Perfect Sound Forever

Metallica's "One"

by Pete Crigler
(October 2016)


As soon as someone hears the opening riffs, any metalhead will tell you what song it is. To some, it is as recognizable a track as "Run to the Hills" or "Ace of Spades." Not only is it one of Metallica's last definable anthems, it also has one of the greatest, possibly best music videos of all time. The track is "One" the album was ...And Justice for All and the song and video were based on Dalton Trumbo's celebrated novel Johnny Got His Gun.

The song centers on a young man who has gone off to war and got himself blown up real good by a bomb. He has lost his limbs, he is blind, deaf and mute; sort of like The Who's "Tommy" just way more ghastly. His inner monologue is the only thing that keeps him from going mad. It's as if he's watching down upon his hopelessness as he desperately tries to find someone to end his complete suffering. Trumbo went and made a movie of his novel around 1971 starring Timothy Bottoms as Joe, our poor sufferer and whom gives a dynamite performance as a living vegetable. The film is very dynamic and has to be seen to be believed.

Around 1987, Metallica started working on their forth record. After the tragic loss of bassist Cliff Burton and the arrival of replacement Jason Newsted, the band knew they were up against a wall. 1986's landmark Master of Puppets was an album that was damn near impossible to top. But the band kept on working. The song in question, to be titled "One" had been thought of a couple of years prior but now came time to work on the track. Once their managers heard the track, they started trying to get the band to consent to make a music video, their first ever.

Hooking up with two directors, Michael Salomon and Bill Pope, the band presented the idea of the song. Realizing that they had something, the directors, the band and their management decided to go ahead and acquire the rights to the film of Johnny Got His Gun that way they wouldn't have to pay royalties every time it was played. Since the film wasn't released by a gigantic studio, the rights were easily acquired and the band began planning the filming.

Around late fall of '88, the band went into a warehouse space in L.A. and filmed the performance portion of the video. Bathed in very low light and giving the footage a light blue hue, the footage stood out from all the other metal bands of the era trying way too hard to impress their audience. This was a band that was out to craft a masterpiece. After editing together the footage from the film and splicing it with the performance footage, the video was ready by early 1989.

The video premiered on MTV and immediately was unlike anything anyone had ever seen on the channel. Of course it blew up with viewers and quickly became one of the most requested videos since "Welcome to the Jungle." Ever since then, the band have made over a dozen plus videos, some good ("The Day That Never Comes"), some bad ("Hero of the Day," "The Unforgiven II") and some pretty crappy. But "One" is always the one, besides "Enter Sandman" that everyone goes to as a definitive metal video.

The video opens with a solemn shot of James Hetfield, his back to the camera and the sight of Joe retreating into a foxhole to escape from a forthcoming bomb, which of course goes off in the foxhole, immediately crippling him. Then the music kicks in and you really feel like you're off on your own personal journey into hell.

You see Joe laying in the bed while the higher-ups try to figure out what to do with him. Meanwhile, the music builds and the intensity only gets heavier. Joe's plight becomes more and more pathetic, as you see flashbacks of his life before war and everything that he had to look forward to. Midway through, when the breakdown comes in, you really start to feel for Joe and then the band launches into one of the most terrifying moments in metal music. As Hetfield's vocals get more and more aggressive, Joe begins writhing around and starts asking for someone to kill him. He asks in Morse code and the military personnel cannot believe what they are seeing. Then as Hetfield starts yelling the definitive lines of the song: "Darkness, imprisoning me, all that I see, absolute horror. I cannot live, I cannot die, trapped in myself, body my holding cell…" that's when the video feels real. You really see the suffering of Joe and the moral ineptitude of the military brass that want to keep him alive as some sort of really sick experiment. When it comes to Hetfield singing the coup de grace of the track, "Landmine Has taken my sight, taken my speech, taken my hearing, taken my arms, taken my legs, taken my soul, left me with life in hell!!!" the metalheads have completely lost their shit and just like that, the band had crafted one of their last true classics.

As the song begins to wind down, you see Joe has basically resigned himself to his fate. He still cries out, in his mind, S.O.S., but no one responds to his cries. As Ulrich begins to show off his bit of chops, the band starts jamming and ends up taking the song to another level. It would be quite a bit of time before the band would ever jam that well again on record. The last shot of the video shows Joe writhing in his bed while a Christmas party singer serenades the crowd of gatherers to ‘keep the home fires burning.' It is a very creepy and eerie sight indeed.

Suffice to say, this is one of the most powerful videos ever made and its success ended up shooting Metallica to another level of fame and paved the way for the success of the Black Album in 1991. But I believe it's fair to say that "One" is one the top three music videos ever made and has rightfully earned its place in history.


Also see our articles on Metallica as a prom band and our Lou Reed/Metallica Lulu article


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