U2's 'One' is a testament to teamwork [March 8, 1992]
Plus: Body Count, Crowded House, Nirvana and The Wedding Present
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Welcome to the week of March 8, 1992, where the Top 5 looks like this:
‘Stay’ — Shakespears Sister (=)
‘I Love Your Smile’ — Shanice (↑)
‘My Girl’ — The Temptations (↓)
‘America: What Time is Love’ — The KLF (↑)
‘November Rain’ — Guns N’Roses (↓)
We’ll be exploring some of the Top 40 and listening to our Album of the Week, but first, let’s listen to…
This week’s Number 7: ‘One’ — U2
The deeper you get into middle age, the more you realise that there are certain things you’ll never experience.
Then you get to the more profound things. Things that offer clues about who you really are.
Recently, I’ve been having some middle-aged thoughts about how I’ve never really been part of a team. I’ve been in teams, often against my will. I’ve been lucky enough to be in some amazing partnerships.
But I’ve never been part of a team. Like a sports team, where the players on work together to create something more than the sum of their individual efforts.
I’ve also never been part of a band.
To be clear, the main reason I’ve never been in a band is that I can’t sing or play an instrument. I also lack the charisma of a Richey Edwards or Bez.
But, even if life had gifted me with raw musical talent, I still don’t think I’d last long in a band. A successful band needs people who work well in groups. I’m just not that kind of person.
This doesn’t mean I don’t want to be in a band. Everyone wants to be in a band. Every 40-something dadcore normie wanted desperately to be in a band recently, when we all sat down at Christmas and watch Peter Jackson’s Beatles documentary, Get Back.
Get Back showed the kind of creative alchemy that’s only possible when you work in a group. Four people collaborating, playing, riffing, experimenting, providing instant feedback. As a team, The Beatles make the impossible look easy.
Creativity is often portrayed as something inherently solitary. But the fact is that geniuses often work in teams.
U2’s ‘One’ is the result of that kind of collaborative genius. The origin story behind ‘One’ is a lot like the birth of ‘Get Back’ or last week’s ‘It’s a Fine Day’. First, there was nothing. Then inspiration struck. And then suddenly, a classic song existed.
To be precise, U2 were working on a song called ‘Sick Puppy’, which would eventually evolve into ‘Mysterious Ways’. The Edge had written a complex bridge for the song, which two separate concepts that weren’t really gelling. So, the producer asked him to record each element of this bridge separately.
One of those elements was the chord progression at the start of ‘One’.
Everyone instantly recognised that this was something really special. Bono had one of his moments of inspiration, and he scratched out some lyrics to fit on top of the new melody.
A few minutes later, ‘One’ existed in something close to its final form. But it would never exist if the band and producers hadn’t worked together on it.
They tell the whole story themselves here. It’s pretty cool:
Of course, creation myths are never that simple.
Exciting moments like this can cover up the occasional misery of being in a band.
In 1991, U2 were on the brink of breaking up, victims of their own success. The extraordinary Stateside success of Rattle & Hum had turned them into monster-sized rock legends, which in turn had made them look kind of bloated and pompous.
It left them facing a big choice: accept their fate as semi-retired rock grandees, or try something new? The debate was tearing them apart.
The band headed to Berlin to work in the legendary Hansa Studios, the place Bowie once went to reboot his career (resulting in Heroes). It was the eve of German unification, which was all set to be the end of the Cold War and the dawn of a new era.
U2 had expected to find an excited, vibrant city, buzzing with the energy of the night the Wall fell (y’know, the night The Scorpions had sung about.) Instead, they found that people were trepidatious. The past weighed heavy; the future was too uncertain. This was not a moment for excitement
And so, the Hansa session became a grim war of attrition. The four members of U2 had grown sick of the sight of each other. But they weren’t quite ready to give up.
The lyrics of ‘One’ are about that exact moment in U2’s history. They’re also generally about how fucking hard it is to get on with other people — and how we have a duty to try anyway.
The greatest mystery of U2 is this: how do the other three put up with Bono?
Bono was once invited to appear at a Oneness festival in the 90s with the Dalai Lama. He declined and sent a note that said, “We’re One — but we’re not the same.”
Imagine quoting yourself to the Dalai Lama.
Imagine working with a guy like that.
‘One’ didn’t heal any of U2’s wounds. They kept debating about the direction of the track, with producer/godhead Brian Eno saying that he hated it. There were hundreds of takes and infinite fiddling and meddling. It took weeks to get to the final mix, and yet that final mix includes a part that The Edge had recorded only 40 minutes previously.
This must be the really hard part of being in a band. Slogging through endless sessions, growing increasingly frustrated with your colleagues.
The video for the single was just as challenging. First, they produced the very good Anton Corbijn video above, which looked like Wings of Desire and featured the band in drag. But they then decided to donate all proceeds from ‘One’ to AIDS research, and they were worried that dressing in drag might make it seem like they were linking AIDS to sexuality.
So, they produced a second video, with slow-motion buffalo and the word “One” in multiple languages. This is the one I remember. It was the only one shown on TV here.
It’s not a patch on the Corbijn video.
There is actually a third video that seems to have been mostly shown in the States. That video shows Bono in a nightclub, smoking a tab and singing alone.
Apparently, the whole band showed up for the shoot. The non-Bono members were told to wait their turn, and that wait turned into an epic party. At around 4a.m., drunk and surrounded by cabaret artists, the non-Bonos realised that the video was just going to be Bono by himself. Neither Bono nor the director consulted them on this.
