Why The Joshua Tree Proved U2 Love And Hate America


This summer, U2 will embark on a tour honoring the anniversary of one of their most iconic albums, The Joshua Tree. The fifth studio album by Irish rock band U2, was produced by Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno and was released on March 9th, 1987 on Island Records. In relation to the ambient experimentation of their 1984 release The Unforgettable Fire, the band aimed for a harder-hitting sound with The Joshua Tree. The album is influenced by American and Irish roots music, and illustrates the band’s love–hate relationship with the United States.

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.

Upon its release, The Joshua Tree received critical acclaim, topped the charts in over 20 countries, and sold in record-breaking numbers in the UK. Rolling Stone said of the album, catapulted the band “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 first two of which became the group’s only number-one singles in the US. 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 the greatest records, The Joshua Tree is one of the world’s best-selling albums, with over 25 million copies sold. U2 released a remastered edition of the record in 2007 to commemorate its 20th anniversary. In 2014, it was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the US Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry. The following is a track by track analysis of the making of Joshua Tree

1. Where The Streets Have No Name

The music for “Where the Streets Have No Name” originated from a demo that guitarist The Edge composed the night before the group resumed The Joshua Tree sessions. In an upstairs room at Melbeach House—his newly purchased home—The Edge used a four-track tape machine to record an arrangement of keyboards, bass, guitar, and a drum machine. Realizing that the album sessions were approaching the end and that the band were short on exceptional live songs, The Edge wanted to “conjure up the ultimate U2 live-song”, so he imagined what he would like to hear at a future U2 show if he were a fan. After finishing the rough mix, he felt he had come up with “the most amazing guitar part and song of [his] life”. With no one in the house to share the demo with, The Edge recalls dancing around and punching the air in celebration.

Although the band liked the demo, it was difficult for them to record the song. Bassist Adam Clayton said, “At the time it sounded like a foreign language, whereas now we understand how it works”. The arrangement, with two time signature shifts and frequent chord changes, was rehearsed many times, but the group struggled to get a performance they liked. According to co-producer Daniel Lanois, “that was the science project song. I remember having this massive schoolhouse blackboard, as we call them. I was holding a pointer, like a college professor, walking the band through the chord changes like a fucking nerd. It was ridiculous.”Co-producer Brian Eno estimates that half of the album sessions were spent trying to record a suitable version of “Where the Streets Have No Name”. The band worked on a single take for weeks, but as Eno explained, that particular version had a lot of problems with it and the group continued trying to fix it up. Through all of their work, they had gradually replaced each instrument take until nothing remained from the original performance.

So much time had been spent on “screwdriver work” that Eno thought it would be best to start from scratch. His idea was to “stage an accident” and have the song’s tapes erased. He said that this was not to force abandonment of the song, but rather that it would be more effective to start again with a fresh performance. At one point, Eno had the tapes cued up and ready to be recorded over, but this erasure never took place; according to engineer Flood, fellow engineer Pat McCarthy returned to the control room and upon seeing Eno ready to erase the tapes, dropped the tray of tea he was carrying and physically restrained Eno.

The studio version of the song was compiled from several different takes. It was one of several songs mixed by Steve Lillywhite in the final months of recording The Joshua Tree. Drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. later said of the song, “It took so long to get that song right, it was difficult for us to make any sense of it. It only became a truly great song through playing live. On the record, musically, it’s not half the song it is live.

2. I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” originated from a demo variously titled “The Weather Girls” and “Under the Weather” that the band recorded during a jam session. Bassist Adam Clayton called the demo’s melody “a bit of a one-note groove”, while an unconvinced The Edge, the band’s guitarist, compared it to “‘Eye of the Tiger’ played by a reggae band”. However, the band liked the drum part played by drummer Larry Mullen Jr. Co-producer Daniel Lanois said, “It was a very original beat from Larry. We always look for those beats that would qualify as a signature for the song. And that certainly was one of those. It had this tom-tom thing that he does and nobody ever understands. And we just didn’t want to let go of that beat, it was so unique.”Lanois encouraged Mullen to continue developing the weird drum pattern beyond the demo. Mullen said the beat became even more unusual, and although Lanois eventually mixed most of the pattern out to just keep the basics, the rhythm became the root of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”.

