A little over twenty years ago, in the fall of 1987, I purchased a 12-inch single of “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Along with the single of the Pixies’ “Here Comes Your Man / Into the White,” it marked one of the first times I had been romanced by the power of the b-side. There was no doubt in my mind that “Streets” was a miraculous song, and The Joshua Tree an equally miraculous album, but there was something about “Silver and Gold” and “Sweetest Thing” that threw me, as Bono would say, like a rubber ball. The reasons that I’m revisiting this album are numerous. For one, it’s the record’s 20th anniversary. As such, Island has released, with the Edge’s supervision, a “Deluxe” treatment of it in two different forms. The first is a two-disc affair, remastered and with a horde of my beloved b-sides. The second, for die-hard fans only, has a collectible photo book and concert DVD with a few music videos.
It’s perverse enough for anyone to be without The Joshua Tree, but if your collection is absent this gem, why not go out and get this deluxe treatment. But first, let me catch my breath and get over the fact that you didn’t have it in the first place. Phew! Are you nuts? Okay, I’m over it now. Well, not really, but I’ll soldier on. The Joshua Tree came in at #26 in Rolling Stone‘s top 500 albums of all time (and I take issue with about five of the choices preceding it), and was our choice here at Treble as THE best album of 1987. For those reasons alone you should own this album. But let’s take a look at those magnificent b-sides on the second disc, shall we?
The opener, “Luminous Times (Hold On To Love),” is breathtaking and, were it not for the strength of the original eleven tracks on the album proper, should have made the cut. That’s the truly remarkable thing about these b-sides. All of them are as good or better than their own album material, and certainly better than most regular material by their peers. I’d take one of U2’s b-sides any day over Big Country or the Alarm, and I like those bands! “Spanish Eyes” is like a dream combination of the Velvet Underground and Van Morrison in the way that only U2 can manage it. Then we have the two I mentioned earlier, “Silver and Gold” and “Sweetest Thing.” Most will know the former from the live version included on their follow-up film and album, Rattle and Hum. But this version has a smoldering anger not quite found in that other version. “Sweetest Thing,” in this incarnation, I always found better than the subsequent single release that came with their initial greatest hits package. There’s just something more raw and heartfelt about Bono’s delivery of this bittersweet love song to his wife in this version. The nearly instrumental “Race Against Time,” also included on the 12-inch of “Streets” I bought, is like a lost soundtrack cut from a great ’80s heist film, like To Live and Die in L.A. “Silver and Gold” makes yet another appearance, this time in a stripped down version featuring Keith Richards and Ron Wood. This is the version from the Sun City album, put together by Little Steven, that pretty much stole the show (though I love the song “Sun City” as well).
The last few songs are strange ones, to be sure, but interesting artifacts in the making of one of the best `American’ albums by a foreign band. They all originated in the sessions for The Joshua Tree, but were finalized in 2007. The spoken word / ambient “Beautiful Ghost” has Bono reciting William Blake, while “Drunk Chicken / America” features Allen Ginsberg’s reading of his second most famous poem. The Edge admits in the liner notes that this track is all Brian Eno, but it could be credited as what got the ball rolling in what made this album what it ended up to be, namely one of the best rock albums of all time. And it should be pointed out that the best b-sides are the ones that Eno and Daniel Lanois hand in. “Wave of Sorrow (Birdland)” was considered a song `too good’ to be a b-side and was held over until their next album. That next album placement never happened and Bono apparently wrote the lyrics and recorded the vocal for this particular release. They were right, it is too good to be a `b-side.’ If you like to hear how songs originated and were originally constructed, there’s “Desert of Our Love” a.k.a. “Weather Girls,” a song which later became “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” “Rise Up” acts like a bridge between this `American’ album and Bruce Springsteen’s later work, such as the similarly titled The Rising.
The Joshua Tree, with all of its grandiosity and drama, is one of the few albums I revisit every few months. Going back to that well is one of the most aurally refreshing things I experience, so I try to experience it frequently. Now that I have these b-sides all in one place, it makes the experience that much more rewarding. U2 rarely revisit their back catalog. In fact, this marks the first time that the band has even remastered or re-released one of their early albums. Somehow, with this 20th anniversary, the timing seemed right. Enough time has passed for us to look back, seeing and hearing the brilliance that was The Joshua Tree. None of us here at Treble took this band or album for granted, but isn’t it time that you took a second listen?