Old Music Tuesday: 'The Joshua Tree' 20 Years Later

I've only owned one rock poster my entire life and it was for U2's Joshua Tree. It was six feet by four feet and hung grandly on my wall all through college.

From 1980 to 1989 I bought a lot of '60s and '70s music but only two albums that were actually released in the '80s. Two records in ten years. One of them was Peter Gabriel's So... the other was U2's Joshua Tree.

I've often envied Boomers for coming of age during the creative explosion of the '60s and '70s. My generation wasn't so lucky. By the time we lurched into the 1980s it felt like we were out of creative milestones. The radio was playing Air Supply's "All Out of Love" and Christopher Cross' "Ride Like the Wind." It felt like everything that could be done had been done, leaving us with mawkish pop and hammy hair metal bands.

The 1980s was a decade of excess. Pop culture was over the top. Overly bright colors and space-age cuts were the fashion, with bright plastic jewelry and hairdos blown to gravity-defying heights. It was an exaggerated sensibility that worked its way into music as well, particularly in the production. Much or most of it was bursting with a nauseating array of cheesy, synth-driven beats and melodies.

By 1987 I was used to tuning everything out. My first exposure to The Joshua Tree was an accident. I was at a friend's house and the TV was on. I wasn't paying much attention. But at some point I looked up and saw what looked like a breaking news event. The streets of Los Angeles were filled with people, all gawking skyward. Cops everywhere. U2 was on a rooftop, breaking into "Where the Streets Have No Name."

The song was like nothing else I'd heard. It radiated. The Edge's guitar was shimmering and majestic. Bono's voice was so pure, and the words he sang rang with a passion and sincerity I'd not heard before.

Hearing the whole album later was an awakening for me. Something in the sound filled me with hope. It made me think the world might actually be more beautiful than I thought and not as empty as the times suggested. It was grand and uplifting. The Joshua Tree made it safe to care again.

I know there were other great albums produced in the '80s, (including other U2 albums) though few were ever on the radio. I also know some lifelong fans of U2 were turned off by the mega-success and slick production of The Joshua Tree. It's easy to dismiss something once it's popular. But sometimes the masses get it right.

When I learned Island Records was celebrating the 20th anniversary of The Joshua Tree with an impressive reissue (a remastered version of the original album, an extra CD of songs and a DVD with a full concert and documentary on the band), I took a moment to consider how two decades had gotten past me so quickly. Feeling wistful, I got into my car for the ride home from work, stuck my demo copy of the reissued CD in my player and cranked it. I hadn't heard the album in years. But, as with all truly great music, the pull was still there. As the opening notes grew louder, I got a little teary eyed and felt the same sense of hope from 20 years ago wash over me.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

I bought the deluxe box set today from Best Buy. I never buy anything from Best Buy, let alone a deeee-luxe box set. But there I was, on a "release-day Tuesday," plunking down my baby boy's future college tuition money so I, too, could re-live a bit of my university years.

Nice post.

Sent by Christopher Porter | 8:15 PM | 11-20-2007

I still remember the day the album came out. A friend of mine headed straight for the record store after school and bought it. I wanted to join him, but was committed to an after-school activity that afternoon. By the time I left school, the store was closed. Dejected, I went home for dinner, but then saw a car pull up into our driveway. It was my friend, and he had the cassette in his hand.

We spent the next two hours driving up and down A1A, along the beach. The first time we listened to the album in almost total silence. I think he even shushed me at some point. The second time, we talked the whole way through, analyzing the lyrics, debating the significance of the album - is it the album of the year or the decade - and trying to guess the settings on the Edge's effects pedals.

By the third time we were going through the album, I was eager to get home. It wasn't particularly late yet, but my guitar and delay pedal were waiting in my bedroom. I wouldn't let myself go to bed until I'd mastered "Where the Streets Have No Name" and gotten the delay effects just right. I think it was the only song I played for the next month.

Sent by andy carvin, npr | 9:44 AM | 11-21-2007

I love the presentation of Old Music Tuesday. Could you or Bob explain the technical aspect of it? I'm curious if you're syncing audio over video or if the audio is actually from the filming? Thanks, Kevin.

