Inside the Tour That Made Metallica Megastars
When Lars Ulrich reflects on Metallica’s massive Damaged Justice tour now, he marvels that they were able to pull it off at all. “No band as extreme as ours had ever done a full arena tour,” he says. “So it was definitely a crapshoot, and it paid off.”
“Those were the years that we proved ourselves,” Jason Newsted, the band’s bassist at the time, says. “We were firing on all cylinders. Once the ‘One’ video came out, we were ready for it and the world was ready for Metallica.”
Only five years had passed since Metallica had released their debut LP, 1983’s Kill ‘Em All, and in that time they had clawed their way up from the L.A. club circuit through heavy touring and sheer determination since radio and MTV wouldn’t touch them. But when they put out their fourth LP, … And Justice for All — with its labyrinthine arrangements, walloping riffs and brutal indictments of the political world — they somehow struck a nerve with the world at large. It was 180-degrees from the spandex-wearing balladeers and Led Zeppelin copycats ruling the rock charts, and it came at the right time. By the time they finished the tour that followed — as documented in a recent super-deluxe box set reissue of the Justice album — they would be ready to become megastars.
“There was nothing about those years that was instant,” Ulrich says. “Everything felt like this slow build. We put out the first record, the second record was bigger, the third record was bigger — everything was gradual. When I think back to those years, it was like a glacier. It just moved and moved.”
The band was already a force to be reckoned with in Europe, thanks to dogged touring on the continent in the early Eighties, and they had won over thousands of fans around the U.S. while opening for Ozzy Osbourne in 1986. After the shocking death of their original bassist, Cliff Burton, while on a headlining run in Europe, they recruited Newsted and went back out on the road almost immediately. They broke him in on the recording front with an EP of cover songs in 1987, Garage Days Re-Revisited, and hit the studio again in the early part of 1988 to make … And Justice for All, the LP that would open the door for them to the mainstream. Its songs chronicled corruption in Washington, D.C. (“Eye of the Beholder,” the title track), the horrors of war (“One”) and personal hells (“Dyers Eve”), and they were set to lengthy batteries of pugilistic drums and machine-gun guitar riffs. So when the group learned it would be playing arenas around the U.S., its members were skeptical.
As Ulrich recalls: “Our manager, Cliff [Burnstein], was like, ‘We’re gonna be doing an arena tour,’ and I was like, ‘Seriously, are you sure about that?’ A band like Metallica? OK, fine. We could do L.A., New York, San Francisco, but are we gonna penetrate the American heartland? That’s probably not a great idea. He was like, ‘No, trust me on this. I’m feeling it.'”
Although the Damaged Justice tour officially kicked off in the U.S. in Toledo on November 15th, 1988 (after dates in Europe), Newsted says the true starting point for the tour was earlier in the year when they were second on the bill for the Monsters of Rock tour. They would go on early in the afternoon to warm the stage up for Dokken, the Scorpions and Van Halen.
The bassist knew they were on the verge of a breakthrough when they played the Los Angeles Coliseum in July of ’88, and there were already 50 to 60,000 people in the 80,000-capacity stadium when they went on at 2 p.m. When the band’s go-to intro music started playing, “The Ecstasy of Gold” from Ennio Morricone’s score for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, all they could see was a swarm. “It was like a giant toilet flushing,” Newsted says. “All of the people came down out of the bowl and onto the floor.” The mosh pit had 200 people in it. But it was hard for the fans since the concert promoter had placed rows of folding chairs, all bound together, on the field.
“We get to the fifth or sixth song, which was ‘Whiplash,’ and they started tearing the seats up,” Newsted recalls. “They started passing the rows of chairs, five or six hooked together at a time, over their heads like a crowdsurfer and you’d see it coming all the way from three quarters of the field towards us. They were coming by the hundreds and they’d hand them to the security guards when they got up to the barricade. The security guards were overwhelmed. Where do we put these hundreds of seats that were bent and broken with pieces of hair and shoes on them, as they come up? So we had to stop a verse and a half into ‘Whiplash’ and walk offstage.
