Why is one of the most seminal music albums named after a gnarly tree in the arid Mojave Desert? I was fresh out of high school when The Joshua Tree dropped, so that question was definitely not top-of-mind for me at that time. I was way too overwhelmed by the uniqueness of the sound and the evocativeness of the lyrics. Three decades later, I am in a much better position to decipher what the album stood for as India counts down to the first U2 performance. The Joshua Tree embodies hope and survival in one of the most relentless environments, i.e. the Death Valley, in California. Ditto with the album, which still ranks among the bestselling albums across genres.
The Joshua Tree was conceived by U2 in the mid-1980s in a world riddled by a variety of crises. Global superpowers USA and USSR were immersed in a game of nuclear chess. Repressive regimes ruled in South America, Eastern Europe and other parts of the world. Germany lived with a wall between the minds and its people. Ireland and Sri Lanka were rife with ethnic killings. The Palestine Intifada violence gripped the Middle East. The AIDS epidemic swept across the world. Ethiopia reeled under the severest drought and the worst ever famine to hit the African continent.
The Joshua Tree album was U2’s effort in trying to make sense of the chaos that prevailed at that time, a musical epiphany distilled from the feeling of disappointment, loss, and helplessness. The album somehow mirrored the crisis of conscience they saw in America during their tour in 1986, a feeling that had percolated to the rest of the world. As Bono said at that time, “Dismantling the mythology of America is an important part of The Joshua Tree’s artistic objective.” Rolling Stone magazine called it “an immigrant’s tale: four guys from Ireland set off to find America, and what they discovered left them both invigorated and outraged.”
With the desert being as much an empty canvas as it was a barren one, The Joshua Tree became a metaphor for both hope and hopelessness. Anton Corbijn’s stark black and white cover with Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. looking at the desolate Death Valley was as iconic as the album itself.
In terms of sound, the album was a deliberate and compelling departure from the dominant synth-pop and new wave music of the time. Bono’s politically charged lyrics were rendered in a technologically ground-breaking and haunting mix of blues, gospel, and folk. Paul du Noyer of Q tried to nail the mesmeric draw of this album, ‘a sense of hunger and tension roams its every track, in search of some climactic moment of release, of fulfilment that never arrives’. The utopian yearning for a city undivided by religion and income in ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ took it to the top of the charts and won the band their first Grammy. It remains a staple in every U2 live act.
The yearning took on a spiritual note in the cult single Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, which ranked at No. 99 on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 greatest songs of all time. The Joshua Tree turned platinum within 48 hours of its release and vaulted to the top of the rockpile in 20 countries. In the US, it stayed at Number 1 for nine weeks, and took U2 to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, winning the band their first 2 of 22 Grammy Awards. LA Times hailed U2 as “the greatest band in the world” while Time magazine did a cover story titled “Rock’s Hottest Ticket”.
Over the last four decades, U2 has morphed and moved in mysterious ways. Never aligned to a particular sound, the band has constantly experimented, pivoted, and reinvented. Classic rock, punk, post-punk, blues-gospel, R&B, pop-rock , rock-electronica, techno — their fan base straddles all kinds of soundscapes. Producer Brian Eno’s unorthodox production techniques and photographer Corbijn’s imagery have been integral to the nuanced and often raw U2 audio-visual experience. Their stage shows and performances, masterminded by designer Willie Williams, are legendary.
Their concerts feel like live art installations with a sensory tapestry of sound, light, images, and messages. Giant video screens and massive stages are designed specifically to give the band more proximity to the audience, and allow Bono to interact freely with fans during performances. In fact, MacPhisto, his snarky alter ego, sometimes makes surprise appearances at concerts, to live crank-call celebrities like Margaret Thatcher and the Pope, and ask questions that the layman never can. U2 turned music into a strident platform of public opinion and non-violent protest, in a pre-Internet era. It yelled “Achtung Baby!” and steered the world’s attention to humanitarian plights in the remotest parts of the world. In describing the video for their hit single Miss Sarajevo, Bono pretty much sums up U2’s musical agenda: “Give you a kick in the balls, but in the most velvet way”.
Thirty years after U2’s first The Joshua Tree concert, the world seems to have cycled back to a similar bleak spot. Democracy is flatlining across the globe, issues intrinsic to the band’s ethos have resurfaced. The band reckons there couldn’t be a better moment for a The Joshua Tree déjà vu tour, to reacquaint the new world with the ideals and messages that the album stood for. “I don’t think any of our work has ever come full circle to that extent,” The Edge told Rolling Stone in a recent interview.
After playing to 2.7 million fans across 51 shows in North America, Europe and Latin America, The Joshua Tree tour is making its way across Australia, Singapore, Tokyo, Seoul, Manila and will conclude in Mumbai. “Coming to India for us is like coming to the source of what we stand for — non-violence. Ahimsa is India’s greatest gift to the world. And it has never been more important than now,” feels Bono. “India should be proud of its most extraordinary achievement in functional democracy, in a world full of dysfunctional politics.”
Their new single Ahimsa, in collaboration with A. R. Rahman, is a peace anthem commemorating their first concert in Gandhi’s India — the largest democracy in the world. To those of you who like me retort, “yeah sure, democracy run by dunces,” Bono says, “Let’s not take democracy for granted.” In other words, at least we have a democracy, there are nations out there that don’t. Perspective. Meanwhile, 50,000 Indian fans are counting down to a show of vocal acrobatics and visual pyro techniques by the masters of stagecraft. Achtung Baby.