Why U2’s One is the ultimate anthem
By Dorian Lynskey
U2’s album Achtung Baby was released 30 years ago this week. Why does its single One continue to have such power, asks Dorian Lynskey.
In October 2020, a Parisian schoolteacher named Samuel Paty was murdered by an extremist after showing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a class about freedom of expression. At a televised national memorial service five days later, his coffin was carried into the courtyard of the Sorbonne to the sound of one of Paty’s favorite songs: U2’s 1992 single One. The next day, the song topped France’s digital download charts. “That I found incredibly powerful,” the Edge, U2’s guitarist, tells BBC Culture. “It’s one of those songs that has this incredible flexibility for different occasions.”
One’s parent album Achtung Baby came out 30 years ago this week. Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses once said he considered One to be “one of the greatest songs that has ever been written. I put the song on and just broke down crying.” In a 2003 special edition of Q magazine, it was voted the best song of all time. It remains a touchstone for the band members, too. “If I was to pick one song which encapsulates everything about who and what we are, it would have to be One,” drummer Larry Mullen Jr once told me. “Every time I hear it or play it, it connects.”
“The irony of One’s title is the band wasn’t very close at the time… we were building our own wall right down the middle of Hansa studios” – Bono
One is so powerful because of, not despite, its insoluble ambiguity. The rolling beauty of the music means that it is both angry and wounding and warm and healing. It is a painful conversation but between who, and about what, is unclear. It has been variously described as a song about a band in crisis, a marriage collapsing, a father and son at odds, a country reuniting, another country divided, and a quarrel with God, and perhaps it is all of those things. One raises the fundamental question of whether a song’s meaning is fixed when it is written and recorded, or whether, provided it is flexible enough, it can continue to acquire new resonances indefinitely. Who gets to say what a song really means?
One is a song about disunity written against a backdrop of reunification. Feeling trapped and exhausted by their own success at the close of the 1980s, U2 took a leaf out of David Bowie’s book and looked for the future in Berlin, at Hansa Studios. In Bowie’s day, the studio had been called “Hansa by the Wall” but now the wall was gone. U2, their producers and engineer (Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, Flood) touched down in Berlin on 3 October 1990: the Day of German Unity. En route to their accommodation, they got swept up in the street celebrations as Germany became one country again after 41 years. “The irony of One’s title is the band wasn’t very close at the time,” Bono tells BBC Culture. “We were building our own wall right down the middle of Hansa studios.”
Bono and Edge were determined to strip back every signifier of “U2ness” that had accumulated during the 1980s and start again. Eager to experiment with drum machines, loops and synth pads, they brought to Mullen and bass-player Adam Clayton demos that were little more than grooves. “We were in uncharted territory,” Edge tells BBC Culture. “We traditionally had spent quite a lot of time in rehearsal rooms, generating ideas together, but in this case we were using the studio as a writing tool. Adam and Larry were feeling a little left out and resentful. The sessions had got quite tense and the level of mutual trust was starting to be eroded.” In a crumbling studio in a cold and rainy city, the sessions coughed and limped.
‘One but not the same’
One song they got stuck on was Sick Puppy, which eventually became Mysterious Ways. One day, Edge went into the control room to try and resolve this “songwriting roadblock” with a couple of new chord sequences, which Lanois suggested that he combine into the basis for a new song. The guitarist returned to the main room and played them on an acoustic guitar, with Clayton, Mullen and Bono joining in. It was immediately clear that something special was happening – one that singlehandedly justified the trip to Berlin and held U2 together.
“Maybe the song works because it doesn’t call for unity. It presents us as being bound to others whether we like it or not” – Bono
“Sometimes you write the song you actually need to hear,” Bono says. During an improvisation, he tends to sing resonant syllables and occasional words in a gobbledegook the band call “Bongolese”, laying down a foundation for the eventual lyrics. “The emotions are already stated in the singing so it’s like the meaning is there but how to articulate it?” Edge says. “Even if the exact phrases weren’t there, they were suggested. It was really a case of getting out of the way of the song.”
“I like to start a song halfway through a conversation,” Bono says. “As with a lot of dialogue, you very often find yourself talking around the subject rather than through it.” The first lines came quickly: “Is it getting better or do you feel the same?/ Is it any easier on you now that you’ve got someone to blame?” The chorus emerged from an exchange between Bono and the Dalai Lama, who had invited U2 to contribute to a benefit concert called Oneness. Bono politely declined, signing the letter: “Lovely to correspond. One but not the same, Bono.”
