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The Story Behind The Song: Metallica's anti-war thrash epic 'One'

‘One’ ranks among Metallica’s most enduring pieces of work. The third and final single from their fourth album, the thrash metal classic …And Justice for All, the track is hailed as a masterwork for Metallica fans and guitarists alike. 

The song features moments that are some of the band’s most influential, ranging from the intricate guitars in the introduction to the distinct dynamic changes and Kirk Hammett’s guitar solo. It was also the first Metallica single to feature the band’s new bassist, Jason Newsted, who had entered the fold after the death of Cliff Burton. Production on the song and album was helmed by Danish producer Flemming Rasmussen, who had previously worked with the band on Ride the Lightning in 1984 and, two years later, on Master of Puppets

Written by frontman James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich, ‘One’ is an anti-war song, which may come as a surprise. However, this is precisely the type of density that has made Metallica one of the most well-respected metal bands of all time. 

The lyrics are based on the 1939 novel Johnny Got His Gun, by iconic writer Dalton Trumbo, a classic critique of the horrors of World War I. Hetfield was introduced to the book by his older brother, David Hale, who once had a stint in Metallica. 

One passage, in particular, inspired the song. It reads: “How could a man lose as much of himself as I have and still live? When a man buys a lottery ticket you never expect him to win because it’s a million to one shot. But if he does win, you’ll believe it because one in a million still leaves one. If I’d read about a guy like me in the paper, I wouldn’t believe it, cos it’s a million to one. But a million to ONE always leaves one. I’d never expect it to happen to me because the odds of it happening are a million to one. But a million to one always leaves one. One.” 

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Fittingly, the track explores the condition of a World War I soldier who has been critically wounded fighting. Echoing the work on Trumbo, Hetfield screams with primal force: “Trapped in myself / Body my holding cell / 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”.

Hetfield’s lyrics don’t stop there either. The central vocal refrain is “oh please, God, help me”, driving the anti-war sentiment home. The brilliance of ‘One’ is that it is elevated by the music video, which visually displays the song’s damning indictment of warfare. In the chilling video, the soldier sits up in his hospital bed, begging the nurse to “kill me” in Morse Code. 

The video was directed by Michael Salomon, and of course, it featured scenes from the 1971 big-screen adaptation of Johnny Got His Gun, which was helmed by Trumbo himself. Famously, the band were haemorrhaging royalties when the video was first aired on TV, so they bought the rights to the film to quench the problem. 

In 1991, Hetfield revealed that the idea for the track’s B-G chord change was taken from English metal band Venom’s song ‘Buried Alive’, from their 1982 album, Black Metal. He explained: “I had been fiddling around with that B-G modulation for a long time. The idea for the opening came from a Venom song called ‘Buried Alive’. The kick drum machine-gun part near the end wasn’t written with the war lyrics in mind, it just came out that way. We started that album with Mike Clink as producer. He didn’t work out so well, so we got Flemming to come over and save our asses.”

One of the most complex songs in early thrash metal, there’s no surprise that ‘One’ is one of the most enduring Metallica ever released.

Listen to ‘One’ below.