U2 Gets Cinematic on ‘Where the Streets Have No Name': The Story Behind Every ‘Joshua Tree’ Song
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“Where the Streets Have No Name” is the sun coming up over The Joshua Tree. It is growing light. It is a slow awakening. It is a song that allows each member of U2 to find his role, then join forces in a rhythmic charge that would set the stage for an epic album.
Except “Where the Streets Have No Name” nearly derailed that record entirely. The guys in U2 (and their collaborative production team) have described the track’s recording as one of the most frustrating and laborious creative experiences in the band’s career.
More than a year before U2 were fussing and fighting in the studio, frontman Bono was inspired to begin writing the song’s lyrics on a trip to Ethiopia. After U2’s involvement in Live Aid, Bono and his wife, Ali Hewson, traveled in 1985 to see the situation in person. He would become profoundly influenced by the experience, struggling to put his feeling into words.
“All this stuff about deserts and the parchedness of the earth… I wrote those things on Air India sick bags and scraps of paper, sitting in a little tent in a town called Ajibar in northern Ethiopia,” Bono told Rolling Stone in 2005. “It’s a sort of odd, unfinished lyric, and outside of the context of Africa, it doesn’t make any sense. But it contains a very powerful idea. In the desert, we meet God. In parched times, in fire and flood, we discover who we are.”
But “Where the Streets Have No Name” isn’t only rooted in Africa, but in U2’s uniquely Irish identity. The title, specifically, is rooted in Northern Ireland.
“An interesting story that someone told me once is that in Belfast, by what street someone lives on you can tell not only their religion but tell how much money they’re making,” Bono said in 1987. “Literally by which side of the road they live on, because the further up the hill the more expensive the houses become.”
As Bono sings in the song, “I wanna tear down the walls that hold me inside,” he sought to destroy barriers between human beings. The desert images of Africa connected to his ideas of America as a political desert, something that would be embodied in the album’s artwork and title.
During a break for U2’s sessions for The Joshua Tree, guitarist the Edge was working independently on a demo. Tinkering with guitar, bass, keyboards and a drum machine, Edge became fascinated by this sketch – a tune led by twinkling, arpeggiated guitar lines that shifted time signatures, twice. The first day that recording for the next album resumed, the guitarist gleefully introduced the demo cassette. To his dismay, his bandmates weren’t quite as thrilled.
“Edge had created ‘Streets’ on a four-track and he’d started with this, kind of, muso stuff,” bassist Adam Clayton recalled in Classic Albums. “I have to say, at the time, I didn’t appreciate probably the hours of thought that had gone into such an idea. It just seemed like a way of f—ing the band up.”
Although the guitarist had figured out the glistening intro and outro portions of the song and crafted a part that would cross over from 3/4 time to 4/4 time, the middle portion was still pretty loose. With producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, U2 set to work (and work… and work) on creating a fully realized song from the idea.
Lanois remembers playing music teacher and walking Edge, Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. through endless chord changes on a blackboard while Eno began to go a little crazy. The album sessions had come to revolve around a solitary song – one that the producer felt was going nowhere. A famous story involves Eno, at the end of his wits, about to erase weeks of work only to be stopped by a recording engineer.
“There’s a misinterpretation in that story… That version [of ‘Streets’] had quite a lot of problems,” Eno said. “What we kept doing was spending hours, and days, and weeks – actually, probably half the time that the whole album took was spent on that song, trying to fix up this version on tape. It was a nightmare of ‘screwdriver’ work. And my feeling was that it would be much better to just start again. I’m sure we would get there quicker if we started again. It’s more frightening to start again, because there’s nothing. So my idea was to stage an accident, to erase the tape, so that we would have to start again.”
Whether he stopped himself, or was prevented by a tea-toting engineer, Eno failed to go through with wiping the tape. Everyone persevered and eventually stitched together the final version that is heard on The Joshua Tree. In addition to the four members of U2, Eno can be heard playing the ambient synthesizers at the “Streets”’ beginning and Lanois contributed extra percussion. The creative team grew so fond of the track, that they soon agreed that “Where the Streets Have No Name” was the ideal lead-off song for the album.
“A song like ‘Streets,’ which was such a difficult kind of birth, now is a real pleasure to perform,” Clayton said. “But at the time, we didn’t really know what it was. It was kind of the beginnings of techno.”
Watch U2 Perform “Where the Streets Have No Name”
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Bono, meanwhile, has compared the song to the Doors’ “Break On Through (To the Other Side)” in how the anthem welcomes fans to travel with the band to a new place. After being released in August 1987 as the third hit single from The Joshua Tree – one with a particularly famous video that depicted U2 playing atop a Los Angeles liquor store – “Where the Streets Have No Name” has become one of the band’s standards. Fewer U2 songs are better known than this one, which has been performed at almost every subsequent show by the band, through tours from Zoo TV to PopMart, Elevation to U2 360.
“No matter how crap a U2 show gets,” Bono said, “we can be sure the gig will come off if we play this song.”
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