“The concept of oneness is of course an impossible ask,” Bono says. “Maybe the song works because it doesn’t call for unity. It presents us as being bound to others whether we like it or not. ‘We get to carry each other’ – not ‘We got to carry each other’. ‘We’re one but we’re not the same’ allows room for all the differences that get through the door.”
The carrying, then, is an observation rather than an instruction. Bono is singing from the state of exhaustion that marks the final stage of an epic argument when so many accusations have been hurled and grievances voiced that it is impossible to tell whether the participants have cleared the air to try again or decided that there is no way back. A song so full of disappointment, anger, pain and blame cannot be resolved by a simple cry of “one love”.
“One of the themes is to see and be seen: to recognize a person you’re really not connecting with and don’t fully understand” – Edge
At the time, Edge was in the process of separating from his wife Aislinn while Bono’s best friend Guggi was also in the death throes of a long relationship. I put to Edge three commonly suggested themes of One – divorce, disharmony within the band, and German reunification – and ask if they are all equally valid.
“Yeah, there’s elements of all of them because they share certain fundamental things,” he says. “One of the themes is to see and be seen: to recognize a person you’re really not connecting with and don’t fully understand.”
Conversations in Berlin gave Bono something to work with once the band returned to Ireland to continue working on Achtung Baby. “We were riffing on possible scenarios that might fit a song with this intensity,” Edge says. “The idea of a father and son estranged was discussed in the room as the lyric was starting to come out of the fog. Bono developed it into a lyric that contained a lot more than the conflict and heartbreak that the song opens with, which is why I think the song has the power it does. There’s an evolution. It doesn’t stay in one place. You can almost feel the ice melting between these two characters as the song progresses.”
The arrangement, too, evolved during 1991. One was essential to U2 because it was less reliant on rhythm and texture than the rest of Achtung Baby, but Eno disliked it precisely because it sounded too pretty and retro. Edge switched from acoustic to electric guitar to make the music as fraught and turbulent as the lyrics. “We could tell there was a certain power and gravitas to this piece of music,” he says. “We held onto it even when Brian wasn’t enthusiastic.” One wasn’t finished until the very last night of the album sessions, 11 months after that first improvisation in Berlin. “The lads were literally making the final mix and I said, ‘Guys, I’ve had this amazing idea for a guitar part’,” Edge remembers. “There was a collective groan in the room. I said, ‘Look, here’s the deal. One take, I promise’. And I did. I played it in one take and they mixed it right away. It’s the final part that takes the song home.”
Fathers and sons
When Achtung Baby was released on 18 November 1991, reviewers approvingly compared One to The Rolling Stones, Roy Orbison and Al Green, but its life was just beginning. U2 asked the artist, author and activist David Wojnarowicz for permission to use his photograph Untitled (Buffalo) on the sleeve of the single release in February 1992, the proceeds of which would go to Aids research. Wojnarowicz had created the piece, which shows a herd of buffalo tumbling over a cliff to their deaths, in 1988, the same year he was diagnosed HIV-positive. His estranged parents reconnected with him only after seeing a news item about the record sleeve. This family story brought the father-and-son notion out of the song and into the real world.
Unusually, U2 ended up commissioning three different videos for One, searching expensively for the right message. The first, filmed in Berlin in sepia tones by Anton Corbijn, portrayed the band in drag but Bono felt that it seemed “a little insensitive, stereotyping Aids sufferers as gay”. Mark Pellington’s slow-motion film of buffalo and sunflowers was deemed too arty and minimal for MTV. Phil Joanou’s final version, with Bono smoking pensively in a New York nightclub, was a blank slate that did not insist on one meaning.
The song continued to evolve during the Zoo TV tour, as Bono introduced an extra verse, which came to him out of nowhere one night in North Carolina in March 1992. Known to fans as Hear Us Coming, it asks God a series of questions, ending with, “Do you hear us scratching/ Will you make us crawl?” “It allows a chance for anger and the focus of that wrath is best kept for religion itself,” Bono says. “In the Hebrew Bible, this level of spleen is allowed in the imprecatory psalms: King David shouting at God.” He once said that this turned One into “sort of a protest song against God, from a believer”: yet another take on a father and a son.
In January 1993, Michael Stipe and Mike Mills of REM teamed up with Mullen and Clayton under the name Automatic Baby to play One at an MTV Rock the Vote concert to celebrate Bill Clinton’s inauguration. Bill Flanagan describes the scene in his fly-on-the-wall book U2 at the End of the World: “When Stipe sings, ‘We’re one but we’re not the same, we get to carry each other’, he is using the song – however hopelessly – to plead a case and make a promise to this whole country. That’s a lot of weight for a song to carry! One is a pretty strong song.” (Stipe actually changed “get to” to “got to” halfway through but the moment vindicated it.)
