where The Streets Have No Name, with its restless energy and desire for flight to a more elemental place, had its roots in Ethiopia. Bullet The Blue Sky, a driving Zeppelin-shaped rocker, was written after his trip to Central America. The resulting song - fiercely critical of US foreign policy and depicting fighter planes across the mud huts - showed that the bands were under no illusions about the darker side of their newly adopted America. Yet there was some debate within the camp about the wisdom of overt finger-pointing and the climactic line Outside is America.

"I recorded the vocals with Bono," recalls Steve Lillywhite, the long-term U2 producer who also worked on The Joshua Tree. "And I remember keeping that line. A couple of people raised their eyebrows, thinking, That's a bit of a low shot. It was considered a bit risqué and over-the-mark. But I held firm."

For his part, manager Paul McGuinness says that he never felt uneasy about the lyric. "There was a lot of political discussion in America at the time, particularly about their role in Central America. We never felt constrained from criticising our hosts."

Going further against the grain of the '80s, U2 - apart from Clayton - were committed Christians who had wrestled with the conflict between their faith and love of rock'n'roll during the time of the October album in 1981, very nearly abandoning music altogether. The Joshua Tree found them able to reconcile these differences with I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, a gospel-flavoured song that expressed their spirituality and could still be played on mainstream radio.

"We're like everyone else trying to figure it out," Edge says of the song's theme. "We're not pretending to know it all. People say that rock'n'roll shouldn't be about religion and spirituality, shouldn't be political. Well I disagree. A lot of my favourite artists - Bob Marley, Prince, John Lennon, The Clash - have been very spiritual or very political."

At midnight on March 14, 1987, more than one thousand U2 fans snaked down from Piccadilly around the corner from Tower Records in London's West End. The shop had agreed to open its doors specifically to sell copies of the newly minted Joshua Tree album - the first time such a stunt had been attempted in the UK. Elvis Costello and his then-wife, ex-Pogues bassist Cait O'Riordan, were among those in the cue. "Down we went and joined this bedraggled bunch of U2 fans," he remembered. "And we bought it and played it all night. It was fantastic."

Reviewers were united in their praise. Sales-wise, The Joshua Tree seemed unstoppable, going platinum in the UK within forty-eight hours of release, becoming the fastest-selling album in UK rock history and going on to shift seventeen million copies worldwide, compared with the six million of its predecessor. The band had been thrilled in December 1984 when Pride (In The Name Of Love) reached the US Top 40. Now, within months of the release of The Joshua Tree, they'd enjoyed two American Number 1 singles - With Or Without You and I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For - and made the cover of Time magazine with the strapline: Rock's Hottest Ticket.

Soon it was becoming clear to U2 just how far they'd penetrated the US entertainment industry. Michael Jackson apparently became obsessed with the band after The Joshua Tree beat Bad to the Album Of The Year at the Grammys and asked the group if he could send a camera crew to film them working in the studio for his own personal use. Slightly creeped out, they refused.

Then, on their first visit to Las Vegas, in April '87, at a twenty-five-thousand-dollar-a-table Frank Sinatra show, the crooner trained the spotlight on the band, informing the audience (including film stars Elizabeth Taylor and Roger Moore) that this young Irish group currently had the Number One single in the country. Sinatra then waited a beat before adding, "And they haven't spent a dime on clothes."

"That was pretty mind-blowing," Edge recalls. "We went backstage and talked to him for an hour. There were people hammering on the door saying, 'Mr Sinatra, Gregory Peck is here to see you,' and Frank was like, 'Hold on, I'm with friends here.' Then as we were leaving, he was like, 'You wanna racehorse named after you?'"

Live, the band quickly moved from playing arenas to stadia. Impromptu walkabouts in the Live Aid mould wouldn't work every night and U2 realised the need to raise their game. Even so, the show remained relatively stripped-down in production terms - save for Bono's hand-held spotlight focusing on Edge during the Bullet The Blue Sky solo - with the frontman racing from one flanking stage ramp to another in an effort to reach out to the audience. Edge admits that U2's transition to the major league was entirely painless. "The first time you play a stadium it's incredibly intimidating," he points out. "There were a lot of times when we felt we weren't reaching the mark."

One night in September 1987 at Washington's Robert F Kennedy Stadium, Bono slipped on a rain-slicked stage ramp and dislocated his shoulder, amazingly going on to complete the gig. "We were having to make it happen just through sheer force of personality," the guitarist stresses.

It was on the Joshua Tree tour that Bono began to use the stage as a soapbox. Silver And Gold found him railing against apartheid and standing up for a people sick of looking down the barrel of white South Africa. Bullet The Blue Sky found the singer transporting the audience to the hills of San Salvador where the sky is ripped open and the rain pours through a gaping wound, pelting the women and children who run into the arms of America.

On November 8, 1987 the IRA killed eleven people in the Enniskillen bombing in Northern Ireland. The same date saw U2 playing the McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, Colorado. A clearly furious Bono, directly addressing the terrorists, since the gig was being filmed for the forthcoming Rattle And Hum concert movie, declared: "Fuck the revolution! Where's 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."

Those in and around the band deny they feared IRA repercussions following the outburst, stating that they had hardly enamoured the paramilitary group with the unequivocal Sunday Bloody Sunday, first performed in Glasgow in December 1982 and since introduced nightly by Bono with the words, "This is not a rebel song."

"We weren't worried that the IRA would start taking shots at a rock band," states Paul McGuinness, with typical calm. "You always have some minor anxieties about such things," Edge admits. "I think we felt that in all likelihood it probably would not change the already frosty mood that existed between us and the hardline republicans. It was no news to then how we felt."

U2's vertiginous rise left all four members of the band feel thrilled and exhausted. Unusually for a band going through such momentous change, it created little intra-band friction, although Edge admits, We were all quite shell-shocked.

For his part, Daniel Lanois remembers coming out of the Joshua Tree period with some unwanted baggage of his own. "I went into that record looking good," he laughs. "Then one day they had a guy doing hair in the studio. Bono said, 'Dan, why don't you get a haircut?' I came out with a fucking mullet! I'll never forgive them."

"I had one of the worst haircuts in the '80s," Bono admitted. "I know that it launched a million second-division soccer players. But the truth of it, if I'm really honest, is that I thought I looked like David Bowie."

Fashion disasters aside, U2 began to immerse themselves in the roots of American music and plans for Rattle And Hum, an aggressively marketed film designed to underline the group's dominance of the music world. But already the signs were that it might prove a step too far.

"I realised we were in trouble," Edge remembers, "when I was at one meeting at Paramount Pictures and they brought out six-foot-high close-up posters of the band members, but they'd airbrushed all my stubble. Looking back, it was reckless jumping into a movie without knowing what we were doing."

Rattle And Hum would be seen as U2's Magical Mystery Tour, an ill-advised journey to the heart of American music. It would paint them as a po-faced band desperately trying to align themselves to the rock'n'roll and blues greats - recording at Sun Studios, duetting with BB King. With the like of The Stone Roses waiting in the wings, U2 already looked hopelessly uncool in their cowboy hats and leather waistcoats.

But U2 would not be so easily dismissed. From the stage of Dublin's Point Depot on New Year's Eve 1989, Bono announced that the band were going to go away for a while, to dream it all up again. What was to come was a radical about-turn, the Berlin-recorded Achtung Baby. The Wall had fallen on November 9, 1989 and everyone's eyes were on Europe - including U2's.