Its been quite the year of anniversaries for the band - not least of all the 40th celebrations of course, and as I scanned through the latest digital version of Propaganda (no.7) which was posted up the other day on U2.com subscribers site, it struck me pretty soon we are going to hit the Joshua Tree 30th... I am transported back those 3 decades and right now am playing what is still my all time no. 1 U2 record… TJT.
I guess its one of those times (as Bono reminded us on last years i+e tour), that I need to revisit that past, so I don’t end up stuck there.
I am 21 again and the whole world in from of me - golden years, (bap bap bap…
Let me be your tour guide on a trip through my wires to 1987…
Having been won over to U2 by the War album a few years previous I was more than excited I remember even now, waiting the release of the Joshua Tree back in ’87. 30 years ago... I remember taking the bus in town on the day it was released. Its chilly at that time of year (March) up in Geordieland. We even used to get snow back then…
If memory serves correct, this is the record shop I queued up outside and bought the vinyl from that freezing day* : ‘Listen Ear’ (who also used to look after local legends The Toy Dolls)
I grew up listening to my sister’s old vinyl records played on some ancient record player, a connection was formed early with the touch, the feel, the smell, the album artwork. You really had to make an effort to listen to music on records, it was an active thing, unlike radio back then, or iTunes now, where everything is available in an instant..
A return to ‘the Toon’ (Newcastle city centre to you soft southerners) on the bus back then was cheap, maybe a quid, & I think maybe TJT cost £9.99 or something similar.. A tenner, which would today equate to maybe £25-£30. On one album, back then when times were quite tough ‘up north’, miner's strikes, land of Maggie Thatcher hope and glory and all that… I must have really wanted this album.
Back in my bedroom, on my own, on the floor, on headphones, on a record player. The opening atmospheric anthem organ drone setting the scene… transporting me to the desert landscape perfectly portrayed on the album sleeve. Its like it was all designed this way, just for me, just for this moment…
‘Beaten and blown by the wind… and when I go there, I go there with you. It’s all I can do’.
I remember the day I first heard a guitar band live, kids like me as Punk rock was born, the local Scouts hut rattling and shaking with bouncing drums and bass and rasping jangling guitars and shouty singing.
This new sound coming out of my record player into headphone covered ears was a world away from that in so many ways, yet it took me back there, maybe not physically, but back to that feeling of hearing something new, something irresistible. A sound so pure and true that it could not be denied. Something that grabbed a hold of some part of me, and pulled me so close that I just fell into it all. (I might be far too easily led I know.. a lifelong weakness).
Regardless, I stand by my belief that first 3 songs on TJT might just be the best opening to an album ever. They have stood the test of time, 30 years of airplay and live performances. To me they still sound as fresh and perfect as they did back then. Its one hit after another, one incredible production on top of every great song. In fact, as BTBS kicks in and changes the course of side 1 into something you could never have expected and then that journey takes you into RTSS my emotional state is completely wrecked. As it was back then…
In my teens I had a girl, lost a girl, I had a band, lost a band, had a friend, lost a friend… you get the picture…. its like all these things do matter, and are addressed completely in songs like WOWY, ISHFWILF and RTSS - but its like also there is more to the understanding behind the why’s and wherefores of life, experience, love loss and faith, all wrapped up in one side of a piece of plastic than I had ever encountered in my 20 years or so to that date. All done to a wondrous musical landscape that you could practically walk in. Look again closely at the album cover, that land behind the 4 figures offset to one side. It has possibilities, mysteries - it invites you to look beyond, dares you to explore and walk towards those not so distant mountains and lakes. Maybe there was something out there that has been waiting for you all this time to come and find it…
Some bits that still stop me dead in my tracks, and I don’t know why, just listen to them and decide for yourself :
The guitar suspended chords bit near the end of WOWY.
The A la la de day bit in RTSS.