The song’s fluidity is a thread running through Flanagan’s book: “One seems to have an infinite capacity to open up, and U2 shows no inclination to tie it down.” In Germany in May 1993, amid a political storm about immigration, Bono dedicated One to “the immigrants to Deutschland”. In July of that year, it followed a satellite-linked conversation with a friend of the band in the besieged Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. Bono told journalist Niall Stokes how, in certain contexts, One “suddenly becomes what it is about that night.” It is a sturdy, inviting vessel for whatever emotions are circulating in the room, or the country, for there is always conflict and the hope of resolution. “I have been reduced to a puddle by it myself in the most differentiated environments,” Bono says.
Edge’s favourite memory of performing One is from Madison Square Garden in October 2001: U2’s first New York concert after 9/11. “After that show, all of the first responders who were present invaded the stage and it became this kind of group therapy session,” he recalls. “It was a really humbling thing just to be present as a witness, leave alone being the catalyst for it. It was unforgettable.”
‘An unfinished song’
Bono initially resisted naming the ONE Campaign, the non-profit he co-founded in 2004 to fight extreme poverty and preventable disease, after this “very bitter song”. Nonetheless, it has become a popular choice for U2’s benefit concert appearances: for Bosnia in 1995, for Tibet in 1997, for Nelson Mandela in 2003, and at Live 8 in 2005. That same year, U2 performed it at a fundraiser for victims of Hurricane Katrina, bringing Mary J Blige on stage for the second verse. While learning the words two years earlier for a tribute to Bono, she had begun thinking about 9/11 and its aftermath. Later, it came to encompass the human catastrophe of Katrina. For her, the lines “Love is the temple, love the higher law/ You ask me to enter and then you make me crawl” represented the broken promise of America. “The United States say they care about us and stuff like that, and we got to go through so much,” she told journalist Gavin Martin.
“Mary J Blige brought the song places I couldn’t possibly have been or understood,” Bono says. “I don’t know exactly where she went, or the names she put on the places, or the problems she was trying to solve with her interpretation, but I felt them so strongly.”
“She made it her own in a way that is kind of amazing,” Edge agrees. “Same lyrics, same melody, but it felt like it was a different song when she sang it.”
“Her dignity cannot be separated from the dignity of all of the people struggling to survive in Louisiana,” Danny Alexander, author of Real Love, No Drama: The Music of Mary J Blige, tells BBC Culture. He places One in the soul music tradition of “the song about saving a relationship in trouble, whether it be Aretha Franklin’s Respect or Aaliyah’s We Need a Resolution. It’s the gospel answer to the blues singer’s solution of moving on. When Bono’s band is in trouble, he writes perhaps his greatest lyric about the value in the contradictions. That approach is rooted in black gospel: bear witness to the struggle and find redemption in it, if only in the way the struggle connects you to others.”
“It’s not celebratory. It’s got forgiveness and grace but it’s deeply aware of how sometimes things are irreconcilable and all we can say is we will never make it work” – Edge
While Blige took One to church, Johnny Cash reimagined it as wintry country music in 2000. Three years before his death, and more than twice as old as Bono was when he recorded it, Cash made One’s dilemma seem unfixable. The question “Did I disappoint you?” answers itself; “It’s too late” is too real. For the country-rock band Cowboy Junkies, One was the natural conclusion to their 2005 album Early 21st Century Blues. “It was our response to the ‘with us or against us’ attitude which was far too prevalent after 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq,” says the band’s Michael Timmins. “We wanted to record a collection of songs that countered that sentiment, songs that focused on our shared humanity. U2’s One was a perfect fit.”
One, then, can accommodate not just the various readings that U2 have acknowledged, but Blige’s indictment of the US, the Cowboy Junkies’ rejection of jingoism, Cash’s death’s-door accounting, and anything that you or I might find inside it. So is there such a thing as a wrong way to hear it?
“I’m always curious when people play it at their weddings,” Edge says, laughing. “It’s not celebratory. It’s got forgiveness and grace but it’s deeply aware of how sometimes things are irreconcilable and all we can say is we will never make it work. We will never cross the line and understand each other. It’s not like we’re all coming together and it’s all going to be fine. It’s not going to be fine. We’re not ever going to be the same, or necessarily see things the same way. And yet we get to carry each other. That’s the tension of it.”
I noticed that Bono politely dodged my questions about his precise intentions back in 1990-91, as if they might diminish what One has since become. He may have written it, but he is not the arbiter of what it means. “I like to think that the frame of this song is strong enough to hang a lot more stories on than the ones I was not finishing,” he says. “One feels like an unfinished song. The listener finishes it.”