U2: Ranking the Songs and B-Sides from ‘The Joshua Tree’

Every song is a classic and there were some great B-sides, too.

By Brian Ives 

2017 marks thirty years since U2 released their classic album, The Joshua Tree, and the band has said that to honor the anniversary, “We have some very special shows. Very special.” We’re hoping that they mean they’ll play concerts in 2017 where they play the entire album, and maybe some of the b-sides as well.

Related: U2 Announce Joshua Tree Tour

The Joshua Tree was a special album: it saw the Irish college rock favorites leaving their punk and post-punk influences behind, and falling in love with Americana, as well as with Irish roots music. It was a potent “new direction,” launching them from arenas to stadiums; it was a number one album, and contained two number one singles; it won the GRAMMY for Album of the Year, and has sold over 25 million copies worldwide. And it put them in the same league as major artists like Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd.

Not that we ever need an excuse to revisit The Joshua Tree, but we thought we’d geek out a bit and rank all the songs on the album, as well as the b-sides (and some other assorted bonus tracks that were included on the album’s 30th anniversary box set from 2007).

Where the Streets Have No Name – The Edge said in U2 By U2 that he was trying to compose the “ultimate U2 live song,” something that would be great in concert. And, as anyone who has seen U2 perform in the past 30 years knows, he was successful. But it was an uphill climb to get there; supposedly, a huge percentage of time spent on The Joshua Tree was dedicated to getting “Where the Streets Have No Name” right. There’s a legendary story that, due to all the laboring over the song, producer Brian Eno attempted to erase the tapes in order to force the band to start over. However, Eno said in the liner notes to the album’s 30th anniversary edition that he considered telling the band that the tapes were “accidentally” erased, but says, “The accident never happened: the streets were safe.”

“Bullet the Blue Sky” – This was U2 at their most Hendrix-influenced, which makes sense: Bono wrote the lyrics after he and his wife Ali took a trip to Central America, where he saw, first hand, the effects of an America-backed insurgency trying to overthrow El Salvador’s government. As Bono recalled in U2 By U2, “I described what I had been through, what I had seen, and the stories of the people I had met, and I said to Edge, ‘Could you put that through your amplifier?'” Which was similar to how Hendrix wrote his own “Machine Gun,” another war-inspired classic. The lyrics to “Bullet the Blue Sky” are some of Bono’s most political: he’s said that the “Face like the red of the rose on a thorn bush,” was supposed to be Ronald Reagan’s, although he didn’t admit it at the time. The song, perhaps, lost some of its political power over the years, but it may regain it — and more — if they perform it in concert in 2017. U2 played a new version of the song at a one-off show last year; watch Bono’s anti-Donald Trump rap here; it will be interesting to see how the song goes over in 2017 if they tour.

“Running to Stand Still” – One of U2’s most bittersweet ballads, it’s a tale of a destitute couple, both addicted to heroin; the man becomes a drug runner in hopes for a big payday. It has shades of Springsteen’s “Atlantic City.”

With or Without YouThe Joshua Tree‘s first single, it was also U2’s first number one in America. In U2 By U2, Bono says that the tension in the lyric was based on his own inner conflict: “Between being faithful to your art or being faithful to your lover. What if the two are at odds? Your gift versus domestic responsibility? I have this person in my life whom I love more than my life, but I’m wondering if the reason I’m not writing is because I’m now a domesticated beast.” Happily, being “domesticated” hasn’t prevented Bono from writing lyrics to tons of U2 classics in the years since.

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For – U2 dove into gospel, and it worked. It was another one that took a long time to get right; as The Edge said in U2 By U2, at first he felt it sounded like “Eye of the Tiger” as played by a reggae band. The song would be higher on this list, but they recorded an even more powerful version on the following album, Rattle And Hum, with a gospel choir, and that one now stands as the definitive version. Still, The Joshua Tree‘s original version is pretty amazing as well.

