Before the lemons. Before the messiah complex. Before Adam Clayton’s lolling penis on the inlay of ‘Achtung Baby’. Before any of these divisive factors, there was ‘The Joshua Tree’ and holy shit, it was incredible.
U2’s magnum opus (which hit the Number One spot on the US album charts 25 years ago today) isn’t just a shoo-in for the title of best-album-named-after-vegetation, pissing all over Radiohead’s ‘The King Of Limbs’ like an incontinent Jack Russell. It might even be the best album of 1987 (I said ‘might’). Twenty-five years later, half the music industry is still in The Joshua Tree’s shadow, and I’m still under its spell.
Don’t be fooled by the moody, monochromatic, up-their-own-arse sleeve shot. Live Aid and the ‘Unforgettable Fire’ album had almost cracked it, but at the start of 1987, U2 weren’t quite superstars. ‘The Joshua Tree’ nailed the formula. Sure, I could stroke my chin over Bono’s immersion in the writings of Norman Mailer and Raymond Carver, or his preoccupation with the American desert that gives the album its loose concept, but really, the operative word when it comes to ‘The Joshua Tree’ is ‘big’.
To play this music in the upstairs room of the Dog & Bollock would been cruel and inadequate, like repotting the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in a Catford window-box. These were epic, grandiose anthems that demanded to scrape the heavens in a roofless enormodrome, while a million sunburnt girls sat on their fucking boyfriend’s shoulders right in front of you.
I’m going to stick my neck out here. ‘The Joshua Tree’ has the greatest first minute of any album ever. There’s that subterranean throb, like the world’s best headache, until at last, the sad, stately, noble and doomed organ line breaks the surface, backed by The Edge’s most dazzling riff (albeit one he demonstrated on It Might Get Loud is actually a toddler-worthy doodle with lashings of delay). It’s a slow-burn opener so glorious that every hair on my body stands erect, and I spend the rest of ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ looking like Chewbecca.
How do you follow that? How about: with a brace of the most Zippos-aloft anthems of our times. For all I know, ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ could have been written about Bono’s misplaced Nectar card: it would still sound questing and majestic. Play me the tinkling angel-bells of ‘With Or Without You’, meanwhile, and I will immediately throw my arms around you like a sex-pest.
Weirdly, though, after those first three songs – each released as a single – ‘The Joshua Tree’ changes tack entirely. You won’t find else anything that could be played over Goal Of The Month montages, ‘Beautiful Day’-style, but rather, a string of eclectic and light-footed classics.
Take ‘Bullet The Blue Sky’, with Edge’s Hendrix-worthy sonic freakouts and a Bono soliloquy inspired by the El Salvador civil war. Take the passive/aggressive ‘Exit’, or the sunny-side-up ‘One Tree Hill’. Most of all, revisit U2’s ultimate lost gem – ‘Running To Stand Still’ – wherein Bono captured smacked-up poverty in Dublin shortly before he was whisked away to the ivory tower.
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‘The Joshua Tree’ duly handed U2 their megastar status – it had shifted 14 million copies by the end of 1988 – but also gave them their legacy, sparking the concept in a million young bands that it was possible to be big without being Phil Collins. You can hear that epic sound flowing through the work of Coldplay, Snow Patrol, late-period Kings Of Leon… even Noel Gallagher has noted that if “I could write a song like ‘Running To Stand Still’, I could die happy”.
Of course, you could equally argue ‘The Joshua Tree’ was to blame for the bands who subsequently traded in pointless bombast and vapid bluster, starting the craze for huge, billowing songs about nothing whatsoever, and mobilising a slew of callow young twats who all wanted to be The Biggest Band In The World.
That’d be bullshit, though. ‘The Joshua Tree’ is brilliant. But you’re very welcome to stick your oar in below…