By Jessica Wheeler, AliveTampaBay Columnist
It’s a rare thing for a single album to encapsulate an artist’s past, present, and future, but The Joshua Tree is that album for legendary Irish band U2. Released in 1987, it looked back to the history of Irish and American music, while catapulting the band to superstardom and cementing their future as rock icons. Acknowledging the album’s legend, the band is stopping in Tampa on June 14 as part of their tour commemorating the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree. Here, we take a look back at U2 in 1987, the year everyone caught on to one of the best bands in the world.
By 1987, U2 had been together for nine years. They’d released four albums, beginning with 1980’s Boy. Their third album, War, contained the songs “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day,” which had gained them some radio airplay and success, particularly in the college market. By the time of the release of their fourth album, 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire, the band scored their first U.S. Top 40 hit with “Pride (In the Name of Love).” This, coupled with a particularly moving performance at Live Aid in 1985, meant the band was poised for its greatest success yet.
Not satisfied to merely recycle the sounds of their previous albums, Bono began to look for an idea to form the backbone of the album. After touring in the United States in support of their other albums, he’d realized that the band knew little about older American music, particularly blues, folk, and country. Friendships with Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Keith Richards, and other established songwriters, who repeatedly told him about the influence American music had had on them, led Bono to explore these genres on his own. He decided that U2 should record an album that paid tribute to the past, and began to write songs. These new songs had lyrics that told of a yearning to explore unfamiliar places, an idea frequently found in old blues songs, while searching for a home in which to belong, as told in folk and country music. Meanwhile, The Edge sought to add new layers and textures to his signature ringing guitar sound. The result was a set of songs that sounded fresh but owed a debt to the older music that had come before.
Reuniting with producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, who had produced their previous album, the band recorded in Ireland. Most of the songs were recorded live in the studio, giving them an immediacy that had been lacking in some of their earlier recordings. When the time came to shoot photographs for the album cover, the band flew to the U.S. to shoot in the Mojave Desert. They filmed music videos in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, to help bring home the idea of the record.
Upon its release, the album debuted at No. 7 on the U.S. charts, and reached the top spot three weeks later. Singles “With or Without You” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” also reached No. 1, becoming the band’s only singles ever to reach that spot in the U.S. Critics also adored the album, and the band was featured on the cover of Time magazine.
After The Joshua Tree, U2 was no longer an alternative rock band—they were mainstream superstars. Every subsequent release would be measured against the high standard of the album, and it remains their best-known and best-loved album to date, although subsequent releases like Achtung Baby in 1991 and All That You Can’t Leave Behind in 2000 would also bring them monumental success and critical acclaim. At their best, U2 combines heavenly music with earthy, emotional storytelling, the kind of music that lasts for generations—just like the music they so brilliantly evoked on The Joshua Tree 30 years ago.