"This image of 'the unforgettable fire' applied not only to the nuclear winterscape of 'A Sort of Homecoming,' but also the unforgettable fire of a man like Martin Luther King, or the consuming fire which is heroin."
U240: The Evolution of 'One'
November 25, 2016
U2's 40-year catalog has produced countless inspirational albums, songs, videos and concert appearances, but with the advent of Achtung Baby 25 years ago, one particular song has become an indelible part of our lives. The evolution of "One," including its prehistory, birth and ongoing legacy, reveals the creative tension U2 experienced in the early '90s and also demonstrates how the song grew into a timeless icon.
The story of "One" begins before the song was even written. U2 brought the 1980s to a close with a declaration that became far more prophetic than they could have imagined. At the end of 1989, the band said goodbye to a decade that had lavished them with fame and fortune with a set of four shows in their hometown of Dublin. It was a farewell to everything safe and comfortable. Though The Joshua Tree crowned U2 as global pop royalty, Larry, Adam, Edge and Bono were in danger of being trapped by the zealous do-gooder image that had come with it. Not content to simply repeat their well-honed formula for success, U2 took the stage on December 30 and Bono hinted at the need for a metamorphosis, confessing, "We have to go away and ... just dream it all up again."
Even as the band celebrated the coming decade with a rousing rendition of "Auld Lang Syne," the Dublin audience was oblivious to a small crisis brewing in the hearts of their favorite Irish band. Nor did they know that the uncertainty U2 faced internally would soon grow into an almost unmanageable conflict threatening the band's very existence. Not coincidentally, U2's anxiety about their own future seemed to mirror the larger culture -- governments were collapsing and economies failing; technology was progressing faster than the problems it created; South Africa struggled with dismantling apartheid; the U.S. stormed a Middle Eastern desert fighting back Iraq's incursion into Kuwait.
But more important for U2's story was the Soviet Union's loss of control of outlying republics, particularly in East Berlin, creating a series of events, which dramatically impacted the band. By the fall of 1989, demonstrations were common in Berlin and in early November half a million East Germans protested their Communist overseers. On Nov. 9, the border crossings were opened and those from the East paraded into the loving and welcoming embrace of Berliners from the West. The two groups danced on the Berlin Wall together as a symbol of unity and began to chip away the decades-old concrete barrier of freedom. By the time U2 rang in the New Year at Point Depot, the Iron Curtain had been torn down and East and West Germans were allowed to freely migrate across the once impermeable border.
In many ways, the situation in Berlin was a parallel to U2's own dilemma: the band also needed to transcend the walls that confined its creativity and cross into new, uncharted territory. U2 must have known this. In October of 1990, they boarded a plane and headed for the action. Arriving in Germany on the same day that reunification of East and West was finalized, they set up in Hansa Studios in West Berlin, within eyesight of the Berlin Wall, hoping for the same inspiration that prompted David Bowie for the Low, "Heroes," and Lodger albums. But inspiration didn't come. At least not right away.
Along with a talented team of engineers, including Brian Eno (who also helmed Bowie's production at Hansa), Daniel Lanois and Mark "Flood" Ellis, U2 struggled through multiple obstacles. The environment was drab, the winter cold and the landscape of East Berlin bleak and sterile. Their make-shift studio was a dilapidated ballroom used by Hitler's forces in World War II. In U2 By U2, Adam remembers, "It was depressing and intense and dark and gloomy." But their physical environment was nothing compared to the morale of the band members themselves, who argued and fought about ideas and musical direction. Each preferred a different approach: Edge was working on experimental sounds, Bono's lyrics were dark and foreboding, Larry and Adam favored a refinement of The Joshua Tree. Larry admits in U2 By U2, "It was particularly depressing because of the separation within the band. It felt confrontational." The very existence of the band was at stake. Larry adds, "I thought this might be the end."
The inspiration they hoped for was elusive. They were out of time, money and patience. Conflicted and exhausted, U2 needed its own reunification. Immediately.
The moment came while arguing about the progression of a potential song in a jam session. As Edge began to improvise with some chords, Lanois offered suggestions that turned into a series of phrases and caught the attention of the other three band members. Adam and Larry joined in with some foundational rhythm and Bono experimented with lyrics. Out of the discord was born the song "One," a minimalist idea that seemed to rise and fall with the very emotion of the band members themselves. A somber reflection on the pain of separation and the hope of reconciliation, "One" resonated with the exact situation U2 were facing.
