Confession time: as a teenager, I spent every Sunday morning listening to Casey Kasem count down the week’s Top 40 songs. I say with confidence that in three years prior to 1987, his dulcet tones had never named the band “U2.” Imagine my surprise, then, when that band shot to #1 with “With or Without You,” followed that up with another #1 called “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and became Kasem’s trivia darling for the summer.
I don’t know if high schools still get hit with albums – full albums, not just singles – the way my high school got hit with The Joshua Tree. Everyone came back from spring break in 1987 and it was suddenly everywhere. The sound of The Edge’s guitar on The Joshua Tree was so ubiquitous and distinctive that my friends and I kept calling it “guh-dang-guh-dang.” We’d say, “I still haven’t found what I’m guh-dang-ing for.”
Of course, it helped that by then, the goth and black-eyeliner set had been wearing The Unforgettable Fire shirts for two years. But U2 was hardly their only band of sworn record, and The Cure and The Smiths and Simple Minds and a lot of other “modern rockers” never had a Joshua Tree. It also helped that U2 had been touring with Bruce Springsteen and Sting on behalf of Amnesty International, giving them a more generalizable aura.
In retrospect, U2 had probably only been placed on modern rock playlists because of their European origins and a vague “post-punk” classification. They had none of the synthesizer-based sounds of their peers, and Larry Mullen’s drums were far more, well, military-sounding than anything by Morrissey, Duran Duran, or Culture Club. They weren’t exactly pop – certainly not the Michael Jackson/Lionel Richie kind of pop that dominated the early 80s – and they could hardly be considered anything like metal. (Foreigner and Styx were more metal than U2.) But in 1987, the question wasn’t: where do they fit? The question became, where don’t they? They were even on the cover of Time magazine. As Irishmen, they managed to maintain a certain outsider-osity even on their way to the top of the elite.
The effect of The Joshua Tree was perhaps comparable to The Police’s “Synchronicity” four years before and Nirvana’s “Nevermind” four years later: even jaded sophisticates found themselves humming along. 1987 pop needed U2. 1987 was a year of big hair and big covers and cheesy music and way too much nostalgia, prompted by movies like Stand By Me, Dirty Dancing, Can’t Buy Me Love, and at least three Vietnam films. U2 was a relative oasis in a desert of warmed-over half-baked music.
The desert imagery probably helped the album. The band wanted to pay tribute to America and also wanted something expansive, even “cinematic” as the Edge says. The Joshua Tree as an idea somehow combined everything: vaguely religious (in the book of Joshua, the Jews are exiled out of Jerusalem), spiritual, wandering, upright but weather-beaten, not sure where home is. I think the band knew they’d hit upon something, which is why two of the first three videos were set in Las Vegas (“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”) and Los Angeles (“Where the Streets Have No Name”). Between those cities lies The Joshua Tree National Monument, perhaps the spiritual location of the “With or Without You” video (which is shot all in black, like the desert at night).
All credit to the songwriters and to producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. The album is a rich tapestry of feeling and conscience, and the songs aren’t quite as similar as me and my “guh-dang”-ing friends liked to claim. Hearing any one of them out of context – say, “In God’s Country” in the credits of Three Kings – is still a deep drink of pleasure and beatitude. It’s nice that U2 has more or less held up as a band (and not as bitter solo artists), but even if they hadn’t, this masterpiece would have lost none of its salience or freshness. Probably I’m a little biased because I’m also an Irishman in California, but hey, great music is great music. Ultimately, the songs speak for themselves in a way that my silly remarks never can speak for them.
Back to the timing of The Joshua Tree: it made more sense than it might have a year before. On tour in 1984 and 1985, U2’s sympathy with leftist causes seemed to relegate them to America’s fringe. But by spring 1987, the Iran-contra scandal was six months old and even Reagan’s most vociferous defenders had a chastened look about them. The time was right for a critique, especially from the religious. And unlike, say, then-chart-toppers Madonna and Whitney Houston, U2’s songs were actually relevant; “Bullet the Blue Sky” was clearly set in the same place that the year’s other Bono, Oliver North, had been illegally distributing American weaponry.
The Edge has been talking about this sort of thing lately, as part of the band’s announced 30-year-anniversary tour. They’ve never done anything like an anniversary tour and they’ve avoided looking back, but the time was right, according to the Edge, because:
That record was written in the mid-Eighties, during the Reagan-Thatcher era of British and U.S. politics. It was a period when there was a lot of unrest. Thatcher was in the throes of trying to put down the miners’ strike; there was all kinds of shenanigans going on in Central America. It feels like we’re right back there in a way. I don’t think any of our work has ever come full circle to that extent. It just felt like, “Wow, these songs have a new meaning and a new resonance today that they didn’t have three years ago, four years ago.”
So yeah, I’ll be trying to attend a show. But even if I or you don’t make it, we still have a terrific album to revisit at our houses. We can still be reminded of when an album, not a song, could be the most essential thing of the day. And while you’re listening to it, I suggest you read this. 30 years gone, and we STILL haven’t found what we’re…looking for.