Bono wanted to explore rock & roll's American roots; the Edge wanted to continue the expressionistic experimentalism of The Unforgettable Fire. The creative tensions between them resulted in U2's best record, a multifaceted, musically mature work. "Two ideas were followed simultaneously," says the Edge. "They collided, and this record was born."
The Joshua Tree is the rather esoterically titled album he's referring to — a title that even the typically solemn Bono could joke about. As the U2 singer said to Rolling Stone's Anthony DeCurtis at the time of its release, "You get record-industry people saying, 'As big as the Beatles — what's the name of the album?' 'The Joshua Tree.' 'Oh, yeah, oh, right.' It's not exactly Born in the Joshua Tree, or Dark Side of the Joshua Tree. It sounds like it would sell about three copies."
In fact, the album sold about 12 million copies worldwide, and launched the already popular Irish quartet into the rock stratosphere. But more important than the mass appeal of the album was its message of spiritual and creative yearning, articulated in songs like "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," "With You or Without You" and "Where the Streets Have No Name." Equally significant was the group's continued examination of political and social issues. In "Running to Stand Still," Bono describes the havoc that heroin use can cause, while "Bullet the Blue Sky" captures the horror and moral outrage that the singer felt about U.S. involvement in Central American politics.
"I just think the album takes you somewhere," says bassist Adam Clayton. "It's like a journey. You start in the desert, come swooping down in Central America. Running for your life. It takes me somewhere, and hopefully it does that for everyone else."
The Joshua Tree is "an album of contrasts," says the Edge. "Bono had fairly strong ideas. He'd been taken with American literature and music. Lyrically, he wanted to follow the blues and get into America. I'd written off white blues in 1978. I was trying desperately to figure out ways to play without using white blues. I wanted to push the European atmospherics. But listening to Robert Johnson and other early blues, I could see what was there. I warmed to the idea."
Both Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, who coproduced the album, made major contributions. "Brian strongly suggested that we do it all ourselves," says the Edge. "We felt inclined to bring people into the sessions — at times it would have been nice to have pedal steel or background vocals. But he always felt we could do it. There was a great wisdom in that decision."
There was no attempt to make The Joshua Tree a commercial album. "If anyone had even breathed that idea ...," says Clayton. "We wanted to make music. The thing is to challenge radio. To get 'With You or Without You' on the radio is pretty good. You don't expect to hear it on there — maybe in a church."
Before recording began, the group spent time rehearsing at Clayton's house in Dublin, and the atmosphere was so comfortable that they decided to record there. "Just this big, high room," he says. "One of the biggest rooms I've ever seen in a house. With windows and natural light. Pretty much all of it was recorded at my house." The band spent about three months on the album, interrupting the sessions to headline Amnesty International's Conspiracy of Hope Tour in the U.S. Some recording was also done at Dublin's Windmill Lane Studios, at the Edge's house and at another Dublin studio, S.T.S.
Approximately seventeen songs were worked on. Some of the material that didn't end up on the album — such as "The Sweetest Thing," "Spanish Eyes" and "Deep in the Heart" — became B sides of singles.
Lanois credits Eno with sparking many of the music's more adventurous moments. "They had found the experimental side of working on The Unforgettable Fire tiring," says Lanois. "But if you work with Brian, like it or not, he's gonna weird things up."
Yet the sessions often had a relaxed, off-the-cuff feel. Of "Running to Stand Still," the Edge says it was "almost improvised to tape." And "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" originally had a different melody and was called "Under the Weather."
One of the album's best tracks, "Where the Streets Have No Name," proved extremely difficult to record. At one point Eno became so disillusioned with it that he tried to destroy the tape; the engineer told the Edge, "I just had to stop Brian from erasing 'Streets.'"
"It took forever to get that track," says Lanois. "We had this giant blackboard with the arrangement written on it. I felt like a science professor, conducting them. To get the rise and fall, the song's dynamic, took a long time."
Does the band consider The Joshua Tree one of the best albums of the Eighties? "With Joshua Tree, we wanted to make a really great record, with really great songs," says the Edge. "We became interested in songs again. We put abstract ideas in a more focused form. It's the first album where I really felt Bono was getting where he was aiming with the lyrics. Bono is more of a poet than a lyricist. With Joshua Tree, he managed, without sacrificing the depth of his words, to get what he wanted to say into a three- or four-minute song."
"Important?" muses Clayton. "I don't know. It was important for us. Suddenly we could do so many different things musically. It gave us a great freedom. I think we were able to stretch and do things we didn't really understand before. It captured a musicality for us that we'd never gotten on record before."