Hear: U2’s Joshua Tree 30 Years Later

With or Without You. Senator Jesse Helms pictured with U2’s frontman, Bono circa 2001. courtesy Charles Marshall.

U2’s Joshua Tree
30 Years Later, The Record’s Lasting Impressions Are Evident

by Charles Marshall

As Irish rock band U2 celebrates the 30-year anniversary of its blockbuster album The Joshua Tree this year, the record’s impact on the Triangle can be felt even today in our music, political, and faith communities.

If you recall, the record catapulted U2 into global stardom in 1987 with songs like Where the Streets Have No Name and With or Without You, breaking alternative rock onto mainstream radio stations previously dominated by the likes of Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, and John Cougar Mellencamp. Those who were teenagers when The Joshua Tree was released are forty-somethings now, but their initial introductions to the record made lasting impressions, leading some into careers in the music business, others to use music to spread the word of God, and still others to bridge political divides to champion global health.

Stephen Judge, for one, credits U2 for inspiring his career in the music business. He now owns the venerable Schoolkids Records, a music magazine, Blurt, and a record label with a current roster that spans the globe and includes acclaimed local indie artists like The Veldt and Happy Abandon. Thirty years ago, as a high-schooler in Rocky Mount, Judge remembers anxiously awaiting the release of The Joshua Tree. He recalls rushing back to his cassette tape deck at the top of every hour as WRDU played each song from the album in sequence before it was released.

Others taken by the record were inspired to make music of their own. Bob Sar, now a Raleigh lawyer, took a part-time job just to earn money to buy a delay pedal for his guitar so that he could mimic U2’s guitarist, The Edge; his band LowBrow still includes The Joshua Tree songs in its repertoire of deep cuts.

Joe Lanier, former legislative director for U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, recalls the partnership forged between his boss and Bono to eradicate AIDS. In another realm, Hayes Barton Methodist Church’s worship band has used U2’s music to spread its own message.

Inspiring careers

It was ultimately the more mundane side of U2 – the management side – that lured Schoolkids Records’ Judge into a career in music. While The Joshua Tree was exploding up the charts, Judge was reading about U2’s legendary manager Paul McGuinness and the band’s intentional focus on building a professional business enterprise that was as successful as the music itself. 

Armed with McGuiness’s playbook and buoyed by the burgeoning success of local bands like Let’s Active and The Connells, Judge cut his own path into almost every corner of the music business. As a student at N.C. State, he willed his way into a job at Schoolkids on Hillsborough Street before interning for The Connells, managing a slew of rising local artists (including Athenaeum, Hobex, and Mike Garrigan) and rising into several executive positions for Redeye Distribution/Yep Roc Records in Hillsborough.

Judge proudly patterns his disciplined and focused management style on McGuinness and U2. “I realized early on how bands fall apart,” he says, adding that U2’s success taught him that “every band has to work as hard on the business of music as they do on the music itself.” 

Today, the connection between U2 and Judge’s career in the music industry has come full circle. After spending considerable time in U2’s home city of Dublin for both work and pleasure, he officially relocated to Dublin this year to continue his management, marketing, and publishing work under the Schoolkids brand. He marked the 30-year anniversary of The Joshua Tree’s release date by visiting 30 U2-related sites and transmitting the event on Facebook Live. 

“I consider Stephen not just a source of U2 knowledge, but a source of music business knowledge in every way imaginable,” says John Booker, a veteran Raleigh musician and music executive with Deep South Entertainment. Booker’s own path was shaped by The Joshua Tree when he received a copy of the cassette tape for Valentine’s Day when he was six years old.

That early exposure led Booker to start his first band in seventh grade. In 2007, he co-founded and co-fronted the acclaimed local band I Was Totally Destroying It, whose uplifting, anthemic songs naturally reflect the emotive and cinematic scope of The Joshua Tree. Booker also was influenced by Chapel Hill indie icons Archers of Loaf whose guitarist, Eric Johnson, regularly integrated guitar techniques and textures influenced by The Edge.

