The Joshua Tree is the fifth studio album by rock band U2. It was produced by Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, and was released on 9 March 1987 by Island Records. In contrast to the ambient experimentation of their 1984 release The Unforgettable Fire, on The Joshua Tree U2 aimed for a harder-hitting sound within the limitation of conventional song structures. The album is influenced by American and Irish roots music, and depicts the band’s love-hate relationship with the United States, with socially and politically conscious lyrics embellished with spiritual imagery.
Inspired by American tour experiences, literature, and politics, U2 chose America as a theme for the record. Recording began in January 1986 in Ireland, and to foster a relaxed, creative atmosphere, the group recorded in two houses, in addition to two professional studios. Several events during the sessions helped shape the conscious tone of the album, including the band’s participation in A Conspiracy of Hope tour, the death of roadie Greg Carroll, and lead vocalist Bono’s travels to Central America. Recording was completed in November 1986; additional production continued into January 1987. Throughout the sessions, U2 sought a “cinematic” quality for the record, one that would evoke a sense of location, in particular, the open spaces of America. They represented this in the sleeve photography depicting them in American desert landscapes.
The Joshua Tree received critical acclaim, topped the charts in over 20 countries, and sold in record-breaking numbers. According to Rolling Stone, the album increased the band’s stature “from heroes to superstars”. It produced the hit singles “With or Without You”, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, and “Where the Streets Have No Name”. The album won Grammy Awards for Album of the Year and Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal in 1988. The group supported the record with the Joshua Tree Tour throughout 1987. Frequently featured on critics’ lists of rock’s greatest records, The Joshua Tree is one of the world’s best-selling albums, with over 25 million copies sold. In 2007, U2 released a remastered edition of the record to commemorate its 20th anniversary
Before The Joshua Tree, U2 had released four studio albums and were an internationally successful band, particularly as a live act having toured every year in the 1980s. The group’s stature and the public’s anticipation for a new album grew following their 1984 record The Unforgettable Fire, their subsequent tour, and their participation in Live Aid in 1985. U2 began writing new material in mid-1985 following the Unforgettable Fire Tour.
Band manager Paul McGuinness recounted that The Joshua Tree originated from the band’s “great romance” with the United States, as the group had toured the country for up to five months per year in the first half of the 1980s.Leading up to the album sessions, lead vocalist Bono had been reading the works of American writers such as Norman Mailer, Flannery O’Connor, and Raymond Carver so as to understand, in the words of Hot Press editor Niall Stokes, “those on the fringes of the promised land, cut off from the American dream”. Following a 1985 humanitarian visit to Ethiopia with his wife Ali, Bono said, “Spending time in Africa and seeing people in the pits of poverty, I still saw a very strong spirit in the people, a richness of spirit I didn’t see when I came home… I saw the spoiled child of the Western world. I started thinking, ‘They may have a physical desert, but we’ve got other kinds of deserts.’ And that’s what attracted me to the desert as a symbol of some sort.”
Intending to release an album in late 1986, U2 set up a studio in January of that year in Danesmoate House, a Georgian house in Rathfarnham in the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains. Their plan was to find inspiration from the recording space and use it to musically create atmosphere, much like they did with Slane Castle for The Unforgettable Fire sessions in 1984. A makeshift control room with tape machines, a mixing desk, and other outboard equipment was set up in the dining room, with the adjacent drawing room used for recording and performing. The large doors separating the rooms were replaced with a glass screen, and to maintain a relaxed “non-studio” atmosphere for the sessions, the control room was dubbed the “lyric room” and the recording space was called the “band room”. The band found the house to have a very creative atmosphere. The large drawing room, with tall ceiling and wooden floors, created an “ear-splitting” drum sound that, while difficult to work with, produced takes that ended up on the finished album. Lanois said that it “was loud, but it was really good loud, real dense, very musical. In my opinion it was the most rock and roll room of the lot.” He thought the room sounded better than Slane Castle, and he was particularly impressed with the room’s “low mid-range … where the music lives”, a property that he believes was a major factor in the success of The Joshua Tree.
U2 began with their usual method of sorting through tapes from soundcheck jams, working through Bono’s lyric book, and recording jam sessions. One aspect of their recording methods, however, changed after The Unforgettable Fire sessions; rather than recording each instrument separately and layering them into the mix, U2 recorded all but two of The Joshua Tree‘s songs “live”. U2’s songwriting methods were also developing; not all material was being worked out in band sessions, rather Bono and The Edge often brought basic song ideas to the rest of the group. Eno and Lanois intentionally worked with the band at alternate times—one producer for a week or two, followed by the other. Eno and Lanois encouraged an interest in older songs, especially American roots music. More contemporary references included the textural guitar work of The Smiths and My Bloody Valentine. The band’s musical vocabulary improved after their previous album, facilitating communication and collaboration with the production team. One of the first songs worked on was “Heartland”, which originated during The Unforgettable Fire sessions and was later released on the band’s 1988 album Rattle and Hum. Supplementary recording sessions at STS Studios in Dublin with producer Paul Barrett saw the development of “With or Without You” and the genesis of “Bullet the Blue Sky”. The arrangements for “With or Without You” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” were completed early in the Danesmoate sessions, giving the band the confidence to experiment.
