The plot of The Joshua Tree is essentially an immigrant’s tale: Four guys from Ireland set off to find America, and what they discovered left them both invigorated and outraged. While the lyrics to U2‘s 1987 opus give voice to their ever-expanding social conscience, the roots of The Joshua Tree are planted firmly in blues, gospel and folk – with an outsider’s edge. Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. were strangers in a strange land, and this sense of otherness is prevalent throughout the album.
“It doesn’t really sound like anything else from its time at all,” the Edge recalled in a 1999 Classic Albums documentary. “It’s not coming from an Eighties mentality. It’s coming from somewhere completely different. … When we were making this album we didn’t really feel like we were a part of what was going on in the music business at that stage. And we felt very separate.”
“It was so out of step with everything around,” Bono agreed. “It was mad. It was like an ecstatic music.” The spirit caught on – The Joshua Tree went on to top of the charts in more than 20 countries, spawning hit singles with “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “With Or Without You.” Technologically innovative, politically charged, spiritually conscious and radio-friendly in the extreme, the album built on U2’s reputation as unparalleled live performers and vaulted them to the top of the modern-rock pile.
Decades on, The Joshua Tree remains the band’s highest-selling album and a touchstone among legions of fans. In honor of the album’s 30th anniversary, and in advance of an upcoming tour celebrating the LP, we look back at 10 little-known facts about its creation.
1. The early sessions were recorded in a Georgian mansion – which Adam Clayton later bought.
While the album’s title and cover evoked the American Southwest and the lyrics expressed Bono’s outrage over human-rights atrocities in Ethiopia, South Africa, Chile and El Salvador, U2’s globally minded fifth studio LP was largely recorded in a two-story Georgian mansion located in Rathfarnham, South Dublin – within sight of Adam Clayton’s former school. The Edge had viewed the residence while house-hunting with his then-wife Aislinn several months before. “We decided it wasn’t for us, but later I had the idea that the owner might rent it to us to record in,” he says in the band’s autobiography, U2 by U2. “The house was called Danesmoate. So we set up in this big old Georgian house in the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains, about half a mile from Columba’s College where Adam had been infamously expelled.”
The plan was not completely without precedent. U2 had recorded much of their previous album, 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire, in County Meath’s Slane Castle. Believing Danesmoate to be much more inspiring than a sterile professional facility, the group decided to construct a fully functional studio inside the old walls. By January 1986 the dining room had been converted into a control room, complete with tape machines and mixing desk. Massive double doors were removed and replaced with a glass screen looking into the elegant drawing room, which would serve as the live room. With hardwood floors and a double-height ceiling, the space boasted oversized acoustics. “When you hear that big drum sound on The Joshua Tree, it’s the sound of that room,” says Clayton, who later purchased the house after recording was complete (“Perhaps to get up the noses of the establishment next door, although he would never admit to that,” the Edge jokingly speculates).
Though U2 occasionally used more traditional venues like Windmill Lane and STS Studios, many of the background tracks were recorded live at Danesmoate before being completed at the Edge’s newly purchased seaside home, Melbeach, in Monkstown, South Dublin. “That’s where songs like ‘Mothers of the Disappeared’ and what ended up as ‘Bullet the Blue Sky’ were born,” co-producer Daniel Lanois told Hot Press in 2007. “Probably the bulk of the record was done at Edge’s house. Even though the Danesmoate sessions were the backbone of the tonality of the record – we got a lot of the drums done in there.”
2. “One Tree Hill” was inspired by the death of the band’s roadie and friend.
When U2 arrived in Auckland, New Zealand, as part of their Unforgettable Fire Tour in August 1984, Bono found himself unable to sleep due to the 13-hour time change. To help pass the time, a group of local production staff kindly gave the superstar visitor a late-night tour of their city. Among them was Greg Carroll, a Maori man whose experience working with Auckland-based bands got him hired by U2’s production manager, Steve Iredale.
The impromptu sightseeing tour brought them to one of the highest and largest of Auckland’s many volcanic peaks. “They took me up to the top of a place called One Tree Hill, where a single tree stands at the top of the mount, like some stark Japanese painting,” recalled Bono in U2 by U2. “And we looked around at this city that’s made by craters of volcanoes. I remember it so vividly, I think, because it meant something to me about my own freedom.” Also known as Maungakiekie, the area holds great spiritual significance to the Maori people.
