I remember it vividly. It was the summer of 1987, probably August, and I was standing in the HMV Megastore in Oxford Street in London browsing through their CD racks looking for something else to punish my long-suffering credit card with. Back then the 'video' was king. I mean the buggers were everywhere. MTV had them on rotation on our television sets at home all day and the more elaborate and expensive ones even made the news. 1987 was a year when a pop video was given as much credence as the release of the album it was promoting. And HMV was no different. The flagship shop had loads of black TV monitors hanging out of their Oxford Street ceiling covering every square inch of floor space in their huge new store. So I'm standing there in this busy Megastore browsing like everyone else. And then it happened.
On came the new U2 video for "Where The Streets Had No Name". It was filmed in California on top of a building with the band playing live without announcement while American street goers below simply stopped in their tracks and looked up in amazement. And so did we. We all stopped and we all looked up in amazement. It was the only time I've ever seen this. The entire music store stopped and looked up at the TV monitors - hooked instantly by this incredible song and this dog's bollox of a band. The tune creeps in - building, building, building - then it bursts out of the speakers with this stunning chiming trailblazing guitar work and Bono's impassioned growl and lyrics. It was mesmerizing. I remember looking around me and noticing people's smiling faces. No one was browsing anymore. And I remember thinking - my God - they really have hit the Global zeitgeist with this. And it wasn't just that I was a Dubliner and therefore proud of 'our' band - this was different - in 1987 U2 really was dripping brilliance and 'everyone' knew it.
So what's this jaunt back down memory lane got to do with this re-issue? The answer is 'wonder'. The same thing I felt all those years ago in that megastore is 'back'. Because this reissue folks, is truly one of the best I've ever heard or seen - a genuine 'wow' in every sense of the word. And one that fans will thrill too.
"The Joshua Tree" was released globally in March 1987 and after 4 albums of escalating brilliance, U2 finally hit their penultimate moment - even the album's outtakes put out as B-sides on the singles were undeniably good. But the album on the relatively new format of compact disc was disappointingly dull and this magical record has remained in `dullard' sound-land ever since. There have been re-masters of some of the tracks on "Best Of 1980-1990" of course and the more recent "18 Singles" set, but this 20th Anniversary Edition Remaster issued globally on Monday 3 December 2007 is the first time in 20 years that the `entire' album has received a total overhaul and the sound quality and presentation is beautifully realised. The sound especially is just GORGEOUS.
Here's the lay of the land; the CD comes in 3 variants:
The 1st is a standard CD in one of the new round-corner hard jewel cases and presents the 11 tracks of the original album in newly remastered form. There are no bonus tracks, but there is an upgraded booklet. It sells for around £10.
The 2nd issue is housed in a gatefold digipak much like the "Deluxe Edition" issues from Universal or Zeppelin's recently issued "Mothership" set. The 2nd bonus disc gathers up all of the B-sides from the Album's single releases (7 tracks), track 8 is the single edit of "Where The Streets Have No Name", track 9 is the Sun City Version of "Silver & Gold" which features Keith Richards and Ron Wood of The Rolling Stones - and last but not least, a juicy 5 new unreleased `outtakes" from the album. Disc 2 has a total of 14 in all. This 2CD version sells for £20 or £22 or £18 online - depending where you buy it.
But the 3rd issue, the one I've bought this morning (day of release) is a deluxe edition of 3 discs and is a limited edition. It's the issue I would recommend. It costs £27 (I didn't see any price difference in any store - except that it's available online for £22 in some places with free p&p). And it really is gorgeous - pricey for sure - but a genuine peach for fans. The box itself is DVD sized but deeper inside; it has 3 gatefold card sleeves, the album in one, the bonus audio CD of 14 tracks in another and a 3rd, which is a bonus DVD. The DVD contains an 18-track July 1987 concert filmed in Paris, which is new, the "Outside Is America" documentary, an alternate video for "With Or Without You" and a rarely seen video of "Red Hill Mining Town". At over two and a half hours, it's a truly fantastic bonus.
I'm also tempted to buy the new vinyl version because it's been put onto 2LPs and not squashed onto one. The pressing run will be limited and will almost certainly become a collectable within months.