The stopping of side A, the natural pause required to physically turn over the record, a breather for the listener, a short chance for brief recovery, before venturing into side B. Not possible to be anywhere as good as side A would it?. Lots of records had one good side and one side made up from leftovers, thats how its worked didn’t it? Not this record though… When I hear side 2 now all I can see in my head are images from the Rattle & Hum movie, so its difficult to remember what hearing it for the first time conjured up back then,… but… I lived next door to a Red Hill Mining Town, a whole steel industry shut down by Maggie T right on my doorstep. ‘Lights go down on Redhill’… indeed they did.
When we are born we get ‘stamped’ with a birth certificate. Married, a marriage cert, & a ring. These symbols define us at a base level, rightly or wrongly. I think music has to the power to do that too, be it a record or a live performance. More so a record perhaps; this record for sure, for me. Burned into my soul it is.
Things TJT Gave Me.
The musical production on TJT is something else… a classic album in the mould of Aja (Steely Dan), Hotel California (Eagles), Thriller (Michael Jackson) - breaking new ground, new sound, new ways of doing things that in their own way became industry benchmarks. How do I know this? Well, I think TJT unlocked something in my brain in that way, set me on a road of listening to music differently… closer to each element, Edge’s multiple guitar layering. the Bono vocal techniques and style, and of course the lyrics*. The big bass and drum anthemic thumps and grinds… in a way led me to later (as a mature student), go on to study Music Production and gain some qualifications in it, and bits of work in that field.
A dodgy mullet through my 20’s.
An interest in America and the understanding of it being more and idea that a country or continent, still not been there yet tho…
The drive to want to be in a band just like U2. No, I’ll admit it, to be in THE band U2. I will hang on to that possibility until they lower me into the ground. (Even if its just for a song or 2 on a B stage
It might take some of us a long time, some of us may never find, something that we can have speak for us… identify with and hang our cowboy hats on.. subscribe to. Our voice, our spirit… our aspirations. Thats a good thing to have, a hero, doesn’t have to be a rock star, can be yer mam, yer best mate, football team. Our tribe.
These U2 rhythms are tribal, as is the chanting and echo-y repeating guitar chimes that disappear off into the ether, drawing out the webs of connectivity to and between each verse, chorus, song…
*lyrics like these..
I can see those fighter planes
Outside its America… America
The poison stream, the poison rain
A la la de day
Black belly of cloud
Hanging on, all thats left to hold on to..
Oh great ocean, oh great sea
Run to the the ocean, Run to the sea
The harmony 5ths, the gospel cries the dynamics, lowest lows, highest highs. We hear their heartbeat.
Imagine if you can that this album never got made. I cannot imagine my life without it. I am still discovering the ways to this day of how it impacted my life. Its been a signpost, a giant neon illuminating billboard of a map that I am still looking back at, to, in… those not too distant mountains are still giving up nooks and crannies, the vista and shelter they provide are still looking down over God’s country. Indeed.
Almost half the album made it on to my #U2Playlist. I stand by those decisions.. in fact is there room to add another one… or two…?
Soon after its’ release in 1987 came TJT live tour of course.. I am still in wonder as to how those songs transcended from the intently personal headphone first listen to the mega stadium shared love in and singalong. How? Something way way beyond human design. A suggestion, more than a suggestion of something entirely more divine. These were also my first live U2 shows. Murrayfield Edinburgh Sat. August 1st.. Runrig, Sisters Of Mercy, Pogues, then the main event. From the opening chords of Stand By Me to the crowd singing 40 all the way to the train station..
I was right at the back, wanted to be at the front, wanted to be that kid they pulled up on stage to play the 3 chords of People Get Ready.
The tour and what became Rattle & Hum, well thats another story for another day.
And to think, Mr. McGuiness said about all of this way back in Propaganda Issue 7 :
'The best thing about The Joshua Tree is that they can do ten times better than that.'
In many ways we are all still waiting, Paul.