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

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.