The Good, The Bad and the Not So Pretty (part III)

There has been something I started to notice since i+e 2015 that has had me rethinking the value of social media and music shows. As good as they are, I think they sometimes distract us from the moment. As a result, we end up missing something.

Let me start by mentioning that I like social media. Maybe not as much as some of my friends, but I do enjoy it. Hell, I’ve got a blog and I use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to help expand my reach. By the way, if you would ask most friends, I would be one of the last people they think would have blog. But I digress, without social media, I would have a much harder time getting the word out. So, it is a very useful tool.

But something happened on the road to the future. I first noticed it with my friends who embraced social media much earlier than I did. They spent a good amount of time on it and I sometimes found it impolite on occasions like dinner or at the movies. What would last for several seconds began to stretch to minutes as everyone checked their phones and cycled through their apps. Since I was one of the last ones to embrace these technologies, I was first to poo-poo them. I saw it as a waste of time. It wasn’t until years that I finally was seduced to the dark side (I’m kidding).

I’m not a Luddite. I like technology. What I didn’t think would happen was how much it would change my experiences at a U2 show and not all for the better. Sure, it is wonderful to be able to shoot, record and even share the content with others. But, when did it become more important to do that than to simply sit (or stand) back and just enjoy the show? It’s happened to my friends, too. We all do it now. I can say that I’m shooting as much as I can so I can have content for my blog—and that is true—but I’m also doing because it seems like the best way to get people to notice my site.

My buddy who is far more proficient at social media than me has thousands of Twitter, Instagram and Periscope followers. When he posts something on any of the channels, many take notice. I want that for my blog, but have yet to figure that one out.

What started out as an interest (my blog) has grown into something else. I enjoy writing about my favorite band and it’s awesome when someone responds to my work, which is why I will continue do it.

The challenge comes from finding that middle road where I am not letting it overtake my actual enjoyment of the show.

What I noticed during Joshua Tree 2017 was how many people were recording, live-streaming or Periscoping the show. It was astonishing. I learned about Periscope about a year ago and didn’t think much of it. My buddy uses it and I see the appeal. The ability to interact with so many people is kind of cool. So, ‘scoping (as I have learned) a U2 show can be cool. I say can because it lets people who were not able to go the show, still see it. It’s a good way to share your experience with fellow fans and that always feels good.

But, you can become so fixated on ‘scoping the next song or what’s going around you that you miss the whole song yourself. What was supposed to be a shared experience is reduced because you are trying get the best shot instead of simply enjoying the band with your friends.

The strangest thing about it was how it seemed to affect the band, primarily Bono. Our beloved front man has always been the best at engaging the crowd. I first noticed it during ZOO TV way back in 1992. He had such a connection to the fans because he made one. During The Elevation Tour 2001, when they were “reapplying for the job”, I felt such a bond with them. There was something very special about that tour and I was lucky enough to be in the heart. I got a high-five from Bono and that was awesome.

With each tour, I felt like they were getting better at connecting with us. A part of that is due to stage design, but most of it is because of them, particularly the B-Man.

This time around it felt like something was missing, or maybe withdrawn. That’s the best way I can describe it. It appeared that performing to a field of raised smartphones was affecting the way he was interacting with the crowd. It looked like he was competing with their devices for their attention. It was weird. He’s a pro, so he didn’t stop trying.

The show got better when the band returned to the main stage. Bono seemed more comfortable even though the smartphones were still in the air, he was farther away. I can’t be sure if that was the reason, but it’s the only one I have.

I also realize that this may be the way it will be from now on. The days of going to a show and just seeing it might be over. If I sound like and old guy lamenting about days long past, I might be. Technology is awesome and I wouldn’t want to do without it, but it also has its drawbacks.

Our boys are the best in the business and I’m sure they’ll figure this one out.  From what I’ve read since seeing the show, they are.

The Good, The Bad and The Not So Pretty (part II)

If the laws of the universe is return everything back to balance, then the magnificence of U2 show must balanced by the suckitude of Levi’s Stadium.

First, the cost for parking was $50.00. In my opinion, that’s a little steep. I knew that is wasn’t going to be cheap, but wow. I also realize that this may be the going rate for parking and I just need to be good with it.

