While bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. preferred a sound similar to U2’s previous work, vocalist Bono and guitarist The Edge were inspired by alternative rock and European electronic dance music of the time and were advocating a change. Mullen, in particular felt his “input was being diminished”, as The Edge was delving into drum beats from electronic music, while Mullen was focusing on learning to play differently.
The band also had difficulty in developing demos and ideas into completed songs. Bono and The Edge believed the lack of progress was the fault of the band, while Clayton and Mullen Jr. believed the problem was the song ideas. Mullen said he “thought this might be the end” of the band.
A breakthrough was achieved when The Edge combined two separate bridge sections of a song. Playing alone in another room, Edge was improvising chord progressions, which he did not like in the context of the song on which he was working (which conflicting sources claim to be “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)”, “Mysterious Ways”, and “The Fly”).
Producer Daniel Lanois overheard him and asked him to play the separate sections together. The Edge played acoustic guitar, catching the ear of those in the studio. Bono joined in with vocals, improvising lyrics and melodies. The other band members joined in, as well, and soon afterwards, the band had improvised the piece of music into “One”. Bono recalls that “the melody, the structure - the whole thing was done in 15 minutes.”
He also stated that the lyrics “just fell out of the sky, a gift”; the concept was inspired by a note Bono sent to the Dalai Lama declining to attend a festival called Oneness - the note read, “One - but not the same”. The song’s writing inspired the band and changed their outlook on the recording sessions. Mullen Jr. said the song reaffirmed the band’s “blank page approach” to recording and reassured the band that all was not lost.
Following the song’s initial improvisation, tapes of the recording sessions were delivered to producer Brian Eno in order to gather his input. The band was rather anxious about the quality of their material, but when Eno arrived in Berlin, they were surprised to hear that he liked most of the tapes. However, as Bono recalls, Eno said, “There’s just one song I really despise, and that’s ‘One’.” Eno felt that they needed to deconstruct the song.
The band returned to Dublin in 1991 to record at the “Elsinore” mansion on the Dalkey coastline. The band continued to work on the song there, adding various overdubs, but not finding a mix they were satisfied with. The Edge thought that they had the foundation for the song, but that it needed “foreground”. Eno interceded and created his own mix, which gave the band a better idea of an arrangement they liked. Eno wanted the band to remove the melancholy elements of the song and persuaded them to remove the acoustic guitar from the song. Eno also worked with Lanois and Edge to “undermine the ‘too beautiful’ feeling”, which is why the “crying guitar parts that have an aggression to them” were added.
Engineer Flood was unconvinced by the song’s mix, saying he “was the nagging doubter. I always felt it was a bit straight, until we did the final mix.” The final mix was completed at Windmill Lane Studios in August 1991 on the last night of the album’s recording sessions, when some last minute additions were made to “One”. Bono did not like a line in the vocals and spent most of the day re-recording it. Later, after the song’s mix had just been completed by the production team, The Edge came up with a guitar part he wanted to add to the song’s end near the lyric “Love is a temple”. After convincing the production team to allow the addition, Edge played the part once and had it mixed in ten minutes later.
Bono described the song’s theme as such: “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”. The band has mentioned that many people tell them they have played “One” at their weddings, prompting Bono to respond, and “Are you mad? It’s about splitting up!”
Part IV contiues on Sunday.