Carroll made a strong impression on the band, and soon they offered him a job as a gofer and stagehand on the remainder of their 10-month global trek. When the tour wrapped the following July, he was given a permanent role assisting U2 in Dublin, becoming particularly close with Bono and his wife, Ali Hewson.
On July 3rd, 1986, just as the sessions for The Joshua Tree were getting underway, Carroll was riding a motorcycle through the rainy streets of Dublin when a car cut him off. Unable to stop, the 26-year-old slammed into the side of the vehicle. He died on impact. The news sent shockwaves through the band’s inner circle. “It was a devastating blow,” a haunted Bono told Rolling Stone in 1987. “He was doing me a favor. He was taking my bike home.”
Bono, Hewson, Larry Mullen Jr., and other U2 associates accompanied Carroll’s body as it was flown to New Zealand for burial. In addition to traditional Maori funeral rites, Bono sang “Let It Be” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” for his fallen friend. Following the service, he reflected on the night they met, traveling up the scenic peak that overlooked the city. The grief-stricken singer poured his thoughts into lyrics that would become “One Tree Hill.”
Back in the studio, the instrumental track was developed over the course of a jam session supervised by co-producer Brian Eno. When it came time to lay down the vocals, Bono recorded just one take. The raw emotion left him unable to attempt another. “It brought gravitas to the recording of The Joshua Tree,” he explained in the band’s autobiography. “We had to fill the hole in our heart with something very, very large indeed. We loved him so much.” The completed album was dedicated to Carroll’s memory.
3. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” was originally a completely different song.
The DNA of one of U2’s most enduring anthems can be found in a demo from an early jam session, alternately titled “The Weather Girls” or “Under the Weather.” It was, according to Clayton, “a bit of a one-note groove,” while the Edge dismissed it as “a little like ‘Eye of the Tiger’ played by a reggae band.” The song’s only saving grace was Mullen’s unusual drum part. “It was a very original beat from Larry,” Lanois told Hot Press. “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.”
Keeping the drum track as a base, the band layered new instrumental tracks overtop to fit the rhythm. “It was like building a building. Foundation, next, then you put in furniture in the end. I enjoyed that process,” says Lanois in the Classic Albums documentary. As the new melody began to take shape, it bore traces of gospel – a relatively unexplored genre for the band. “I always loved gospel music and I encouraged Bono to take it to that place, which he did,” Lanois continues. “It was a very non-U2 thing to do at the time, to go up the street of gospel, but it opened a bit of a door for them.”
With the instrumental backing nearly complete, Bono entered the live room to experiment with a vocal melody through largely improvised lyrics. For the Edge, his bandmate’s performance evoked a phrase he had conjured up that morning, loosely inspired by the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s “Idiot Wind” (“You’ll find out when you reach the top you’re on the bottom”).
“As I listened to this incredible song emerging out of the fog, I remembered something I had written in a notebook, a possible song title that I had actually stumbled upon that morning,” the Edge says in U2 by U2. “I tried it in my head as Bono sang, and it scanned so perfectly that I wrote it on a piece of paper and handed it to him as he sang. It was like a hand in glove.”
The line “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” would provide the song with both its title and emotional focus. “There are only a few moments of full-on electricity-in-the-air creativity that I remember from making that album, but the birth of ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ is one,” says the Edge.
4. Recording “Where the Streets Have No Name” was such a hassle that Brian Eno nearly wiped the tapes in frustration.
As the band started to assemble material for their new album, the Edge made it his mission to compose “the ultimate U2 live song.” Installed in an empty room at the top of his equally empty new home, Melbeach, he worked tirelessly with a 4-track tape machine until he’d completed a hard-driving guitar riff that would become “Where the Streets Have No Name.”
“It was a strange feeling when I finished the rough mix, because I thought I had just come up with the most amazing guitar part and song of my life, but I was totally alone in a big house with no one to share it with,” he recalls in U2’s autobiography. “I remember listening to the complete silence of the house for a few seconds after the music stopped and then doing a dance around the room, punching the air.”
The rest of the band, who viewed the tricky riff with trepidation, did not match his enthusiasm. “He figured a guitar part that could switch from the 6/8 time and bring it into 4/4 for when the band comes in,” Clayton explained in the Classic Albums documentary. “And I have to say, at the time I didn’t appreciate the probably hours of thought that went into the idea. It just seemed like a way of fucking the band up.”