In addition, the parking attendants and security personnel seemed quite disorganized. The traffic flowing into the lot was quite slow even though we arrived several hours before the show. After we parked, we immediately got into line, which was about 50 people. The security folks told everyone in line that they would start letting people in at 5:00 pm.  Turned out to be 5:40 pm.

I will say that the ticketless/credit card entry method is not for me.  I realized that I would not have a real ticket and this would be my first show where I did not have a cool keepsake of the show. Second, it takes several seconds to print up this little receipt that functions as your ticket. This is where the bottleneck occurred. By this time there were several hundred people behind us in our line alone. Thanks goodness we got there early, because it got exponentially worse as time wore on.

My party had club level seats—although we didn’t know it at the time—and we all stood in line for food & beer at the regular level. This is where Levi’s fails. The staff working the counters were at best, below average and at worst lame. It took about 20 minutes to get to the front of the line. The guy who to took my money for a $12.00 hot dog (yeah, that’s right) had difficulty of knowing where to put the $20 bill I handed to him. There was a sense that many of them were brand new. There was this woman supervisor who was walking behind cashiers and kept scolding everyone, but beyond that did little to help. One cashier processed a customer’s order only to learn that they were out of the item. The supervisor told the cashier, “Remember what I said about not taking the money unless you are sure you have the food,” right in front of the customer and then walked away. No apology to the customer or how they would fix the problem. Wow.

After getting our food and eating quickly, we proceeded to find our seats. It was then that we realized we were at the club level. I have never stayed at the club level and what little I know is that it is supposed to offer the guests a luxurious experience. If that is the case, then Levi’s left me a little unsatisfied. The club level did have its own entrance with staff members checking tickets to make sure all guests were approved.

But there were pros and cons. There was a bar and it only had two bartenders serving drinks. The lines were at least 25 people deep and given that the bar was quite large, there should have been a minimum of four, if not six bartenders (three for each side). It was obvious that the bartenders were new because they were using measuring cups to to mix the drinks. I assumed they were contracted by Levi’s, but holy hell, they couldn’t find people who had served drinks before? When the bartender has to measure out the alcohol for each and every drink, it takes more time. Multiply that by hundreds of thirsty but patient guests and the wait was about a half-hour. To their credit, the drinks did have the proper amount of alcohol. I’ve been to venues where the bartenders were stingy with the spirits and it was disappointing.

There were better food concessions, but again, the people preparing the food looked like they were new. At the burger concession, there was one guy working the grill and two others standing around him, but not really doing anything. There was another person working the cash register; so I still don’t know what those two people were doing. I didn’t see them serving the food. Yet as less-than-great that that was, it was far better than the concessions at the regular level, where one guest told me he waited an hour in the hot dog line.

On the pro side, the club level is the best level to enjoy a U2 show (besides the GA floor in front of the stage). It offered an elevated view but not so high that you couldn’t see the band. Inside, the were far less people and plenty of seating. One nice perk was there were several outlets so all guests to charge their phones. In this age of living life online, being able to charge your phone at the venue is a benefit.

The men’s room was far superior at the club level. Having used both, the club was less crowded, bigger and better maintained. This is a definite plus.

My opinion—as well as many other guests—is that Levi’s need to do much better.

If they want to heal itself of its black eye, it needs to hire better staff. I realize that cost is a factor that weighs heavily when making that decision and I would respond with, you get what you pay for. My guess is that it might not be enough motivation to make these important changes.

Where The Streets Have No Name, Levis Stadium (5-17-17)

Hey everyone,

Here’s our boys performing WTSHNN in front of that incredible screen.

This song never gets hold (for me) and I just wish I was closer to the stage. My little Canon G-16 did the best that it could, but it struggled a bit. Plus, it was tough staring at the little color LCD screen to keep the image properly framed.

I was also surprised at how tired my arms got trying to hold the camera steady for only one song. How do others keep it steady?

Anyway, hope you enjoy the fellas doing their thing. Drink it all in.

The Good, The Bad and The Not So Pretty (part I) [Spoilers]

Now that a month has passed, I’ve had time to reflect on the show. The thing that comes to mind first is that there are advantages and disadvantages of seeing a show early. The advantage is obvious: seeing the show early. I get to see it before all of the footage, photos, reviews (i.e. spoilers) affect my opinion. I try to keep a wall around myself, but it has gotten harder over the years simply because of the sheer volume of content that comes out after a show. So the earlier I get to go, the less the content. That’s a good advantage; but it ends there.

