It was the April 27, 1987 cover of Time magazine that sent the incontrovertible message. Rarely at home to hyperbole, and more likely to focus its attention on matters of global political import, the venerable newsweekly ran a certain band name in flaming gold, embossed on a picture of four Irish lads who were in the process of rewriting the record book. “U2” beamed the headline: “Rock’s Hottest Ticket.”
The time since The Unforgettable Fire three years earlier had been uniformly momentous, on stages that responded in size and scale to U2’s now global popularity. As Time made its weighty pronouncement, the band were sitting proudly atop the American album chart for the first time, in a nine-week reign for the artistic statement that went on to win the Grammy Award for Album Of The Year, The Joshua Tree.
Listen to The Joshua Tree right now.
U2 were now masters of their domain both in the studio and on the road, and their adventures en route to this latest album landmark included some unforgettable encounters. In June 1985, they were at home in front of 55,000 fans in Dublin’s Croke Park, as the Wide Awake In America EP became a new calling card in the United States.
A few weeks later, an audience calculated in the billions saw Jack Nicholson, via satellite from Philadelphia, introduce U2’s almost show-stealing contribution to Live Aid at Wembley Stadium. Readers of Rolling Stone voted it the best performance, and at this most glittering roll call of worldwide superstars, that was saying something.
Bono’s voice was now being heard in a variety of settings, including as a guest on the all-star, anti-apartheid “Sun City” single and, in early 1986, on Clannad’s plaintive hit single “In A Lifetime.” In June that year, U2 joined Amnesty International’s caravan of impassioned campaigners on the Conspiracy of Hope tour of the US, with Sting, Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel and Bryan Adams.
But as the year progressed, the need and desire for a new studio statement was growing tangible. In the summer, after sessions in other locations, U2 reconvened in their trusty bolthole of Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin. Their confederates, again, were the production pairing that had helped them take The Unforgettable Fire to such heights, Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois.
Bono would later say that a lot of the Joshua material was, essentially, recorded in Clayton’s living room, or Larry Mullen Jr’s spare bedroom, in sessions that were almost demo-like in their spontaneity. “It could have gone off in a number of different directions,” he remembers. “We wanted the idea of a one-piece record, not a Side One, Side Two thing.”
There was, indeed, an unforced and sometimes unadorned nature about the results, on which tints of folk music blended into the rock canvas, especially on the introspective, Dylanesque “Running To Stand Still.” The flavours ran from the blues to the biblical, and even the celebrated “With Or Without You” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” which became their first American No.1 singles, burned slowly but surely.
The recurring spiritual themes were a perfect fit for the album’s visual imagery, inspired by a photo shoot with Anton Corbijn in the Mojave desert amid the unyielding, aged trees of the title, named after the Old Testament prophet.
Joshua was also home to the more confrontational and outspoken “Bullet The Blue Sky” and ebullient pieces such as “In God’s Country” and another in their expanding catalogue of anthems, “Where The Streets Have No Name.” There was sadness, too, in the album’s dedication to Greg Carroll, the group’s PA, killed in a motorcycle accident in Dublin as the album was being created in July 1986.
“In The Joshua Tree, U2 fills in the sketches with sometimes breathtaking signs of growth,” wrote Robert Hilburn in the Los Angeles Times. “Bono Hewson’s lyrics are also more consistently focused and eloquently designed than in past albums, and his singing underscores the band’s expressions of disillusionment and hope with new-found power and passion.” Rolling Stone said that the album “could be the big one, and that’s precisely what it sounds like.”
Britain’s fastest-selling album
How right they were. On its release on March 9, 1987, The Joshua Tree went platinum in the UK in 48 hours and sold 235,000 copies in its first week, becoming Britain’s fastest-selling album ever to that point. It topped the charts throughout Europe and positively tore through the platinum certifications in America, with four million shipments by the end of the year and the hallowed, rarely bestowed diamond certification, for ten million, in 1995.
Underpinning it all was the unstoppable force that was U2 on the road, now embracing stadia as well as arenas. Ninety-six shows, 11 countries and three legs, starting, as the tree took root, in North America in April 1987: five nights at the Los Angeles Arena, the same number at Meadowlands in New Jersey, then on into Europe through the summer, incorporating two mighty nights at Wembley Stadium.
Then it was back to the coliseums and stadia of North America for another two and a half months. No one could ever say U2 did not become the biggest band in the world without putting in the miles, or the meticulous devotion to spectacular rock events.
Soon, MTV and BRIT Awards would precede their double-Grammy honours for The Joshua Tree, which also included Best Rock Performance. They were the first two Grammys in a collection that, to 2020, totals 22 trophies.
‘People respond to our naïveté’
Capturing the heart of their appeal, that historic Time cover story avowed: “Bono stalks a song as much as sings it, and the moment he takes the stage there is no doubt what his terms are: unconditional surrender. [Adam] Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr have found some solid musical grounding, and the lead guitarist, The Edge, can work a riff around to an epiphany.”
If there was a sense of arrival, it was leavened with humility. “People respond to our naïveté,” said Clayton in the same article. “I think they see four guys from Ireland who don’t want to let go of their dreams.”