In a 2008 interview with Mojo, Daniel Lanois remembers being equally perturbed. “It was a bit of a tongue-twister for the rhythm section, with strange bar lengths that got everybody in a bad mood. I can remember pointing at a blackboard, walking everybody through the changes like a science teacher.” Further complicating matters was the fact that the song was far from complete. “[The Edge] had the beginning and the end, but he didn’t really have the bit in the middle,” says Clayton. “So we would spend interminable hours figuring out chord changes to get the two bits to join up.”
Eventually, Brian Eno hit a breaking point (“It drove Brian mad,” Clayton confirms) and, according to multiple sources, he had to be physically restrained from wiping the tapes of the song. “Brian thought if he could just erase it from the tapes we could stop working on it,” Lanois told Uncut in 2003. “I’m sure they would have just come up with another song. It’s interesting, sometimes the songs that receive the most attention are the ones that don’t make it. You just hate to lose your investment. I’m not sure if Brian was right, but it did drive me a little bananas as well.”
However, Eno sought to clarify the famous tale in the Classic Albums documentary. “That story’s been told a lot of times and now I shall tell you the truth about it. That song was recorded so there was a version of it on tape. That version had quite a lot of problems. What we kept doing was spending hours and days and weeks, actually – probably half the time that the whole album took was spent on that song – trying to fix up this version on tape. It was a nightmare of screwdriver work, and my feeling was that it would be much better to start again. I [was] sure we would get there quicker if we started again. So my idea was to stage an accident and erase the tapes so we’d have to start again. But I never did.”
5. The Band’s Robbie Robertson dropped in on U2 as they recorded.
As sessions continued that August at Danesmoate, U2 received an unexpected visit from Robbie Robertson. The former Band guitarist was in Dublin to complete his first solo album with production help from Daniel Lanois. “I had started a record with Robbie but I had to leave because it was taking so long,” Lanois later told Hot Press. “I went to work in Europe, first with Peter Gabriel and then with U2. I felt bad for Robbie that his record wasn’t finished, so I said to him one day, ‘Why don’t you get out of Los Angeles, come out here and just visit for a couple of days?'”
Unfortunately, Robertson’s arrival was ill timed. He touched down in Dublin as the city was being pummeled by Hurricane Charlie, resulting in some of the worst flooding in decades. “There were cars floating down the streets,” the beleaguered guest recalled in an interview with Hot Press later that year. “It was really frightening. Thank God these guys [U2] were up for some spontaneous combustion!”
Robertson packed just a handful of song fragments, but the storm, the new location and U2 sparked his creativity. He and Bono improvised lyrics while the rest of the band provided backup, leading to a 22-minute take that would be edited down into “Sweet Fire of Love.” The track would surface on Robertson’s self-titled debut the following year, along with “Testimony,” which also featured the band.
6.”With or Without You” was saved by a prototype guitar.
An early incarnation of “With or Without You” had been around since the band first gathered at Larry Mullen Jr.’s house to discuss new material after the Unforgettable Fire Tour concluded in the summer of 1985. By all accounts this primitive version was unremarkable, with Clayton insisting that the bare bones were “very traditional, because the chords just went round and round and round.” Under the guidance of Eno and Lanois, they continued to tinker away with the composition well into the Joshua Tree sessions, developing a myriad of arrangements—all of which were, in the Edge’s assessment, “awful.”
U2 were nearly ready to abandon the track entirely when the Edge received a gift from Canadian musician Michael Brook, his recent collaborator on the soundtrack to 1985’s Captive. Knowing the Edge’s penchant for unique sounds, Brook sent him a prototype of an instrument he had developed called the Infinite Guitar. Using a built-in electronic amplification system, it allowed notes to be played with limitless – or “infinite” – sustain. “It’s a genius thing,” says Lanois, who owns the second of Brook’s two prototypes. “You create a feedback loop. Since then, of course, people have started mass-manufacturing them, but back then it was unexplored territory.”
While undoubtedly impressive, the instrument came with some health risks. “It arrived during the [Joshua Tree] sessions with elaborate instructions on how to hook it up,” recalls the Edge in U2 by U2. “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.”
After assembling the Infinity Guitar without major injury, the Edge began to test the boundaries of his new toy while the band worked at Danesmoate. “I had just taken it out of the box and was playing around with it in one room while [band associate] Gavin Friday and Bono were in the control room listening to the backing track of ‘With or Without You.’ We were really at an impasse in the search of the right arrangement, and were just at the point of leaving the song to one side. Then, through an open door, they heard the sound of the Infinite Guitar combining with the bass and drums and just went: ‘That’s it! But what the fuck is it!?'”