The group worked on the track at the studio they had set up at Danesmoate House in Dublin. Lanois compared the creation of the song to constructing a building, first laying down the drums as the foundation, then adding additional layers piece by piece, before finally “putting in furniture”. Lead singer Bono was interested in the theme of spiritual doubt, which was fostered by Eno’s love for gospel music, and by Bono’s listening to songs by The Swan Silvertones, The Staple Singers, and Blind Willie Johnson. After the Edge wrote a chord sequence and played it on acoustic guitar “with a lot of power in the strumming”, the group attempted to compose a suitable vocal melody, trying out a variety of ideas. During a jam session, Bono began singing a “classic soul” melody, and it was this addition that made the Edge hear the song’s potential. At that point, he remembered a phrase he had written in a notebook that morning as a possible song title, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”. He suggests it was influenced by a line from the Bob Dylan song “Idiot Wind”: “You’ll find out when you reach the top you’re on the bottom”. He wrote the phrase on a piece of paper and handed it to Bono while he was singing. The Edge called the phrase’s fit with the song “like hand in glove”. From that point on, the song was the first piece played to visitors during the recording sessions.

As recording continued, a number of guitar overdubs were added, including an auto-pan effect and a chiming arpeggio to modernise the old-style “gospel song”. While the Edge was improvising guitar parts one day, Bono spotted a “chrome bells” guitar hook that he liked. It was added as a counter-melody to the song’s “muddy shoes” guitar part, and it is this hook that the Edge plays during live performances of the song. Bono sang in the upper register of his range to add to the feeling of spiritual yearning; in the verses he hits a B-flat note, and an A-flat in the chorus. Background vocals were provided by the Edge, Lanois, and co-producer Brian Eno, their voices being multi-tracked. Lanois suggests that his and Eno’s involvement in the track’s creation helped their vocals. He stated, “You’re not going to get that sound of, ‘Oh they brought in some soul singers’ if you know what I mean. Our hearts and souls are already there. If we sing it’ll sound more real.” The song’s writing was completed relatively early during the band’s time at Danesmoate House. The mix took longer to complete, though, with most of the production team contributing. The final mix was completed by Lanois and the Edge in a home studio set up at Melbeach, a house purchased by the Edge. They mixed it on top of a previous Steve Lillywhite mix, which gave the song a phasing sound.

Lanois says he is very attached to “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and has, on occasion, joined U2 on stage to perform it. The original “Weather Girls” demo, re-titled “Desert of Our Love”, was included with the 2007 remastered version of The Joshua Tree on a bonus disc of outtakes and B-sides.

3. With Or Without You

In late 1985, U2 convened at a house that drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. bought to review material the group had written during The Unforgettable Fire Tour. During this time, a rough demo of “With or Without You” was written, with lead vocalist Bono composing the song’s chord sequence. The band continued to work on the song at STS Studios, creating many permutations of the track, but not making any progress. Guitarist The Edge considered the song at that point to be “awful”. The track consisted of a Yamaha drum machine beat and a bass part played by bassist Adam Clayton using an Ibanez bass guitar with a short scale. According to Clayton, these early versions of the song sounded too sentimental and “very traditionl because the chords just went round and round and round”.

