1986-1989: The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum

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Posted on Thu, 11/06/2014 - 8:20pm
by John MacMillan

Member since: Tue, 01/07/2014

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For their fifth album, The Joshua Tree, the band wanted to build on The Unforgettable Fire's textures, but instead of out-of-focus experimentation, they sought a harder-hitting sound within the limitation of conventional song structures. Realising that "U2 had no tradition" and that their knowledge of music from before their childhood was limited, the group delved into American and Irish roots music. Friendships with Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Keith Richards motivated the band to explore blues, folk, and gospel music and focused Bono on his skills as a songwriter and lyricist. U2 interrupted the album sessions in mid-1986 to serve as a headline act on Amnesty International's A Conspiracy of Hope tour. Rather than being a distraction, the tour added extra intensity and focus to their new material. Later that year, Bono travelled to San Salvador and Nicaragua and saw first-hand the distress of peasants bullied in internal conflicts that were subject to US political intervention. The experience became a central influence on the new music.

The Joshua Tree was released in March 1987. The album juxtaposes antipathy towards US foreign policy against the group's deep fascination with the country, its open spaces, freedom, and ideals. The band wanted music with a sense of location and a "cinematic" quality, and the record's music and lyrics draw on imagery created by American writers whose works the band had been reading. The Joshua Tree became the fastest-selling album in British chart history, and topped the Billboard 200 in the United States for nine consecutive weeks. The first two singles, "With or Without You" and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For", quickly became the group's first number-one hits in the US. They became the fourth rock band to be featured on the cover of Time magazine, which declared that U2 was "Rock's Hottest Ticket". The album won U2 their first two Grammy Awards, and it brought the band a new level of success. Many publications, including Rolling Stone, have cited it as one of rock's greatest. The Joshua Tree Tour was the first tour on which the band played shows in stadiums, alongside smaller arena shows.

The documentary Rattle and Hum featured footage recorded from The Joshua Tree Tour, and the accompanying double album of the same name included nine studio tracks and six live U2 performances. Released in October 1988, the album and film were intended as a tribute to American music; they included recordings at Sun Studios in Memphis and performances with Bob Dylan and B. B. King. Rattle and Hum performed modestly at the box office and received mixed reviews from both film and music critics; one Rolling Stone editor spoke of the album's "excitement", another described it as "bombastic and misguided". The film's director, Phil Joanou, described it as "an overly pretentious look at U2". Most of the album's new material was played on 1989's Lovetown Tour, which only visited Australasia, Japan and Europe, so as to avoid the critical backlash the group faced in the US. In addition, they had grown dissatisfied with their live performances; Mullen recalled that "We were the biggest, but we weren't the best". With a sense of musical stagnation, Bono said to fans on one of the last dates of the tour that it was "the end of something for U2" and that they had to "go away and... just dream it all up again".

 

 

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