U2 interrupted the sessions to join Amnesty International’s A Conspiracy of Hope Tour in June 1986. Rather than distract the band, the tour added extra intensity and power to their new music and provided extra focus on what they wanted to say. For bassist Adam Clayton, the tour validated the “rawness of content” and their attempts to capture the “bleakness and greed of America under Ronald Reagan”. In July, Bono travelled with his wife Ali to Nicaragua and El Salvador and saw firsthand the distress of peasants bullied by political conflicts and US military intervention, experiences which formed the basis of the lyrics for “Bullet the Blue Sky” and “Mothers of the Disappeared”. The group experienced a tragedy later that month when Bono’s personal assistant and roadie Greg Carroll was killed in a motorcycle accident in Dublin. The 26-year-old’s death overwhelmed the U2 organisation, and the band travelled to his native New Zealand to attend his traditional Māori funeral.
On 1 August 1986, U2 regrouped at Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin to resume work on the album. Writing and recording continued for the rest of the year, with the band also using Danesmoate House and The Edge’s newly bought home, Melbeach. “Mothers of the Disappeared” and “Bullet the Blue Sky” were among the songs that evolved at Melbeach. Lanois said “the bulk of the record was done at The Edge’s house, even though the Danesmoate sessions were the backbone of the tonality of the record—we got a lot of the drums done in there.” In August, Robbie Robertson, the former guitarist and primary songwriter for The Band, visited Dublin to complete an album that Lanois was producing. Robertson recorded two tracks with U2 that appear on his self-titled solo album.
A creative spurt in October resulted in new song ideas. However, they were shelved at Eno’s suggestion lest the band miss their deadline for completing the album. Recording for The Joshua Tree wrapped up in November 1986. Rough mixes had been created throughout the sessions after each song was recorded to, in Lanois’ words, take “snapshots along the way … because sometimes you go too far”. The Edge explained that the arrangement and production of each song was approached individually and that while there was a strong uniform direction, they were prepared to “sacrifice some continuity to get the rewards of following each song to a conclusion”. The final weeks were a frantic rush to finish, with the band and production crew all suffering from exhaustion. Lanois and Pat McCarthy mixed songs at Melbeach on an AMEK 2500 mixing desk where, without console automation, they needed three people to operate the console. Eno and Flood had minimal involvement with the final mixes. In late December, U2 hired Steve Lillywhite, producer of their first three albums, to remix the potential singles. His job was to make the songs more appealing to commercial radio, and his eleventh-hour presence and changes caused discontent among the production crew, including Eno and Lanois. Lillywhite’s remixing was done on an SSL desk and extended into the new year.
Following the completion of the album proper, U2 returned to the studio in January 1987 to complete the new material they shelved in October. These tracks, which included “Walk to the Water”, “Luminous Times (Hold on to Love)”, and “Spanish Eyes”, were completed as B-sides for the planned singles. The song “Sweetest Thing” was left off the album and released as a B-side, as the band felt it was incomplete and did not fit with the other songs. They later expressed regret that it had not been completed for The Joshua Tree. The track was re-recorded as a single for the group’s 1998 compilation The Best of 1980–1990. The band considered releasing The Joshua Tree as a double-album that would have included the B-sides. Bono was the most vocal proponent of the idea, whereas The Edge argued for the 11-track version that was ultimately released. U2 agreed that one track, “Birdland”, was too strong for a B-side and they held it for a future album release. In 2007, a re-recorded version of the song, retitled “Wave of Sorrow (Birdland)”, was included with the 20th anniversary edition of the album.
The Joshua Tree became, at the time, the fastest-selling album in British history, selling over 300,000 copies in two days. On 21 March 1987, it debuted on the UK Albums Chart at number one, spending two weeks at the top position, and it remained on the chart for 163 weeks. On the US Billboard Top Pop Albums chart, the album debuted on 4 April 1987 at number seven,the highest debut for a studio album in the US in almost seven years. Within three weeks, it topped the chart, where it remained for nine consecutive weeks. The album spent a total of 103 weeks on the Billboard Top Pop Albums, 35 of them in the top 10. On 13 May 1987, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) certified the album triple-platinum. All of the group’s previous albums re-entered the Billboard Top Pop Albums chart in 1987.In Canada, the album debuted at number 51 on the RPM Top 100 Albums chart on 21 March 1987, and climbed to number one just two weeks later. Within 14 days of release, it sold 300,000 units in Canada and was certified triple-platinum. The Joshua Tree topped the albums charts in 19 other countries, including Austria, Switzerland, New Zealand, and Sweden. Rolling Stone declared that the album increased the band’s stature “from heroes to superstars”. It was the first album by any artist to sell one million copies on CD in the US. U2 became the fourth rock band to be featured on the cover of Time (following The Beatles, The Band, and The Who), who declared that U2 was “Rock’s Hottest Ticket”.
All lyrics written by Bono, all music composed by U2.
|1.||“Where the Streets Have No Name”||5:38|
|2.||“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”||4:38|
|3.||“With or Without You”||4:56|
|4.||“Bullet the Blue Sky”||4:32|
|5.||“Running to Stand Still”||4:18|
|6.||“Red Hill Mining Town”||4:54|
|7.||“In God’s Country”||2:57|
|8.||“Trip Through Your Wires”||3:33|
|9.||“One Tree Hill”||5:23|
|11.||“Mothers of the Disappeared”||5:12|