'The Joshua Tree' Turns 30: Here's Newsweek's 1987 Feature on U2

Bono
U2 lead singer Bono performs the group's song "Beautiful Day" at the 43rd annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles February 21, 2001. Reuters

U2's 1987 masterpiece, The Joshua Tree, was released 30 years ago, on March 9, 1987. The album sold tens of millions of copies and made U2 into one of the world's biggest bands, trading in the synthpop of the '80s for earnest, anthemic rock. Here's the feature that Newsweek published on U2 in the spring of 1987, as the band began the most formative tour of their career.

The tour began with a whisper in Tempe, Ariz., when Bono stormed onstage with his voice so hoarse he could barely croak out the first song. But the 14,300 devoted fans who had turned out to hear U2 didn't riot. Instead, they answered Bono's plea for help, joining in the singing one by one until the entire arena, as one astonished reporter put it, was transformed into "a giant choir." No smoke machines. No revolving platforms or elaborate gimmicks. The Irish rock quartet scored with passionate lyrics, honest, guitar-driven sound and Bono's Pied Piper charisma.

U2 is turning itself into the rock phenomenon of 1987. Concert tickets on the current 13-city U.S. tour are as hard to come by as a suntana in Dublin. The band has been on the cusp of superstardom for years, building a loyal concert following without the benefit of a Top 10 album. Now their fifth studio album, The Joshua Tree, which made its debut on the Billboard chart at number seven two weeks ago, is zooming toward No. 1. Like Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run, it is the bridge to a mass-market audience. At a sold-out show in Houston last week, one ardent 18-year-old fan explained the appeal: "I'm sick of everyday rock on the radio. U2 is more real. You can feel their fever."

For all the earnest passion of their music, U2's commercial success hasn't been left to chance. Their label, Island Records, which recently lost its big star Steve Winwood to Virgin Records, has put all its marketing muscle behind The Joshua Tree. Island president Lou Maglia called the record's promotion "the most complete merchandising effort ever assembled in my career." The company spent $100,000 on store displays alone. A slick West Coast public-relations firm is planning publicity. The single "With or Without You" is U2's first Top 10 hit, and at least two more tightly mixed cuts will be released as singles to maintain the album's momentum. The U.S. spring tour is only the start of U2 mania—the band will return to arenas here after playing Europe this summer.

Related: U2's bland 'Songs of Innocence' is so much less provocative than its release stunt

The well-oiled marketing machine is out of character with U2's image as an idealistic, outspoken band, but so far success hasn't diluted the group's political messages. In Arizona, U2 protested Gov. Evan Mecham's decision to rescind Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as a state holiday and made a donation to a committee working to dump the governor. The band was central to the Amnesty International benefit tour last June; it plugs the human-rights organization on the album liner notes and in concert. "The only thing to say when it comes to torture is 'No more!" Bono shouted in Houston, and the arena shook with cheers.

In The Joshua Tree, U2's most accessible album yet, the band openly courts America. It's no coincidence that the tour began in the Southwest, where the gnarled Joshua tree comes from. Images of America as the promised land permeate several of the new songs. So does the flavor of blues, gospel and country: "Running to Stand Still," about heroin addiction, opens with the lonesome twang of blues guitar and ends with a harmonica riff. But the attitude toward America isn't always elegiac. In "Bullet the Blue Sky," American dollars buy fighter planes, and "In God's Country," "The rivers run / But soon run dry." "I have two conflicting visions of America," said lyricist Bono in an interview in New Musical Express. "One is a king of dream landscape and the other is a kind of black comedy."

The idealism the four Dubliners expressed in "Sunday Bloody Sunday," their 1983 song about the violence in Northern Ireland, carries over into their new songs. "Mothers of the Disappeared" is about political prisoners, and "Red Hill Mining Town" was inspired by the 1984 British miners' strike. Biblical images (three of the quartet are committed Christians) intertwine with themes of love and conflict. "I believe in the Kingdom Come / Then all the colours will bleed into one," sings Bono (a.k.a. Paul Hewson) in "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." The simple music is richly played by The Edge (Dave Evans) on guitar and by bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. Even a bleak song like "Where the Streets Have No Name" is exhilarating. In concert, the grandeur of their music fills an arena like a pipe organ in a cathedral. U2 is tapping a big audience tired of the empty glitz of oversynthesized pop.

This article originally appeared in the April 20, 1987 issue of Newsweek, under the headline "An Irish Pied Piper of Rock."