Metallica: From Metal to Main Street - Rolling Stone
Home Music Music News

Metallica: From Metal to Main Street

Once the scourge of the mainstream, the titans of thrash are on top of the charts

Metallica, Weenie RoastMetallica, Weenie Roast

Metallica at the MTV Video Music Awards on September 5th, 1991.

Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage/Getty

This has to be a first. Metallica‘s James Hetfield is sitting in the oak-paneled library-cum-lounge of the band’s Paris hotel, the très posh Saint James’s Club, and he’s wearing a tie. There are extenuating circumstances, however. The blond, leonine singer-guitarist came down from his room in standard gear – black T-shirt, black jeans, black boots – all psyched up to order his first beer of the evening, when the maitre d’ informed him with frosty politeness that club rules require gentlemen to wear ties. Hetfield, who sings a lot about death and destruction but likes a good gag as much as the next guy, agreed to put one on – over his T-shirt. Without another word, the maitre d’ presented him with an ugly pink number with a big dark stain on it, pulled from a drawer behind the bar. So Hetfield has his tie and his beer, and he’s talking about the recording sessions for Metallica’s latest album when an elderly, balding American businessman in an expensively tailored suit comes up to the table and brusquely interrupts the conversation. “I would just like to say that you don’t have to go to this extreme to look ridiculous,” he says, looking at Hetfield with icy disdain. “I know you don’t normally associate with people that do this. But you’re just like a child.”

Hetfield keeps a civil tongue until Daddy Warbucks walks away. “Put a tie on, don’t put a tie on,” he says, his eyes narrowing into hard, angry slits. “Fuck you. I’ll come down here naked next time.”

“One of the first things people say to me now is ‘Hey, you guys real rich?’ ” Hetfield continues with a snort. “Who gives a shit? We’re staying in this hotel, and I hate it. Can’t come down to the bar and talk to your friends, have a drink. This old stuffy fuck coming up and telling me I look like a dick. Having money, being part of all this, freaks me out. I like being where most people can’t find me, doing things by myself or just being with good friends in the wilderness, camping or drinking or whatever. I get a lot of time to think about what this shit is really about and what makes you happy.

“There’s a lot of things people have totally forgotten about, they’re so caught up in this,” Hetfield says, gesturing around the room. “Looking good, being seen in the right places, playing the fucking game. I get real sick of that shit. That has nothing to do with real life, with being alive.”

If he wanted to, Hetfield could afford to run up bar bills at the Saint James’s Club until doomsday, and dance on the tables to boot. Metallica – the band’s fifth album and its first since 1988’s double-platinum . . . And Justice for All – not only entered the Billboard album chart at Number One, it stayed there for an entire month while the leadoff single, “Enter Sandman,” quickly bullied its way into the Top Thirty. Metallica also kicked big booty around the world, instantly topping charts in England, Germany, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Norway.

Yet after years of being on the outside looking in, hailed as young gods of the Eighties thrash underground and declaimed as the antichrists of AOR rock, the four members of Metallica – Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Jason Newsted, now all in their late twenties – have discovered to their chagrin that having a Number One record is not all it’s cracked up to be. As Ulrich puts it, “It’s just numbers on a fucking piece of paper.”

Ulrich remembers all too clearly the day this past August when he found out that Metallica had gone straight to Number One. He was in a hotel room in Budapest, where the band was playing as part of a European Monsters of Rock Tour with AC/DC, when the fax from Metallica’s New York management office came in. He read it – and nothing happened. No fireworks, no champagne showers, no bimbos whispering sweet congratulations in his ear. Nada.

“You think one day some fucker’s gonna tell you, ‘You have a Number One record in America,’ and the whole world will ejaculate,” Ulrich says with a sardonic laugh. “I stood there in my hotel room, and there was this fax that said, ‘You’re Number One.’ And it was, like, ‘Well, okay.’ It was just another fucking fax from the office.

“It’s just really difficult to get excited about it,” Ulrich continues. “We’ve never been really career-conscious. We never tried to be Number One. But now we’re Number One and it’s, like, okay.”

“I never pictured in my mind what having a Number One album meant,” admits Newsted, “because I never thought it was possible to have a Number One record with the kind of music we played.”

