Thirty years ago, the wild success of The Joshua Tree transformed U2 into the biggest band on the planet. Radio hits “With or Without You,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “Where The Streets Have No Name” catapulted them from arenas into stadiums and found then hobnobbing with Frank Sinatra, appearing on the cover of Time magazine and sharing the stage with Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and B.B. King. “Certainly looking back on playing the tour at that time, it should have been an extraordinarily, freeing, joyful opportunity,” says bassist Adam Clayton. “But it was actually quite a tough time trying to deliver those songs under the pressure of growing from an arena act to a stadium act. I, for one, don’t remember enjoying it very much.”
He’ll probably enjoy it more this summer when U2 take The Joshua Tree on a victory lap three decades down the line. “I think this summer run is almost an opportunity to take it back,” he says, “and look at those songs and look at what was going on then and see where we are now.” We spoke to Clayton about the impetus for the tour, how the show will be structured, if fans can expect to hear rarities and what’s happening with Songs of Experience.
I know that the Innocence + Experience Tour was originally slated to go into 2016. What happened?
Well, the idea was really that we wanted to make sure we focused on the [Songs of] Experience album. By the time we finished the Innocence tour and came full circle to focus on the album, it was clear we weren’t going to be able to flip it really quickly into the Experience side of the material and put it right back out on tour. As a challenge that was, “OK, we’re going to have to look at this differently.” Also, in the course of that year, some kind of strange political movements seemed to start happening. First of all, there was Brexit in the U.K., which was just a signal that things were changing. I’m not sure how people took it. Then, quite quickly on the back of it, was the rise of Trumpism. And that was like, “Oh, OK, there’s something going on here. There’s maybe something we missed and we need to start watching this.” That sort of encouraged us to go away from trying to finish the record too quickly without being able to factor in some of the things this is telling us.
I think it’s interesting to be able to go back to the Joshua Tree record because when we put that record out and when we were working on it, it was a bleak world in terms of America and the U.K. You had a Thatcher-ite government in the U.K. that was trying to destroy the coal-mining business and set up a different kind of economy in the U.K. In the U.S. you had Reaganomics and the kind of imperial power inserting itself into Central American politics and some pretty bad deeds going on from drug money funding arms for that war. That was an interesting setting, but … looking back from 30 years, the story that it tells me the most is how much I’ve changed and how much I need to look at good, liberal values and how the world is really looking and what I accept from the news and what I want from politics now from someone that is less likely to be standing at the barricade. I’m all in favor of new artists coming up to be people that make a lot of noise, but I’m happy to still be a part of the movement.
I know the first thought was to maybe do one American Joshua Tree show and one in Europe. How did that grow into a whole tour?
Well, one of the early ideas was that perhaps, because the Experience tour when we get back out to it will be an indoor tour that’s focused on the production we had pioneered on the Innocence tour, it was going to be that production taken further. But we thought, “Well, maybe in honor of The Joshua Tree we could go back out there and do shows that are much more rooted in what that experience was about.” That’s because when we took the Joshua Tree show out a couple of interesting things happened. That was a tour that started in arenas and in the course of the year-long progress of that album, since that was back in the very, very old days where when you put out an album, it sold and there was word of mouth and it got bigger and eventually it got to Number One on the charts and everyone knew it. So when that happened we were forced to go from arenas out into stadiums, and that was a huge, huge step for a bunch of Irish guys who were 25, 26 and had just put our back into this thing called U2 and it had been a five-, six-, seven-year sort of journey for us, a pilgrimage in many ways.
When we went outdoors in the stadiums, we didn’t have any tricks. We didn’t know how to do it. We steered away from video reinforcement, which was just happening at the time. We thought it would, in some ways, dilute the music. We had a fervent belief that the music was absolutely adequate and big enough to fill a stadium, so it was really a challenge to us. It also meant that every night Bono had to really put himself out there to try and connect to people. In some ways, that was a thankless task. You can’t win in a stadium. No matter how good the songs are, you’re still just a speck on the stage and you’re still dependent on the PA system. That was very, very frustrating.
I spoke to Edge a few weeks ago. He wasn’t sure the show was going to start with “Streets” and go right into the album. How do you see that happening?
We haven’t really sat down and worked out the dynamics of it yet, but I suspect it would sit as the crown in the show. I think we would definitely want to open with perhaps something that is not dissimilar to the Songs of Innocence run [where we did our early 1980s songs] and get people in the mood for this thing that’s coming and you give some sense of history of where it came from. Then it’ll be a scene change. … This is my guess. We won’t know until we start playing it around quite a bit. We will either start with “Streets,” or end with it, I might think, but there will be a scene change. Whether or not we go completely in sequence, we’ve yet to work out. But I think it’ll be the beginning of the traditional musical journey that we’ve always referred to in that period where the songs will take us through a version of America that certainly seemed true and possible at that time. In many ways, perhaps that was the very end of the period of thinking of America as wholesome and benevolent. Really, things have changed quite a bit from that point on. It’s going to be hard to see how the country goes back to where it would like to be.