PACKINGING: All 3 CDs are in housed in gatefold card sleeves. The album has the same artwork of course, but the Bonus Audio CD and DVD discs feature Anton Corbijn's photo outtakes from The Joshua Tree sessions. It means that visually all three match - a nice touch. The 5 DVD sized Photographic Prints from the same sessions are housed in an embossed "Joshua Tree' symbol envelope and are nice, but a bit superfluous. The hardback book of 56-pages, however, is just gorgeous. There's all the lyrics from the album with singles pictured alongside their release dates, essays from all the key people around the album, the boys themselves, Daniel Lanois, Anton Corbijn, Steve Averill, Brian Eno and others. There are unpublished photographs, detailed production/reissue credits and even Allen Ginsberg's "America" poem reproduced at the end (one of the outtakes uses it). The whole shebang is lifted out of its recesses by a black ribbon. Classy. Some people have complained that £27 is excessive - money for old rope so to speak - but that kind of misses the point. The album has always deserved Rolls Royce treatment and now it finally gets it. The Deluxe edition is without question the one to buy for lovers of the album.
SOUND: First up is the album itself. The Edge has supervised the tape transfers with remastering, production and engineering credits going to Arnie Acosta of Bernie Grundman Mastering and production by Cheryl Engels of Partial Productions. And a bang up job they've all done too. The difference in quality is astonishing. The original LP ran to just over 50 minutes, a lot for that format, and the last track on Side 1 always suffered for that. "Running To Stand Still" is now spectacular - worth the price of admission alone. I'm hearing new sounds both during and at the end of this beautiful and overlooked gem. Similarly, "Red Hill Mining Town", "In God's Country" and "One Tree Hill" leap out of the speakers instead of limping. And if this isn't good enough, the album's finisher, the haunting "Mothers Of The Disappeared" now has absolutely extraordinary power - Eno's swirling and crashing soundscapes matching Bono's touching and heartfelt lyrics - it's magnificent and immensely moving - even after two decades of familiarity. All of these U2 tracks have been screaming out for sonic upgrades for years and this muscular re-mastering of them does not disappoint.
I've had the B-sides on original 1987 UK CD singles for years, but they are ordinary sounding like the original CD album. They too have been beefed up - they're now warm, clear and full of life. Very enjoyable rehearing them. A small point worth making is this. The supposed 2nd CD single here in the UK "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" has eluded my grasp for 20 years - I'm still not sure it exists. It's always documented in the band's British discography and presumed it's out there - but I've NEVER ACTUALLY SEEN ONE?? So the inclusion of its 2 rare B-sides here is welcome. The five new out-takes as you can imagine are a mixed bag, some good, some iffy - and obvious in most cases why they were relegated to the vaults. But as a rabid fan of the album, I'm grooving to them more and more. The lyrics to one of them, "Wave Of Sorrow (Birdland)", is even in the hardback book.
The DVD is not in 5.1 Surround, but it still sounds and looks amazing. Filmed at The Hippodrome de Vincennes in Paris on the 4th of July 1987, it shows the band in full flight - and they were just electrifying - on fire. Some mellow tracks like "October" and "MLK" also get rare outings here too - superb. The band then hits the crowd with an absolutely lethal triple whammy of "In God's Country", "Electric Co." and "Bad". The Edge's playing during "Electric Co." is simply hair-raising - and I swear - at moments during the song - they were simply the best band on the planet! Also towards the end of the song, a "huge" bare-chested male French fan is lifted up onto the stage; he in turn lifts Bono up into his arms and Bono then adds "Break On Through" by The Doors onto the end of the blistering "Electric Co". The crowd went wild...
To sum up: the album is remastered to spectacular effect, the bonus CD of B-sides and outtakes is never less than fantastic and the DVD simply the visual icing on top of an extraordinary cake. When you think that June 2007 has passed without a 40th Anniversary appreciation of "Sgt. Peppers" by The Beatles and November 2007 without a 35th Anniversary Edition of Zeppelin's "Four Symbols" - at least those at Universal and Island have had the brains not to miss this masterpiece's 20th Anniversary.
Whatever way you cut it, this is an exceptional re-issue of one of 'the' great albums of our times - and with the weeks bleeding into 2008, not a moment too soon. A thing of wonder indeed. U2 are of course millionaires now - way too big for their britches - way too mouthy - and spend way too much of their time pissing about with hotel properties - when they should be pissing 'in' hotel properties and generally vandalizing them like proper rock stars do. Still, back then, they had 'magic' coming out of their ears. Idealism, love, deserts, slappin' em down and The Edge's cool hat - it's all in there. "Get involved in the fight..." they told us in the liner notes to the album. Join Amnesty International and Greenpeace they urged - and swept away by the glorious positivity of it all - many of us did. What a band - what a landmark record.
"...I want to reach out...and touch the flame..." the front-man sang.
And now we can.