That, of course, is the beauty of it. Metallica, the scourge of the mainstream, begins its second decade at the top. It was not that long ago that the band was a genre unto itself – the lone messiah of speed metal, worshiped by a small but vocal congregation of disenfranchised hard-rock disciples unimpressed by punk and disgusted with the candy-pants sound of early-Eighties commercial heavy metal. It was only in 1988 that the members of Metallica graduated from street brats to chart terrors, blowing open the temple doors of the Top Ten with . . . And Justice for All‘s hurricane mosaic of bludgeoning guitar riffs, fiendishly complex time changes and Hetfield’s hell-comes-to-your-house exhortations.

That it was Metallica, an album of shorter songs and heightened studio intensity, that turned the Number One trick is no great surprise. “This album is a little easier to listen to for people who’d never heard Metallica before,” Hetfield concedes. It is, however, anything but a retreat from extremes. With Metallica, the band stripped back its songwriting to a brutish minimum, used a commercial producer, Bob Rock, to make its heaviest-sounding record ever and dared to get downright romantic in the ballad passages.

“I know we’re Number One completely on our own terms,” Ulrich says proudly, taking an afternoon tea break in the Saint James’s Club’s sun-dappled back garden (no ties required). “This whole thing was done our way. There is an inner satisfaction about that, to give a major ‘Fuck you’ to the business itself and the way you’re supposed to play the game and the way we dealt with all that shit up through the mid-Eighties.

“I know there were a lot of bands who went, ‘Oh, yeah, Metallica, they sell a lot of records, but they can’t play or write songs,’ ” Ulrich adds. “I was just reading an interview with [the Cult’s] Ian Astbury where he said going to a Metallica concert was one big wanking session with all these guys jerking each other off – and where’s the femininity? Well, excuse me!

“So this is a big ‘Fuck you,’ not especially to Ian Astbury, but to all the people who felt that way for years and years and who came up and smiled to our faces, but as soon as they walked away, they were laughing at us – ‘These guys, what’s this thrash shit?’ ”

‘LET’S GO, FUCKERS!” James Hetfield roars as Kirk Hammett steps into his searing wah-wah guitar solo in “Enter Sandman.” The leather-and-denim Metallicats pressed against the stage at the Hippodrome de Vincennes raceway, outside Paris, instantly go into headbanging overdrive, turning their brains into milkshakes and vigorously punching the air with hands raised in the regulation Ozzy salute: the index and little fingers sticking up like devil’s horns. There’s only one other song from Metallica in the band’s compact seventy-five-minute Monsters of Rock set (the group is playing second fiddle to AC/ DC), the Sabbath-like march “Sad but True.” But it gets the same enthusiastic reaction: surging waves of hair rising and falling in funereal unison.

The more familiar songs, naturally, are greeted with resounding huzzahs – the aptly titled “Whiplash,” from the band’s seminal 1983 debut album, Kill ‘Em All; a demon medley of “Master of Puppets” and “Seek and Destroy” with Jason Newsted in a lead-vocal cameo; the harrowing “One,” from Justice; the pummeling encore, “Battery.” But watching the Parisians go dizzy for the new songs makes it hard to believe that back home the band is actually getting a bit of stick for going soft on Metallica. For every few thousand fans for whom the new album is the beginning of a beautiful friendship, there are serious die-hards who think it’s really the beginning of the end.

“I’ve run into fans who think the album’s crap,” says Hammett irritably. “Friends of mine who are really hard-core fans have said, ‘Well, the album’s not as heavy. You guys aren’t as heavy as you used to be.’ I go, ‘Man, you’re trying to tell me “Sad but True” isn’t heavy? “Holier Than Thou” isn’t heavy? How do you define heavy?’ ”

Hetfield has heard the same complaint. “Kids come up and say, ‘How come you don’t do Kill ‘Em All again?’ ” he says. “And I go, ‘Yeah, I like that album, too. But there’s more to our music than that.’ We can still do it live, and when we play it, we mean it, man. But we have those songs in the set already. And they’ll be there for the life of the band.

“But sitting there and worrying about whether people are going to like the album, therefore we have to write a certain kind of song – you just end up writing for someone else,” Hetfield continues. “Everyone’s different. If everyone was the same, it would be boring as shit.”

