For a brief time, before they settled on a name for their band, U2 were known as The Hype. With the release of their fifth studio album The Joshua Tree thirty years ago in March, the band finally exceeded the hype and U2 became a household name.
There was no shortage of hype at the time. They were declared "Band of the 80s" in 1985 by the then all-important Rolling Stone magazine, before they had a number one hit or even a top ten album. Only Bono seemed to outstrip several rock journalists in his expectations for the band. "There’s a certain spark, a certain chemistry, that was special about the Stones, the Who, and the Beatles, and I think it’s also special about U2." It must have seemed awkwardly over the top even if admirably upbeat when he said it back in 1981. But by the end of March 1987, it was beginning to look more like prophecy. For on March 9, U2 had released their eagerly anticipated fifth studio album, The Joshua Tree. Within 28 hours the album had already gone platinum—smashing records set by the Beatles, the Stones and everybody else. The following week, for only the third time at that stage in its history, Time Magazine put a band on its cover (the other bands were the Beatles and the Who), declaring U2 "Rock’s Hottest Ticket." The insightful article inside described scenes waiting for the sale of tickets for U2 concert tickets as reminiscent of the Beatles.
The brooding love song "With or Without You" earned U2 its first number one in the US, and the album also soared immediately to the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic for many weeks, and, it felt like, everywhere else on the planet. In the sell-out concerts to support the tour—now the stuff of rock folk-lore—U2 began to play outside in stadiums for the first time, to as many as 120 000 people in Italy. Pictures of four solemn and serious Irish men standing in an American desert rarely looking at the camera, and never smiling, seemed to be ubiquitous.
While U2’s entry into the mainstream was almost immediate upon the release of The Joshua Tree, it was no accident, and for those with an eye for these things, it was no surprise and had been a long time coming. The generation whose parents waxed lyrical about the revolution spearheaded by Dylan, Lennon and McCartney and the Rolling Stones—the so-called Generation X—were all too aware that there was nothing of any similar significance happening in their generation. Live Aid provided a glimpse of the possibilities but it felt like the best performances there were either by those past their prime or those for whom the social action felt insincere. U2 stole the show and filled the gaping void in spades. Bono took his wife Ali to do aid work in Ethiopia after the concerts; U2 spearheaded Amnesty International’s 25th anniversary concerts and recruited other bands for the so-called Conspiracy of Hope Tour. Their album War had provided a call to an end to ‘the troubles’ in their native Ireland. At a time of shallow materialism summed up by the famous phrase for the movie Wall Street, ‘Greed is Good’, U2 effortlessly, earnestly and seemingly sincerely provided a passionate alternative: a social conscience and a spiritual quest.
And so by March 1987, everything was in place for U2 to break through into the mainstream. (U2 have been so much part of the mainstream for the past three decades since that it is difficult to imagine them as an alternative act, but for their first ten years they were precisely that). But ultimately it wasn’t the timing or lead-up to The Joshua Tree that made it the historic album that it is now recognised to be (in 2014 it was deemed, ‘culturally, historically and aesthetically significant’ enough to be selected for preservation by the US Library of Congress for recording in the National Recording Registry – the only Irish work selected for such an honour). First and foremost it was the artistic achievement of the album itself. The album had a broad theme which brought it focus—the contradictions in the promise and power of America. The theme was captured by the title of the album. The Joshua tree was named because it looked like Joshua pointing to the promised land and yet it is a prickly cactus.
But a unifying theme alone doesn’t make a great album; great songs do. And The Joshua Tree was full of masterpieces. It opened with the stunning "Where the Streets Have No Name" and closed with "Mothers of the Disappeared", the former electrifyingly capturing Bono’s fear upon being caught in crossfire in El Salvador with his wife Ali; the latter a lament which poignantly captured the grief of central American mothers whose children had simply ‘disappeared’.
