Music Features

Used Adventures in Hi-Fi #6

U2, The Joshua Tree (St Francis Hospice, Barkingside, 50p)
The stark monochrome cover of U2's The Joshua Tree is an image that's followed me around recently: having been assigned a trip to LA later this year I've been hunting down things to do, and I'm a bit fascinated by the Californian desert. It's so distant from my rural English childhood, or my rundown urban present, an image that most know from this cover and little else. It's a statement then, and works very well in the context of the record: all stark, dramatic noises and space. 
I have to admit however, if I want desert music, I don't go straight to U2. I may choose Calexico, or break out Low's Amazing Grace, but not the pompous rock messiah and his hatted consorts. My aversion to U2 has remained, with just the most occasional of guilty pleasures, for as long as I can recall, and I had no plans to change this. Yet there it was, this haunting image, poking out of a box alongside The Best Rap Album in the World...Ever! and any number of Frank Herbert paperbacks for just fifty English pence, and I thought I'd push my luck.
Annoyingly, I've fallen for it somewhat. The Joshua Tree is U2's The Queen Is Dead, their Green. A big, signature album that really defines what the band is about - or at least, concurrently with R.E.M. - what happened before fame went to their heads and they went off the rails a bit. Stipe got a blue stripe and a shaved head, Bono got a cowboy hat and a Live Aid, but it's the same for every band that makes it stratospheric.
The Joshua Tree is therefore U2 on the cusp of megastardom. Before hitting the stadia of the world with Achtung Baby, this album demonstrates not restraint exactly, but certainly the passion of the outsider is still there. Again like R.E.M., U2's earliest albums are oblique, moody and experimental. Here they hit that fine line between inspiration and bombast and although previous years had seen the likes of Sunday Bloody Sunday, New Years Day, and Pride (In The Name Of Love)The Joshua Tree stepped it up to a new level by front-loading with three of the band's grandest anthems. The organ-introduced Where The Streets Have No Name is suceeded by the the propulsive semi-chorale of I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, then the tender With Or Without You. These songs need no introduction, but it's the rest of the record that really won me over: One Tree Hill, Red Hill Mining Town, and In God's Country all define not just the sound of U2 (find here the beginnings of Bill Bailey's take on The Edge's infamous guitar sound, where the effects pedals are switched off to reveal Twinkle Twinkle Little Star), but their ethos, the drama and grandeur and intimacy that they've been trying to rediscover since. Buried in the album tracks, you'll find the roots of the Arcade Fire and that whole skein of North American indie. You'll find Chris Martin and Snow Patrol taking notes James Blunt prostrate on the floor. You'll find Johnny Marr comparing guitar sounds between Bullet The Blue Sky and How Soon Is Now?
While I stand by the idea that REM have improved immeasurably on their slump years, I still find U2's current offerings stilted and stale, and Bono continues to repel me. Yet, I can't hate them with as much passion as once I did, because - on listening back now - they've produced some great, exciting music over the years, culminating with this gem, ignominiously found in an Ilford bargain bin. All the better for me, I suppose.