‘One’ – Story Behind the Songby Chuck Armstrong
Released as the third single from 1988′s ‘…And Justice for All,’ ‘One‘ has become a staple among Metallica fans’ favorite tracks of all time. One of the more dynamic songs from the band, ‘One’ opens with military sounds – including gunfire and explosions – that lead into a clean guitar riff. By the end of the song, though, that mild-mannered opening is long forgotten as Metallica tear into ripping guitar solos and blistering drum beats.
The theme of ‘One’ follows the same story as the book ‘Johnny Got His Gun,’ written by Dalton Trumbo and released in 1939. The book covers the story of Joe Bonham, a World War I soldier who wakes up in a hospital after being injured in battle. Unbeknownst to him initially, Bonham slowly learns that the injuries he sustained were the result of being involved in an explosion, including the loss of his appendages and all of his face. However, Bonham’s mind is fully functioning. He has become trapped in his own body. James Hetfield conveys that sentiment beautifully with the lyrics, ‘I cannot live / I cannot die / Trapped in myself / Body my holding cell.’
In the book, Bonham tries to suffocate as a way to end his life, but realizes he cannot due to a tracheotomy he was given by the doctors. The chorus of Metallica’s ode to the book covers this expertly: ‘Hold my breath as I wish for death / Oh please, God wake me.’
On Dec. 6, 1988, Metallica started shooting the music video for ‘One.’ The video includes audio and video footage from the 1971 film adaptation of Trumbo’s novel. ‘One’ is the first music video Metallica ever shot and released.
The song was written by both Hetfield and Lars Ulrich and was produced by Flemming Rasmussen. To date, it is one of the most played ‘Tallica tunes live, being performed over 1,200 times. On Feb. 21, 1990, Metallica won their first ever Grammy Award in the category of Best Metal Performance for ‘One.’ The first time the song was played to a live audience was on Sept. 11, 1988 in Budapest, Hungary – less than a month after ‘…And Justice for All’ was released.