“I was so in the dirt,” former Metallica bassist Jason Newsted has said of how he felt when his first full-length with the group, … And Justice for All, came out. “I was so disappointed when I heard the final mix. I basically blocked it out, like people do with shit.”
The album, which turns 30 this year, is one of Metallica’s greatest masterworks. Its songs are lengthy, nuanced statements on political devolution (the title track and “Eye of the Beholder”), the atrocities of war (the single “One”) and dealing badly with difficult family lives (“Dyers Eve,” “Harvester of Sorrow”). The music is especially intricate, with deftly constructed movements and difficult time signatures well outside the usual rock & roll head-bobbing beats — quite an accomplishment for a bunch of guys from California in their mid-twenties. Since its release, many of the tracks have become set-list staples for the group, and it’s been certified eight-times platinum, making it the second-best selling record in the band’s catalogue. It’s ranked high on Rolling Stone’s list of the Greatest Metal Albums of All Time, and “One,” with its chest-rattling machine-gun drumming and traumatizing lyrics, has been covered by everyone from Korn to the acoustic flamenco duo Rodrigo y Gabriela. It’s the record that broke Metallica into the mainstream, yet it has one flaw that has trailed it for the last three decades: it has practically no bass guitar.
“I can’t explain how much grief I dealt with – and still deal with – over that record,” Newsted has said.
By all accounts, though, what he recorded for the album was brilliant – it just was not audible on the finished LP. “Jason is one hell of a bass player,” Justice co-producer Flemming Rasmussen told Rolling Stone in 2016. “I’m probably one of the only people in the world, including Jason and Toby Wright, the assistant engineer, who heard the bass tracks on … And Justice for All, and they are fucking brilliant.”
So what happened?
After their previous bassist, the iconic Cliff Burton, died in a bus accident in September 1986, Metallica pushed forward immediately. “We decided that the smartest thing we could do was to keep going,” drummer Lars Ulrich has said. “We laid Cliff to rest a week or two after the accident, and then there wasn’t five minutes after that [to process it] because if we slowed down, we were afraid we were going to disappear into nothingness or go so far into the abyss that we wouldn’t be able to pull ourselves up.”
They reached out to their friend, Metal Blade Records founder Brian Slagel, for suggestions and set up auditions the week after Burton’s funeral. They were ultimately most impressed by one of Slagel’s suggestions, Newsted, who’d been playing with the Phoenix metal group Flotsam and Jetsam, a band so enamored with Metallica that they too had written a song that shared a title with one of Metallica’s, “Fade to Black.”
“Jason had this incredibly useful positive energy and was like a fireball,” Ulrich remembered. “He came in and was gung-ho and ready; he just had the right attitude, the chemistry and his personality and approach to his instrument were really unique. And he could not have been more of a 180 from Cliff, so it wasn’t like were getting a ‘Cliff Junior’ replacement.”
They finished up their Master of Puppets tour commitments — “Jason really rose to the occasion,” guitarist Kirk Hammett remembered — and they found a sense of musical clarity on the road that they hadn’t expected. “We grew up a lot, ’cause by the next tour, we were a little more mature,” Hammett said. “We were a bit more focused. We were also playing well. And out of that desire to play well came [1988’s] … And Justice for All.”
But before they hit the studio, they decided to shake the cobwebs off and record a handful of cover songs for what would become 1987’s The $5.98 E.P.: Garage Days Re-Revisited. They credited Newsted on his first recordings as “Master J. Newkid” and chose songs that showed him off, like Diamond Head’s “Helpless,” which featured an unaccompanied bass-guitar break, and Holocaust’s “The Small Hours,” which throbs with low-end. They self-produced the release (or “not very produced” it, as the credits say) and kicked it out in the summer of 1987, a few months before recording … And Justice for All with Master co-producer Rasmussen.
The only song to feature a Newsted writing credit was “Blackened.” “I wrote [the main riff] on bass,” he remembered in a Guitar World interview. “I’m fucking around with this riff, and then [singer-guitarist James Hetfield] started playing along, and the song started forming right at that time. … Him going, ‘Dude, that riff’s good enough to open our fucking album,’ really gave me a feeling of victory, because I looked up to him greatly, and still do to this day.” The rest of record featured songs by Hetfield, Ulrich and Hammett and the near-instrumental “To Live Is to Die” was an amalgam of music Burton had left behind and, as such, it’s the place on the album where the bass is most pronounced with its grinding riffs and punchy rhythms.
