Let Me in the Sound

U2 recording the Where The Streets Have No Name video

On March 9, 1987, TJT was released and sold over 300,000 copies in two days in the United Kingdom. By March 21 it debuted at number one on the UK Albums Chart. Less than a month later, across the pond, the album debuted at number seven on the United States’ Billboard charts. Three weeks later it rose to number one and stayed there for nine weeks in a row. The album was met with the same kind of demand around the world. This was not short-lived either, as it remained on dozens of charts for years. It was an unquestionable success.

Looking back at it now, it is no surprise. The music is extraordinary.

What I found interesting was that the band wanted to go into a new direction after the The Unforgettable Fire Tour (summer ’84 through summer ’85). It shouldn’t have come as a surprise because they have always done that. Fresh of their most successful album and tour, they felt they were now at a stage in their career to take bigger risks and explore new sounds. I’ve always admired them for doing that because it takes courage to not go with something that was tried and true.

So how different was TJT than previous albums? In one word: completely. This was the culmination of the band’s growth and it had not been so clearly—and beautifully—expressed before. Granted, it took a lot of hard work with producers Daniel Lanois, Brian Eno and Flood. Reading through some of their interviews in U2 by U2, I learned how difficult the album was to produce. There were conflicting opinions about every song. Although they had a lot of developed material, no one was happy with the current state as they continued to write and record. There was a near-loss of the only full recording of WTSHNN. And in usual fashion, they were in danger of missing the release deadline.

The key ingredient

One of the elements that the band was exploring was soundscapes. Edge explained in Classic Albums – U2 The Joshua Tree DVD, they were trying to create a sound that would place the listener. The idea was to musically recreate some of their experiences in traveling across America. This is a difficult thing to do and something my unsophisticated ears did not pick up for many years. As I began to listening different types of music I realized that there were influences of blues, country and gospel—and not just in the lyrics but the melody. These elements were blended and then illustrated from an Irish perspective, which gave these songs such a distinctive sound. The new sound reflected the band’s love affair with the U.S.

On the same DVD, Bono said that the album is not Irish in the obvious sense, but in a more mysterious sense it is very Irish. The ache and melancholy is something that they identify with very strongly. It was also something that I was in tune with at the time, although I didn’t have the words.

He also added even though the album was huge, they felt they were out of step with what was going on at the time. With much of contemporary music using synthesizers, keyboards and drum machines, they deliberately stuck with traditional instruments. But, I believe it is precisely for that reason that it was so successful. In era of synth-pop coolness, these guys weren’t cool.

Rediscovering the music

Recently, one of the speakers in my car began to distort. After trying to endure the sound for two weeks, I realized I couldn’t take it anymore. I broke down and bought a new set of speakers. The key was to be as economical as possible. I don’t listen to music the way that I used to and haven’t in a long time. So, when I bought my first new car I opted for the basic audio system. It has performed well enough over the years and I was content with it, even though I toyed with the idea of installing a premium sound system. But, I’m a guy on a budget and couldn’t justify spending all that money on something like that.

However, the hellish scratchy noise coming out of my right speaker made the decision much easier. After speaking with the sales manager at the mobile audio store near me, I went for it. He suggested a set that was within my budget.

Consequently, I have been listening to the remastered version of TJT like I used to when I was a teenager—in my car, with the volume cranked to eleven. It is music nirvana.

And the point of my little speaker story is this: it feels like I am reliving the first few times I listened to the album and not just remembering it. It had been a very long time since I really paid attention and even longer since I’ve had a decent audio system.

The best thing about the album is the big-sound, arena-rock anthems that made me wear out the tape in the cassette deck in my first car. These songs are good. I’m talking about drum your hands on the steering wheel good. I’m talking about air-guitar at the traffic light good. Driving down the highway and singing unconsciously I’m transported back to 1987. My car is a time machine and I’m hearing Where The Streets Have No Name like I used to hear it, like when it was new. The way that the beginning just builds and builds and builds, it feels like I am fully immersed in it—like I am literally inside the song. I am way too old to be rocking out so hard, but I love it.

It’s kind of amazing to think that these songs can still make me feel this way—after hearing them so many times. I guess that’s what makes them so good. But it took new speakers to really set the Wayback Machine to the eighties.

In my next post, I will do a deeper dive on the songs and talk about those awesome videos.

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