The sessions for The Joshua Tree started in earnest in 1986, and U2 were recording at the Georgian mansion Danesmoate House in Dublin in August. The group attempted to take the song in a different direction, although Bono was reluctant. Under the direction of co-producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, The Edge pursued more ambient guitar playing, Clayton turned up the volume on his bass, and Mullen experimented with an electronically enhanced drum kit. Despite the work they continued to put into the track, the group considered abandoning the song, as they could not find an arrangement they liked.
Bono and his friend Gavin Friday continued to work on the song after Lanois and Eno declined to do so. Bono credits Friday with rescuing the song and rearranging it, believing it could be a hit. Eno added a keyboard arpeggio, similar to the one from “Bad”. The song’s fate was still in doubt when The Edge was sent a prototype of the Infinite Guitar by Canadian musician Michael Brook, with whom he had collaborated for the Captive soundtrack. The instrument allowed sustained notes to be played, producing “a similar effect to the E-Bow”, but with the ability to provide all the “mid-points between no sustain and infinite sustain” that the E-Bow cannot provide. The prototype included elaborate assembly instructions and as The Edge recollects, “one wrongly placed wire and you could get a nasty belt of electricity. This piece of gear would have failed even the most basic of safety regulations.” On subsequent tours, his guitar technician occasionally received electric shocks from the instrument when preparing it for performances.

Listening to the backing track to “With or Without You” in the control room, Bono and Friday heard the sustained effect that The Edge was creating with the Infinite Guitar in the other room. The combination of the guitar and the backing track being played together impressed those listening. According to Lanois, “I said, ‘That sounded pretty cool,’ so we listened back and I said, ‘Jesus it’s better than I thought.” The Edge immediately recorded an Infinite Guitar part in two takes. The band considers the song’s recording to be one of the album sessions’ breakthrough moments, as it was recorded amidst concerns that they had run out of ideas.

Bono wrote the lyrics during his first night visiting Côte d’Azur in 1986, while struggling to reconcile his responsibilities as both a married man and a musician. His wanderlust in belonging to a musical act was often at odds with his domestic life. While writing the lyrics, he realized that neither facet of his life defined him, but rather the tension between the two did. He explained that the final lyric is about “torment” and how repressing desires only makes them stronger.

4. Bullet The Blue Sky

“Bullet the Blue Sky” is one of the band’s most overtly political songs, with live performances often being heavily critical of political conflicts and violence. was played at nearly every live concert from its first performance at the opening night of the Joshua Tree Tour on 2 April 1987 through the Vertigo Tour.

During the Joshua Tree Tour, Bono would frequently grab a large spotlight and shine into peoples’ faces in the audience, and would also make numerous political references to figures such as Ronald Reagan and Jerry Falwell. He also used the spotlight on the Elevation Tour. On the Innocence + Experience Tour, Bono would typically sing the majority of the song into a megaphone.

U2’s following album, Rattle and Hum, featured a live performance of this song, with a pre-recorded intro of Jimi Hendrix’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner”. “Bullet” then took on new meanings throughout the subsequent years. On the Zoo TV Tour, it was about Nazism; on the PopMart Tour, it, at least on occasion, featured references to consumerism and rock iconography in keeping in with the tour’s theme. On the Elevation Tour, it became an indictment against handgun violence, illustrated by references to John Lennon’s assassination and an ironic intro video clip featuring Charlton Heston, who was at that time the president of the National Rifle Association, while on the Vertigo Tour, it was about religious violence and the final lyrics were replaced by a snippet of “The Hands That Built America”. On the Innocence + Experience Tour, the song was about corruption of money, which was emphasized with images of Wall Street and Las Vegas on the video screen, as well as Bono discussing a scenario where he meets a teenage version of himself who criticizes the wealthy man he has become.