“Silver and Gold” – A blues song that was born out of Bono’s distaste for the blues. When he was in New York to contribute to Little Steven’s all-star antiapartheid jam “Sun City,” he stopped by a studio where the Rolling Stones were recording their new album (Dirty Work). As Bono said in U2 by U2, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were playing country songs and asked Bono to join in. “I said, ‘I don’t know anybody else’s songs.'” He asked them if they knew the Ramones’ “Glad to See You Go.” “It wasn’t going to work out,” Bono concluded. “That is when I realized that U2 had no tradition… there were no roots to our music, no blues, no gospel, no country… we were post-punk…. Joy Division, Kraftwerk, Penetration and the Buzzcocks. Keith said, ‘You don’t know the blues?’ I said, ‘Not only do I not know the blues, I object to it.'” He felt the blues was for lazy musicians with no new ideas. Richards was dumbstruck, and grabbed a few Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker records and played them for the singer, who was blown away by what he’d heard. “I went back to my hotel room and wrote ‘Silver and Gold’ and tried to apply what I’d just heard.” The next day, Bono recorded a solo version of the song, with Keith Richards and Ron Wood on guitars; that version is on the Sun City compilation. Then, he brought it to U2 for the version they recorded for the b-side of “Where the Streets Have No Name.”

Related: Tom Morello Remembers Little Steven’s ‘Sun City,’ the Song that Changed the World

“Trip Through Your Wires” – One of the band’s most American sounding songs, it’s a country/gospel/rhythm and blues hybrid propelled by Bono’s harmonica playing (Larry Mullen notes, “He’s actually not a bad harmonica player” in U2 by U2) and The Edge’s mind-blowing guitar.

“In God’s Country” – The Edge said “I don’t think ‘In God’s Country’ was ever going to be one of our best tunes, but we needed a few up-tempo songs, so it was useful at the time. Some songs are just better than others.” Mullen notes that Edge generally doesn’t like overly simplistic songs. “So the only way to get Edge to actually rock out was to annoy him with Bono’s appalling guitar playing.” Bono himself recalls “The lyric was really good, the tune is pretty good, and the hook is pretty average – thanks to the Edge.” We’ll politely disagree with Bono and Edge; it’s a great song.

“One Tree Hill” – The loop going through the song was a preview of the dance music influence that would dominate Achtung Baby and the band’s subsequent albums a few years later. Inspired by the death of a U2 roadie, the band didn’t play it at the start of the Joshua Tree tour, but towards the end of the trek it became an audience favorite.

Related: U2’s ‘Achtung Baby’ — One of Rock’s Bravest Reinventions

“Exit” The lyrics to “Exit” were inspired by Norman Mailer’s 1980 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Executioner’s Song, about serial killer Gary Gilmore, and by Truman Capote’s 1966 In Cold Blood. And the band translate that chaos and violence perfectly in one of their most explosive jams ever. They’ve only played it once since the Joshua Tree tour; hopefully in 2017, Bono will be able to play guitar again, because this is definitely a two-guitar jam.

“Mothers of the Disappeared” – A song paying tribute to the mothers of the disappeared, literally mothers in Argentina who mourn for their sons who suddenly “disappeared” — in other words, they had been taken to prison (or worse). Sting covered the same subject in the similarly moving “They Dance Alone.”

“Spanish Eyes” – A great song, but one that would’ve sounded more at home on The Unforgettable Fire.

“Sweetest Thing” – An unfinished song; years later U2 would revisit it for their The Best of 1980-1990 compilation. That version was a minor hit. The earlier version was pretty sweet, too.

“Red Hill Mining Town” – An under appreciated gem on the album, it’s the only Joshua Tree song that U2 has never played live. Hopefully that will change in 2017.

“Beautiful Ghost/Introduction to Songs of Experience”  – A very Eno-esque piece that — coincidentally or not? — contains the name of U2’s next album (Songs of Experience), which is due in 2017.

“Walk to the Water” – In which Bono  makes like a beat poet, doing spoken word over The Edge, Adam and Larry’s jamming.

“Drunk Chicken/America” – “America” is an Allen Ginsberg poem, read by Bono over U2’s music. It’s an idea that may have worked a bit better on Achtung Baby, Zooropa or Pop.

“Wave of Sorrow (Birdland)”  – “You wake up this morning, it took an act of will.” Who hasn’t been there? A great lyric that Bono should have saved for another song.

“Desert of Our Love”  – You can hear the band working their way through it; at one point, Bono yells, “One more verse!” It later became a song called “Weather Girls,” which later became “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

“Luminous Times (Hold on to Love)” – Co-written by U2 and Brian Eno, it’s a yearning ballad that doesn’t quite reach the level of the songs on The Joshua Tree.

“Rise Up” – The ringing guitar sounds like an early sketch for what Edge did on “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

“Deep in the Heart”  – Another one that sounds like it would have fit in a bit better on The Unforgettable Fire.

“Race Against Time”  – This one sounds like it was inspired by The Edge’s experience scoring the film Captive, a project he worked on prior to The Joshua Tree.

 

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