“So we get behind the PA and start watching and for five or seven minutes, they’re cleaning the field of the chairs,” Newsted continues. “Once those seven minutes were finished, the chairs were gone and in a big pile in the parking lot behind the stage. They looked like a record burning or a book burning, like a pyre. So we came back on, and James goes, ‘Two, three, four, bam!’ and we pick up right where we left off — “Whiplash!” and it went freaking bonkers. Those pits turned into 500 people, and they’re all across the field whirling and dust kicking up. And that was at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. By the time Dokken were ready to come on, it was like, ‘Uh, love you, guys, but good luck. Follow that!'”
For Newsted, who’d entered the band at its darkest period, that tour was a dream come true. “There was negative things that were sensationalized over the years,” he says, possibly referring to the hazing he underwent when he joined or the way his playing was turned down on Justice, “but there was so much more positive, happy, camaraderie and brotherhood. Nobody wanted to be the weak link in the group. Everybody wanted to kick ass as a unit. It was so very dreamy. I didn’t sleep. That’s when my insomnia started. I’m still 30 years into insomnia now.”
The Monsters of Rock tour was like boot camp for Newsted. He met his heroes (“I still had posters on my wall of Eddie Van Halen and the Scorpions in my apartment in 1987 and 1988,” he says) and he learned how to sustain himself on tour. “By being around the guys that invented partying in the Eighties — Van Halen, the Scorpions and Dokken — you would walk on a crew bus, and I won’t mention which band’s, and there’s a pile of blow on the table in the front lounge and a pile of blow on the table in the back lounge,” he recalls. “Nobody ever sleeps. When we flew, they’d be crashed out across whole rows of seats and can’t fucking move. I look over at my hero, all red and swollen, and I’m like, ‘Guess what I’m not gonna do? That. You’re never gonna see me like that.’ Between that tour in ’88 and the reiteration of that in ’93 with Guns N’ Roses, we learned what not to do in a bunch of different ways. You see those kinds of antics and you’re like, ‘Man, what the fuck? I wish I wouldn’t have known that.’ But it taught me to be cool. I was done with all my stupid shit — powders and all that — by ’89 so I learned from those guys not to do any of that.”
By the time the group was ready to mount the U.S. leg of the Damaged Justice tour in November, they were a well-oiled machine. And they had a big stage to play on, one equipped with a larger-than-life replica of Lady Justice, which would explode and collapse at the end of “… And Justice for All.” All they needed were audiences. “We used Indianapolis as a yardstick or a temperature gauge,” Ulrich says. “We put the first leg on sale and we were playing a few of the bigger cities and then Indianapolis was, like, fifth or something in the schedule. The tickets went on sale in Indianapolis and I can’t remember if we sold it out but we ended up doing 13 or 14,000 people, which for a band of our kind in 1988 was an insane victory. If we were cool in Indianapolis, we were cool almost anywhere.”
A few months later, Metallica released their first-ever music video, for Justice’s “One,” in January 1989, and they found themselves even bigger than before. The song was a brooding quasi-ballad about a soldier who’d been blown into a quadriplegic state after stepping on a landmine and couldn’t communicate; it was all the more terrifying when paired with harrowing footage from Dalton Trumbo’s film adaptation of Johnny Got His Gun, the book that had inspired the song’s lyrics. “MTV was the center of the universe at that time and I remember we were in San Antonio, Texas when the ‘One ‘ video came out,” Ulrich says. “It was, like, the big thing. It hit Dial MTV at Number One, like fucking just completely out of nowhere. It was the most requested video the first day it came out. And we were like, ‘Holy fuck, this is real.'”
“It took us all to a different level of realization of what was possible,” Newsted says. “We would have never thought it would be possible to play heavy-metal music loud as fuck for a career and make money at it until then.”
