Metallica: From Metal to Main Street
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.”