All Because Of You

Now we have come to the reason why U2 do what they do. In nearly every interview that they have given, the answer is invariably the same to the question of how they make their music. They write and record their songs with the intent to perform them in front of an audience. For all their multiple transformations, one thing has stayed the same since their formation: they are a live act.

In the beginning, they could barely play their instruments, Bono sounded like a punk wannabe and the only gigs they got were in small venues around Dublin. But they had something.

Watching the band’s early performances, it is obvious that they were a little rough and needed a polish, but they were most certainly talented. Bono knew how to play to the audience and to the camera.

For all the work they do in the recording studio, or on a music video set or during a public relations event, the stage is where they really earn their money. Playing in front of a live audience—in full rock mode—is where they eat. The critics can say whatever they want about them, but they can’t say that band doesn’t go all in at the show. I’ve gone to shows where there were some in our group who didn’t even like the band and yet, they were blown away by what they experienced. And even though they didn’t become fans, they understood that band always put on one hell of a show.

U2 is a live band, but so what? There are hundreds if not thousands of successful bands that do what they do. What makes them so special?

First, their shows are always a spectacle. From ZOO TV to i+e, they changed the concert experience. I remember being at The Joshua Tree Tour in 1987 and having my mind blown away. But, it was only the third concert I had ever been to and the first big one. Yet as big as it was, it is considered minimalist compared to the other tours that followed. Their shows are huge.

It’s not a hill, it’s a mountain

I believe the idea of video enhancement came into fruition when Willie Williams was tapped to work on the production design. The band had used projected images on their tours before, but Williams’ vision—along with artist Catherine Owens—took the band’s shows to a new level (who could ever forget the dancing Trabants?). From that point on, they always incorporated some form of video in their performance. Does that make for a better show? I believe it does.

I remember seeing the band on stage during the original Joshua Tree Tour and thinking it was the greatest show ever. I had no idea that they would continue to set the standard for an awe-inspiring rock show for the next three decades.

By having the name Joshua Tree Tour, there is a deliberate look back to the original. It is just a celebration of the album and tour that cemented their status in the rock pantheon? Or is it also a statement of enduring relevance of a band in its fourth decade of existence? Not many bands can claim that. I’m not talking about bands still playing shows in small to medium-sized venues. I’m talking about sold-out, stadium-sized arenas around the world.

A part of me wishes it would be a little more stripped down. There was also something very special about the austere simplicity of The Elevation Tour. I like the idea of four guys on a simple stage just playing the music. Obviously, their set list will include other songs—and I’m hoping some from Songs of Experience—so I have no idea what they will be doing. I am deliberately avoiding any spoilers so that I can experience the stage and set for the first time when I walk into Levi’s Stadium.

There’s a part of me in chaos is quiet

A part of me also wishes I could recapture the same feelings I had when I saw my first TJT concert. But sadly, too much time has passed. I’m a different person than the high school kid who was prepared to beg his mother to let him go to the show. In previous posts (When I Became a Fan, parts I, II & III) I wrote about how the album and tour came at a tough time in my life and helped me get through it (along with family and friends).

Nostalgia is such a weird thing. Sometimes we go looking for the things, places, or times when our lives were hard or unhappy. It’s not to be unhappy, but to remember how we got through it. And sometimes we just want to recapture a moment when everything was perfect.

Another Time, Another Place

My buddy’s daughter commented on the fact that TJT doesn’t sound like an eighties album. I found this strange because it is firmly rooted in that decade for me. I replied saying that it was because she was young (mid-twenties). But she said no, there were a lot of albums that had the eighties sound and TJT didn’t have it. Evidently that sound has been very popular with Millenials, but what do I know? I’m about as Millenial as a VCR (what?).

However, her comment did get me thinking about what the band was trying to do at the time. I’ve been rereading old Rolling Stone magazines and there is an interview with Bono where he grouses about eighties music—rock stars in particular. He saw the coolness by fellow musicians as a kind of detachment and something he and his band mates loathed. For all the criticism they received, detachment was not one of them. Their earnestness and seriousness was what drove much of their music. And it was what connected them with their fans. These guys believed in things very strongly and weren’t afraid to let the world know.

Bono also complained about the commercialism of music.  He felt that there are record companies “who treat music like a tin of beans—a product to be sold.” It could be said that this was ironic coming from the lead singer of one of the biggest bands in the world at the time. But what I think he as getting at was that U2 endeavored mightily against the notion of being mediocre, though commercially prosperous. They were not content with treading over familiar ground—even though it was lucrative and praiseworthy—simply because it successful.

In the interview, there is a sense that the band’s superstardom is not necessarily something to reject but to understand that with that position comes a responsibility to the music and the fans. And this is where I think they took the road not taken.

I can’t think of another band from that time that sang more about social and political issues than them (although I did not understand much if it). Songs like Sunday Bloody Sunday and Pride (In the Name of Love) had gravitas. The Police had gravitas, but I always felt they were more literary than political. Sting was political. But it was the subject matter of U2’s songs combined with their music that made them so different.

In the DVD Classic Albums – The Joshua Tree, Edge recalls that they felt very disconnected with what was going on in music at the time, even their music videos were “so different, like they were from some other place”. And though I relate all those songs with the eighties, it is because I listened to them so much during that time. But to someone like my buddy’s daughter, she doesn’t get that eighties-feel like she does from Def Leppard, INXS or Bon Jovi.

