“One” is a song by Irish rock band U2. It is the third track from their 1991 album Achtung Baby, and it was released as the record’s third single in February 1992. During the album’s recording sessions at Hansa Studios in Berlin, conflict arose between the band members over the direction of U2’s sound and the quality of their material. Tensions almost prompted the band to break up until they achieved a breakthrough with the improvisation of “One”; the song was written after the band members were inspired by a chord progression that guitarist the Edge was playing in the studio. The lyrics, written by lead singer Bono, were inspired by the band members’ fractured relationships and the German reunification. Although the lyrics ostensibly describe “disunity”, they have been interpreted in other ways.
“One” was released as a benefit single, with proceeds going towards AIDS research. The song topped the Irish Singles Charts and US Billboard Album Rock Tracks and Modern Rock Tracks charts, and it peaked at number seven on the UK Singles Chart and number ten on the Billboard Hot 100. In promotion of the song, the band filmed several music videos, although they were not pleased until a third was created.
The song was acclaimed by critics upon its release, and it has since been featured in polls of the greatest songs of all time. U2 has performed “One” at most of their tour concerts since the song’s live debut in 1992, and it has appeared in many of the band’s concert films. In a live setting, “One” is often used by the group to promote human rights or social justice causes, and the song lends its namesake to Bono’s charitable organization, the ONE Campaign. In 2005, U2 re-recorded the song as part of a duet with R&B recording artist Mary J. Blige on her album The Breakthrough.
Bono described the song’s theme as such: “It is a song about coming together, but it’s not the old hippie idea of ‘Let’s all live together.’ It is, in fact, the opposite. It’s saying, We are one, but we’re not the same. It’s not saying we even want to get along, but that we have to get along together in this world if it is to survive. It’s a reminder that we have no choice”. The Edge described it on one level as a “bitter, twisted, vitriolic conversation between two people who’ve been through some nasty, heavy stuff”. On another level, he suggested that the line “we get to carry each other” introduces “grace” to the song and that the wording “get to” (instead of “got to”) is essential, as it suggests that it is a privilege to help one another, not an obligation. The band has been told by many fans that they played the song at their weddings, prompting Bono to respond, “Are you mad? It’s about splitting up!” There was some speculation that the song described a conversation between a father and his HIV-positive gay son, based on the connection of the song to David Wojnarowicz, a gay artist who died of AIDS.
“One” was released as the album’s third single in February 1992 as a benefit single, with all of the band’s royalties being donated to different AIDS research organizations for each country in which the single was released. The group’s manager Paul McGuinness commented on their decision: “The band feels that [AIDS] is the most pressing issue of the day, and we really have to focus people’s attention to the AIDS plague that has been with us for 10 years.” To promote safe sex, U2 sold condoms bearing the album title Achtung Baby at their Zoo TV Tour concerts. The cover of the single release is a photograph by David Wojnarowicz. The photograph depicts buffaloes falling off a cliff after being chased by Native American hunters. The single’s liner notes explain that Wojnarowicz “identifies himself and ourselves with the buffalo, pushed into the unknown by forces we cannot control or even understand”.
The single reached number seven in the UK Singles Chart, number ten in the US Billboard Hot 100, and number one on the US Album Rock Tracks and Modern Rock Tracks charts.
Three music videos were created for “One”. The first, directed by Anton Corbijn, was filmed in Berlin and features the band members performing at Hansa Studios interspersed with footage of Trabants (an East German automobile they became fond of as a symbol for a changing Europe) and shots of them dressed in drag. Bono explained that the idea to crossdress “had been based on the idea that if U2 can’t do this, we’ve got to do it!”, and it was fostered by the group’s experiences dressing in drag for the Carnival of Santa Cruz de Tenerife. However, the band pulled the video, fearing the single’s status as an AIDS benefit would result in critics finding AIDS-related interpretations of the video. The Edge explained, “We didn’t want to be involved in putting back the AIDS issue into the realm of sexuality… It wasn’t worth the risk of people imagining we were saying something about the AIDS issue through the drag footage, which was totally not what we were trying to say.”
The second video was directed by Mark Pellington. It comprises images of blooming flowers, the title word in several languages, and slow-motion footage of buffaloes running, leading up to Wojnarowicz’s “Falling Buffalo” photograph. Much like for the first video, the band did not believe Pellington’s video would be good for promoting the single.
The group filmed the third video in an attempt to appeal to a broader audience. It was directed by Rattle and Hum director Phil Joanou and was primarily filmed in early March 1992 at Nell’s, a Manhattan nightclub. The video depicts Bono sitting at a table smoking a cheroot and drinking beer, interspersed with footage of the band performing in concert. While Bono was filmed, the rest of the band, along with models and transvestites, attended a party in the basement, awaiting their turns to be filmed. However, they were never called to the set and by 3 a.m., they realized that the video was to focus on Bono.
After the release of Achtung Baby, critics praised “One”. In its review of the album, Entertainment Weekly called the song “biting and unprecedentedly emotional” and opined that its “extravagant stylings and wild emotions […] put it among Bono’s most dramatic moments on record”. In its review of the album, Rolling Stone called the song a “radiant ballad”, noting that “Few bands can marshal such sublime power, but it’s just one of the many moments on Achtung Baby when we’re reminded why, before these guys were the butt of cynical jokes, they were rock & roll heroes—as they still are.” Niall Stokes of Hot Press gave an enthusiastic review of the song, calling it one of the album’s tracks “whose potency defies equivocations”. Stokes said the song, both upon initial and repeated listens, “seems transcendent, a magnificent synthesis of elements, words and music, rhythm, instrumentation arrangement and intonation combine to create something that speaks a language beyond logic, the definitive language of emotional truth”. He said the melody was reminiscent of Led Zeppelin and the vocals evoked memories of Al Green and the Rolling Stones circa “Sympathy for the Devil”. Stokes could not single out what made the song so “utterly inspirational”, but said it was “soul music that avoids the obvious cliches of the genre and cuts to the core”.
Q called Bono’s singing on the song a “quieter moment” that has “never been so persuasively tender”. The Chicago Tribune wrote that the song “builds with the stately grandeur of a Roy Orbison ballad” and that Bono’s lyric “We’re one / But we’re not the same” is one of “pithiest insights yet about the contradiction of marriage”. The Orlando Sentinel called the track “sorrowful” and compared it to music by the Rolling Stones. Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times called the “disillusioned” track one of the album’s high points. Denise Sullivan of Allmusic wrote that the song was “among U2’s finest recordings”, and she praised its “lyrical simplicity, heart-rending vocal delivery, and evocative instrumentation”. She called the Edge’s guitar playing “unusually warm and soulful”. In the 1992 Pazz & Jop critics’ poll in The Village Voice, “One” placed at number eight on the “Best Single” list.
In 1992, Axl Rose told RIP magazine: “I think their song ‘One’ is one of the greatest songs ever written. Now I can see and understand why people were into U2 years ago.”
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