“I think we did the Grammys that same month, and that was the first time that anyone let, like, a rock band on the Grammys. We were sitting there playing ‘One’ to a set of industry types that looked pretty astonished at was going on in front of them. It heightened our profile and we turned a corner.”
At the same time, Metallica were still learning what they were capable of musically. Their earliest songs were almost like aerobic workouts — breakneck races to the finish line with small flashes of melody — but by Justice, they’d started injecting their songs with melody. They were still demanding though. “You had to remember to eat right and get your sugars because you lose two to three pounds in sweat playing those songs,” Newsted says. They also started allowing their songs to stretch out more, as they layered riff upon riff into byzantine columns of sound. The shortest song on the record was over five minutes, the title track, “… And Justice for All,” has more movements than most classical symphonies and a track like “Blackened,” alternated time signatures which made for difficult headbanging.
“We had a vision for the songs and we felt we wanted to record them that way,” Ulrich says. “There was not much of a process of discovery or emotion. It was like, here’s a bunch of songs we’ve written that start here, end there and we’re gonna walk into the studio and record them faithfully and anybody that’s going to fuck with that, we’re gonna just squash.”
What they learned, however, is that it’s a lot to ask of both themselves and their audiences to process the sheer amount of music they’d written for … And Justice for All. By the time they wrapped the Damaged Justice tour in 1989 with a three-night stand at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre in California and a quick run in Brazil, they had a new perspective on their music. “That’s when we started having a few conversations that maybe we had taken the progressive side of Metallica as far as it could go and we were all yearning for stuff that was little bit simpler and maybe a little more physical,” Ulrich says. “A lot of that stuff was very heady and cerebral, like, ‘Here I am onstage and I’m just constantly thinking about the next part.’ I remember that some of the earlier songs worked a little big better as the places got bigger in terms of the physicality of it. So a few months later, when we started writing again, that’s when ‘Enter Sandman,’ ‘Sad but True’ and ‘Wherever I May Roam’ was born. It was a new direction.”
That newer material became the basis for the self-titled 1991 record known as the Black Album. “Once we got to the Black Album, the appeal was 10 times what Justice was,” Newsted says. “When ‘Nothing Else Matters’ came out as Number One in 50 countries in the first week, it was eye-opening. I would say that the Black Album tour was the biggest, best tour of Metallica, but as far as the real-deal, metal, pull-your-hair-out, bleeding, breaking shit, the Justice tour wins for the visceral aspect.”
Now that 30 years have passed since the Damaged Justice tour, the scene is markedly different both for Metallica and for Newsted, who exited the group in 2001. He’s since gone on to play with a variety of artists and projects, including Voivod, Ozzy Osbourne and his own Newsted band. These days, he’s exploring acoustic country music with his own Chophouse Band. “It’s old-timey music,” he says. “We have mandolins and banjoes and things like that. I’m working on originals, writing songs and collaborating with people and getting hooked up with different players from the folk, American and bluegrass circles.”
Meanwhile, Metallica are enjoying their status as not only the biggest heavy-metal group in the world, but also one of the biggest bands of any genre. The Black Album is the best-selling album to come out since its release, and the quartet has since played on every continent on the globe. They released their 10th album, Hardwired … to Self-Destruct, in 2016, and kicked off their WorldWired Tour with a run of stadium gigs last year. They’ll be touring arenas in the U.S. this winter.
Their success now, though, is a direct extension from the groundwork they laid on the Damaged Justice tour. “Once we started seeing the fruition come from our hard work and the appeal ‘One’ had to so many people, we were going, ‘Holy crap, this is actually something that could be forever,'” Newsted recalls. “This is something we could make a career out of. This is something that can have longevity and go farther than just to the metal kids. It gave us hope that we could do even bigger things and go out and conquer even more of the world than we thought we could before.”
Portions of this article previously ran in Rolling Stone’s 50 Greatest Concerts of the Last 50 Years list last year.