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How U2 Got Back to ‘The Joshua Tree’

After the rise of Trump, the band decided to bring its first masterpiece back to life with a huge tour.

Midway through 2016, U2 faced an unclear future. They had cut their highly successful Innocence + Experience Tour short in order to work on their next album, Songs of Experience, which was nearly finished. But they eventually decided that the material they had recorded didn’t properly address the chaos of current events, from the rise of Donald Trump to England’s separation from the European Union. “We realised that we needed to put the album on ice for a minute to really think about it,” says guitarist the Edge. “The world is a different place now, and we needed the opportunity to reconsider everything.”

Instead, U2 decided to mark the 30th anniversary of 1987’s The Joshua Tree – the album that catapulted them from arena act into the biggest band in the world, featuring hits like “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “With or Without You” – with a massive stadium tour. The Joshua Tree was U2’s first album directly influenced by American music and politics, taking aim at the Reagan administration’s support of bombings of Central American countries (“Bullet the Blue Sky”) and at silence about mass slaughterings by the Chilean government (“Mothers of the Disappeared”). “Those were difficult, dark times, and it feels like we’re right back there, in a way,” says the Edge. “We’ve never given ourselves the chance to celebrate our past because we’ve always looked forward. But we felt this was a special moment and this is a special record.” In an interview posted on U2’s website, Bono added, “It’s quite an opera… I’ve sung some of these songs a lot, but never all of them… It’s gonna be a great night.”

The Joshua Tree 2017 tour will launch in Vancouver in May, before moving on to the United States and Europe. It sold more than a million tickets in a day, with extra shows immediately added in L.A., Chicago and East Rutherford, New Jersey. The run will also include U2’s first major U.S. festival appearance, at Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tennessee, where they’ll headline alongside current hitmakers like the Weeknd and Chance the Rapper. “We did a lot of festivals early on,” says the Edge. “I always remember them very fondly. There’s a kind of gladiatorial aspect to a festival, which always keeps you on your toes in a good way.”

The tour marks the first time U2 have ever played a complete album live, a format most recently used by Bruce Springsteen on his River tour, which became the most successful tour of last year, grossing $268 million. U2 might take a different approach and avoid playing the album in sequence. “We may not want to start with Track One, ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’,” says the Edge. “We might need to build to that moment.” Adds bassist Adam Clayton, “We might bundle some of the songs together with other ones that are thematically similar [from other albums]. We’re going to experiment until it feels right.”

For hardcore fans, the show will be an opportunity to hear deep cuts like “Exit” and “Trip Through Your Wires”, which the band hasn’t played since the 1980s. “Red Hill Mining Town” – a moving ballad about the 1984 strike by the National Union of Mineworkers in England, which was originally going to be the album’s first single – has never been played live. “It fell into the midtempo malaise,” says Clayton. “Now, I think we can figure out ways to get around that.”

u2 joshua tree live
The Edge and Bono live in 1987.

Willie Williams, the band’s longtime concert director, who has designed its stages since 1982, says the tour’s production will be far sparer than U2’s last stadium run, 2009-11’s 360 Tour, which featured a spaceship-like stage, one of the largest in concert history. “This has come as a get-out-of-jail-free card for how to follow U2 360,” says Williams. “That really was the stadium show to end all stadium shows.” Williams is taking inspiration from the primitive 1987 tour production but incorporating new ideas, including a B stage shaped like a tree. “Expectations are stratospherically higher than they were 30 years ago,” he says. “But there will be nods to how it was back then.”

The tour will inevitably invite criticism that U2 are cashing in on nostalgia. The very word causes Clayton to let out an agonised groan. “It’s not something we would be interested in,” he says, calling the tour “a starting point [about] what the last 30 years have done to us all”. He adds that the shows are a chance to redo a difficult time in U2’s history: “The original Joshua Tree tour should have been an extraordinarily joyful opportunity. But it was actually quite a tough time trying to deliver those songs under the pressure of growing from an arena act to a stadium act. I, for one, don’t remember enjoying it very much.”

After the tour wraps in August, the group plans to resume Songs of Experience and then eventually pick up the Innocence + Experience Tour, which never played outside major markets. That show featured a set heavy on new songs and a revolutionary stage with a wall of video screens that the band performed within. “We feel like that tour wasn’t finished,” says the Edge. “We’d love to finish it. That’s the working assumption at the moment, but things can change and nothing’s written in stone as of yet.”

U2 are still figuring out how to navigate their place in popular culture after the disappointing rollout of 2014’s Songs of Innocence, which was heavily criticised when it appeared on iPhones everywhere, whether users wanted to hear it or not. “We are somewhat swimming against the tide,” concedes Clayton, adding that he’s confident U2 can buck current musical trends. The band emphasises that its embrace of the past is temporary and that it’s eager to get back to new music. “We all very much feel like [Songs of Experience] needs to be out by the end of this year,” says Clayton. “In some ways, the experience of playing those Joshua Tree shows inevitably couldn’t help but have some impact on what that record ultimately becomes when we finish work on it.”

One major challenge will be to find the right way to distribute the album. “My plan now is for Bono and I to sneak into everyone’s house and put a CD under their pillow,” says the Edge with a laugh. “But unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be getting much support from the rest of the band.”

From issue #785 (April 2017), available now