The disadvantage is that it takes a while for our boys to iron out the wrinkles. In some tours they do it very quickly while others took much longer. I remember seeing them at PopMart ’97 in Oakland and even though they had been touring for a couple of months, they seemed a but unsure of themselves. That’s the best that I can describe it. After Zoo TV and Zoo TV Outside Broadcast, my expectations were high. They didn’t seem to have the confidence and swagger of the last tour and it was noticeable. There were six people in my group and we were all talking about it. One of my friends said, “Something’s missing.” I agreed with her even though I still loved the show. I read an article years later that detailed how the band was behind on the release of Pop and didn’t have enough time to rehearse before the tour launched. The good news is they found their legs by the time they hit Europe and were back to full form.

With that in mind, I figure the band needs to time to find their rhythm. As well-planned as this tour is, the show at Levi’s Stadium (Santa Clara, Ca.) lacked the dynamism of i+e 2015. Some of that was marred by our experience at Levi’s (more on that later), particularly the staff.

From the moment the show kicked off during i+e, I felt that it was going to be incredible; and it was. Seeing the gigantic screen for Joshua Tree 2017, I felt the same excitement. Yet as amazing as that screen is, it functions to strengthen the performance of the band. This is where I was hoping that they would bring the thunder and lightning, as they have so many times in the past.

One of the greatest things our Dublin lads do is perform at high level when the lights are the brightest. There is a fine balance between well-scripted and extemporaneity and this is where they shine, most of the time. It does feel a bit sacrilegious to give anything other than high praise, so it feels weird. But now that I am older and have seen a decent amount of shows (28) I am trying to be more objective.

Ever since Elevation ’01, I felt that the band has been getting better and better at live performances. Going into Joshua Tree Tour 2017, I tried not to have expections while knowing that this was a celebration of their landmark album. This was the album that turned me into a fan, so to say I was really looking forward to it, would be a huge understatement. Again, I wanted to “go in fresh” so I avoided anything that even mentioned the tour online.

The Good

Cutting right to the chase, the band opened on the satellite stage and launched into Sunday Bloody Sunday. It was a great way to kick off the show. They followed with New Year’s Day, A Sort of Homecoming, Bad and Pride (In the Name of Love). What I slowly realized was that they were playing all their songs that predated TJT, which was so cool. By then, the crowd was thoroughly warmed up and the band migrated back to the main stage to play the entire album—in order—without interruption. Nice.

By now it must be safe to say that nearly all of us have seen WTSHNN performed live and while a fan-favorite, how can it be re-experienced after thirty years? It can, and happened to me during the Elevation Tour ’01. There was something about that performance—and it helped being the in the heart—that took me back 14 years to 1987. I always thought it was the way Bono sung that song that reminded me of the first time I heard it live. For all of the ostentatiousness of PopMart and Zoo TV, the restrained production of Elevation actually made that song sound better.

For me the magnificence of the song is its wide-open nature. It was meant to be performed in front of a crowd. One of the best moments of the show was the beginning of song and it reminded me of a very similar performance during the film Rattle and Hum. As many of us know, most of the film is in black & white, except for a particular section. At the moment WTSHNN opens the screen is filled with the color red from the backdrop and the band members walk onto to the stage and take their positions. I always loved that because of the dramatic way color was introduced.

I believe the band had this idea in mind when they kicked off the song. That gigantic screen turned red and it was awesome. I also knew something would be displayed during the song, but didn’t know what. From what I learned later, Anton Corbijn filmed much of the content and he was the right man for the job. The moving image of a two-lane desert highway with jagged mountains in the background and beneath a cloudy, angry sky is so strikingly beautiful, I wanted to stop recording with my Canon G-16 and just enjoy the song. But, I really wanted to capture the entire song and focused on the task at hand (I will post the recording soon). The combination of the video and the performance gave the song a new dynamic.

For me, this was the high point of the show. The band was in full stride, Bono was in his element and that immense screen was the choir. I will mention it was at this point that much of the cold dissatisfaction of being at Levi’s began to melt away as I began to remember how much I loved hearing this song live.  I actually liked this version more than the version during i+e 2015.

Well, that’s it for now.  I will post the video in my next article.

 

U2 invades Levi’s Stadium (SPOILERS)

Our favorite Irish quartet began their assault on the home of the San Francisco Forty-Niners last night in front of a sellout crowd of 50,000 fans.

