Metallica's "One" is one of the most instantly recognizable and universally beloved metal songs of all time, from its cinematic intro — all battle sounds and a stark, ringing guitar line — to its climactic breakdown, one of heavy music's greatest ever. The centerpiece of the band's super-sized progressive masterpiece ...And Justice for All, it also served as the third single off the LP, released five months after the full album's late 1988 drop, in January 1989, along with the band's first-ever music video, which shocked MTV viewers with its grim representation of the horrors of war. Here are five little-known and surprising facts about the enduring anthem.
1. The concept behind "One" dates back to the writing of Master of Puppets
It's common knowledge that "One" was inspired by the 1939 book Johnny Got His Gun, about a WWI soldier who wakes up to discover that he has become a prisoner in his own body after losing his arms, legs and entirely face to an artillery shell, and used clips from it for the song's music video. What's surprising is that the initial concept for the song predated the Metallica members' awareness that the book or the 1971 movie adaptation even existed, and even predated the Justice sessions entirely. It was back when Metallica were working on Master of Puppets that Hetfield was first struck with the theme that would grow into the song.
"James was talking to me about the idea of what it would be like if you were in this situation where you were basically like a living consciousness, like a basket case kind of situation, where you couldn't reach out and communicate to anyone around you," Ulrich said in a filmed interview around the time of the album's release. "You had no arms, no legs, couldn't obviously see, hear, or speak or anything like that. And it was just an idea we had back then, but never really gotten any further on."
When the band started working on Master's follow-up, Ulrich mentioned the concept to the band's manager Cliff Burnstein, who was reminded of Johnny Got His Gun. It was only then that the group was introduced to the anti-war novel. Burnstein sent the book to the band and Hetfield ended up writing his lyrics inspired by it.
2. The opening of "One" was inspired by first-wave-of-black-metal pioneers Venom
Metallica set the stage brilliantly for "One," leading into the cut with an extended ambient intro full of the sounds of war. It's an approach that takes on particularly vivid life in a live setting, where the band throw in smoke and lights to create a virtual battlefield on the stage. "The idea for the opening came from a Venom song called 'Buried Alive,'" he revealed in an interview with Guitar World, referencing the third track on the British extremists' seminal 1982 album Black Metal, a cut that, like "One," begins with a slow-burning, atmospheric prelude before the heavy riffage kicks in.
It wasn't the first time that Metallica had pulled influence from Venom: "Whiplash," a standout cut off their 1983 debut, Kill 'Em All, notably features a riff borrowed from the early black-metal group's song "Witching Hour."
3. Kirk Hammett recorded the middle guitar solo to "One" between tour dates while the album was being mixed
"I lost a lot of sleep over that set of guitar solos!" Hammett told Guitar World. In particular, the song's middle solo presented lots of problems and wasn't laid down in its final form until the 11th hour. "I must have recorded and rerecorded it about 15 million times," the guitarist recalled. "I wanted a middle ground between the really melodic solo at the beginning and the fiery solo at the end. I wanted that to sit very confidently within the song, but it sounded very unconfident, and I was never happy with it."
Hammett was still unsatisfied with the solo even as the album was being mixed, and the band was out on the road with the Monsters of Rock tour. "One night, I flew from Philadelphia to New York City, and while everyone else was on their way to Washington, D.C., I went to the Hit Factory and rerecorded the solo again," he recalled. "I brought my guitar, I had one of my main amps sent to the studio, and I redid the solo there and finally nailed it. I was very, very happy about that! The next day, we played a show in Washington, D.C. It got panned by the critics, because we'd all only had about three hours of sleep and were exhausted. But I got a good solo the night before, so it was worth it!"
4. Metallica didn't watch the movie Johnny Got His Gun until after "One" was already recorded
...And Justice for All was released in September 1988, and it was that same month, while in the early days of a world tour, that the members of Metallica finally watched the movie adaptation of Johnny Got His Gun for the first time. The band's other manager, Peter Mensch, had tracked down a copy of the film and screened it for them — which led to Metallica using scenes from it in their first-ever music video.
5. Lars Ulrich didn't like the first cut of the "One" video — and said so in no uncertain terms
In December, Metallica's world tour hit Los Angeles, where video director Bill Pope filmed the group playing "One" in an abandoned warehouse. A different director, Michael Salomon, was brought on to figure out how to intercut this performance footage with scenes from the Johnny Got His Gun movie. He was "scared shitless meeting the band for the first time." "The record company had talked them up so much as being anti-everything," Salomon told Metal Hammer. "And they weren't particularly fond of video as a medium."
True to this warning, Ulrich did not take well to Salomon's first cut, which featured movie dialogue laid over the music. "[Lars] called and said, 'What the fuck did you do to our song? You covered up all the solos, you covered up all the drum parts, you filled every fucking moment with dialogue!'" the director recalled. "I had to explain that I was trying to incorporate the story of the movie as well as the inner speech of the main character."
The music video was reworked until everyone was satisfied, and it ended up being a big hit, helping to take Metallica to the next level. Indeed, by February 1989, "One" was the most requested video on MTV.
Later that month, Metallica performed the song at the Grammy Awards in L.A., where ...And Justice for All would infamously lose out to Jethro Tull in the "Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance (Vocal or Instrumental)" category. The next year, however, the Grammys introduced the new "Best Metal Performance" award, and Metallica finally got their just deserts, taking home the trophy for — you guessed it — "One."