Metallica at 40: A Story of Innovation, Reinvention and Resilience

Greg Kot

10 Min Read

Back when homemade cassette tapes of new bands were traded like highly coveted contraband, a friend of a friend handed me a copy of a copy of “No Life ‘Til Leather” by a group calling itself Metallica.

Despite the less-than-pristine sound quality, we heard something close to perfection: metal riffing, punk velocity, rage and ruin with guitars and drums. Little did we know that this was just a short, sharp glimpse of the future. “No Life ‘Til Leather,” released in the summer of 1982, essentially mapped out the core of the quartet’s official debut album, “Kill ‘Em All,” which would be released the next summer, and suddenly Metallica went from the nobodies we heard on a third-hand C-90 to opening for British metal heavies Raven at clubs across America. 

We trooped to Metro in Chicago to see the band in August 1983, and it looked like it sounded: sullen, long-haired misfits in denim and leather. I’d seen guys like this hanging out in their shag-carpeted, smoke-filled boogie vans in fast-food parking lots during the ‘70s. There were no gimmicks beyond the sometimes tricky twists and turns in the arrangements. Even when the songs stretched past six minutes, the impossibly fast tempos and venomous delivery made them feel half as long. 

Who were these guys? It all started with two 17-year-olds who had almost nothing in common except their love of the new wave of British heavy metal (Motorhead, Iron Maiden, Diamond Head, etc.): Lars Ulrich, an upper-middle-class tennis player from Denmark, and James Hetfield, a California misfit reared in a strict religious family. Ulrich had moved to Los Angeles in 1980, ostensibly to further his tennis career. But after those dreams were put on hold, he placed an ad in a local newspaper targeting musicians who loved the same metal bands as he did so they could “jam.”  

Getting a regular club gig was beyond our wildest dreams.’

Hetfield answered the ad, and Ulrich found a collaborator as hungry as he was to make a mark. “No Life ‘Til Leather,” recorded in an actual studio, followed a series of demos recorded in bassist Ron McGovney’s garage during the first half of 1982. It showcased the band’s uncompromising sound and original songwriting. “I gave the tape to about five people, and by the end of the week 50 people had it, then 100 more, and it just kept mushrooming,” the drummer once told me. “I mean, the idea of writing our first song was unbelievable. Getting a regular club gig was beyond our wildest dreams. It went from me playing air drums to all my favorite metal songs to doing the real thing.” 

The demo earned the band a record deal from New Jersey-based Megaforce, which released “Kill ‘Em All” in 1983. The album sold 300,000 copies — a huge independent success for a band without any commercial radio airplay. By then the group had retooled its lineup and solidified as a San Francisco-based quartet with Ulrich and singer-guitarist Hetfield joined by lead guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Cliff Burton. Besides McGovney, the casualties included the band’s initial lead guitarist, Dave Mustaine, who went on to form Megadeth. 

In a few short years, thrash — a term coined in 1984 by the British rock weekly Kerrang! — produced some of the era’s best bands in an underground that stretched from North America to Europe: Testament and Exodus in the San Francisco area; Megadeth and Suicidal Tendencies in Los Angeles; Anthrax and Nuclear Assault in New York City; Voivod in Canada; Sepultura in Brazil; Kreator in Germany. The sound was in many ways codified by the earliest Metallica recordings: double-kick drums pushing hyper-speed tempos; punky rhythm guitar; technically daring and impossibly fast guitar solos; deep, rumbling bass; gruff, no-nonsense vocals and songs. The new underground sound was typified by a lack of glamor and fluff, and lyrics that felt more like news bulletins or psychodramatic portraits of outsiders — a stark contrast to a mainstream scene dominated by hair-metal giants such as Poison and Motley Crue. 

Even as the thrash scene developed a following, Metallica kept innovating with acoustic textures, progressive-rock arrangements and songs that mirrored a world in turmoil. Without any significant radio or MTV exposure, the quartet built its following through relentless touring and a series of acclaimed albums: “Ride the Lightning” (1984), “Master of Puppets” (1986) and “…And Justice for All” (1988), each of which went on to become multi-million sellers. The sprawling yet hard-hitting music on each suited lyrics that addressed the horror of war (the improbable hit “One”), the poisoning of the environment (“Blackened”), drug addiction (“Master of Puppets”), scapegoating (“The Shortest Straw”) and mental instability (“The Frayed Ends of Sanity”).

‘We’re interested in the present. We’re interested in reality.’

Calling from the road on the year-plus tour that followed “…And Justice for All,” Ulrich said he was particularly proud that Metallica had built its following by innovating instead of catering to music-industry standards. “If there’s one thing that defines all of our songs, it’s that we try to avoid all the metal clichés that other bands drown in. We consider it a challenge to write about the things around us. Some people read ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ fantasy stuff. I read newspapers. We’re interested in the present. We’re interested in reality.”

Metallica’s ascent was jarred by Burton’s death in 1986 when the band’s tour bus crashed in Sweden. The bassist was such an integral part of the band that Metallica briefly considered breaking up, but the survivors concluded that Burton, the consummate road warrior, would’ve been appalled if his death also meant the death of Metallica. Jason Newsted, a veteran of Arizona thrash band Flotsam and Jetsam, was welcomed into the fold after Metallica auditioned 40 bassists.

It was the Newsted lineup that recorded the band’s most commercially successful albums. If “Justice” cracked open the door as the band’s first Top 10 album, the 1991 self-titled follow-up, dubbed “The Black Album,” smashed it down. The quartet broke its longstanding ties with Danish recording engineer Fleming Rasmussen to enlist a new producer: Bob Rock, who had a string of mainstream successes, including then-recent hits by Motley Crue and the Cult. Rock gave the band a punchier sound, though the more concise songs were already in place when the producer was hired, Ulrich insisted. In his view, Rock was more of a facilitator than an initiator.  

