People are of two minds about Metallica. Either they want the early years with Cliff Burton or Jason Newsted’s first album with the band. Or they want the Black Album nineties alternative Metallica. I seldom hear anyone pining for the post-2003 St. Anger and later Metallica.
I got into them right as the Black Album (officially called Metallica) came out. They had taken their aggressive thrash metal sound and polished it for radio. It made me appreciate their earlier work, particularly Ride the Lightning and And Justice for All. But everything I listened to from them was based on The Black Album.
Metallica got off to an inauspicious start. Lars Ulrich, son of a Finnish tennis player, answered an ad in 1981 looking for heavy metal bands in the vein of the British new wave of metal (as it was termed.) Lars offered up his band, which he called Metallica. To record, he recruited a couple of friends, James Hetfield and Ron McGovney, who became Metallica’s original bass player. When the band first met, Ulrich played a child’s drum kit with a high hat cymbal that fell over every time he struck it.
Yet somehow, the band gelled, bringing in another guitar player named Dave Mustaine. The band recorded an early version of “Hit the Lights” for the album Metal Massacre. Soon they had a gig at LA’s Whiskey-A-Go-Go. After a few live gigs, it became obvious that one of these things was not like the others. Ron McGovney was not cutting it. They found another bassist they liked named Cliff Burton. Burton agreed to join on one condition. Metallica would have to relocate to San Francisco. That suited them fine. They hated the rising glam metal scene that ruled Los Angeles in the early eighties.
Soon, they were invited to New York to record a demo for Metal Blade Records. There, they answered the burning question “How drunk do you have to be to get fired from Metallica?” Answer: Dave Mustaine. Apparently, Mustaine was difficult when he was drunk. so out he went for Kirk Hammett. Now the band was complete.
The Metal Blade demo, circulated as No Life ’til Leather, led to one of the most powerful opening salvos in in rock history. Kill ‘Em All, which has Mustaine’s fingerprints all over it, Ride the Lightning, and Master of Puppets mainstreamed a raw, edgy sound called thrash metal, characterized by rapid, distorted rhythm chords and decidedly non-Robert Plant-like vocals. Some of the songs, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “Master of Puppets” in particular, became classics.
But the train almost derailed in 1986 when a bus accident in Sweden killed Cliff Burton. This was a serious blow. Burton was slowly becoming the band’s central figure. Hammett, Hetfield, and Ulrich all looked up to him. He had brought them to San Francisco and was there when they signed with Metal Blade Records.
They decided to press on, auditioning several bassists, included future Primus bass player Les Claypool. They settled on Flotsam and Jetsam’s Jason Newsted and promptly went into the studio to record And Justice for All, the album that solidified Metallica’s reputation. They broke through on MTV (Remember when they played videos?) with the epic “One.” Rumor has it they turned Newsted’s bass down to show him that he was not Cliff Burton. Newsted and Hetfield have waffled between this story and an early Newsted explanation that his bass was mixed more as a second rhythm guitar. Listening to the album, I tend to believe the latter, but the first rumor may have a kernel of truth. The bass is clearly there on Justice, but it does, indeed, sound like a third guitar, partially because Newsted picks his bass rather than plucks it.
But what made Metallica the band of the nineties was their self-titled “Black Album” in 1990. This album yielded the band’s most hits, including “Enter Sandman,” “Nothing Else Matters,” and “Wherever I May Roam.” This was the beginning of a long relationship with producer Bob Rock, who polished the band’s sound and edited it to be more radio friendly.
The band then took a long break before recording the more alternative Load and its follow-up ReLoad. It’s about this time that fans of their earlier work began complaining about the band being “soft.” Of course, a soft Metallica is still louder than a loud Poison. Still, it’s clear when you listen to ReLoad that Metallica was offering the dregs of the Load sessions, although I was pretty taken with “Devil’s Dance.”
Over the next few years, they did Garage Days Re-Re-Revisited, the third of a collection of metal classics, and an album with the San Francisco Symphony called S&M, featuring the original hit, “No Leaf Clover.” I liked S&M because it was actually harder than Metallica’s original stuff. They were in competition with the orchestra, and in some places, the orchestra is actually out-rocking Metallica.
For me, though, the show ended in 2003 when Newsted quit the band. They went into the studio with Bob Rock as a temporary bassist to record the ill-advised St. Anger. Shortly afterward, they auditioned several bassists and selected Suicidal Tendencies’ Rob Trujillo, this big, goofy guy who lurches about the stage and is as different from Newsted as Newsted is from Cliff Burton. In fact, in the 2003 movie Some Kind of Monster, Lars Ulrich and Kirk Hammett reflect that if Cliff Burton had walked in off the street to replace Jason Newsted, he wouldn’t get the job. As much as I dislike their sound since St. Anger, I do like Trujillo’s fatter, more assertive bass style. I suspect that, had Newsted stayed or Trujillo come aboard sooner, St. Anger would have been a more solid album.