A street in Belfast with a name: Great Victoria Street
(Thanks, William Murphy)
In 1980 U2 exploded onto the music scene and took the world by storm. Known primarily as a touring act for the first six years of the decade, the four lads from Ireland turned into superstars for the history books with the release of The Joshua Tree
in 1987, perhaps the biggest album from one of the biggest bands of all time. For many fans who grew up in the Reagan years, Bono’s voice is quintessentially '80s and the epitome of their youth.
Few artists have achieved such worldwide commercial success and even fewer have been able to use their star power to achieve something even greater and more important. Bono and the rest of U2 have been voices for social change, political criticism, and philanthropy. Let’s look at the numbers:
Over 150 Million Records Sold
22 Grammy Awards
44 Top 10 HitsThe Joshua Tree
is one of the world’s best-selling albums. U2’s fifth studio release, the album received critical acclaim upon its release, and even now, 25 years later, is cited by almost every music critic as one of the greatest rock albums of all-time. It isn’t difficult to hear why, since the album spawned three of U2’s most well-known (and often sung) hits: "With or Without You," "I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For," and "Where the Streets Have No Name."
The album deals heavily with themes of antipathy toward the "haves" of Western culture, particularly the United States (the band toured across North America for 5 months of every year in the first half of the '80s), social justice, and corporate greed. The album’s working title, The Two Americas
(and much of the lyrical subtext), stems from Bono’s fascination with the freedoms and ideals lost on the spoiled children of the wealthy.
Joshua Tree is a desert in Southern California and the album’s namesake. And following a visit to Ethiopia, he compared the physical desert of Africa to the spiritual desert of the Western world. The band harnessed those vast, wide open spaces in Edge’s minimalist guitar sound as well as Bono’s expressive vocals.
"I love being there, I love America, I love the feeling of the wide open spaces, I love the deserts, I love the mountain ranges, I even love the cities. So having fallen in love with America over the years that we've been there on tour, I then had to 'deal with' America and the way it was affecting me, because America's having such an effect on the world at the moment. On this record I had to deal with it on a political level for the first time, if in a subtle way." - Bono (Propaganda
The opening cut, "Where the Streets Have No Name," is, in a word, epic. A slow fade-in featuring an organ crosscuts into the Edge’s overdubbed arpeggio guitar work, which then builds to a climax as Bono’s vocals soar high atop the soundscape. A more perfect opening track never has there been.
U2 wanted to create the ultimate live song. However, the band experienced difficulty recording the final version of the tune. The arrangement, comprised of two time signature shifts and multiple chord changes, was, according to one producer, a "science project." The band brought schoolhouse blackboards into the studio to help them follow the changes. In fact, they spent so much time recording garbage, Brian Eno almost "staged an accident" and erased the tapes so they’d have to start from the proverbial drawing board.
Why was so much effort put into the creation of the opening cut and the "ultimate live song"? U2 is an inspired act. Bono, having grown up in Northern Ireland, knew all too well of the socio-political problems facing his country. Ireland has always felt strife between Protestants and Catholics, so much so that within the city of Belfast a person’s religious beliefs and income are evident to anyone simply by the street on which their house sits. The dream of the song - and possibly of art in general - is to break the barriers between people so everyone can come together in peace, love, and harmony. Bono contrasted Belfast and the cities of the West to the places he traveled to in Africa, places void of such divisions.
The capital of Northern Ireland has had its fair share of problems. Most recently The Troubles (yes, that is actually what they’re referred to as), a civil conflict raging between the '60s and the '90s and spurred by paramilitary groups from both religious sects, saw bombing, assassinations, and street violence so prevalent it became a way of life throughout most of the '70s and '80s. The Provisional IRA detonated 22 bombs within the city limits in 1972, killing nine people, on a date known colloquially as “Bloody Friday.” Almost 2,000 of the city’s citizens were killed before 2001 and it's often called the European Capital of Terrorism.
Did the violence in Belfast conjure up Bono’s concept of a perfect city? It’s more than likely, but we’ll never be completely positive. "Where the Streets Have No Name" is an idea - and a lofty one at that. It could be paradise, nirvana, or Heaven. It’s purposefully ambiguous. The song is about transcending the human condition, whether it be greed, envy, or wrath. Bono said, “I was just trying to sketch a location - maybe a spiritual location, maybe… a feeling.” How does it make you
~ Justin Novelli
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