I imagine one challenge in playing it in sequence is the four most famous songs are the first four. Then there’s seven straight that are lesser-known to a mass audience. Doing them all in a row could be a challenge in a stadium. Do you worry about that?
Umm … I think we really have to wait and see. I think anyone that’s coming to that show clearly knows that record well. What we would need to figure out is whether that’s a suite of songs [and] with our new knowledge of 30 years hence we could breathe life into them in a different way, or whether we kind of bundle them together with some other songs that are thematically in keeping with those. Again, I wish I could be more positive with that, but we aren’t that far down the line. We have the aspiration, but we haven’t quite figured out how it’ll happen. But it will happen and we always toy around and experiment until it feels right.
That fans are super psyched to hear “Exit,” “Red Hill Mining Town” and “Trip Through Your Wires.” These are songs that haven’t been played in 30 years, or even ever in one case.
“Trip Through Your Wires” I think we were pretty good at playing during the original Joshua Tree tour. I think “In God’s Country” was in that set, but “Red Hill Mining Town” was never played live during that period. It fell into the midtempo malaise and I think we can now figure out ways to get around that.
Might you play any Songs of Experience songs during the show?
It would be very much my wish that we could play something from Experience as part of the show, maybe one or two songs. Again, I caution that by saying we really have to see the arc of this show and we have to figure out whether those Experience songs would work well in a stadium in this context, but I’d love to see some of that material out there and people being familiar with it before the album comes out.
Broadly speaking, it must be hard to make a set list since there’s so many albums and certain audience members that just know the big hits, and then there’s the hardcore fans craving deep cuts. Satisfying them both at once must be difficult.
It is difficult. You very quickly realize when you’re up there that there are those two types of songs. There are the songs with broad, mass appeal that people respond to in an instinctive ways. I suppose that’s what hit songs are. Then there’s, as you say, the more intellectual side of what I’d call the “bedroom songs” that people have a personal, intimate relationship with, but they don’t share that with the rest of the world. I think we always try and walk the line between having those great emotional moments that are much more about what’s happening in the crowd. The song unleashes the experience that people are having in the crowd, and then those other songs that one can pull back to the stage and they’re about the music that’s happening on the stage and the audience can participate in that.
I told the Edge the two songs the fans are always talking about are “Acrobat” and “Drowning Man.” You’ve never done either of them. Do you think they’ll ever be played?
We rehearsed up a version of “Drowning Man” for the 360° tour. I think we rehearsed it up until the moment we were rehearsing in stadiums. I think some of the fan chatter said that. I think in the end it seemed like really an obscure song to submit a stadium audience to [laughs]. But it has something. It really does have something. What we were doing with it was quite interesting, but you instinctively know that’s not going to carry in a stadium. It could carry in a club situation because it is … that’s right off War. It probably isn’t that well-known, but it is a beautiful piece of music, really evocative. Perhaps there is a way to put it in.
How about “Acrobat?”
“Acrobat” is a funny one. There’s a lot of anger. Again, I think when we were originally planning that tour it was just one song too many off Achtung Baby, but perhaps there is a way of bringing it back in. Perhaps not for this tour. I guess we’re going to have to align everything, to a degree, that is pre–Joshua Tree and then Joshua Tree. Then after Joshua Tree, perhaps Achtung Baby would be too big a gauge, but who knows how it’ll pan out once we start planning two-and-a-half hours in a stadium.
Do you ever talk about doing a fan show in a theater or club that’s advertised as just the obscure songs?
The thing is, if we were looking for innovative, different ideas to reconnect with our audience, I think all these things are valid. But we’re still very much kind of plowing ahead with new material and that’s our focus. This was just an opportunity to step sideways and honor Joshua Tree. I think when everyone saw it as something we could move forward with, there was great momentum and excitement within the band, but I think this is a step that is not really part of our language. It’s just unique that we’re choosing this year to do this.
Do you think if you put out “With or Without You” as a single today, it would be a big hit, or has radio changed so much it wouldn’t work?
I think you could put it out. I think you’d have to Melodyne the vocal. I think you’d have to squeeze and program the rhythm tracks. Eventually you’d get something that sounds familiar on the radio and it would research well, and you might get a bit of traction and it might be a hit. But I think if you put it out just as it is, it would get lost in the noise and bubble of that particular sound that’s popular at the moment.
Is it possible for a rock band 40 years in to score a hit in the climate where most pop artists are in their early twenties?