5. Running to Stand Still
“Running to Stand Still” was written by U2 in the context of the heroin addiction epidemic in Dublin of the 1980s, much like “Bad” (and to some extent “Wire”) had been from their 1984 album The Unforgettable Fire. Bassist Adam Clayton has referred to the song as “Bad Part II”. Thin Lizzy frontman Phil Lynott’s decline and death from addiction also resonated with Clayton at the time. Until their 2014 album Songs of Innocence, U2 had written relatively few songs directly related to their growing up in Dublin, often giving higher priority to works about The Troubles in Northern Ireland or to international concerns. When they have written about Dublin, allusions to it have often been disguised. But “Running to Stand Still” was one of those with specific Dublin connections:
“I see seven towers But I only see one way out ”
This lyric was a reference to the Ballymun flats, a group of seven local authority, high-rise residential tower blocks built in the Ballymun neighborhood of Dublin during the 1960s. Paul Hewson (later known as U2’s lead vocalist Bono) had grown up on Cedarwood Road in the adjacent Glasnevin neighborhood, in a house across fields behind the towers, near his friends and future artists Fionán Hanvey (later known as Gavin Friday) and Derek Rowan (later known as Guggi). Bono had played in the towers’ foundations as they were being built, then traveled in their elevators for the novel experience. Over time, poor maintenance, lack of facilities for children, transient tenancies, and other factors caused social conditions and communal ties to break down in the flats. The place began to stink of urine and vomit, and glue sniffers and used needles were common sights, as were appearances of the Garda Síochána. Guggi later lived in the towers during years that he was struggling personally with drugs. It was through his exposure to people without hope in the flats that Bono began to develop his social consciousness. The song’s title phrase originated from Bono asking his brother how his struggling business was going, and the brother responding, “It’s like running to stand still.” Bono had not heard the phrase before, and he thought it expressed what heroin addiction and the effects of the drug on the body were like; a writer later described the title as a “perfect distillation of the dynamic of feeding on addiction.” Bono had heard a real story about a pair of heroin addicts, a man and a woman, who lived in the Ballymun towers. Out of money and unable to pay the rent due to their habit, the man became a heroin smuggler, operating between Dublin and Amsterdam and taking enormous risks for a big payday. Bono felt the man was decent at heart but was constrained by his squalid living conditions, as well as poor choices, and Bono wanted to illustrate how these poor conditions affected their lives. The resulting lyric does not describe any of this explicitly, but instead limns the emotional atmosphere that the couple live in. In doing so, the song is not judgmental and shows sympathy for the woman. A character monologue from Wim Wenders’ 1984 film Paris, Texas, was also a significant influence on Bono’s writing of the song.
The musical composition was essentially improvised by the band during the recording process at Dublin’s Windmill Lane Studios. Guitarist the Edge began playing some chords during a session for another song. Producer Daniel Lanois joined in on guitar, and the rest of the group followed. This initial improvised version incorporated all the elements of the final song structure, and the sound and feel of the group playing in a room together without overdubs contributed to the track’s effectiveness. Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” and Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind”, both of which had served as end snippets for “Bad” on the Unforgettable Fire Tour, were loose inspirations. The influence of Reed’s works can be felt throughout the song, as can Van Morrison to an extent. Indeed, in a published tribute following Reed’s 2013 death, Bono offered “Running to Stand Still” as “red-handed proof” of the influence that Reed and the Velvet Underground had had upon U2.

6. Red Hill Mining Town
The idea behind “­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Red Hill Mining Town” came in 1984, when the National Union of Mineworkers aggressively opposed by the government led by Margaret Thatcher, declared a strike in response to the British National Coal Board’s decision to close down a large swathe of the United Kingdom’s coal-mines, which had become unprofitable. The civil discord created by the dispute, both politically, socially, and in violent confrontations between trade union pickets and the United Kingdom’s police forces in the affected areas, was one of the most divisive and bitter civic conflicts in Britain in the 20th Century, and its societal and economic impact on the working class coal-mining based communities across the English Midlands and North was severe. Bono’s lyrics focused on the stress the dispute had on families and their relationships, many of which broke down. The song was initially planned for release as The Joshua Tree’s second single, but U2 were unhappy with the video and Bono was unable to sing the high notes during pre-Joshua Tree Tour rehearsals. The song was dropped as a single and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” became a late choice for the second single. U2 drummer, Larry Mullen, Jr., later described it as “one of the lost songs” and that while he thought it had had great potential, it was “over-produced and under-written”. While Bono had clear ideas on how he wanted it to sound during The Joshua Tree sessions, Mullen recalls that the rest of the band and production crew were “not sure where he was going with it.” It was the only song from The Joshua Tree never to be played live, although it was soundchecked in November 1987.