The boredom factor figured large in Metallica’s decision to back off from the breakneck art-metal frenzy of Justice. “Touring behind it, we realized that the general consensus was that songs were too fucking long,” says Kirk Hammett. He recalls shows on the 1988-89 Justice tour when the band would be halfway through the ten-minute title track and he’d look into the crowd. “Everyone would have these long faces,” he says. “And I’d think, ‘Goddamn, they’re not enjoying it as much as we are. If it wasn’t for the big bang at the end of the song . . .’ ”

Hammett admits the band members were also wearing long faces by the end of the tour: “I can remember getting offstage one night after playing ‘Justice’ and one of us saying, ‘Fuck, that’s the last time we ever play that fucking song!’ ”

In the beginning, Metallica was about nothing more sophisticated than curing classic teenage ennui. Ulrich was a Danish-born junior tennis hotshot more interested in underground metal when he first met Hetfield, a working-class kid from suburban Los Angeles with similar tastes in music, in the spring of 1981. By the end of the year, they were playing together in Hetfield’s living room with a prototype version of Metallica that included future Megadeth guitarist Dave Mustaine.

The band, says Ulrich, was basically a means of escape from “these fucking day jobs that were pissing us off and from the suck-shit heavy-metal scene in L.A.” Success, at least the platinum kind, was not part of the plan.

“When someone says Led Zeppelin, people know what that is,” Hetfield explains. “When someone says Metallica, hopefully they’d know what that is, what it means. That was the goal.”

On that level, the band was an instant smash. Metallica quickly became the toast of the nascent speed-metal fraternity on the strength of a steaming 1982 demo tape, No Life ’til Leather. By the time Kill ‘Em All was released a year later, Kirk Hammett and bassist Cliff Burton were on board, the band had relocated to San Francisco, and the name Metallica was synonymous with the finest in hyperfuzz apocalypse. In 1986, Burton was killed in a tragic tour-bus accident in Sweden. But the band soldiered on, recruiting Jason Newsted and cutting a warm-up EP of beloved covers, Garage Days Re-revisited, before formally roaring back into action with . . . And Justice for All.

According to Ulrich, Metallica’s mid-Eighties progression from the linear thrash of Kill ‘Em All to the tortuous arrangements of Justice was in part a product of the group’s own musical insecurity. “We were freaking out about how quick things happened for us,” he says. “It’s not like we had five years of paying our dues on the club circuit. There we were, playing cover songs, writing our own songs, and all of a sudden, we were touring America, making a record. And we were nineteen years old, thrown in at the deep end.

“We felt inadequate as musicians and as songwriters,” Ulrich says. “That made us go too far, around Master of Puppets and Justice, in the direction of trying to prove ourselves. ‘We’ll do all this weird-ass shit sideways to prove that we are capable musicians and songwriters.’ ”

Cutting back on the riff-and-rhythm hot-dogging for Metallica was not a big deal. The album’s twelve songs were written in a whirlwind two-month period during the summer of 1990, and Hetfield notes that many of his own contributions on the new album date back to the Justice tour. The riff in “Sad but True” came up last year while the band was cutting its Grammy-winning cover of Queen’s “Stone Cold Crazy” for the Elektra Records anniversary compilation Rubaiyat. “We probably could have made another twelve good songs out of all those riffs on Justice,” Hetfield says, “just spread ’em out a little more.”

Getting that streamlined throb down in the studio was another nightmare altogether. The members of Metallica are not just perfectionists; they are insular, defensive and distrustful perfectionists. They took more than ten months to make Metallica, ran up more than $1 million in recording costs and nearly drove producer Bob Rock into therapy. “I used to call James Dr. No,” says Rock. “Whenever I was about to make a suggestion that seemed even a little off the wall, he’d say no before I’d even finished the first sentence.”

Hetfield and the others eventually came to appreciate the risky business of saying yes on occasion – for instance, to the subtle bed of cellos in “The Unforgiven” and Rock’s last-minute addition of the orchestra on Hetfield’s stunning confessional ballad “Nothing Else Matters.” “We’re still as stubborn as ever,” Hetfield insists. “We’re just a little more confident. We’re not afraid to hear a suggestion and then adapt it to our thing.

“Before, we didn’t even want to hear it,” Hetfield adds. “Now we’ll hear it. Then we’ll say, ‘Fuck you.’ ”

That sentiment – or at least the brick-wall resolve to say it when it counts – remains central to Metallica’s modus operandi and the group’s suddenly mushrooming appeal. “People look at Metallica and go, ‘This is fucking real,’ ” says Ulrich vehemently. “They know that this is real shit. It is not fabricated. It is not product. It is real people, writing real songs, being pissed off, having certain feelings, writing them down and making music without worrying about what the fucking consequences are.”

“It all comes down to being 100 percent into what you’re doing,” Hetfield says a little testily, as if it pains him to state the obvious. “You can never be wrong that way.”

