Today (3/9) in 1987, U2 released their landmark, ‘Joshua Tree’ album.  Here’s a look at the inspiration for some of the songs on this amazing album. 

The Joshua Tree Album

The ‘Joshua Tree’ album was largely inspired by the band’s tours of America.  The band wanted to bring listeners into the fields, deserts and open areas of America. The album art for the record actually depicts photos of the desert.

Adam Clayton discussed the desert influence in the following way, “The desert was immensely inspirational to us as a mental image for this record. Most people would take the desert on face value and think it’s some kind of barren place, which of course is true. But in the right frame of mind, it’s also a very positive image, because you can actually do something with blank canvas, which is effectively what the desert is.’

Bono was also influenced by Keith Richards, Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan when it came to writing this album.  He encountered Richards and Jagger when taking part in Little Steven Van Zandt’s Sun City project.  Richards & Dylan urged Bono to take a look back at the roots of rock music and this inspired his songwriting and lyric writing.

Bono was also inspired by a variety of political issues when writing lyrics for this album.  The song ‘Bullet The Blue Sky’ was a prime example of this.

Bullet The Blue Sky

This song has a political message, it was written after Bono’s trip to a war torn section of El Salvador. It is Bono railing against the US for their stance on issues facing Central America.
Bono explained that he had a particular vision in mind when he wrote the line “face red like a rose in a thorn bush,”  At a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibit he explained, “He’s peeling off those dollar bills, slapping them down – paying for the war. He in my head was Ronald Reagan. I had not a sophisticated understanding of what was going down, but as a student of nonviolence I had a violent reaction to what I was witnessing. I was interested at the time in liberation theology, which is people reinterpreting Scriptures to their own specific situations. So you go into a liberation theology church and you see the flight from Egypt will be painted and portrayed, but instead of pharaohs it would be Ronald Reagan.”

Although he had a strong point of view, fans and government officials accepted it because Bono would travel to the places he wrote about and because he took an active role in trying to affect change in the areas that he wrote about.

With or Without You

This was U2’s love song.  It was about being in a relationship.  This song also helped define The Edge’s guitar sound.  He used a guitar distortion device named ‘Infinite Guitar’ on this song.  The masterful use of guitar effects is a huge part of what defines The Edge’s sound and the sound of the band in general.

Where Streets Have No Name

This song took a long time to record.  The album’s producer, Brian Eno, became so frustrated with the song’s progress that he instructed his assistants to destroy the taped recordings of this song. Luckily they didn’t and eventually everything came together.

Producer/Engineer, Daniel Lanois, told Mojo magazine in a 2008 interview “It was a bit of a tongue-twister for the rhythm section, with strange bar lengths that got everybody in a bad mood. I can remember pointing at a blackboard, walking everybody through the changes like a science teacher. There’s a part of Eno that likes instant gratification. He’d rather throw something difficult away and start something new.”

This song is about Northern Ireland.  Bono was told that in Northern Ireland, you can figure out a person’s religion, income and general beliefs simply by knowing what street they live on. Neighborhood boundaries are divided by religion and wealth, thus by knowing someone’s street, you can figure out a lot about them.  In this way, it’s where the streets have no name.

Here’s what Bono told Propaganda 5 in 1987 “Where the Streets Have No Name is more like the U2 of old than any of the other songs on the LP, because it’s a sketch – I was just trying to sketch a location, maybe a spiritual location, maybe a romantic location. I was trying to sketch a feeling. I often feel very claustrophobic in a city, a feeling of wanting to break out of that city and a feeling of wanting to go somewhere where the values of the city and the values of our society don’t hold you down. An interesting story that someone told me once is that in Belfast, by what street someone lives on you can tell not only their religion but tell how much money they’re making – literally by which side of the road they live on, because the further up the hill the more expensive the houses become. That said something to me, and so I started writing about a place where the streets have no name.”

One Tree Hill

This song was written about Greg Carroll, who was Bono’s friend and assistant when the band was touring New Zealand in 1985.  One Tree Hill is a volcanic island in Auckland, New Zealand.  Carroll took Bono there.  In 1986 Carroll perished when he was hit by a car. He was running an errand for Bono at the time.  His death had a profound effect on the band.