In that behind-the-scenes video above, someone describes U2 as a “benevolent dictatorship”. The same is true of the Beatles in Get Back, which showed that Paul ruled with an iron fist and the other three had to learn to live with it.
Being part of a group isn’t easy (I imagine — as I said, this isn’t an experience I’m really familiar with.) It must be hard to feel like an employee. Not always either to feel like an employer either.
But there are also times when you do something special, something you couldn’t achieve without your colleagues. Even Bono must lose himself a little when the band touches greatness. ‘One’ is not the work of a lone genius. It’s something that was crafted by a group of people working together.
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Elsewhere in the charts
Number 8 (↑ from 11): ‘Weather With You’ — Crowded House
Can you believe that this was Crowded House’s only UK Top 10 hit?
The Australian Beatles know how to write a melody, and there are several of them in ‘Weather With You’. I actually like some bits more than others, so here’s my personal ranking of the various sections of this song:
The opening guitar (lovely)
The bridge (love the minor drop to the “things ain’t cooking” line)
The verse (nice harmonies)
The chorus (bit shouty, kind of lowers the tone of the whole enterprise)
Number 9 (New Entry): ‘Come As You Are’ — Nirvana
Lots of post-Nirvana rock bands wrote songs that sounded like ‘Teen Spirit’. Literally, in some cases. I still can’t believe that The Offspring didn’t get sued.
But none of them wrote a song like ‘Come As You Are’. This is uniquely Nirvana, the moment where they sound most like themselves.
Number 10 (↓ from 6): ‘It Must Be Love’ — Madness
The early 90s were a golden age for Best Of albums, as every legacy band rushed to repackage their back catalogue on the lucretive CD format.
The Best Ofs then created a demand for reissued singles, which is how this Madness song from 1981 become the 87th best-selling single of 1992.
It’s a great tune in any year. I didn’t realise it’s a cover version of a 70s track by English songwriter Labi Siffre, which is also pretty wonderful.
Number 14 (New Entry): ‘Three’ — The Wedding Present
The third instalment of The Wedding Present’s single-a-month gimmick. In December, we’ll stop and take a look at all 12 of them.
Number 36 (New Entry): ‘Lift Every Voice (Take Me Away)’ — Mass Order
Eugene Hanes and Marc Valentine are two grafters who are still plugging away on the scene. Their big claim to fame is that they wrote ‘Freak Like Me’ by Adina Howard (and then by Sugababes).
Before that, they put out a record under the name Mass Order. The lead single here is a bit chaotic. Too house-ey for the r’n’b crowd; too soulful for the ravers.
Which is not to say it’s bad. It’s actually pretty good, but the genre-hopping probably killed its commercial prospects.
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Album of the Week
Body Count — Body Count
Ever since the days of jazz, music has been freaking out the squares. Upstanding citizens feel deeply threatened by the anger, energy, and imagery of rock’n’roll, which is how you end up with Helen Lovejoy types screaming about how Ozzy Osbourne is brainwashing their children.
But nothing—nothing—has ever caused a moral panic like Body Count’s eponymous debut album.
I don’t recall if the record was banned here in Ireland. I can tell you that it was hard to obtain. And I remember that the Garda Commissioner put out a public statement, begging parents to search their kids’ rooms and confiscate any copies of Body Count.
Bootleg cassettes of Body Count were passed around in school like pornography. Having a copy meant you were cool; being caught with a copy meant you faced a whole world of trouble.
Why the furore? Why did everyone from the President of the United States to the Police Commissioner of New Zealand try to get this record banned?
It was probably because of the song ‘Evil Dick’, where Ice T sings about how his penis has a mind of its own:
Of course, the controversy was about the final track on the album, the infamous ‘Cop Killer’
‘Cop Killer’ sounds very different these days. We’re in a post-#BLM, post-George Floyd world. We know that Ice T come from a community where the police sometimes feel like an occupying army.
But that’s not what we heard back then. This was 1992, the era of the show Cops turning ordinary officers into minor celebrities.
To a white non-American audience, the appeal of ‘Cop Killer’ was purely in its transgression. Teenagers love testing the limits of good taste. What comes next after a million dead baby jokes?
Shooting cops. That’s pretty bad taste. When Ice T sings “we know your family’s grieving—FUCK ‘EM!”, it felt like a new level of the grotesque that we wouldn’t surpass until South Park launched.
Body Count is full of equally shocking vignettes, like ‘KKK Bitch’, a little ditty about having rough sex with racist white girls. Charlton Heston angrily read out the lyrics of this song aloud to a Warner Records shareholder meeting as part of the campaign to get it banned.
Sadly, a recording of Charlton Heston’s ‘KKK Bitch’ does not exist.
There’s a lot more to say about the Body Count controversy, but that’s for another day. Here’s the real question: is the actual record any good?
Well… kinda. But not really.
Ice T had a chance to invent rap-metal in 1992 but he kind of blew it. Public Enemy got a lot closer when they did ‘Bring the Noise’ with Anthrax.
Instead, Body Count is a fairly straightforward thrash punk album that just happens to have a famous rapper on lead vocals. The result kind of sounds like Dead Kennedys without their wit.
Body Count is not a terrible record by any means. It’s just that all the debate and controversy made it seem like this was a cursed artefact, like the video tape from The Ring.
And then you get it and you play it and… it’s fine? It’s not the most transgressive rock record ever recorded, and it’s certainly not the most polemical. To be blunt, it’s not even that memorable.
Big-haired soft rock returns with Mr. Big, and gaze straight at your shoes with the new album from Ride.
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