When Metallica debuted its new album at a massive free listening party at New York’s Madison Square Garden last August, Hetfield made a point of sneaking out into the audience during “Nothing Else Matters.” “I had to run out there and see what they thought,” he says sheepishly, “if they were killing themselves or killing each other. Or falling asleep.”

He was surprised to discover they were doing anything but. “They were really attentive,” Hetfield says with undisguised delight. “They were really listening to what it said.”

Metallica has written ballads of a sort before – dark, melancholy songs punctuated with explosive passages of firebomb guitar, such as “One” and “Fade to Black,” Hetfield’s chilling examination of the heart-sinking hopelessness that leads to suicide. And Hetfield, who writes all of the lyrics, has never been shy about drawing on personal history to make a point. Both “Dyers Eve,” on Justice, and “The God That Failed,” on Metallica, are rooted in his rocky adolescent experiences as the doubting son of strict Christian Science parents.

But “Nothing Else Matters” is unlike anything Hetfield ever wrote before or anything that Metallica would have dared record. It is a candid admission of romantic affection and staunch fidelity, delivered with a soulful earnestness that is a far cry from Hetfield’s usual attack-dog posture. It is, in short, a love song, and when Ulrich first heard it on one of Hetfield’s demo tapes back in May of last year, he was duly impressed. Unlike many fans and reviewers who were taken aback by the final version on Metallica, however, Ulrich was not surprised.

“Nothing he does really surprises me,” Ulrich says. “I think a lot of people are surprised by it because of who he is as a person, because he keeps everything so guarded inside. But I know a lot of that shit lingers in there. I just know it’s a question of whenever he feels right about admitting it.”

For Hetfield it was originally a matter of admitting it to himself. “That song was just me and my guitar on the road,” he says. “It came together somewhere in Canada, I think. I just sat in my room working on this thing. It was a personal thing. I played it for myself. But I played it for Lars, and he listened and said, ‘Man, that’s pretty cool.’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, it is.’

“People have their own interpretations of love,” Hetfield continues. “For some, love is sleeping with a sheep. For others, it’s just being with somebody. Love to me is being able to depend on someone else, especially being on the road. You can really lose yourself out here. Then you go home and you realize, ‘Yeah, here’s my base. Here’s where I start, and here’s where it ends.’

“It’s a song that’s not safe,” Hetfield argues. “It takes some nerve to do. We’re not supposed to do something like that. Then you turn around and go, ‘Well, who said we couldn’t? We’re running the show here.’ ”

Given Hetfield’s long-standing reputation even among his band mates for being stubborn and intimidating, “Nothing Else Matters” is a rare admission of emotional vulnerability. As one of the first songs put up for inclusion on Metallica, it also suggested to Hetfield and Ulrich – the band’s main songwriters – a way out of the aggro-protest dead end they’d reached with . . . And Justice for All.

“We went through our CNN years, as we call it, where me and James would sit on the couch and watch CNN and go, `Yeah, we can write a song about this new political turmoil,’ ” Ulrich says. “The political thing has been played out. Some of the things on the last album were things that pissed me off. I’d read about the blacklisting thing, we’d get a title, ‘The Shortest Straw,’ and a song would come out of that.

“This time, the songs are the result of what’s been lingering in James,” Ulrich continues. “You can look around for things that make you mad and you write about them. This time, it’s a matter of looking within, at the experiences you’ve been through.”

Ironically, the song on Metallica that has caused the biggest ruckus is the extremely topical and contentious “Don’t Tread on Me.” Critics who praised Hetfield for his unflinching psychological portrayal of the horribly maimed war veteran in “One” have turned around and nailed him for the alleged feel-good Yankee patriotism and crass post-gulf-war flag-waving of “Don’t Tread on Me.”

The band has been baffled by the reaction. “We got people calling us jingoistic – that was definitely a word we had to look up,” Hammett says, laughing. Hetfield actually wrote the song in August 1990, before the invasion of Kuwait, and the flag at issue is not the Stars and Stripes but the coiled-snake banner with the legend DON’T TREAD ON ME carried by Culpeper’s Minutemen of Virginia during the revolutionary war. A replica of the flag was hung in the studios for the length of the Metallica sessions, and the snake itself appears on the album cover.

Frankly, if Hetfield is guilty of anything, it’s woefully bad timing and a muddied point of view. He contends that “Don’t Tread on Me” is really a reaction to what he now feels was the overzealous anti-American tone of Justice.

“Like, ‘Oh, what a bunch of complainers,’ ” Hetfield says. “This is the other side of that. America is a fucking good place. I definitely think that. And that feeling came about from touring a lot. You find out what you like about certain places and you find out why you live in America, even with all the bad fucked-up shit. It’s still the most happening place to hang out.

