Before The Joshua Tree, U2 had released four studio albums and were an internationally successful band, particularly as a live act having toured every year in the 1980s. The group’s stature and the public’s anticipation for a new album grew following their 1984 record, The Unforgettable Fire, their subsequent tour, and their participation in Live Aid in 1985. U2 began writing new material in mid-1985 following the Unforgettable Fire Tour.
Band manager Paul McGuinness recounted that The Joshua Tree originated from the band’s “great romance” with the United States, as the group had toured the country for up to five months per year in the first half of the 1980s.
In the lead up to the album sessions, lead vocalist Bono had been reading the works of American writers such as Norman Mailer, Flannery O’Connor, and Raymond Carver so as to understand, in the words of Hot Press editor Niall Stokes, “those on the fringes of the promised land, cut off from the American dream”. Following a 1985 humanitarian visit to Ethiopia with his wife Ali, Bono said, “Spending time in Africa and seeing people in the pits of poverty, I still saw a very strong spirit in the people, a richness of spirit I didn’t see when I came home… I saw the spoiled child of the Western world. I started thinking, ‘They may have a physical desert, but we’ve got other kinds of deserts.’ And that’s what attracted me to the desert as a symbol of some sort.”
In 1985, Bono participated in Steven Van Zandt’s anti-apartheid Sun City project and spent time with Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. When Richards and Jagger played blues, Bono was embarrassed by his lack of familiarity with the genre, as most of U2’s musical knowledge began with punk rock in their youth in the mid-1970s. Bono realised that U2 “had no tradition”, and he felt as if they “were from outer space”. This inspired him to write the blues-influenced song “Silver and Gold”, which he recorded with Richards and Ronnie Wood. Until that time, U2 had been antipathetic towards roots music, but after spending time with fellow Irish bands The Waterboys and Hothouse Flowers, they felt a sense of indigenous Irish music blending with American folk music. Nascent friendships with Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Richards encouraged U2 to look back to rock’s roots and focused Bono on his skills as a songwriter and lyricist. He explained, “I used to think that writing words was old-fashioned, so I sketched.2 I wrote words on the microphone. For The Joshua Tree, I felt the time had come to write words that meant something, out of my experience.” Dylan told Bono of his own debt to Irish music, while Bono further demonstrated his interest in music traditions in his duet with Irish Celtic and folk group Clannad on the track “In a Lifetime”.
The band wanted to build on the textures of The Unforgettable Fire, but in contrast to that record’s often out-of-focus experimentation, they sought a harder-hitting sound within the limitations of more strict song structures.
The group referred to this approach as working within the “primary colours” of rock music—guitar, bass, and drums. Guitarist The Edge was more interested in the European atmospherics of The Unforgettable Fire and was initially reluctant to follow the lead of Bono, who, inspired by Dylan’s instruction to “go back”, sought a more American, bluesy sound.
Despite not having a consensus on musical direction, the group members agreed that they felt disconnected from the dominant synthpop and New Wave music of the time, and they wanted to continue making music that contrasted with these genres.
In late 1985, U2 moved to drummer Larry Mullen, Jr.’s newly-purchased home to work on material written during The Unforgettable Fire Tour. This included demos that would evolve into “With or Without You”, “Red Hill Mining Town”, and “Trip Through Your Wires”, and a song called “Womanfish”. The Edge recalled it as a difficult period with a sense of “going nowhere”, although Bono was set on America as a theme for the album.