Bono was suitably impressed by what he later described as “a beautiful ghost of a guitar sound,” and the thrill injected new creative energy into the troubled song. “I asked Edge just to play a little something with it,” Lanois told Hot Press. “He did two takes and those are the ones in the ultimate mix of ‘With or Without You.’ Beautiful sounds, stratospheric.”
7. “Sweetest Thing” was recorded during the Joshua Tree sessions as an apology to Bono’s wife, but didn’t make the final cut.
The exhaustive Joshua Tree sessions, coupled with U2’s live commitments, put a strain on the band’s significant others – and particularly on Bono’s wife, Ali Hewson. “I live with a very strong person, and she throws me out occasionally,” he admitted to Rolling Stone at the time. “I hardly saw my wife Ali for a year. 1986 was an incredibly bad year for me. It’s almost impossible to be married and be in a band on the road.”
Bono penned a song for his wife, “Sweetest Thing,” as apology for his frequent absences. “It was written during the sessions for The Joshua Tree. It was Ali’s birthday and I didn’t make it for the birthday,” he recalled in 1998. Though the track was recorded for the album, it was never completed to the band’s satisfaction. “It was actually the one song we always felt we could have nailed better than we did. In my mind it was always a pop song, and I always felt we could do it better.”
It was elbowed from The Joshua Tree, eventually surfacing as the B side to the “Where the Streets Have No Name” single in September 1988. It would be a decade before the song was polished off with the help of producer Steve Lillywhite for inclusion on U2’s Best of 1980–1990/The B-Sides compilation. “We knew we hadn’t really finished it, and Edge came up with a couple extra chords and it was a really quick thing,” Clayton told Entertainment Tonight. “So we went, ‘Yeah, stick ’em in.'”
With new vocals and a revamped instrumental arrangement, “Sweetest Thing” was released as a single in its own right, climbing into the Top 20 across the globe. Ali agreed to appear in the music video – on the condition that all proceeds from the song be donated to the Chernobyl Children’s Project.
8. The actual Joshua Tree on the sleeve died in 2000 – and a couple died trying to find it.
“The original concept was where two civilizations meet,” graphic artist Steve Averill says of the album’s cover art. “The Two Americas was a working title at the time. The idea of desert meets civilization was sort of a theme.” With that loose starting point, Averill, photographer Anton Corbijn and the members of U2 boarded a bus in mid-December 1986 and embarked on a short road trip through desolate California locales of Death Valley, Zabriskie Point, the Mojave Desert and the ghost town of Bodie.
“We made a schedule of three days to shoot,” says Corbijn in the Classic Albums documentary. “And it was during the night after the first day of shooting that I went out with Bono and said, ‘There’s a tree that I really love, and it’s called the Joshua Tree. It’ll be a brilliant idea to have that on the front and then the band will be on the back.’ Bono then came down the [next] morning … with a Bible. He had looked up the Joshua Tree in the Bible and he thought that should probably be a title for an album. Then we went out that day to actually look for the tree.”
While speeding down Route 190 near Darwin, California, just west of Death Valley, Corbijn found what he was looking for. “Amazingly enough, we found this beautiful tree standing on its own. This [type of] tree usually grows in big groups, so it was incredible to find that tree on its own. I’ve never seen another tree on its own since.” The band pulled over and spent 20 minutes posing with the lone tree before the winter chill drove them back into the bus. “It was freezing and we had to take our coats off so it would at least look like a desert,” Bono explained. “That’s one of the reasons we look so grim.”
While a shot of the band at Zabriskie Point would ultimately grace the album cover, the portrait with the tree in the gatefold sleeve would become iconic. For Bono, a foreboding desert landscape was an accurate portrait of his unsettled mental state after what had been, in his own words, “an incredibly bad year.” His tumultuous marriage, intense workload, and the death of Greg Carroll all weighed on his psyche. “That’s why the desert attracted me as an image,” he told Rolling Stone. “That year was really a desert for us.”
Yet for Clayton, the image had a more optimistic meaning. “The desert was immensely inspirational to us as a mental image for this record,” he told Hot Press in 1987. “Most people would take the desert on face value and think it’s some kind of barren place, which of course is true. But, in the right frame of mind it’s also a very positive image, because you can actually do something with a blank canvas, which is effectively what the desert is.”