7. In God’s Country
“In God’s Country” was a difficult song for the band to record, which they put down to not being trained musicians, and they do not speak overly highly of it. During The Joshua Tree sessions, they knew it was not going be one of their best songs but they needed more up-tempo songs. It was developed out of Bono’s frustration at trying to get “…a bit of Rock’n’Roll out of the Edge.” Bono tried to inspire the Edge by teasing and playing on his competitive instincts by claiming to be a better guitarist. Of the song, Bono said “[My] lyric was really good, the tune is pretty good, and the hook is pretty average – thanks to the Edge.” Played in the key of D, the verses of the studio version alternates between D and A minor chords. The first chorus repeats an Em-G-D-Em-G-D chord progression while the second chorus repeats a C-G-D-C-G-D progression.
Bono has stated that he originally didn’t know whether the song was about Ireland or America, but eventually dedicated it to the Statue of Liberty. The song characterizes the United States as a “desert rose” a siren whose dress is torn in “ribbons and bows.” The lyric speaks of a lack of political ideas in the West which Bono later contrasted to the revolution in Nicaragua where he had travelled during the recording of The Joshua Tree. Along with “Where the Streets Have No Name,” the lyrics and sound reference the desert in accordance with the band’s wish for The Joshua Tree to have a “cinematic” sense of location.

8. Trip Through Your Wires
The song was released as a promotional single in Australia, with only 500 hand-numbered copies released. The single included the B-sides “Luminous Times (Hold on to Love)”, “Spanish Eyes” and “Silver and Gold”.
“Trip through Your Wires” was consistently played live throughout the Joshua Tree Tour, but has never been performed since. According to The Edge, the song was meant to be heard in the context of another song that never made it on the album, “The Sweetest Thing”, which was later released as the B-side of “Where the Streets Have No Name”. “The Sweetest Thing” was re-recorded and released as a single for the 1998 compilation album The Best of 1980-1990.

9. One Tree Hill
U2 first visited Australia and New Zealand in 1984 to open The Unforgettable Fire Tour. After a 24-hour flight into Auckland, lead singer Bono was unable to adjust to the time difference between New Zealand and Europe. He left his hotel room during the night and met some people who showed him around the city. Greg Carroll was part of that group: he had met U2’s production manager Steve Iredale and been offered a job helping the band for their upcoming concert on account of Greg’s experience with local rock bands. They ended up taking Bono up One Tree Hill (Maungakiekie), one of the highest, and more spiritually significant to Māori people, of Auckland’s largest volcanoes. Greg worked as a stage hand gently stopping people getting on stage, and was described as “this very helpful fellah running around the place”. U2’s manager Paul McGuinness thought Carroll was so helpful that he should accompany the band for the remainder of the tour. The group helped him obtain a passport, and he subsequently joined them on the road in Australia and the United States as their assistant. He became very close friends with Bono and his wife Ali Hewson, and following the conclusion of the tour, he worked for U2 in Dublin.
On 3 July 1986, just before the start of the recording sessions for The Joshua Tree, Carroll was killed in a motorcycle accident while on a courier run. A car had pulled in front of him, and unable to stop in the rain, Carroll struck the side of the car and was killed instantly. The event shocked the entire band; drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. said, “his death really rocked us – it was the first time anyone in our working circle had been killed.” Guitarist the Edge said, “Greg was like a member of the family, but the fact that he had come under our wing and had travelled so far from home to be in Dublin to work with us made it all the more difficult to deal with.” Bassist Adam Clayton described it as “a very sobering moment”, saying, “it inspired the awareness that there are more important things than rock ‘n’ roll. That your family, your friends and indeed the other members of the band – you don’t know how much time you’ve got left with them.”Bono said, “it was a devastating blow. He was doing me a favor. He was taking my bike home.”He later commented, “it brought gravitas to the recording of The Joshua Tree. We had to fill the hole in our heart with something very, very large indeed, we loved him so much. “Accompanied by Bono, Ali, Mullen, and other members of the U2 organization, Carroll’s body was flown back to New Zealand and buried in the traditional Māori manner at Kai-iwi Marae near Whanganui, Carroll’s hometown. Bono sang “Let It Be” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” for him at the funeral.
Shortly after returning to Dublin, Bono wrote lyrics for a song about the funeral that he titled “One Tree Hill” after the hill he remembered from his visit to Auckland in 1984. The music was developed early in the recording sessions for The Joshua Tree. The Edge said, “We were jamming with Brian Eno. He was playing keyboards … we just got this groove going, and this part began to come through. It’s almost highlife, although it’s not African at all … the sound was for me at that time a very elaborate one. I would never have dreamt of using a sound like that before then, but it just felt right, and I went with it.” Bono recorded his vocals in a single take, as he felt that he could not sing the lyrics a second time.

