A really, really big album

u2_the_joshua_tree_death_valley

Happy Birthday, TJT! You have brought so much happiness to us for the last three decades.

It is embarrassing with what has happened to my memory in the past thirty years. I had forgotten how big The Joshua Tree truly was. It was huge. Following The Unforgettable Fire Tour (’84 – ’85) and The Conspiracy of Hope Tour (’86) droves of fans and the media were anticipating what the band had in store for its next album.

I’ve been rereading some of my U2 books about that time and I had simply forgotten how much buzz there was about their new album. This was before social media or even the Internet. Where fans and music lovers alike got their news was from…the news. Rolling Stone magazine provided news about the band. MTV had a news segment. Radio stations would talk about where the band was in recording process.

In The Joshua Tree section of my copy of The Best of Propaganda, the band’s official magazine, they were interviewed in the weeks before the album’s release. It has been nearly fifteen years since I read the book and I forgot that the original name of the album was The Two Americas. The band had spent several months touring the United States for their last album and seen much more of the country than ever before. The title was a reflection on their experiences with the sharp differences between the rich and the poor.

While that would have been a great title for the album, there is no doubt that The Joshua Tree was and still is the better choice. What I didn’t know at the time was that their photographer Anton Corbijn had suggested that they travel to Joshua Tree National Park in southeastern California to shoot some pictures for the album cover and sleeve. Corbijn drew his inspiration from the new music. His idea was that the stark landscape of the desert matched the sound the band had been writing and recording.

A critical time

This was also the when the United States and the Soviet Union were building up their nuclear arsenals and the rest of the world watched nervous anticipation as our two countries were careening towards an all-out conflict. The tensions that were so high between our two countries have slowly subsided since the eighties, but have recently surged.

Bono was critical of the Reagan Administration and its involvement in Central America. In fact, Bullet in the Blue Sky, Mothers of the Disappeared and Exit were all commentaries about U.S. action in the region.

I was in high school and did not know it at the time. We had kids in my class who were politically inclined and knew about all of this. I was not one of them. In fact, I wasn’t really aware of anything going on in the world, either politically or socially. I have a vague memory us talking about the arms race in my U.S. History class, but as I mentioned in a previous post, I was failing early every class.

It was a time when Bono began speaking more about this during their shows. I was too naïve back to fully understand why he was doing it. It turned out that it had much to do with growing up in Dublin and watching as tensions between Northern Ireland and Britain were increasing. I realize now that when you are around the anger, hostility and outright violence in your hometown, you become more sensitive to it when you are traveling around the world.

So there were all these conflicts between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., in Latin America and the Middle East. The whole world seemed eager to fight itself. It was during these times when the album came out.

Suspense, intrigue and burning the midnight oil

The anticipation was huge and it was one of the first albums that went on sale one minute after midnight at record stores. For me that was astonishing. Did the labels and stores seriously think that they would attract anyone at that time? And would it have been better than simply opening at the normal time? This is the reason why I am not in the music business; I do not know anything.

The fact of the matter was the midnight-release of the new album was pure genius. To have the media show fans waiting in long lines to be the first the get their hands on one is a brilliant marketing move. First, it shows that there are thousands of people all around the world willing to stay up late and stand “in the queue”. This coverage did not cost the label. All they had to do was put out a press release the public. The media would cover this for free.

Second, it also planted in fans minds that, Hey the store near me might run out of records before tomorrow morning, so maybe I should get in line, too, which only made the lines longer. As I mentioned earlier, this was pure genius. Once again this was before smartphones, social media, the Internet and even personal computers (yeah, PCs were around, nothing like today). Yet still, during those primitive times, people found out. MTV, Rolling Stone Magazine, local radio stations were where we learned about the band. For those who were too young to remember or not even born, this was more than enough. It might be hard to imagine (to those younger than me) how they were able to reach so many so quickly, I would simply say what has always been said about this kind of information: good news travels fast.

In a way those days were better. There was something special about buying a record album, cassette tape or compact disc. The album was big and had large images of the band. Sliding the record out of its sleeve and seeing that black, grooved slice of vinyl was like discovering an artifact.   As great as it is to download an album onto the computer from the comfort of home, it’s just not the same thing. I love technology, but it can’t always replace the joy of certain things.

Getting back to the album, for the hardy folks who stood out in the chilly—and sometimes rainy—weather and were willing to lose sleep to be able to listen to the album, I commend you. I didn’t. As I mentioned in previous posts (When I Became a Fan) I didn’t buy it immediately. I discovered it only after it was receiving heavy airplay. And it was because if that, that I bought my first U2 album. But I did know about the big midnight release and I did sense that something was happening to the band, something big. The buzz was everywhere and it got louder with each passing week. Even with my very limited teenaged awareness, I realized that they were a band on the run.

Taking into consideration all the hype, rumors and prognostications, how could it ever live to up that kind of expectation? History tells us that it did, of course. But how did the band capture lightning in a bottle?

In my next post, I will attempt to break down the success of The Joshua Tree.

Stay tuned.

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