So it was 27 years ago today that Joshua Tree went to the top of the US Billboard album chart and U2 took over the world. They had of course taken over little worlds before that. Indeed they took over my world, six years earlier, in October 1981when I purchased the appropriately named October record with some of my birthday gifts tokens. I can remember setting the needle down on the opening track Gloria and a life long journey with these four Dublin guys being launched. I wasn’t to know that thirty years later I would write a book about their journey and end up talking and writing about them for the rest of my life.
They must have conquered enough other little worlds by the launch of Joshua Tree because the night it went on sale there was a huge crowd outside Makin’ Tracks record store in central Belfast to be the first to get their hands on it. It was the first of a long tradition where U2 records would go on sale at midnight Sunday. From the first minute of Monday the album would receive its sales credits for the next week’s chart placing. It had never happened before but it caught the imagination of hundreds of fans. I was coming out of our Church’s Youth Fellowship when I told a few of my fellow leaders that the record was going on sale. We were 20 miles away with a great sense of camaraderie and what better way to end the weekend!
We were in a little disbelief when we found ourselves in a long queue on a cold March evening. I remember a lot of banter in the passing of time but it all became worth it when a commotion at the door of the store came filtered down the line that the band had actually appeared! They had been recording an Old Grey Whistle Test Special at Belfast King’s Hall and here they were to sign records.
The result of all this was that the first time I heard Bullet The Blue Sky I was actually standing beside Edge who was muttering humorously about putting Simply Red on instead. I have to say Bullet The Blue Sky was a disconcerting sound, so much heavier than the U2 we had been used to. As we approached the counter, to get our records signed, my friend Nicola asked if I had anything she might get signed, as she hadn’t bought a record (silly girl now!), so I reached into my pocket and, as all assistant ministers do, pulled out my pocket Bible. As Nicola opened it to get signed Larry walked across, quiet and nonchalant as ever, turned over the cover to check what it was before walking away with a little smile. Bono looked up as he signed it and said, “That’s a great book.”
It was over very fast but, as you can read, indelibly marked in my mind. I remember then rushing back to my college hall and, as I have done with the midnight purchase ever since, listening to the entire thing in one silent sitting. If the sound of Bullet The Blue Sky was a little disconcerting then the lyrics of I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For was the spiritual conundrum. I will be honest and say that it took me some months, maybe years, to come to terms with the spiritual depth of that song. As my good friend David dark often says, “When you first hear a U2 album you think they’ve lost their faith and then after awhile you wish you had their faith.” I have explained that song in almost every continent of the world and perhaps it was at that moment, though I didn’t know it for thirty years, that someone had to write a book to explain the deep theology at the heart of this rock band.
Millions of us believed that U2 were the real deal before Joshua Tree went to number one on Billboard but after it there was no doubt. It is indeed an iconic record, from its amazing cover to the range of subject matter, the new maturity of how faith and the world caresses and collides and the atmospheric art of the sound. Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois had taken it to another level, helped for sure by the development in Bono and the band’s songwriting. Here was a band in the latter part of their twenties, with their apprenticeship behind them, coming to terms with a post adolescent spiritual faith and big vocational ambition. It was a potent mix. It was a great record. It was a turning point in many ways for many people.