Given the spontaneous nature of the shoot, U2 genuinely had no idea where the famous tree was located – which proved to be a relief after the spot took on a quasi-religious significance to fans. “No, better that people can’t find it, or else some guy will arrive with it at a gig: ‘Bono, I’ve got the tree!'” the singer joked to Rolling Stone. He wasn’t far off. Hardcore U2 devotees eventually managed to track down the site, transforming the isolated speck of desert into an unlikely tourist destination.
The famous tree died of natural causes in 2000, collapsing on the desert floor at an estimated age of 200 years old. One dedicated fan left a plaque by the decomposing trunk, reading: “Have you found what you’re looking for?” In 2015, a less altruistic individual defaced the tree’s remains, hacking it into pieces and making off with a limb.
Many fans assumed that the cover was shot in the Joshua Tree National Park, four hours south of its actual location. This misconception may have had fatal consequences in August 2011, when 44-year-old Guus Van Hove and his wife, 38-year-old Helena Nuellet, were found dead in a remote back road of the park. Joshua Tree authorities suspect they died of heatstroke in the 105-degree temperatures. Van Hove had been a manager of the music venue 013 in his native Netherlands, and reportedly told colleagues “with a passion” that he wanted to visit the site of the album cover shoot.
9. Bono got banged up on the Joshua Tree world tour.
“Cuts and bruises, that’s what I remember from the Joshua Tree [tour],” Bono lamented in the band’s autobiography. The 111-date jaunt across North America and Europe grossed over $40 million between April and December of 1987, but it took a sizable toll on the lead singer.
The trouble began when Bono took a spill mid-song during rehearsals on April 1st, just one day before the tour was due to kick off in Tempe, Arizona. “I cut open my face falling off a light,” he said in U2 by U2. “I’ve still got the scar on my chin. I was lost in the music and at the start of any tour you’re just getting to know the physicality of the stage, the geometry of it, and you’re overestimating your own physicality. You think you’re made of metal yourself and you’re not.”
He received stitches at a nearby hospital, but Bono’s luck failed to improve when U2 returned to the Arizona State University Activity Center the following night. After a week of intense rehearsals, the singer’s voice was reduced to a hoarse croak as they played to the first audience of the tour. “I must have stayed out in the sun too long,” he told the sold-out crowd, urging them to join in and pick up the vocal slack. “I’m glad you’re singing with me tonight.”
A day’s vocal rest allowed him to sufficiently recover, but disaster struck once again on September 20th during a concert at Washington, D.C.’s Robert F. Kennedy Stadium. In the Edge’s memory, it was clear early on that the performance would not be one of their better ones. “In those days, when a U2 show went badly, it could go very badly indeed. … On this particularly night, in an attempt to try and get something going, Bono ran full pelt out onto one of the side wings. In the rain that was slowly falling, the side wings, which were covered in vinyl, became like an ice rink and his feet went from under him.”
More than the rain, Bono blames his own negative energy for the accident. “The song was ‘Exit’ and it had taken me to some ugly place. … I came down on my left shoulder and severed three ligaments from the clavicle. I was in terrible pain. Of course, they never healed back. My shoulder has come forward now, so I have to train my shoulder to go back. But it was rage that caused it. That was when I realized rage is an expensive thing for your general well being.”
10. U2 occasionally opened for themselves under the guise of a fake country group.
In between sets by the BoDeans and Los Lobos during U2’s Indianapolis show on November 1st, 1987, fans were treated to the debut performance of an obscure country group known as the Dalton Brothers. The quintet – “Alton,” “Luke,” “Duke” and “Betty” Dalton – played a short two-song hoedown consisting of an original ballad titled “Lucille,” and a cover of Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway.” Only those in the front few rows saw past the big hats and bigger hair and realized that these Southern Comfort–swilling gents were actually U2.
“We play two kinds of music: Country and Western,” claims an elaborate bio on a Dalton Brothers webpage, which cites Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn among their primary influences. The band took their alias from the Dalton Gang, a real-life group of outlaws who robbed banks and trains throughout the 1890s.
The Dalton Brothers rode again twice more: at the Los Angeles show on November 18th, and on December 12th in Hampton, Virginia. “This is just like Farm Aid and we like it that a-way. You people are beautiful people,” Bono (a.k.a. Alton) tells the crowd in a convincing rural drawl. “It’s great to know that in Los Angeles it’s love, not money, that makes the world go ’round.”