Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Joshua Tree Turns Thirty

I remember when the Joshua Tree came out. It was March of 1987, and I was nearly out of high school. This was an event, something that has been lost in this post-music world. It was hyped the right way, and it was anticipated because the band hadn't put anything out since The Unforgettable Fire. In the interim, they toured the world, appeared at Live Aid, and stood on the brink of superstardom. All the needed was, well, The Joshua Tree. When it arrived in the stores, you had your choice of formats, which sounds crazy now. Compact Discs were taking over, but you could still buy vinyl or cassettes, you still had singles in different formats. I preferred to get the 45 rpm records.

And it was all amazing. Amazing shit, just amazing. To hear that album for the first time was life changing. Music just does not do that anymore.

The Joshua Tree outclassed everyone and everything else. It was better than anything being released at that point. In a head to head match, it dwarfed everything in the music industry. It was very much like watching a game-changing event. It was the Michael Jordan of albums. Everyone had been going along, doing their thing, and then this landed in the midst of all of that plastic, superficial music. It's not like you didn't have other bands doing vital, important stuff. I remember thinking, "this will force everyone to up their game," and I think it did. The music world still had boy bands, rap, pop, and heavy hair metal. None of that shit mattered. In the world of stuff that did matter, this was the thing.

I remember the excitement of buying those 45 rpm records though. I bought all of them because they came with bonus tracks--two B-sides, if you can believe it. They came in double gatefold sleeves--two 45 rpm records side by side. Up to that point, I was collecting singles and I absolutely loved my reissues of their first eight singles. I coveted them. Then I added the 12" singles and the CD singles came later on. 1987 was a transitional year for technology--you could get CDs, but I was still in that mode where I was acquiring everything in different formats. If I had it to do over again, I would never have bought another cassette tape, but that's neither here nor there (yep, I did gobble up a few cassette singles).

Young kids didn't rally to the album. It was far too important of a piece of art for everyone to like. If you were into Def Leppard, then The Joshua Tree did not have enough razzle dazzle for you. Was it a maturity thing? Did you have to have knowledge of what mattered in order to handle the message of The Joshua Tree? Could you like superficial things and embrace this thing or did you have to be awake to what was going on in the world? I have no idea. I suspect that if you were turned off by thinking, then you were going to go buy the Poison album. If you bought both, what the hell were you thinking? It's like there was a clear dividing line then, and we've lost that.

Grown men in their forties buying Taylor Swift records? Really? Who the fuck damaged you?

I fucking hated Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, and John Cougar Mellencamp. I also fucking hated Van Halen, Def Leppard and Guns and Roses. But U2? Hell, I was ready to die on that hill. A better question might be, what the hell was wrong with me? Oh, that's right. I thought Pleased to Meet Me was the best album of the year. Paul Westerberg and Bono, two opposites making music that mattered the same amount, coming from different directions. Hey, the Eighties were weird, man. That's all I can tell you. Sorry you missed it.

How weird? Consider that these albums all arrived between March and September in one calendar year:

March 9, 1987 - U2, The Joshua Tree

May 5 - The Cure, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me

June - The Replacements, Pleased to Meet Me

July 6, Echo and the Bunnymen, Echo and the Bunnymen

August - Midnight Oil, Diesel and Dust

August 31 - The Jesus and Mary Chain, Darklands

September 1 - R.E.M., Document

September - INXS, Kick

Please note that R.E.M.'s first real "political" album, referencing Central America, imperialism, and environmental awareness came well before U2 plowed that field with 1986's Lifes Rich Pageant. They continued that theme in 1987 with their finest ever.

The artwork really stood out. The Anton Corbijn photos, the stark use of desert imagery. All of that married up with the particulars of the music inside of the album. It changed the culture, it moved the ball forward. If you were going to coordinate your album release after that, you had better have your artwork sorted out, your marketing plan in place, and you had better have the songs.

Is there a stronger group of songs on any other album ever? It was like Who's Next, Nevermind, or (What's the Story) Morning Glory, a murderer's row of singles. Side one of The Joshua Tree is like being taken to a masterclass in building a solid album. If they had taken one of those first three songs and just tucked it away for Rattle and Hum, it still would have been all killer and zero filler.

How does a song like Exit end up being forgotten? Same thing for Trip Through Your Wires. On anyone else's album, these are singles. On the Joshua Tree, they're just songs on side 2.

U2 jammed that album with songs. Their B-sides could have been a proper album as well, and Silver and Gold is one of the greatest B-sides ever. You already know the album, and I have to say, to hear that they have re-done Red Hill Mining Town is a terrific thing. What can you say about their only two American number ones, With or Without You and I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For that hasn't already been said?

To me, the real gems were the B-sides, and that's why I was so interested in the non-album tracks. Zooropa is basically a B-sides album, and if they had found a way to craft an album out of the B-sides, I'm sure America would have hated that, too. But their B-sides made their singles something that you had to acquire. Getting them was hardly a challenge because record stores were eager to move as much of that stuff as they could. In that way, U2 were like New Order in that they were both bands that emphasized moving 12" singles for several different markets, not the least of which were dance clubs. This is why there are weird club mixes for a number of U2 songs.

For the 20th anniversary version of The Joshua Tree, the following tracks were listed as B-sides. If you separated them and made all of them into their own album, you'd have the little brother to the Zooropa album.

Please note that this isn't even the best U2 album. That honor is reserved for Achtung Baby.

1 comment:

  1. I remember being in the theater watching previews back in the 80's when the screen went dark and plaintive strains of organ music drifted through the speakers, building ever so slowly louder and and more powerful like something being born while clips of people in shadow began to flash back and forth across the screen in black and white - and I was gripped with excitement - and I didn't even know what I was watching. Then a guitar came in with the rhythmic "ticka ticka ticka ticka tick" riff that we now know all so well and eventually exploded gloriously into the beginning of "Where the Streets Have No Name" and I realized this was a preview for a U2 concert movie.
    While I knew about U2 and appreciated their radio singles I hadn't yet "got it" about how remarkable and innovative they were. Thanks for this great review, it prompted me to go listen to the songs on the Joshua Tree album I hadn't heard. There is some really amazing stuff on there. "Bullet the Blue Sky" and "Exit" are audacious, real, and unapologetic, like soundtracks for a pulp western. Even though they're Irish their music has soul and manages to capture the American spirit, and I'm going to spend the next few days revisiting their masterful work.