The Joshua Tree wasn’t one of those albums that quietly arrived on record store racks one dewy morning, attracting a few raves and then enjoying a gradual build before changing the world. Instead, U2’s fifth studio album elicited a reception that in contemporary terms would be described as breaking the internet ten times over.
Speaking as an ‘80s kid who listened to his cassettes of War and The Unforgettable Fire obsessively and could sense that something big was on the launch pad, I can tell you that everything about the album felt massive from the get-go. Sending the mass media and the band’s fast-expanding audience into maximum overdrive when it was released in the spring of 1987, The Joshua Tree was the subject of heavy promotion and hype, such that U2’s music and image seemed everywhere at once. According to a Newsweek story published the same week the band made the cover of Time, Island spent $100,000 in 1987 dollars on store displays alone. Not even Bono’s cold-ravaged voice put a damper on the hysteria when the band opened its sold-out North American tour in Tempe, Arizona, on April 2. That show included the first live performance of “With Or Without You,” which became the band’s first American No. 1 single a few weeks later. It would help drive sales for an album that eventually shifted 25 million units worldwide.
And the rest is history, which, if we know anything about history, means we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s repeating itself in the form of a summer anniversary tour this year. It too feels massive—over one million tickets were snapped up in the first 24 hours of going on sale—even if no rock act will dominate the pop-culture landscape as forcefully as U2 once did. Indeed, just about every subsequent effort to achieve the same level of impact by U2 or later contenders reeked of an unseemly hubris or—in the case of that iTunes debacle—sheer stupidity.
Yet The Joshua Tree is still huge and intimate all at once, which is a testament to the production skills of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois (whose thumbprints were far more overbearing on The Unforgettable Fire) and to the big leap in songwriting acumen by a band who had mostly got by on bravura up to that point. True, there were glimmers of what was to come on songs like “40” on War and “I Threw a Brick Through a Window” on October, which now seems like a dry run for “Bullet The Blue Sky.” But this album is where U2 indisputably became U2, achieving the greatest synthesis of their various punk and post-punk influences—especially Joy Division, Echo & the Bunnymen, and the sorely underrated The Chameleons—and the most anthemic rock of Springsteen and The Clash. Bono also talked up his blues, gospel, country, and folk inspirations at the time, but thankfully they had yet to result in the kind of stodgy Americana that clogs up Rattle and Hum. Here’s our exploration of the fertile ground around the biggest of U2’s big moments.