You know, I do believe that it is possible. I don’t know what the particular formula is, but I’ve never been more aware of any other time that no matter where I am in the world, and I don’t know why it is, I keep hearing Fleetwood Mac tracks. I’m going, “Why is it those songs have got such big, strong legs?” Of course, they were poppy in their day. They were very universal in terms of the lyric, but there was something about the sound that wasn’t necessarily the classic sound of that period. They had their own unique sound and it seems to have survived the pop music of the day.
Yeah. I think “Every Breaking Wave” is among your greatest songs. Had it been released in a different time it would probably have been a huge hit. It just seems like this is a different world now.
Yeah, it is. The emotional connection with songs [is] different because people don’t think of them as parts of albums. They don’t think of them as lifestyle. They don’t see them as identifying who they are. We live in a world where these songs are dropped and they get passed around and they validate people in a different way.
Do you think Songs of Experience will be out next year? The end of this year?
We all very much feel like it needs to be the end of this year. It’s not on any schedule anywhere, anything like that. We’re going to get back to that later this year and polish it off and finish it off a bit more. But we think we’re there with it. It’s not like the switch to do these Joshua Tree shows was because we needed a lot of time. It was just because it’s pretty much in the bag. We can still work on it throughout this year, all the little nips and tucks that we want to do. It’ll be a pleasure to get out there and play these Joshua Tree songs. In some ways, the experience of playing those Joshua Tree shows and those songs this summer, inevitably, couldn’t help [but] have some impact on what that record ultimately becomes when we finish work on it.
The word “nostalgia” is being tossed around in relation to this tour. How do you feel about that?
[Let’s out an agonized groan.] It’s not something we would be interested in. The reason the audience is there and buys the ticket may be to look back and say, “Wasn’t that great? Wasn’t that a great period? Weren’t we the generation that changed things?” You can’t do anything about that. Some people may do that. I think I mentioned at the beginning of the piece, it’s probably much more important to use that as a starting point of what the last 30 years have done to us all. Who are we now? How can we continue to act as members of the community and society and make changes and choices for the future?
Do you see yourselves still being in the group when you’re in your seventies like the Stones and the Who?
[Laughs] I can’t answer that. Maybe they couldn’t either. I think it’s fantastic that Pete [Townshend] and Roger [Daltrey] are still out there doing shows in their seventies. I would say if you’re in your seventies, it’s usually the most fun to be onstage with a rock & roll band if that opportunity is available for you, but I don’t know if that is something you can plan for. I don’t know. I don’t know where we’ll be in our seventies. I don’t know which one of us will be in our seventies.
It’s a miracle that U2 have been the same four guys for 40 years. Almost no group can claim that.
We’ve had a very solid, stable lineup. Hopefully it’ll stay that way.
I feel like with Songs of Ascent and everything you’ve done during the Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience sessions there’s so many songs the fans have never got a chance to hear, maybe even a hundred or so. Do you think those songs are ever going to come out on box sets or anything?
Again, I never want to say never. Very often, the things that don’t get completed is because we start out with a very broad palette and then again we do focus on the fact that what rock & roll is and what we do are a somewhat narrow palette. You have to focus in on that to be relevant and to be part of the discussion. So we can wander off into the ether and make nice, jazzy, progressive, atmospheric music – it doesn’t necessarily reflect what U2 should be doing and how we should be connecting with our people out there.
Do you ever fee like the band is fighting gravity? So few bands have ever done work 40 years in that’s connected with a mass audience. At the same time, rock is no longer at the center of the culture. That’s a lot to work against.
Ummm … yeah. There are different rules and criteria for the operation. I kind of feel like the technology of how this all works has changed a lot over the years. If you look at the big bands of the 1940s, those bands got cut down to quartets and quintets after the war because there just wasn’t the money around to pay for big bands or pay for petrols and buses. Then you came into the period where the electric instruments made that it very few people could make a big sound and entertain people. We’re now in a situation because the current music business, because sales in the real sense don’t exist, you can’t support bands like you used to be able to in terms of economics. Actually singers are now finding, often with computers, that they can make a sound in the digital world and make a voice fit well on it in a special way. They don’t have the overhead of a band in the studio or anything. So yeah, the economic forces have changed it a lot.
I also think that in that period of the 1960s there was the counterculture and information was translated through that youth movement and that counterculture movement through music and ideas. The Internet has completely changed that. People relate to each other in a different way and they communicate in different ways. It has more sophistication in so many different ways. We are, to use your term, somewhat swimming against the tide, but I’m hoping that some of those values … I don’t know if we can do this again in that sort of way. It will change. The future is going to be different, and who knows what comes with it?
U2 are going on a summer tour that will feature a complete performance of their landmark 1987 album ‘The Joshua Tree.’