The lyrics were inspired by Bono's trip to Central America in 1985 with Amnesty International. He visited El Salvador, where he stayed with a group of guerillas in the middle of the mountains in the north of the country, which is where he got the idea for this song. "Mothers Of The Disappeared
" also came out of that trip.
Alexis - San Salvador, El Salvador
Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen, and The Edge came up with the music, and Bono wrote the lyrics around the track. For the guitar solo, Bono did his best to convey his feelings to The Edge. "When I explained to Edge what I'd been through in El Salvador, he was able to, with nod to Jimi Hendrix, try and put some of that fear and loathing into his guitar solo," Bono said. "We strapped my feelings to the song 'Bullet The Blue Sky.'"
This is a political song that condemns US foreign policy for promoting unrest in Central America. Bono wanted to draw attention to the damage the US was doing in other countries, which he felt most Americans did not know the extent of. Criticism of America did not hurt record sales there, as The Joshua Tree was the #1 album its first week of release. It also didn't hurt Bono's status with American politicians, many of whom invited him to speak on behalf of various causes. Far from being seen as an enemy of the state, Bono was celebrated by most government officials, and he used his celebrity and access to advance a variety of causes.
Bono spoke about this song in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibit "Louder Than Words: Rock, Power and Politics." Said Bono:
"I wanted to go and see things for myself. It's why I ended up in the famine in Ethiopia, It's why I ended up in Central America. I just want to see it for myself.
There were wonderful people offering solace to refugees from the war in El Salvador. I was with one of those groups visiting. We went out into the hills - maybe that was irresponsible because we were in the middle of a war zone. In the hillside across the way, they were firebombing these villages to get the paramilitaries out of there. I remember the ground shaking and I remember the smell of being near a war zone. I don't think we were in danger, but I knew there were lives in danger or being lost close to us, and I felt for them. It upset me as a person who read the Scriptures, to think that Christians in America were supporting this kind of thing, this kind of proxy war because of these Communists.
It did bother me that this was being sanctioned by religious people. I was not a Communist, but I felt it was wrong, so I used the language of the Scripture to describe the situation:
In the howling wind comes a stinging rain
See it driving nails
Into the souls in the tree of pain
From a firefly, a red orange glow
See the face of fear
Running scared on the valley below
Bullet the blue sky
In the locust wind comes a rattle and hum
Jacob wrestled the angel
And the angel was overcome"
This was one of the first U2 songs to condemn US politics. They would sometimes call the president from the stage during their US shows.
The line, "In the locust wind comes a rattle and hum" provided the title for their next album and its companion movie, Rattle And Hum.
In the section where Bono sings about a man with a "face red like a rose in a thorn bush," he had someone specific in mind. At this Rock Hall exhibit, Bono said: "He's peeling off those dollar bills, slapping them down - paying for the war. He in my head was Ronald Reagan. I had not a sophisticated understanding of what was going down, but as a student of nonviolence I had a violent reaction to what I was witnessing. I was interested at the time in liberation theology, which is people reinterpreting Scriptures to their own specific situations. So you go into a liberation theology church and you see the flight from Egypt will be painted and portrayed, but instead of pharaohs it would be Ronald Reagan."
The last line about the man who is afraid to leave his house was almost changed to "Because outside is the world" from "Because outside is America." They were not sure they wanted to name the US directly.
Some of the Biblical references in this song include "nailed to a tree" (reference to Christ) and "Jacob wrestled the angel" (a reference to Jacob's struggle with God at Bethel).
At a 2001 show in Philadelphia, Bono shined a spotlight into the crowd toward the end of this and said, "On a closed-circuit TV, before an invitation-only audience, we watch as Timothy runs into the arms of America." He was referring to Timothy McVeigh, who was executed for the Oklahoma City bombing.
On their Elevation tour, U2 showed footage of the actor and NRA spokesman Charlton Heston speaking in support of firearms followed by video of a child playing with a gun and images from the Vietnam War as an introduction to this song.
Thrash Metal band Sepultura covered this on their Revolusongs
EP. P.O.D. recorded it on their album The Fundamental Elements Of Southtown
Tim - PGH, PA
The album was produced by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, who helmed the band's previous album, The Unforgettable Fire. But The Joshua Tree also received considerable input from U2's former producer, Steve Lillywhite, who was brought in to mix four of the tracks on the album, including this one. In a 1987 Rolling Stone interview, Lanois shared his thoughts on how the song turned out. "'Bullet the Blue Sky' turned out a lot different," he said. "I wouldn't have had as many effects on it, because we had a bit of a purist attitude toward some of these recordings, essentially that there was a sound that was captured in performance in a room, and we wanted to remain loyal to that space, to convey that sound. And he was not as sentimental to that idea, so he pulled out all the stops."
In an interview with Guitar World, the Edge explained how he incorporated the blues-style slide guitar on this track. "I've done it before, but never like this. 'Bullet' was that kind of song. The set of images and emotions that it is, well, it's not exactly tra la la champagne for two on Park Avenue. So I tried to use the guitar as a form of exorcism, almost, an explosive array of colors to illustrate some kind of strange painting."