Newsted has chalked the album’s lack of low-end up to his playing style and general naiveté. He tracked his bass by himself with an engineer, using the same gear he had in Flotsam and Jestsam, and then went home without hearing any of it again until much later. And if you look at the musical notation in … And Justice for All bass tablature books, it very closely follows what Hetfield is playing on each song. “Being in Flotsam, I did not know about playing the bass part yet, I just knew about playing bass really fast like guitar, basically everybody playing the same thing like a sonic wall,” he said in 2013. “So it ended up with everything being in the same frequency – my bass and James’ guitar battling for the same frequency. If I had known then what I know now, it would have been different. … I used to be pissed about it back then, but the records I have made since then have had some ugly bass parts all over the place on them.”
The band’s guitarists have echoed that story over the years in interviews, especially after they put out Justice’s follow-up in 1991, the Black Album, which featured the bassy hits “Sad but True” and “Enter Sandman.” When they made that album, with producer Bob Rock, they pumped his playing into Ulrich’s monitor so they could create more of what Newsted called “an actual rhythm section.” “This time we were lucky enough to have a producer who helped my sound hold up under the big drum and guitar,” he said in 1991.
“The bass was obscured [on Justice] for two reasons,” Hetfield explained in 2008. “First, Jason tended to double my rhythm guitar parts, so it was hard to tell where my guitar started and his bass left off. Also, my tone on Justice was very scooped – all lows and highs, with very little midrange. My guitar sound ate up all the lower frequencies. Jason and I were always battling for the same space in the mix.” In 1991, the frontman credited producer Rock with cleaning up the rhythm section for the Black Album. “Bob really helped us with orchestrating and bringing out the low end – getting the guitar and bass to work together,” he said. In the same interview, Hetfield joked about Ulrich’s input on Metallica’s production: “He doesn’t mess with the guitar sound – just the bass guitar.”
Although neither Hetfield nor Ulrich have ever confirmed what actually happened during the mixing process of Justice, the stories from different camps have all been pretty consistent. In a 2015 interview, mixing engineer Steve Thompson gave a heated account of what he remembered. His goal was “to take Master of Puppets and blow that away” but he realized that they wanted a “more garage-type sound without bass.” He first dialed in an EQ on Ulrich’s drums in a way that pleased his ears, and Hetfield approved of it, but Ulrich changed it further in a way Thompson hated. Then, the engineer said, the drummer turned his attention to the bass.
“Now he goes, ‘See the bass guitar? And I said, ‘Yeah, great part, man. He killed it,'” Thompson recalled. “He said, ‘I want you to bring down the bass where you can barely audibly hear it in the mix.’ I said, ‘You’re kidding, right?’ He said, ‘No, bring it down.’ I bring it down to that level, and he says, ‘Now drop it down another 5 dB.’ I turned around and looked at Hetfield and said, ‘He’s serious?’ It just blew me away.”
In 2008, when asked whether the album’s bass was turned down out of spite — based on Newsted’s reports that the band hazed him mercilessly when he joined the band — Ulrich said it was unintentional. “Justice was the ‘James and Lars Show’ from beginning to end, but it wasn’t ‘Fuck this guy, let’s turn his bass down,'” he said. “It was more like, ‘We’re mixing, so let’s pat ourselves on the back and turn the rhythms and the drums up.’ But we basically kept turning everything else up until the bass disappeared.”
“It’s on them, that’s for sure,” Rasmussen said in 2016. “It was Lars and James who said to turn the bass down. I know that for a fact because I asked them.”
By the Black Album, things changed. “In the past, Lars and I had the fucking shackles on everybody,” Hetfield said of the group’s creative process in 1996. “This time, if we came into the studio and heard Jason laying down some slap bass part on a song, we’d be like, ‘What the fuck? OK, let’s count to 10 and hear it in the context of the song.’ … I had noticed over the years how frustrated Jason was musically and how a lot of the stuff he’s written isn’t getting on the records. … He wants people to hear his stuff.”
