Sunday, December 19, 2010

One, 1992

Limited edition prints and artwork for U2 and song ‘One’ by graphic arts designer & photographer Kostas Tsipos @

In the spring of 1992, a song by the Irish rock group U2 entitled “One” was riding at the top of the modern music charts in the U.S., the U.K., and a number other countries.  The song was the third single released from U2’s November 1991 album, Achtung Baby.  “One” is widely considered to be one of U2’s greatest songs and is consistently ranked by music surveys as one of the most popular songs of the 1990s, with some listener surveys ranking it the No. 1 or No. 2 song of the decade.
     First released in March 1992, the song became a top-ten hit on U.K. and U.S. pop music charts in May 1992 and also reached the top of the U.S. Modern Rock Tracks chart.
     Part of the song’s popularity has to do with its message, variously interpreted by listeners and often attributed multiple meanings.  More on that in a moment.  However, the song’s creation and production also tell something of its meaning and origin, as well as the growth of the band.  By the early 1990s, U2 was a full decade into its stardom as one of the world’s best rock bands, but the group had received a round of criticism and was then struggling with its musical identity, looking for new direction.

In 1990, the band had begun working on recording sessions for the album that would become Achtung Baby, their sixth studio album.  They were in Berlin at the time, in the midst of the “new Europe” optimism and German unification following the fall of the Berlin Wall.  They had gone there for inspiration.  The band itself, however, was then having some internal disagreements over their musical direction.  But in Berlin they began to find their muse again.
Among the songs developed was “One,” which became something of a breakthrough for the then struggling group.  The song emerged on two tracks.  Band members The Edge and others were working on the music, and Bono on lyrics.  Part of the inspiration for the lyrics reportedly grew out of a note Bono had sent to the Dalai Lama declining an invitation to a festival called Oneness. The note included, in part, the line, “one – but not the same,” a line which would later appear in the song’s lyrics.  That idea of “oneness,” Bono would later say, was a key concept for the song. 
Limited edition poster art for U-2 song ‘One’ featuring Bono, by Greek graphic arts designer and photographer Kostas Tsipos @

     Known for his sometimes fortuitous improvisations at the microphone during recording sessions, Bono would later explain that the lyrics for “One” arrived in like fashion – “just fell out of the sky, a gift.”  Improvements to the song’s music and lyrics were made right up to the time of final recording back in Dublin, Ireland some months later.  Also important in this process was the production team of Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno who had helped U2 on previous albums.  However, in Berlin, when it first came together on “One,” there was a feeling they had found something new with this music, validated their “blank page” approach, and were on the right track.

   “At the instant we were recording it, I got a very strong sense of its power,” explained The Edge.  “We were all playing together in the big recording room, a huge, eerie ballroom full of ghosts of the war, and everything fell into place. It was a reassuring moment… It’s the reason you’re in a band – when the spirit descends upon you and you create something truly affecting.  ‘One’ is an incredibly moving piece.  It hits straight into the heart.”
  Rolling Stone’s Elysa Gardner reviewing the finished album in January 1992 singled out the song as well. “…On the radiant ballad ‘One’,” she wrote, “the band invests an unexceptional message – ‘We’re one/But we’re not the same/We get to carry each other’ – with such urgency that it sounds like a revelation.  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.”

After the song’s release, listeners attributed their own interpretations to the song – ranging from an HIV-infected gay son in conversation with his father, to a confrontation between Christ and Satan over universal spiritual values.  Adding to, and/or, fueling these varying interpretations of the song were three music videos, each with somewhat different material.  One with a gay son confessing to his father that he is HIV-positive; another with footage of blooming flowers and buffalos (buffalo going over a cliff are also depicted on the single CD cover), and a third video with Bono in a bar, smoking a cheroot and drinking beer.  Interpretations aside  — and these can be found in great abundance on the web –  the song and the album, Achtung Baby, did quite well commercially.

CD cover for U2's single “One,” depicting buffalo going over a cliff.  Photograph by the late David Wojnarowicz.
CD cover for U2's single “One,” depicting buffalo going over a cliff. Photograph by the late David Wojnarowicz.

     From its first release in Europe, “One” rose into the Top Ten on most but not all charts.  It hit No. 1 in Ireland the first week of March 1992; No. 1 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks by April 4, 1992; and No. 1 in Canada for four weeks in May 1992.  In the U.K. it peaked at No. 7 on the singles chart and in the U.S. it rose to No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100.  It also had a Top Ten performance in Australia and Top 40 ranking in Holland, France, and Switzerland, also doing well in Germany and Denmark.  Meanwhile, the full album Achtung Baby, which also featured the song “One” as its third track, had done well too.  It peaked at No.2 on the U.S. album chart and at No.1 on the U.K. album chart, also doing well in other countries such as Switzerland and Australia.  Achtung Baby – which won a Grammy for Best Rock Album by a group – was certified multi-platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America ( RIAA) and would sell more than 10 million units.      U2 had donated a large amount of the proceeds from the single’s sale to AIDs charities.  The photograph of buffalo going over a cliff used on the U2 single was by gay artist David Wojnarowicz who intended it as symbolism to highlight the AID crisis.  Wojnarowicz later died from AIDs.  The second music video which used some of this buffalo imagery was also used on a huge screen as the backdrop to U2’s performance of the song during their Zoo TV tour.  The resulting work combined words, running buffalo and flowers.  A number of concert attendees who reported seeing it with U2’s performance of “One” described it as quite a moving experience.

“One” Stands Out
     After being in the musical firmament for more than a decade, U2’s “One” continues to register its share of fans and admirers.  In 2003, the British music magazine Q asked a selection of well-known musicians to cast their votes for a list of great songs – a list that would include the 1001 Greatest Songs of All-Time.  Voted No. 1 in this survey was U2’s “One”.  Q’s editor-in-chief, Paul Trynka, said of the winner: “I think people voted for this because it’s a classic that still feels fresh…It’s a great tune but despite being over ten years old we haven’t had time to get bored of it,” he said.  “It’s inspirational, it makes people feel good, but it also feels profound “It’s inspirational, it makes people feel good, but it also feels profound…”

 In December 2004, when Rolling Stone magazine compiled its list of 500 Greatest Songs, “One” was ranked at No. 36, lower than Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”(No. 31) and the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin” (No. 34 ) for example, but ahead of “Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones (No. 38); and “Dancing in the Street,”by Martha and the Vandellas (No. 40). In 2005, when U2 gave a concert in New York, hip-hop and soul artist Mary J. Blige was invited on stage to perform the song with U2. The performance received a standing ovation. The song was then recorded featuring Blige on lead vocals, with Bono supplying additional vocals and the band performing the music. That song was then featured on Mary J. Blige’s multi-platinum album The Breakthrough, released in late 2005, and also released as an international single in April 2006.

Rolling Stone magazine featured U2 on the cover of their November 28, 1991 issue, touting an ‘exclusive’ on the making of the album, ‘Achtung Baby’.

One performed in the now mythical concert at Slane Castle, 2001 (Elevation Tour)

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