The hit "With or Without You" was a rare love song for the band capturing deeply the tension involved in a committed relationship marked musically by a driving bass and drums, restraint yet innovation on guitar and soaring tenor vocals. "Running To Stand Still" was a moving Lou Reed style ballad about a couple trapped in Dublin’s Ballymum Towers addicted to heroin bearing the hallmarks of Brian Eno’s involvement in production. "One Tree Hill" was released as a single in New Zealand where it reached number 1. It was written after Bono and his wife and other members of the U2 entourage attended the tangi (funeral) for Greg Carroll, the New Zealand Maori who had become Bono’s roadie after Caroll took a jet-lagged Bono up One Tree Hill in Auckaland when U2 arrived there in 1984. Caroll had tragically been killed in a motorcycle accident just before the recording of the album, which was then dedicated to him. The recording captures Bono’s emotive singing at its most intense; it was recorded in one take and he didn’t sing or even listen to it again for a long time due to the grief it expressed.
"Exit" was an attempt at writing a story from inside the mind of a killer, inspired by the writings of Norman Mailer and Truman Capote; and the work of the rest of the band sure made it sound like that too.
Even the weaker tracks had great strengths. "Red Hill Mining" town was written from the perspective of miners and their families during the mine closures in Thatcher’s Britain. "Bullet the Blue Sky" critiqued the United States involvement in central America while "In God’s Country" lyrically best captured the theme of the album (‘We need new dreams tonight’ sings Bono in a poem about the Statue of Liberty). "Trip Through Your Wires" revealed a lighter side and a decent harmonica solo.
And so, just before "it was twenty years ago today" that The Beatles released the most important album of their generation, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, U2 released their most significant album in The Joshua Tree. U2 were hailed as the new Beatles. They were conscious of the parallels; their video clip for "Where The Streets Have No Name" mimicked that of the Beatles last live performance for the movie "Let It Be". Yet the differences were significant. "We’re rebelling against the idea of rebelling" Bono had declared earlier.
U2 severed the seemingly essential connection between sex and drugs and rock and roll; they rebelled as much as the Stones had before them not by being rock’s now cliched bad boys but by being a four-piece band with three professing Christians. Hotels didn’t report how televisions had been thrown out windows when U2 came to town, but how polite the band members were to staff.
While U2 rebelled against the idea of Sex and Drugs they embraced the challenge to society that Rock and Roll could bring. And unashamedly and strangely almost appropriately, the challenge that came somehow involved the Christian faith. The charismatic and outspoken frontman, Bono, could not seem to get through an interview without referring to his Christian faith. The album The Joshua Tree is replete with biblical imagery. Whether you loved or hated the stance and provocation that the band provided in its obvious social conscious, the thing that was as clear as it was undeniable and well known was that it sprang from the professed Christian faith of band members. Nothing made this more clear than perhaps the greatest anthem on the album (or any other U2 album), "I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For". While John Lennon encouraged people to imagine there’s no heaven and no religion too, Bono sang "I believe in the Kingdom Come".
In perhaps one of the most truly radical achievements in rock, the man voted ‘sexiest male singer’ by Rolling Stone ahead of the recently out George Michael and the heartthrob Jon Bon Jovi, was a professing Christian who had married his teenage heartthrob and had not slept with her before marriage. He is still married to her to this day. And yet reached number one singing to God:
You broke the bonds and you loosed the chains,
Carried the Cross of my shame – oh my shame.
You know I believe it.
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.
In classic U2 fashion it was a lyric riddled with paradoxes and contradictions, and so raised questions, can be variously interpreted and provided challenges. For Christians raised in conservative youth groups who regarded rock music as "of the devil" here was a challenging alternative role model who demonstrated how Christians can engage with the world. Some Christians, so tied to the view that the God-shaped hole is satisfyingly filled in this age by the Christian faith, wondered what he was still looking for. Others appreciated the honest admission of difficulties in the now on the road to Kingdom come which is not yet. But for those with no connection to the Christian faith at all, the song, and the album it was from, and the band who recorded it, and the man who sang it, had put the Christian faith on the agenda of mainstream popular culture and asked, "Have you found what you’re looking for?", and invited them to join them in their search. For all the other hype about The Joshua Tree, that was, and remains, a stunning achievement.