We run a line out of the turntable and record the audio digitally into a laptop, then synch it with the video. Thanks for listening!. -- rh

Sent by Kevin | 12:07 PM | 11-21-2007

Thanks to that album we got tons of crap contemporary christian music mimicking the edge's sound. It seems the goal of the contemporary church is for worship to sound like U2. Too bad they arn't that good at it.

Sent by Devin Rodgers | 2:24 PM | 11-21-2007

I really like this band back then. I think maybe one album after this Joshua Tree (Zooroppa) was the beginning of the end as for their music and my taste; they went pop.

Sent by Sean_ Sallier | 9:01 PM | 11-21-2007

The Joshua Tree was a totally "coming out" album for U2. This remastered copy is awesome.

While U2 has gone through a lot of change to keep up with what is popular, their music is still genuine. Far more genuine than most of todays bands will ever come close too.

Sent by Richard Countryman | 8:59 AM | 11-26-2007

If Hilton didn't mention buying Peter Gabriel's album I would think that I wrote this article myself.The Joshua Tree was so appealing to lover's of rock music from the 60's and 70's because of it's no nonsense blues influenced rock. The evolution of U2 has been phenomenal, similar to that of the Beattles, and more a matter of creativity and versatility as opposed than commercialization.

Sent by Robert Podrebarac | 12:33 PM | 11-28-2007

This is the album that helped U2 be even bigger, unfortunately. They're too "American" on this album. Personally, this was the first album that began the decline of appreciation I have for U2.

Sent by Duane | 3:29 PM | 11-29-2007

The comment by Devin Rodgers is extremely poignant.

Sent by Duane | 3:40 PM | 11-29-2007

The Joshua Tree is not only U2's best album, it's the best album ever, according to me. It's a masterpiece. I live in India, and the remastered version is releasing here on the 3rd of December. So, I called up some relatives I have there, and had it delivered to me, and boy, was it good! Legendary songs like Where the Streets Have No Name, With or Without You, Red Hill Mining Town etc. This is the album that propelled U2 to superstardom, and for me, they always were and still are the best band in the world. 31 years in the business, and U2 has only got better with each passing year.

Sent by Karunesh Talwar | 6:00 AM | 11-30-2007

I was one of the biggest U2 fans at the time this was released. I had my jean jacket painted with an unforgettable fire/mlk motif. Boy spoke to me as a 17 year old and War was the best album ever. Then Joshua Tree came and I got trampled under foot in the rush to become U2 fans. I hung up my jean jacket and couldn't listen to the album for nearly 15 years. It is a brilliant album but the bandwagon it created made it difficult for me to like any of the subsequent albums. Boy, October and War still represent their best stretch.

Sent by Justin | 9:10 PM | 12-3-2007

The Joshua Tree was an album that needed to be heard at that point in history. There was so much lame music out at that point in time and here is a band that makes a record basically about their ventures through America. It will go down as one of the best albums, song for song, ever, like it or not.
The album flows so well from song to song and I think that is what creates for such a good listen. Every so often the wife and I will pull out the vinyl copy and listen to the entire thing. Not only is good to listen to, but it's one of those records that can put you right back in time, to the moment you first heard it.
I saw them on The Joshua Tree tour on Thanksgiving night at the LSU Assembly Center and it was a moment that will stick with me forever.
Like their releases prior to or after this album or not, one has to tip their hat to a band that has been able to release new material for this sustained period of time.

Sent by Kevin | 12:43 AM | 12-6-2007

I must disagree. Joshua Tree is overrated, as is U2.

Sent by Eric Gamboa | 9:04 AM | 12-14-2007

I was only 9 when the Joshua Tree was released, but it was and still is one of my favorite records of all time! The songs go along with each other so well its hard to hear one on the radio and not start singing the first few notes of the next song on the album before they play another song. More people need to pay attention to the lyrics of music and not just the beat.

Sent by TP | 10:14 AM | 1-10-2008

I agree, The Joshua Tree and SO were two of the best albums of the decade, with Graceland being among them. Timeless music.

Sent by Brian | 5:28 PM | 3-27-2008