Love Letter // Adam Clayton’s Bass Tone on The Joshua Tree

Adam Clayton is one of the most distinctive bass players in rock n’ roll history. Although most of U2‘s media attention is focused around Bono and The Edge, it’

4 years ago

Adam Clayton is one of the most distinctive bass players in rock n’ roll history. Although most of U2‘s media attention is focused around Bono and The Edge, it’s Clayton who is the centerpiece of many of the band’s biggest hits. This is never more true than on the Dublin quartet’s classic 1987 record The Joshua Tree, and the instrument itself has never sounded better than it does on that album.

Clayton’s bass playing had always been a big part of U2’s sound. His distinctive bass lines are a prominent part of earlier hits like “New Year’s Day,” “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and “I Will Follow”. Yet, with The Edge moving away from melodic guitar lines in favour of more ambient, shimmery textures, Clayton’s bass became not only the foundation but the lead, instrumental hook all of The Joshua Tree‘s biggest hits. Whether it’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, “With or Without You”, Bullet the Blue Sky” or even “Where The Streets Have No Name”, it’s Clayton’s bass lines that first spring to mind when thinking about some of the biggest songs in rock history. Clayton has often been criticised for the simplicity and repetitiveness of his playing (there’s a reason why “With or Without You” is a staple of The Axis of Awesome‘s “4 Chord Song”). Music doesn’t need to be complex or technical, however, especially when it’s this emotionally captivating. Clayton’s playing isn’t meant to dazzle—that’s a job for Bono and The Edge. Clayton’s roleis to pull the listener in and lock them in place so that they can then pay attention to what the rest of the band are doing. I can’t think of anyone one who has played that kind of role better than Clayton does on The Joshua Tree, and his big, boomy bass tone is perhaps the prime weapon in his arsenal.

Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois‘ work on The Joshua Tree is one of the most involved and essential production jobs ever committed to record. Like everything else on the album, they honed the bass to its fullest effect. Clayton’s tone started out fairly toppy on Boy (1980) and, although it deepened on subsequent records, it still retained its characteristic post-punk midrange on albums like War (1983) and The Unforgettable Fire (1984) (the latter of which Eno and Lanois also produced). In chasing more of an American, stadium rock sound, the upper-mid range was dropped out almost completely, and the sustain cranked—leaving just the boomy bass tones and the tiniest bit of lower-mid definition. It was a sound made to shake stadiums and it still rattles souls over three decades later. It might seem like a fairly ham-fisted approach, but the pristinely produced modern metal bands of today, like Lamb of God or Parkway Drive, would kill to have a tone as devastating as Clayton achieved with an analogue set-up in 1987.

Whenever I think of the best bass tones it’s “With or Without You” I think of first and foremost. No matter how much top end other bands take off or how many of the mids other bands scoop out, I’ve never heard anyone else achieve a sound anywhere near as deep and punchy as U2 do on that track. As well as the tone itself, the way the riff starts on it its highest note before dropping down into even lower registers only accentuates its depth, while drawing the listener ever deeper into its clutches. Likewise, while “Where the Streets Have No Name” is one of those ubiquitous songs I hear all over the place, unlike other songs that suffer from over exposure, it never ceases to hit me with its full impact, and it’s Clayton’s hum, as much as The Edge’s rattle that sets the stage for the emotional spillover that occurs each and every time Bono comes in. Clayton’s sound would be pushed into even deeper territories on Achtung Baby (1991) (another Eno and Lanois collaboration) and even the long-forgotten Pop (1997), which I’ll confess to having a soft spot for. As much as Clayton’s deep throb is essential to the success of tracks like “Mysterious Ways” and “Discotheque”, there it fades into the background—blending in with the punctuated kick drum of Larry Mullen Sr.’s son’s kit. There are, of course, deeper tones out there—from brown-note-chasing acts like Black Tongue, to modern pop acts like Billy Eilish, whose “Bad Guy” appeared to rattle U2’s stage set up so much that it caused the band’s digital backdrop to have to be reset when it was played over the stadium PA at their show last week. At some point, however, chasing depth for depth’s sake leads to diminishing returns and, as far as rock n’ roll bass tones go, Clayton’s tone on The Joshua Tree strikes the perfect balance between punch and clarity, to which all refinements can only be ideological rather than qualitative.

It’s also heavy as hell. As you may have gathered from the above paragraph, I caught U2 performing The Joshua Tree in full at their Melbourne concert last week. Although the band were flawless throughout almost the entire set—with the lone exception being “Elevation”, for which Bono appeared to be either out of time or out of breath—the undeniable highlight was “Bullet the Blue Sky”. It’s a song that I had all but forgotten existed but was brought crashing back to my attention as Clayton’s bass line came thundering in beneath The Edge’s waves of apocalyptic-sounding feedback. True to it’s intent, the song really does sound like a war zone, and, I have to say it’s probably the heaviest performance of a song I’ve ever seen by a band who aren’t called Meshuggah. Listening back to it I imagined it was a simple combination of open notes and the first fret, but to find out here’s an actual rolling bassline buried in among all the boominess that’s mostly played on the second-lowest string caught me way off guard. It reminds me a lot of the baselines on Sepultua‘s Roots (1996) (another beloved album of mine). Sepultura even covered “Bullet the Blue Sky” for their Revolusongs EP (2002), in case such comparison seems strange, or you needed further certification of its heaviness (which, now that i think about it, may have been the first time I ever heard it, and probably coloured my interpretation). The song has also been covered by P.O.D. and Queensrÿche of all people. Neither act really nails Clayton’s tone, although P.O.D.’s rendition is surprisingly solid and all three are heavy as hell.

Clayton’s tone was filed down for U2’s quasi-comeback on All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000) and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004). Although still prominant, it’s a lot warmer and sits a lot more in the mid range. The change was noticeable live, with Clayton swapping guitars (from a Fender p-bass to a jazz bass I think?), and the songs lacked in contrast to the punchier sounds of The Joshua Tree material. The deeper tones appear to be creeping back in a bit more on the unjustly maligned Songs of Innocence record (2014), although it still has a bit more of that post-punk twang, and went a long way to making that record the band’s best since the Achtung Baby-era. (It probably wouldn’t have been enough to save Songs of Innocence (2017), however). Yet, as much of a snapshot in time Clayton’s bass tone truly is, it’s proved utterly timeless along with the album it helped define, and if a band came out who meshed Clayton’s bass tone with the guitar tone from Marilyn Manson‘s “Dried Up, Tied Up and Dead to the World” It’d make me an extremely happy camper.

The Joshua Tree came out in 1987 and you probably think you’ve heard it enough already, but you should listen to it again. I guarantee it’s even better than you remember.

Joshua Bulleid

Published 4 years ago