The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #64: One by U2 (KEXP)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #64: One by U2.

“One” by U2 is one of the most beautiful sounding songs in this countdown. It presents as being very inspirational and uplifting. When it was released, U2 directed that all proceeds from the sale of this song go toward organizations dedicated to education about and, eradication of, the disease called, A.I.D.S. As such, the music-buying world has always cast a favourable eye toward “One” and, by extension, the band, itself. In fact, the song was so warmly received by the public that for awhile, “One” was actually the most-requested song for newlyweds to dance to on their wedding day. The only flaw in this grand vision for “One” is that it is all wrong. The truth of the matter is that “One” is a song about individuality and difference and the struggle/obligation to continue to help each other. It is not a song about love and romance. It is a song that almost caused U2 to break up, themselves. Overall, according to Bono, himself, “One” is one of the most misunderstood songs ever released. Here is the story of “One” by U2.

The song, “One” comes from a stellar album by U2 called, “Achtung, Baby!”. By the time the band came to record this album, they had been together for almost fifteen years. As often happens to artists and bands after awhile, a division began to appear within the group when it came to what their musical focus should be, going forward. Some of the guys wanted to stay the course and to continue to explore the type of music that had made them successful while, others in the band wanted to abandon that tract and start exploring a more dance-oriented, electronic-industrial type of sound because that was the new wave of music in the 1990s and to go in this direction, it was felt, was to stay relevant to the times.

So, amid this backdrop, the members of U2 travelled to Germany to begin work on their new album. They chose Germany because that country had recently gone through the political process of reunification. If you remember your History then, you will know that Germany was divided into two sections that were simply referred to as East and West Germany. The two halves of the country were divided by a wall and by competing ideologies; with Communism in the East and Capitalism in the West. Anyway, long lesson short, in the mid-1980s, The Berlin Wall came down. Russia began adopting Democratic reforms. For a brief moment in time, it seemed as though tensions in the world were easing and people would be able to enjoy a freer way of living.

So, because of the positive energy flowing through the country, U2 thought Germany would have an exciting atmosphere in which to be creative. So, off they went. Unfortunately, the baggage they brought with them was more than merely their suitcases. The conflicting visions for their future coming from within the band made it difficult to come together in a cohesive fashion necessary to creative in a collaborative setting. Days went by without anything productive being accomplished at all. As drummer Larry Mullens admitted, it was the worst of times for them all as a group. He sincerely thought that they might be approaching the end of the line, just as The Beatles eventually did, too.

Then, a fortuitous break happened out of nowhere. The band had been working on a song that eventually turned into “Mysterious Ways” but, were growing frustrated with each other as the process went along. The sound engineer suggested the band take a break and re-group later. While each of the four members was stewing in his own juices, thinking of what to do, guitarist, The Edge, began strumming his guitar just to calm himself down. As he strummed away, he was actually playing the opening notes to, what was to become, “One”. At that moment, that song hadn’t been thought of nor discussed. It was not a twinkle in anyone’s eyes. But, there was The Edge, playing the famous opening notes to a song that, when finished, would rank as one of U2’s best songs of all-time.

Obviously, I wasn’t there in the studio to see what happened next but, from all reports, those opening notes acted like a magic elixir. Almost at once, the band recognized the beauty of what they were hearing and, according to Bono, the rest of the song fell together effortlessly. In all, he said that he had the basis for the lyrical content of the song written within half an hour. The remainder of the musical structure flowed out of what The Edge had conjured up and, before anyone really realized what had happened, “One” was pretty much done.

Now, as I said off of the top of this post, there is a fair degree of confusion as to what “One” is really all about. U2 have not been helpful in shedding any definitive light on the subject, either. In fact, it is apparent that having the song be open to differing interpretations suits the overall theme of the song well. The most that Bono would say is that it is not a song about coming together but more, it is a song about appreciating and respecting differences. He stated that the key line in the song is when they sing about, “We get to carry each other”. Bono stressed that the little word “get” changes the whole song because if it were “got”, instead of “get” then, “One” would be a preachy song about being obligated to help when, the preferred route is to give a message that stress what a privilege it is to be kind and compassionate. Wanting to be a good global citizen means more than forcing people to behave.

Further to the open-ended nature of “One”, there are actually three separate videos for the song, too. In one video, the band doesn’t appear much at all. Instead, it is a film about buffalo plunging mindlessly off of a cliff because their actions are fuelled by irrational fears. The second video features the band in full drag attire. The third video, which is the one most people will be familiar with, shows Bono sitting alone in a nightclub, cigarette dangling, singing by himself while the band waits somewhere in the distance. It is a stylish, noir-type video which presents, visually, as well as the song sounds, aurally. For you fine folks, I will link to all three. You may watch all of them or some of them or, if you so desire, none of them. Your choice.

In any case, the song, “One” helped raise millions of dollars for A.I.D.S.-related charities, selling over fourteen million copies alone, worldwide. The album, “Achtung, Baby!” sold over forty million copies, making it one of U2’s biggest selling albums ever and, further to that, it helped to fortify the band as a musical unit. In the time since “One” was released, U2 have had s string of hits such as, “Mysterious Ways”, “Even Better Than The Real Thing”, “Lemon”, “Beautiful Day”, “Elevation”, “Walk On” and many more. Their concert tours have been among the largest grossing of all-time, too.

So, without further delay, here are three videos for one song about acknowledging our differences and appreciating our uniqueness. It is not a love song. It is “One” by U2. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “one” by U2, can be found here. (*Buffalo version).

The link to the video for the song, “one” by U2, can be found here. (*Band in Drag version).

The link to the video for the song, “one” by U2, can be found here. (*Nightclub version).

The link to the official website for U2, can be found here.

Thanks, as always, to KEXP for supporting the best bands and artists. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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