“People have hated us for worse things,” Hetfield adds with a bored shrug. “If they don’t like Metallica because of one thing I said in one song, then they’re really fucked.”

Ulrich cautions against taking any of this too seriously. This is, after all, a band that is better known in some heavy-metal circles for its drinking prowess than its profundity and that, at one point in its career, proudly went by the nickname Alcoholica.

“There’s always been this thing with us and the social-consciousness thing, how serious we are,” Ulrich says. “That’s great, but there are other sides to this band. I can crawl around in hotel corridors naked at four in the morning with the best of them. We don’t end up like that every day, but we still get really out there.

“The other day in Italy,” Ulrich continues, “there were these two guys just drilling into this whole thing about ‘One’ and antiwar, making a statement of peace for the kids. ‘You guys care so much.’ I was telling James about this afterward. We were laughing. ‘Why do people make such a big deal about it?’ And James turns around and goes, ‘All it is, is a fucking song about a guy who steps on a land mine.’ ”

Ulrich doubles over with laughter. “That,” he says, “kind of sums the whole thing up.”

There are basically two kinds of Metallica fans: the kids who are in it just for the throb and the kids for whom the throb is a way of flipping the bird at – among other things – school, their parents, their jobs and authority in general. For the latter kids, songs like “Battery,” “Seek and Destroy” and “Harvester of Sorrow” are the sound of their own rage, impotent or otherwise, rebounding back at them with Mach 10 force.

On September 28th, a week after the Paris gig, the band played for what is arguably the ultimate Metallica audience: an airfield full of young Russians superstarved for the throb and high on revolt. The free show, a Monsters of Rock package headlined by AC/DC and held at the huge Tushino Airfield, outside Moscow, was produced by the Time Warner corporation (which filmed the proceedings for future video release) and ostensibly presented by Russian authorities as a thank-you to the young people who played a crucial role in defeating the August 19th coup attempt. Crowd estimates ranged from 150,000 to nearly half a million, but the real show, according to Ulrich, took place the night before the concert.

After checking into their hotel and having a few warm-up beers in the bar, some members of Metallica’s entourage, including Ulrich and Hammett, hired a couple of taxis and hit the town. They checked out the changing of the guard at Lenin’s tomb at two in the morning and then headed over to the site near the Russian White House where three people were killed by soldiers at the height of the crisis during a dramatic standoff between the military and an impromptu army of Moscow citizens.

“There were these guys there in mourning,” recalls Ulrich, recovering from jet lag back in his San Francisco home two days after the concert. “They had built a tent city in this square where the kids got killed. We were asking questions about what went on. They took us on walks around the square, showing us where the barricades were and where the kids were killed. They were saying they were really freaking because they think the whole thing is gonna happen again, only ten times worse.

“It really put a lot of shit in perspective,” Ulrich continues. “You have this rock-star trip, going into a hotel and complaining that your room isn’t as big as the next guy’s. You put it next to this and you realize it’s about life and death.”

And in its own way, about rock & roll. As soon as Ulrich and Hammett showed up in the square, the Russians ran off and got some guitars. “We said, ‘Why don’t you play us a song?’ ” says Ulrich. “Lo and behold, one of the guys started singing a Scorpions song.” Ulrich laughs. “Man, you talk about Metallica, Bon Jovi and Guns n’ Roses, but let me tell you, the Scorpions in Russia are ten times bigger than all those other bands put together.”

Yet Ulrich was impressed, and humbled, by the fact that for these young people the music was a genuine source of strength, not just a leisure product. His night in the tent city also put Metallica’s success in a much more sobering perspective. “It was weird because here we were Number One all over the rest of the world,” he says. “And sitting in the square, it didn’t mean dick whether we sold 2 million records in America the first week or not. We talked to those kids and they want freedom. They have the same wants and desires as our fans anywhere else. And it wasn’t about whether we were Number One or Number 1000.

“I remember one kid in the hotel,” Ulrich continues. “I was walking into the lobby, some kid had snuck in, and he just stood there in front of me, crying. ‘You don’t know what it means to me for you to come here.’ I stood there, watching him break down in front of me.

“I don’t even know how to express how it made me feel. These kids were so appreciative of the fact that we were coming there, and it was very heavy to think that maybe our music gave them a little something to grasp on to.”

In This Article: Coverwall, Metallica


Powered by
Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.