Friday, 14 September 2018

U2 - The Desert Songs (1987)

When U2 convened to start recording what was eventually to become 'The Joshua Tree', Bono's original vision was for a double album titled 'The Desert Songs', having basically written a concept album about the desert. However, The Edge and possibly the record company insisted on a single album, and so, unhappy at this, Bono tried to cancel the release, thinking it wasn't good enough, but they had already spent a lot of money on promotion and couldn't pull the plug. As we now know, the album was a massive success, and reinvigorated the band's reputation, but we did end up missing out on the underlying story as it was originally written. The songs were all recorded, and the ones which didn't make the album were released as b-sides, and most were added to the 20th Anniversary Edition in 2007 as a bonus disc, but this is obviously not what the sequencing of the double album would have been, as by putting the songs in a certain order, we get closer to the original concept of the album, which is the hero's journey through the desert of his soul to find water, or the meaning and purpose of his life.
One of the first songs was called 'Desert of Our Love', which morphed into 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For', and as Bono was having some difficulties in his marriage at that time, most likely these songs were written from a very personal point of view, reflecting his inner emotional landscape. A lot of the songs feature heavy desert imagery, and the characters are always searching for water, representing a quest for God, Love, Quan, the source of life, or whatever you want to call it. While the story and characters are a bit murky, I have pieced together a rough image of what a concept album might have looked like, and similar to The Who's Lifehouse, it now sounds like the unreleased soundtrack to a movie that was never made.
The original album was sequenced by one of the producer's wives, who was only told what the opening and closing tracks would be, so I'll leave those two where they are but rearrange everything else. I get the sense that she simply put her favorite songs in order, which also happen to be many of the singles that her husband did the mixes on. For me, there are too many mid-tempo numbers all in a row, all hit singles, which kind of takes the mystery out of it, so the first order of business is to add a rock song closer to the beginning, and also to establish the setting for our story.
The opening track stays the same with 'Where the Streets Have No Name', both musically the best opener and it also introduces the themes of disillusionment and the call to begin his odyssey. His soul is thirsty and he longs for something more than the things found in the material world. 'Silver and Gold' describes the corruption and greed he encounters at his job and in society in general, and 'With or Without You' paints the picture of a desperately unhappy relationship that has no chance of getting better. He finally makes his decision to leave her in the sad and ironic 'Sweetest Thing'. where he sings 'I'm losing you, ain't love the sweetest thing', set to happy music but with lyrics describing his cold-hearted love interest, indicating that he is happy to be moving on but still bitter about the whole experience. Then the plot thickens when the military industrial complex suddenly bombs the city with their bullets lighting up the blue sky, sending our protagonist fleeing out into the desert. The follows the ominous 'Race Against Time' as our hero escapes into the desert, where he begins his journey. At first he is happy to be free, but soon grows tired, weary, and thirsty.  He walks, trudges, and crawls across the desert sand as the scathing sun burns down on his peeling skin. He begins to hallucinate, the mirages appearing as angels at first, and then demons, dancing amongst the fragmented memories of a world he left behind. A temptress with Spanish eyes visits him, awakening his lust and distracting him from his journey as he descends into the dark side. The demons continue to haunt him and he loses his sanity completely. His former lover appears, and he violently murders her in a fit of rage. It was only an illusion, but he is shocked to discover the evil within his own heart. We fade to black as he collapses in despair at the break of night.
He wakes up the next day and taking stock of his journey so far, concludes that he still hasn't found what he is looking for. Eventually he comes across a troubled woman who is also wandering alone in the desert on 'Running to Stand Still'. He feels empathy and connection with something greater than himself for the first time, and together they walk on. Something awakens deep inside of him, giving his life a new meaning and purpose, all because of this woman, celebrated on .Trip Through Your Wires.. 'Heartland' takes us deeper into this new spiritual and emotional connection with both the world around him and also within his own heart. (Although this track was released on Rattle and Hum, it originated in 1984, and was worked on at the main Joshua Tree sessions in 1986 and possibly into 1987). Armed with a new meaning and purpose, it is now time to rejoin society.  The woman leads him back to a band of rebels who have taken refuge out in the desert after the evil empire invaded their town and stole their water supply.
The final act begins with the regime kidnapping the girl and holding her hostage at the top of Red Hill, where they hold all the other political prisoners.  Our protagonist joins the resistance and they mount an attack, but this time it's personal. They win the battle and he rescues the girl, but he is seriously wounded during the process. As our hero lays bleeding on top of the hill, his final message is to hold on to love. His blood runs down the hill and turns into a raging river. They rename the place One Tree Hill in honor of our hero, who is now called Joshua, the one who sacrificed his life to save others, and in doing so, fulfilled his destiny and discovered what life was all about. He finally found the water that quenched his thirst, and it spilled over into the world and into other people's hearts as well, ending with everyone singing 'Oh, great ocean, oh grand sea, run to the ocean, run to the sea'. They have finally found water, and it even begins to rain. The final song pays homage to all the freedom fighters who have been killed by the evil empire in the struggle for freedom, ending with the lyrics 'see their tears in the rainfall'.
......or something like that. The exact sequence is debatable and maybe Album Fixer was reading too much into this, and the details may be skewed towards his own personal neurosis, but there does seem to be the general outline of a story that follows the mythical 'Hero's Journey' found throughout the ages. It contains the three stages of departure, initiation, and return. The hero wanders through the desert, is tempted, then guided, finally returning to society as a transformed human being with a new purpose and outlook on life, only to be killed. There's a bit of a Hollywood twist at the end with the girl being held hostage, as that might not actually be on the album, but it's a fresh way of looking at a classic album, and having now played it a number of times it really does hang together very well. 

Track lising

01 Where The Streets Have No Name
02 Silver And Gold
03 With Or Without You
04 Sweetest Thing 
05 Bullet the Blue Sky
06 Race Against Time 
07 In God's Country
08 Walk To The Water 
09 Spanish Eyes 
10 Exit
11 I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For
12 Running To Stand Still
13 Trip Through Your Wires
14 Heartland
15 Red Hill Mining Town
16 Luminous Times (Hold On To Love)
17 One Tree Hill
18 Mothers Of The Disappeared

From The Album Fixer April 2015. All ideas and opinions in the notes are his.



  1. Wasn't the producer's wife, Kirsty MacColl, a pretty darn good singer and songwriter, in her own right, most well known for her duet with the Pogues on Fairytale of New York, the Christmas classic?

    P.S. Good post/concept/ running order.

  2. Yes, she was married to producer Steve Lillywhite at the time, and volunteered to compile the running order. She died way too young.

  3. I love this album, please do more album based on AlbumFixer's ideas!