Yet Rock did shake things up. He encouraged the band to break from the norm and record with more of a live feel, and pushed Hetfield to actually sing. “With every record I’ve felt a little more confident in my voice, because when I started out I was just a guitar player who sang because no one else wanted to,” Hetfield said at the time. Rock “helped get more out of me. He convinced me that the voice is an instrument, just like my guitar.”

The results, however they may have ticked off the band’s most ardent metal heads, were undeniable, with tighter arrangements, more pronounced melodies and some actual hard-rock ballads (“The Unforgiven,” “Nothing Else Matters”). The sinister “Enter Sandman” bridged old-school Metallica and the new to become the band’s highest-charting single yet, and the album went on to rack up 16 million-plus sales.

Perhaps Metallica’s toughest challenge came next: Once you’ve scaled the big rock candy mountain, how do you stay there? In the ‘90s, the band stirred up the metal community by — gulp! — cutting its hair and broadening its sound to embrace —  gasp! — alternative rock. A pair of mid-‘90s companion albums, “Load” and “Reload,” made room for the first cameo on a Metallica recording, with singer Marianne Faithfull on “The Memory Remains.” Sandwiched between the two albums was an unexpected headlining slot in 1996 at the premier alternative festival, Lollapalooza.

“I’m usually the guy in the band who says no to everything but when management talked to us about doing Lollapalooza, I thought, ‘Why not?’” Hetfield told me that summer. “After being in the studio for as long as we had, I was up for anything. Plus, I liked the idea that maybe we weren’t supposed to be there.”

That obstinate contrarianism, applied not just to business matters but to the heavy metal scene that birthed the band, set Metallica apart from its peers in 1980s thrash, most of whom never branched out.

“Metal is the most conservative music there is,” Ulrich declared when I visited the band at its San Rafael, Calif., studio headquarters during the “ReLoad” sessions. “In other forms of music, when bands metamorphose, people applaud, they respect the band for taking risks.”

‘I still feel like we’re the kid at school who starts all this trouble and then ducks out the door while the other people stand around and argue about what he did.’

That’s why “I really pushed for us to be on Lollapalooza because I didn’t want people getting too comfortable with this band. We caught some people a little off guard with some of the things we did, and that’s good. I still feel like we’re the kid at school who starts all this trouble and then ducks out the door while the other people stand around and argue about what he did.”

The band continued to throw curve balls over the next couple decades, as it collaborated with everyone from the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra to punk godfather Lou Reed on “Lulu” (2011), which proved to be one of the most divisive albums in the careers of both the band and the artist.

Along the way, the quartet took some hits. In 2000 it sued file-sharing site Napster and alienated many fans, then parted ways with Newsted. A stunningly revealing 2004 documentary, “Some Kind of Monster,” showed Metallica at their most vulnerable, with a performance “coach” counseling the members and contributing lyrics through the recording sessions for the 2003 “St. Anger” album. 

At one point, Hetfield walked away from the band to deal with his alcohol addiction. Amid the recording sessions, old tensions between Ulrich and Hetfield that had been part of the creative process for decades were confronted. It was a crossroads for the band, with no one’s feelings spared, and it was all captured on “Some Kind of Monster,” which the band both sanctioned and financed.

“It’s kind of mind-boggling,” one of the directors, Joe Berlinger, told me after the filming. “These guys let us do our thing and let us do our thing in a way that could’ve backfired. These are guys who have always been in control of their image in a very image-conscious business, and in a very image-conscious category (heavy metal) within the music business. I still don’t understand why they let us do it.”

Yet the band came away from the experience somehow more unified than before, with new bassist Robert Trujillo in the fold, recruited from ‘80s thrash-scene counterparts Suicidal Tendencies. 

Reflecting on the experience a few years later, Hetfield was philosophical when I interviewed him about working so closely with someone like Ulrich, who in many ways is his polar opposite in temperament: “You’re not wrong in saying that we are very different people as far as our outside interests. But inside, music moves us somehow, and the same music touched our lives at an early age. Also, we share control issues, trust issues, power issues. So there is a lot that we have in common, and we used it against each other for a long time. That’s why it’s so difficult for us to get closer, because we both used the same weapons and the same shields. We’ve been able to lay those down and at least get to know each other, and now we know when each of us is using the old tactics to get his way.”

Metallica certainly isn’t the first band to experience creative discord. It’s been said more than once that being in a band is like being married to multiple people at the same time, which is why most are fortunate to last even a decade. But this particular partnership has somehow survived for 40 years and in many ways is more successful than ever. It could be asserted that, alongside U2, Metallica is the most durable rock band-as-brand of all the headliners who got their start in the ‘80s: 22.1 million total ticket sales and $1.4 billion in gross revenue since 1982. Over that time, plenty has changed in the Metallica universe, but one element has remained constant: The band that got its start by building its fan base one show at a time is still king of the road.

Greg Kot is the editorial director of The Coda Collection. He is also the cohost of the nationally syndicated public-radio show and podcast “Sound Opinions” with Jim DeRogatis, and previously the music critic at the Chicago Tribune for 30 years. His books include acclaimed biographies of Mavis Staples (“I’ll Take You There”) and Wilco (“Learning How to Die”) and a history of the digital music revolution (“Ripped”). He also coauthored “The Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones: Sound Opinions on the Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Rivalry” and has written extensively for Rolling Stone, BBC Culture and Encyclopedia Britannica. When he takes off the headphones, Kot coaches in his Chicago-based youth travel basketball program (OTEhoops.com). In addition, he has coauthored two best-selling editions of the book “Survival Guide to Coaching Youth Basketball.”

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