With a little more creative input, Newsted stayed with the band until 2001, when he clashed with Hetfield over the release of an album by Echobrain, his side project. The turmoil was captured in the documentary Some Kind of Monster and eventually Newsted was replaced by Bob Rock in the studio, for the recording of 2003’s St. Anger, and then permanently by former Ozzy Osbourne bassist Robert Trujillo. With hindsight, he’s gained a new perspective on why Justice came out the way it did.
“It has to be this thing where psychologically, involuntarily, subconsciously, they had this thing where, ‘He’s not playing like Cliff. That’s not the same kind of shit. He’s playing chunka chunka speed metal with the pick, playing the same as James. It’s not this brilliant musical ‘scape; it’s not going to be the same, so let’s get it down here where you can hear the chigga chigga chigga,” he recalled. “Also, in 1988, [we were] starting to taste the fame. … Egos are getting going.”
The lack of bass has been a point of contention with Metallica fans for the past three decades. With home recording software cheaper than ever and some extra time on their hands, some fans have attempted remixing … And Justice for All themselves so that Newsted’s contributions are more audible. The first to emerge, in 2015, was titled … And Justice for Jason. The YouTube user who uploaded it, Josh10177, did not explain how he went about making it, but from the sound of it, it came down to EQing. Other remixes have been more ingenious. One, uploaded by a user named James Mason in 2017, came with incredibly detailed notes about separating the instruments’ frequencies, sampling vinyl to get a bassier sound and double-tracking a few fan-recorded bass tracks to beef it up. Although it doesn’t explicitly say so, it’s worth noting that the bass tracks for some songs were available separated from the mix via Guitar Hero: Metallica, and that may be the source of the bass on some of these. (There’s also a remix that supposedly made the record sound as if Burton had played on it.)
“The other day in Pontiac, Michigan, this kid comes up and gives me … And Jason for All,” Newsted said in 2013. “So he’s remixed the bass tracks back into the Justice thing. I’d heard talk about it over the years and stuff, and I really didn’t pay much attention to it. And he’s like, ‘Dude, this is for you, man. How it was supposed to be.’ I’m like, ‘OK. How it’s supposed to be is what came out and how it made a mark on the world, but cool. There’s bass in it? Great, dude. Thanks. I appreciate it.'”
Hetfield and Ulrich have both concurred with Newsted’s assertion that what came out is what should have come out and that’s how it should stay. Over the past couple of years, Metallica have been remastering and re-releasing their catalogue, the most recent of which, Master of Puppets, came out last year. Rasmussen has said fans should expect “alternative versions” of songs on it, but not to expect to hear a remixed version of Justice on it.
“These records are a product of a certain time in life; they’re snapshots of history, and they’re part of our story,” Hetfield has said. “OK, so … And Justice for All could use a little more low end and St. Anger could use a little less tin snare drum, but those things are what make those records part of our history.”
Thompson has also confirmed that the band has “no desire” to remix Justice. “They want to keep it the way it is,” he said in 2018. “They might remaster it or something like that, but there is only so much mastering you can do. And I’ll tell you the truth, I don’t even know if those original multi-tracks could be saved.”
Despite the fact that they want to keep it the way it is, though, the band has expressed regret with how Justice ultimately turned out – they’re just willing to live with it. “I wish that we would have recorded … And Justice for All better,” Hammett has said. “At the time it sounded like an interesting concept. But that album just doesn’t sound good to me nowadays. I love the songs, but the way it sounds is funky. Funky as in bad, not funky as in groovy.”
“We were firing on all cylinders, and shit was happening,” Newsted said. “I was just rolling with it and going forward. … Now if you were to ask them, now that they have time and they’re fathers, you know, life, maturity, they would go, fuck. Whoops. They would say it right to your face.”
In 2009, Thompson found himself sitting next to Ulrich at the band’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, and had an experience almost like Newsted’s scenario above. It brought the whole experience came full circle for him. “Lars goes, ‘Hey, what happened to the bass in Justice?” the engineer recalled. “He actually asked me that. I wanted to cold-cock him right there. It was a shame because I’m the one getting the shit for the lack of bass.”