Revisiting U2’s classic album The Joshua Tree on its 35th anniversary

Virgin Radio

9 Mar 2022, 11:55

Credit: Ebets Roberts / Getty

Credit: Ebets Roberts / Getty

U2’s classic album, The Joshua Tree, landed on 9th March 1987, and featured iconic tunes Where the Streets Have No Name, I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, and With or Without You.

Regularly listed as one of the greatest records of all time by those in the know, The Joshua Tree is the Irish band’s fifth studio LP, and was produced by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, who had worked with the band on their previous record, The Unforgettable Fire.

Whilst The Joshua Tree marked a seminal moment for U2, it would be misleading to say it was their breakthrough album, as they had already made a big mark on the music world before its release. Vocalist Bono, guitarist The Edge, bassist Adam Clayton, and drummer Larry Mullen Jr had landed their first UK number-one album in 1983, with War, and had released the massive singles Sunday Bloody Sunday and Pride (In the Name of Love). They’d also performed at Live Aid in 1985. However, The Joshua Tree undoubtedly took U2 to the next level of international, critical and commercial success.

Whilst still somewhat influenced by Irish roots music and continuing with the social commentary that they had displayed to that point, The Joshua Tree represented a departure from the punkier sound of their previous records. 

The record took inspiration from American literature, politics, and experiences from the band’s own extensive tours of the United States. Frontman Bono had been studying the works of American writers such as Norman Mailer and Raymond Carver, and in a Rolling Stone interview in 1987, he explained how his time in Egypt and Ethiopia during a humanitarian visit two years earlier informed the themes on The Joshua Tree. He 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 which 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.” As well as within the themes of the record, this was represented visually in the sleeve photography, which depicted the band in American desert landscapes.

In terms of the lyrical content of the album, Bono said: “I felt the time had come to write words that meant something out of my experience.” Meanwhile, The Edge added: “We wanted the record to be less vague, open-ended, atmospheric and impressionistic. To make it more straightforward, focused and concise.”

The subject-matter of the songs included lyrics about an Irish couple who were addicted to heroin, on the American folk of Running to Stand Still. Tragedy at the heart of the band inspired One Tree Hill, after their roadie and personal assistant to Bono, 26-year old Greg Carroll, died in a motorcycle accident in Dublin. 

The band’s approach to recording and production altered on The Joshua Tree as well. On the albums that came before, they would record each instrument separately and then layer them into the mix, whereas here Daniel Lanois encouraged the musicians to turn up to the studio with their parts worked out in advance, in the hope that they could record the songs as close to live as possible. 

Interestingly, the group had the hardest time recording the anthemic Where the Streets Have No Name. The song began life as The Edge’s demo, but when he brought it to the group, they apparently had difficulties with the chord and time signature shifts. Brian Eno has since estimated that approximately 40 percent of the time spent on making The Joshua Tree was dedicated to that one song. It was definitely worth the effort though!

U2 briefly flirted with the idea of turning The Joshua Tree into a double album, but were dissuaded from doing so by Eno, and recording for the record was completed in November 1986. Of around 30 songs, 11 were chosen to make the final cut.

When it came to mixing the potential singles, U2 hired Steve Lillywhite, who produced their first three albums. Cutting it fine, mixing for the album was completed the night before the 15th January 1987 deadline set by their record label.

And in terms of getting the tracklisting in order, that was down to Lillywhite's wife, the late, great singer Kirsty MacColl, who put her hand up for the job. The only request that the band had was that Where the Streets Have No Name opened the record and that Mothers of the Disappeared closed it. Everything else was up to her. MacColl chose to follow the first track with I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For and With or Without You. That’s quite a trio of songs to open a record!  

Released on 9th March 1987, The Joshua Tree received instant critical acclaim, and was a hit with fans too, topping the charts in over 20 countries. It became the fastest-selling album in British history at the time, and won Grammy Awards for Album of the Year and Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal in 1988. Upon its release, NME described the album as “a better and braver record than anything else that's likely to appear in 1987.”

The subsequent tour would see the band playing to stadiums for the first time in their career.

And as for its legacy, as well as being still being included in Best Of lists, The Joshua Tree is one of the world's best-selling albums, with over 25 million copies sold.

U2 brought out a remastered version of the record to celebrate its 20th anniversary, and then its 30th anniversary was marked with a tour and a reissue. 

In 2017, Adam Clayton told Mojo Magazine: “Contextually, 'The Joshua Tree' seemed to in some ways mirror the changes that were happening in the world during the Thatcher/Reagan period. It seems like we’ve kind of come full circle and we’re back there with a different cast of characters.”