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Well, for starters, it rekindled the spark that U2 was starting to lose while they were in the middle of recording their album Achtung, Baby!, kick-starting the band's movement in a new and exciting direction. But aside from that, here's what we think made the difference: the song speaks directly to its audience and is offers of the most universally appealing sets of lyrics of all time.
After the enormous success of their two previous records, The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum, U2 became conflicted about which direction to take their sound for their next album—the album that eventually became Achtung, Baby! The guys were growing frustrated and stagnant, and felt they needed some kind of dramatic change. In fact, Bono has said in interviews that Achtung Baby! is the "sound of four men chopping down the Joshua Tree." In another interview, bassist Adam Clayton recalled the process that led to the band packing up and moving to Berlin to record the album:
"I think we sort of felt it was too cozy at home, we needed to put ourselves in an alien environment that would get the best out of the band. At the time we thought, Berlin, its a great sounding studio. And there was something happening in Europe, in Germany at the time. We wanted to be able to bring those influences into the record whether it was factually or physically being in Europe."
U2's internal drama was unfolding at a dramatic moment of world history, as the thawing of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin wall, and the eventual reunification of East and West Germany utterly transformed Europe. The events of Europe's so-called "velvet revolutions" became a major source of inspiration for the album. As Clayton recalled,
"The day we arrived the border officially came down, it was Reunification Day; it was like Berlin was opening up, the East was bleeding into the West. Every day on our way to the studio we'd see another burnt out Trabant on the side of the road, obviously been abandoned, had brought its owner to Berlin but then just expired on the side of the road. And it was a completely different mood. It was far more open, it was far more energetic a lot of things going on a lot of energy a lot of action."
The vibe in West Germany also contributed to the genesis of Achtung, Baby! East Germany had been suffering a "brain drain" as more and more educated and artistic people fled to West Germany to escape the communist influence. U2 found that the bohemian climate of artists, writers, thinkers, musicians—straight, gay, and everything in between—inspired the band to bring a more eclectic mix of sounds and instruments into the recording sessions. But at first, things were not going so well:
"It was the first couple of weeks of the Berlin sessions where things got a little heavy," said guitarist The Edge. "We had gone to Berlin with what we thought were close-to-finished songs and in the process of starting to record them we realized that they weren't finished and we were in a situation where we had the studio and we didn't have the material ready. So we were in a position of actually finishing off writing songs in the studio which is never great 'cause you've got a producer and engineers hanging around so it starts to gets tense and in an atmosphere like that it's very hard to get inspired. So there were a couple of weeks where it was not going well."
In many ways, "One" was the song that saved U2. The band had been experiencing some internal tension in the weeks prior to recording it. Bono and The Edge, feeling the West German BoHo vibe, wanted to take the band's sound in a more edgy and electronic direction, while Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. argued that U2 should stick with the sound that had been working for them. Things were starting to unravel, and frustration was growing. But then a breakthrough occurred.
The Edge had worked on two separate bridge sections for a different song and was getting discouraged because they did not sound right in the context of that song. The band's producer, Daniel Lanois, overheard him and asked him to play the bridge sections together. Hearing this, Bono jumped on the microphone and started improvising, and "One" was born. Of this critical turning point, The Edge explained: "At that moment I realized, 'Wow, OK, we haven't had a good couple of weeks, but things are going forward,' and this was the piece that we had at the end of the week, that we knew we had something good."
The song itself seemed to transcend the squabbling and petty differences that had made the first weeks of recording so unpleasant. "At the instant we were recording it," said The Edge, "I got a very strong sense of its power. 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."
Bono said that the lyrics of "One," like those of many of his most emotionally affecting creations, "just fell out of the sky, a gift." He was also inspired by a note he had recently sent to the Dalai Lama declining an invitation to a festival he was throwing called "Oneness." Bono's note read, "We are one, but we're not the same," which of course became a focal line of "One."
But what do the lyrics mean?
At first listen, "One" sounds like a break-up song. Bono sings, "Is it getting better / Or do you feel the same? / Will it make it easier on you / Now you got someone to blame?... / Did I disappoint you? / Leave a bad taste in your mouth / You act like you never had love / And you want me to go without." Sad, moving stuff. (Although ironically, many fans have heard only the lyrical snippet "one love, one heart" and have chosen to play the song at their weddings; the notion of "One" as a wedding song makes Bono laugh, asking "Are you mad? It's about splitting up!"
Bono's take on the song's lyrical meaning:
"I had a lot of things going on in my head at the time, about forgiveness, about father and son angst…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."
"One" speaks to so many people because we all inherently understand how hard it is to reconcile all of our unique differences with others—our professional colleagues, our friends, our family members, our lovers, or even the other guys in our band. At the time they wrote "One," U2 literally was about to fall apart… but this song pulled them back together like no other song had done before. It reminded them—and their millions of fans—that people all over this world are not the same. The song also applies to Bono on several personal levels, from his rocky relationship with his father, to his childhood as the son of a Catholic and a Protestant during the raging of the Irish Troubles, to his philanthropic goal to alleviate disease and hunger in third world countries. From a very simple message comes a very powerful meaning: we cannot get along with each other all of the time. There will always be conflicts, and relationships always take work and sometimes fail. However, we all must be responsible for each other if we are to keep our world going.
The meaning of the song gets even more complicated when you take into account the music videos. Remarkably, the band made three separate videos to accompany the song, and they could not be more different from one another. The first video version, directed by Anton Corbjin and shot in sepia, shows the band in Berlin, driving in Trabant cars, and dressed in drag. Bono—in drag—sings to his own father. Many fans and critics have interpreted the video to mean that "One" is the story of a gay son confessing to his father that he is HIV-positive. The fact that proceeds from the single were donated exclusively to AIDS charities further fueled this line of speculation.
But the second video takes things in a completely different direction. Directed by Mark Pellington, it shows footage of running buffaloes, blooming flowers (sunflowers and orchids), and the word "one" in many different languages (also at one point, the word "smell" appears across the flowers). Okay then.
Finally, the third version depicts Bono sitting in a bar, smoking a cheroot, interspersed with footage of the band performing the song live. It doesn't seem to have as much deep meaning as the other two, but the fact that three different versions exist is rather compelling in its own right.