No blind alleys for Streets

I remember the first time I saw the Where The Streets Have No Name music video on television. The band set up on the rooftop of a liquor store in downtown Los Angeles and played to a captivated and growing crowd. The part that really struck me was there was a moment when the crowd was still respectful and stayed on the sidewalk while the police tried to keep order. And then—all of a sudden—they run into the street seemingly oblivious to the traffic. I thought how cool would it have been to be there. And in my new-to-rock naiveté, I realized this band was going to be huge. Even watching the video now, there is this sense that this very event was marking a significant change in the growth of the band. They were going to be megastars from that moment on.

After all of the hype surrounding the new album and immense anticipation, the band launched the release with the force of a supernova. Streets raced up charts all around the planet. For a moment, everyone was playing U2 on the radio. They were, as the April 27th issue of Time Magazine stated on the cover, “Rock’s Hottest Ticket”.

Into the arms of America

What nearly all of us can agree on is the sound. The moment I hear the beginning of Where The Streets Have No Name, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For and With Or Without You, I know what it is. These songs are recognizable for their towering vocals and soaring guitars. They are the gold standard for bringing-the-house-down noise that only the best bands can produce.

When I first listened to the album what knocked me off my feet was the open, ambient nature of the songs. There was something sweeping and spacious about them. I visualized the band playing atop a barren mesa beneath a domed night sky. But there was also this strangeness that was a part of every song. It was a little hard to express other than the album felt otherworldly and unlike the times.

If that is what my buddy’s daughter meant, I agree. I have so many memories from that time it is hard to separate the album from the decade. I needed to step out of my own experience to see her point.

1987 was such a momentous time for the band. The culmination of their efforts was put to test to the country that held their fascination. It was a big album by a big band on a very big stage. And we here in the United States ate it up.

It was the album of the eighties that didn’t sound like it came from there.

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.

The Soundtrack of My Youth

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Now that the band has launched its Joshua Tree 2017 Tour, it is astonishing to believe that is has been nearly thirty years since their original tour.

I’ve been feeling a little nostalgic lately. If you have read my previous posts (When I Became a Fan) you will know that I have been looking back through the long lens of time and reminiscing about days long gone.

The origination of the word nostalgia is from the Greek nostos, meaning pain, grief or distress and algos, meaning homecoming. And it is true that when I think about when the album first released, there is a tug on the heartstrings that feels like pain, although not unpleasant.

If I could turn back time

For a little while now, I have been feeling a strong desire to return home—not a place but a time. The eighties seem so cheesy now, but it was a heady age filled with video games, hair gel and lots of MTV, although I had to go over friends’ homes to watch MTV. No cable for this guy back then.

I remember how truly wonderful it was to discover the band for the first time. Their music was new and different and came at a time when my life was in constant flux. High school was tough enough, but losing a parent made even the simplest things, like going to class, a much greater effort than I could have imagined. There were times when it felt like I had a tornado inside me and I really wasn’t equipped to handle it. As a matter of fact, I handled it badly and was failing at nearly everything in life.

Listening to The Joshua Tree made me happy and going to the concert helped me realize that things were not as bad as I thought. The best part of that time was that I learned that things get better—I got better. As they did, the music from that album took on greater meaning. Listening with my unsophisticated ears as Bono’s words went into my brain I slowly realized that there was so much poetry in their songs.

Lots of popular songs from the eighties had lame lyrics if you just saw them on the page. I never felt that with U2’s songs. There was something much more abstruse and challenging about their words and I liked that, even though I couldn’t discern the meaning some of the time.

But what a great time it was. That album changed the way I dressed. I abandoned sportswear and sneakers and started wearing a lot of black. Much to my mom’s chagrin, I grew out my hair and pierced my ears. After the music video With or Without You aired, I started wearing my hair in a ponytail. I also bought a black trench coat from a secondhand store and a pair of Dr. Martens boots. For me, it was somewhat transformative. There was something particularly enjoyable about it, like I was changing my identity.

There was also another change in me. It awakened the creative part of me that had fallen asleep during the time of my father’s illness. I learned that it was difficult to be imaginative when I was unhappy. The album made me want to write. And I did again.

I find myself wishing that I could go back and discover their music again—if only briefly—just to have the feeling again.

A really big album

It’s been nearly three decades since the release of The Joshua Tree and there are times when it doesn’t feel like it and there are times when it does. With the album approaching thirty, I wondered if the album is as huge as I remembered.

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Here are a few facts that I gathered:

  • Over 25 million albums sold
  • Ranked number 3 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of 100 Greatest Albums of the 80s.
  • Winner for 4 Grammy awards and numerous international awards.

That is quite a feat considering that there were so many great bands that were in the eighties. The ones that I remember were Van Halen, Motley Crüe, Bon Jovi, Guns N’ Roses and Metallica, but there were many others. In my high school those bands were all bigger and more popular than U2. But there was something cool about liking a band that was not as popular. And I did know that U2 was already big prior to Joshua Tree.

So here we are nearly three decades later celebrating an incredible album that marked the band’s rise into superstardom. What better way than to see them live? My only wish is that they perform the songs like they did during their first tour. For me, it’s how I remember those songs the best. It will be exciting to hear the whole album—live—just like we did way back when. For some of us, it will be A Sort of Homecoming (and you see what I did there?).

For all of us it will be a reminder that we are all still young, where it counts.