"One" was never intended to be a love song or a hippie anthem. That has never been U2's style. In 2013, Bono told Charlie Rose that while John Lennon's "Imagine" was influential in his teen years, he felt the song stopped short of helping people achieve the ideal it was representing. Bono says of Lennon's many accomplishments, "Imagining wasn't one of them. I'm more of a doing, more of an actions, more of a building [person], and dreaming to me is a thing of the '60s." In fact, some might interpret "One" as a direct contrast to Lennon's "Imagine." "One" is not about the idyllic eradication of differences between people, but an encouragement to celebrate and embrace those differences. Lennon sang, "The world will be as one," but U2 affirmed the power of being "one, but not the same." Encouraging the distinctiveness of individuals, Bono proposed, "we get to carry each other."
"One" has endured -- many critics have called it U2's best song ever -- because it functions on multiple levels and speaks to fans in different ways. Far from being a sappy wedding song, the tortured story told here is that of a gay son seeking acceptance from an estranged father. But it could also be the tale of irreconcilable lovers, a congregant rejected by a church or even the gloomy history of East and West Berlin. Ultimately though, it's the story of the men who wrote it, a powerful witness to friendship that transcends disagreement and disunity.
The writing and production of "One" also illustrates another key component of the artistic process for U2: The band often works best, not when recording sessions are smooth and harmonious, but when tempers flare, disagreements boil over and conflict seems insurmountable. Contrary to a common assumption that tension needs to be avoided, conflict itself can be a vital part of the creative process. In an interview with Michka Assayas, Bono acknowledged the power of disagreement: "[The] friction of different points of view makes you better. And the thing that'll make you less and less able to realize your potential is a room that's empty of argument. And I would be terrified to be on my own as a solo singer, not to have a band to argue with." "One" is a perfect example of how U2 have used the power of anger, emotion and conflict to drive music and art forward throughout their 40-year career.
If Achtung Baby was the axe that brought down The Joshua Tree, then "One" helped sharpen the blade, becoming an icon encapsulating U2's most intriguing themes. Moving from precisely focused topics of politics and activism in the '80s, U2, on Achtung Baby, redirected the listener's attention to broken relationships, personal struggles, hypocrisy, infidelity and primal desires. Here again, "One" serves as an example. The cover of the single's release featured the artwork of David Wojnarowicz, a gay artist who had died of AIDS. The Wojnarowicz image displayed a herd of buffalo plummeting off a cliff, a dark symbolization of the hidden forces that push humanity, and especially marginalized people, into unpredictable places of despair. The cover's serious tone resonated with the overarching melancholy of the album, reflecting the conflict within a city, a pair of lovers or a divided self. Through "One," U2 dropped the "Bullet"-horn of the previous decade and whispered right into the souls of its fans.
Though Achtung Baby is 25 years old, "One" has found life again and again in the new millennium. A standard during the Zoo TV era, it has played a significant role on many other occasions. After New York's World Trade Center buildings were brought down by terrorists in 2001, Bono sang a tearful and impassioned version of the song as the names of victims scrolled across screens in Madison Square Garden, just six weeks after the attacks. Four years later on the Vertigo tour, U2 used "One" to highlight extreme poverty in Africa and called on their audience to sign-up with the ONE campaign via text message right in the concert (a technological first). During the 360 tour, the band continued its advocacy for an AIDS-free Africa by introducing the song with a pre-recorded video of a giddy Archbishop Desmond Tutu congratulating U2 fans for the progress that had been made.
The same people who marched for civil rights in the United States are the same people who protested apartheid in South Africa, who are the same people who worked for peace in Ireland, and are the same people who fought against debt slavery in the jubilee year 2000, who are the same BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE that I see when I look around this place tonight in 360 degrees. WE are those people. WE are the same person. Because our voices were heard millions more of our brothers and sisters are alive thanks to the miracle of AIDS drugs and malaria drugs .... They will be doctors, they will be nurses, they will be scientists who will live to solve GREAT problems. Yes, there are many obstacles. Of course, there are always road blocks in the way of justice. But God will put a wind at our back and a rising road ahead if we work with each other as ONE... ONE!
"One" was also used on the Innocence + Experience tour as a benediction to the grand liturgy of a U2 concert, with Bono as choir director leading thousands of voices in a unified chorus of love.
For 25 years, this very special song has helped unite fans. It's hard to imagine our U2 experience without this complex, personal and sometimes painful ballad. Still, this beacon of hope has reminded us that heartache, conflict and anger are often precursors to peace, unity and joy. In Rolling Stone, Bono said "One" is "about people struggling to be together, and how difficult it is to stay together in this world, whether you're in a band or a relationship." And in a big global community where entire governments seem to be increasingly isolationist, protective of their own power and identity, it's a good reminder -- "one love, one blood, one life." We got to do what we should.
(c) @U2/Neufeld, 2016.