I will give a fuller account of the show soon, but I wanted to post something while still bathed on the glow of the last night’s performance.

Sadly, my Canon G16 struggled to keep up with the boys but I managed to snap a few decent images from the hundreds I took. I realize that from where we were sitting, I really needed an SLR camera. We had club seats so there were some of the best in the house, but the field was where the action was.

The first thing you notice is the screen. It his huge and somewhat reminiscent of the screen from their show in Paris, way back in 1987 (that show is on the DVD from the 20th Anniversary boxed set). As you can see the Joshua Tree design on the screen as well and there is a matching design on the satellite stage, which is hard to see. This area was probably the second-best place to be on the field. The best was the front of the main stage. I’ll get into that in a later post.

In a twist on how they perform, the band began on the satellite stage with songs from Boy and TUF. Bono’s voice was in top form and they played a version of Bad that reminded me of the first time I heard it live nearly thirty years ago. Over the years, Bono has changed the way he sang some of the songs from older albums and it was totally awesome that Bad was performed much more closely to the original.

Bravo, Mr. B.

By the time they launched into Where The Streets Have No Name, they returned to the main stage and galaxy-sized screen I understood why they did that.

In my next post, I will talk about it, however in the meantime, here’s another shot of the band in Joshua Tree mode.

More to come…

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.

With or Without You: a troubled love song, a big hit

If there is one song that epitomizes TJT it is With or Without You. This song captures the mood and intensity of the album so eloquently. Quite simply, it is one of the most poetic songs in their entire collection. The harmony between the lyrics and melody is spectacular. It truly is a very beautiful song.

With two powerful songs released from the album: the anthemic WTSHNN and the revelatory ISHFWILF how could they possibly make lightning strike a third time? We all know that they did; but what was so special about WOWY that made it a signature piece of TJT, and of the decade?

No ordinary love song

In high school, my creative writing teacher said that ninety percent of songs are written about love. I thought it was an unbelievably high percentage, until began to look at it more closely. It turned out I couldn’t find many songs that were not about love.

Where most songs were about the joys of being in love or the heartache of a breakup, WOWY was about something else. Assuming that Bono is the person in the song, he finds himself in a place in between to different states: being with a person and away from them. There is a sense of melancholy and an ache that doesn’t subside by the end of the song. But, there is also a sense of trueheartedness to the subject, which I assume is his wife Ali, and an acceptance to the life he has chosen.

Shine Like Stars

There were hits from the eighties that were big, loud and ostentatious, and the very reason why they were hits. The eighties definitely were the decade for that. And the reason why WOWY was so successful was because it was the opposite of that. You always knew when it came on the radio when you heard Larry’s soft drumming followed by Adam’s soothing bassline. One of its best qualities is the restraint of Bono’s singing. There is a new layer—deeper and fuller—that was not present in previous albums. It’s obvious that producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno worked with him to explore other areas of his vocal range. The result was a far more dramatic performance that builds towards the crescendo.

I love the way the song just quietly slips in and builds to a climax and then slips back out. And the best part, no big guitar solo at the end. It is this structure that I’ve always found to be so brilliant. It is also no surprise that it went straight to number one here in the states.

The video

If the photographs by Anton Corbijn were an illustration of the music, then the video was the movie. The first time I saw it was very late at night, when music videos were played on television. There was a show called Friday Night Videos on NBC, but it didn’t come on until 1:00 am. I would stay up late just to record U2’s videos on my mom’s VCR. The challenge was that I did not know when the video would air. Sometimes it was the first; sometimes it was the last. So, it was an exercise in patience and stamina. There were times when I fell asleep—remote in hand—only to wake up in the middle of it. I cursed myself loudly whenever that happened.

However, I managed to record it and watched it many times. I loved the simplicity of it. It was dark and moody. The grainy images of shadows, branches and a woman wrapped in a white sheet were so evocative and a little haunting. To me, this is what the song looked like.

Many years later, when I finally got cable television—and MTV—videos from TJT weren’t aired that often. But when it did, I always watched it.

Looking back across the great expanse of three decades, I see a band that has changed so much. And yet, I am hoping that they haven’t changed at all.

Joshua Tree Tour 2017 is going to be freekin’ awesome.

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.

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.