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U2’s most widely loved song is also the song that saved them from splitting up. In autumn 1990 the band were holed up in Berlin, unsuccessfully trying to write tracks for the album that became Achtung Baby. The atmosphere was not good and if their creative slump had lasted much longer there’s every chance they would have gone their separate ways. Then they wrote “One”.

Guitarist The Edge made the breakthrough, although he admits it happened by accident. He was working on the middle eight for “Mysterious Ways” and came up with two ideas. Neither worked as intended but the band suggested they put the two parts together and about 15 minutes later the majority of “One” had been written.

The track has an usually warm sound for a U2 song, mainly thanks to the acoustic guitar used alongside The Edge’s more typical chiming lead. But its real strength lies in a seemingly simple lyric that can actually be interpreted in many ways. On one level it’s a bitter conversation between two estranged lovers, on another it’s about the tensions within the band, and on another it’s a song about selfless sacrifice and compassion– “We’re one/ But we’re not the same/ We get to carry each other".

The Edge & Bono talk about writing for their album Achtung Baby, including One.

The end of lines and 2 and 4 in the verses have something Neil Young about them – maybe it’s the strummed major-seventh four-chord - very “Harvest”. Some songs have strongly developed melodies, while others, like Ce Ce Peniston’s “Finally”, successfully repeat the same riff over moving chords. Here the basic “One Love” chorus sits on the third throughout the harmonic changes. “Carry Each Other” breaks the pattern and makes the song.
Dominic King                                   

There’s one final possibility. As proceeds from the single were donated to AIDS charities, and as one of the three videos was based on the work of an artist who died of the illness, many people have speculated that the lyric represents a conversation between a father and his HIV-positive son.

Regardless of what it’s about, writing the track woke U2 from their artistic torpor and ideas for Achtung Baby began to flow more freely after that. The album was a huge success and launched U2 Mark III on the world. And it was all thanks to a happy accident.

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