But Booker says that the strength of U2’s influence in his music didn’t really hit home until he agreed to form a U2 tribute band to perform at the wedding of a former owner of Tir Na Nog in Raleigh. That band was so well-received that it continues to this day as an alter-ego to Booker’s “real” band. Booker says that rediscovering U2’s songs by learning to play them has “opened up a lot of doors for us musically to take different approaches in our own songwriting.”

Outside It’s America

U2’s music has always been as political as it is poetic. But The Joshua Tree gave the band a far broader platform to espouse its critique of American interventionist foreign policy (Bullet the Blue Sky) and to advocate for social justice. U2’s singer, Bono, was never shy about using his platform in inventive ways, perhaps never more so than when he forged an unprecedented collaboration with the former U.S. Senator from North Carolina, Jesse Helms, to expand foreign aid to help children in Africa devastated by AIDS.

Joe Lanier, a Sanford native now living in Raleigh, had been drawn to The Joshua Tree as a high school student at The Asheville School, but he had no idea that 15 years later Helms would broker an actual introduction to the band. As the Senator’s legislative director from 1998 – 2002, Lanier witnessed Bono and Helms pursue a shared global health policy that both defied and transcended traditional politics. Lanier was impressed by how Bono publicly praised Helms’s work in a way that revealed a more compassionate side of the Senator than the media often allowed. “Bono was a canny advocate, and he cared far more about eradicating AIDS than he did about partisan politics in the Senate,” says Lanier.

After visiting Helms in his office on several occasions, Bono invited Helms and his wife, Dot, to attend U2’s Elevation tour in Washington, D.C. Lanier says that Bono wanted Helms “to come see where (Bono) worked.” The Helmses did attend the concert, and Lanier and some other lucky aides – many of whom now reside in Raleigh – fondly recall mingling with the band members and other D.C. luminaries. “The Senator asked me if it was going to be loud. I remember simply suggesting he turn down his hearing aids,” Lanier recalls, laughing. “Bono and the Senator had dramatically different backgrounds and worldviews, but they were both uniquely sincere about their spirituality, and that allowed them to bridge the gap.”

In God’s Country

Spirituality is a foundational element of The Joshua Tree, most notably on two of the band’s most iconic hits, Where the Streets Have No Name, and I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. Eric Bolash, a musician and associate pastor at Church of the Apostles in Raleigh, says he always hears the hopefulness of the resurrection in The Joshua Tree’s more tuneful songs. Musically, he credits the spiritual tone, in large part, to the unique guitar style of The Edge, who uses a barrage of soundscapes and effects to create notes that float endlessly in a way that Bolash says resembles “eternity built into the fabric of the music.”  Listen to any of the legion of praise and worship bands throughout the Triangle and you’ll hear them try to recreate what Bolash describes as the “bounce and weightlessness” of The Edge’s guitar sound as a backdrop for their own worship music.

The LightHouse worship band at Hayes Barton United Methodist Church, for one, has incorporated more than The Edge’s dreamy guitar work into its worship services. In 2014, a collection of LightHouse band members performed a “U2charist” – a musical worship service designed to incorporate the message of U2’s spiritual anthems into the church’s outreach mission to serve the local community. Contemporary worship director Stephen Howell says it was an “eye-opening experience” for the church community and revealed the connection between songs like Where the Streets Have No Name, Beautiful Day, and Pride (In the Name of Love) and the mission of the global church.

U2’s summer stadium tour to celebrate The Joshua Tree will, sadly, skip the Triangle. But given how deep its roots run in the Triangle’s musical, political, and spiritual communities, it is not surprising that many Raleighites are traveling to see a concert that many of them missed as teenagers.

Richard Bolton, for one, tried camping outside of the Record Bar in Cameron Village on a cold night in 1987 to buy tickets to see U2 in Hampton, Va., but when he woke in his car that morning the tickets were already sold out. Thirty years later, Bolton had better luck getting tickets to see U2 in Philadelphia, but he says he would gladly trade places with Stephen Judge, who has tickets to see them in Dublin’s famed Croke Park. He might have even tried camping out again for that one.