10. Exit
“Exit” was created on the final day of recording for The Joshua Tree. It developed from a lengthy jam that the band recorded in a single take. Producer Brian Eno edited the jam down to the end length. Guitarist the Edge said “it started off as an exercise in playing together with a kind of mood and a place in mind. And it really, for me, it brought me there, it really did succeed as an experiment.” Producer Daniel Lanois said “There’s something that happens when U2 bash it out in the band room… and sometimes things get out of control, sonically, in a good way. Out of control in the sense that you don’t know what it is anymore, it just takes on a life of its own, and it makes people do things.” Speaking of the jam, he noted “it was a long jam, and there was just this one section of it that had some kind of magic to it, and we just decided to turn it into something.”
The lyrics were inspired by Norman Mailer’s 1980 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Executioner’s Song, written about serial killer Gary Gilmore, and by Truman Capote’s 1966 novel In Cold Blood; “Executioner’s Song” was the track’s working title. Lead singer Bono had read both novels and wanted to try and write “a story in the mind of a killer”. Further reading of Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver caused him to try and understand “the ordinary stock first and then the outsiders, the driftwood — those on the fringes of the promised land, cut off from the American dream.”Bono described the lyrics as “just a short story really, except I left out a few of the verses because I liked it as a sketch. It’s just about a guy who gets an idea into his head. He picks it up off a preacher on the radio or something and goes out…”. He noted that, although 30 songs were in contention for inclusion on the album, he “wanted a song with that sense of violence in it, especially before ‘Mothers of the Disappeared’.

11. Mothers Of The Disappeared
The song was inspired by lead singer Bono’s experiences in Nicaragua and El Salvador in July 1986, following U2’s involvement on Amnesty International’s A Conspiracy of Hope tour. He learned of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, a group of women whose children had “forcibly disappeared” at the hands of the Argentine and Chilean dictatorships. While in Central America, he met members of COMADRES, a similar organization whose children had been abducted by the government in El Salvador. Bono sympathized with the Madres and COMADRES and wanted to pay tribute to their cause. “Mothers of the Disappeared” was created and mixed at guitarist the Edge’s newly-bought home, Melbeach, which U2 used as a recording studio. Bono wrote the song on his mother-in-law’s Spanish guitar, and drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. created a drum loop that was sampled by producer Brian Eno. The melody came from a song that Bono wrote in Ethiopia in 1985 to teach children about basic methods of hygiene. Producer Daniel Lanois was the principal mixer of the song. Bono, likening the studio itself to an instrument, described Lanois’s mix as a “performance”. Bono said of the recording of the track, “I remember Daniel Lanois, when we were finishing ‘Mothers of the Disappeared’, losing his mind and performing at the mixing desk like he was Mozart at the piano, head blown back in an imaginary breeze, and it was pouring down with rain outside the studio and I was singing about how ‘in the rain we see their tears,’ the tears of those who have been disappeared. And when you listen to that mix you can actually hear the rain outside. It was magical really…”