"What the f*ck have we got ourselves into?": The rise and fall of Metallica

The authors of "Into the Black" dish on the legendary rock band's legacy -- and that infamous night in Montreal

Published March 15, 2015 12:00AM (EDT)

James Hetfield of Metallica (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
James Hetfield of Metallica (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

This article originally appeared on The Weeklings.

The Weeklings

From the blistering attack of melodic thrash on their 1983 debut, Kill ‘Em All to 2008’s brilliant return to form on Death Magnetic, Metallica have plowed their way to the top, selling over 100 million records worldwide and becoming quite possibly the most successful heavy metal band of all time.

Or have they?

Metallica Rock City talks the rise, fall and return of East Bay’s finest with the authors of the comprehensive two volume biography, Birth, School, Metallica, Deathand Into the Black. (Da Capo Press)

Quote from Into the Black: “Since 2010 it’s likely that Metallica have lost more money than they’ve made.”

Well, over the past five years Metallica have embarked upon a variety of vanity projects that haven’t exactly brought home the bacon. By their own admission, the two stagings of the Orion festival were disastrous financially, and the shambles that was the Through The Never movie cost $32 million and will only recoup a fraction of that amount. Factor in HQ staff salaries, crew retainers and assorted running costs associated with maintaining an entertainment corporation and you can easily understand why the band – of necessity now rather than by choice – are driven to tour Europe every summer. No one is going to shed any tears upon hearing Metallica pleading poverty, but over the past decade their margins will undoubtedly have taken a hammering.

In your opinion, Metallica’s single biggest blunder.

There’s a line from “Damage Inc.” on Master of Puppets which runs ‘Honesty is my only excuse…’, and many of what outsiders might regard as Metallica’s missteps, if not outright mistakes – from Lars Ulrich’s bullish campaign against Napster through to Lulu and Through The Never – have stemmed from their own bloody-mindedness. It’s hard to fault a band that (largely) operates on such principles however, so I’d be loathe to label these decisions as ‘blunders’. When Metallica mistrust their own instincts however, they falter, and increasingly in recent years that’s made them look at best infallible and at worst dishonest. The whole Through The Never film project was a horrible misjudgement, a misguided attempt to breathe new life into a decade-old idea. As the film spiraled horribly over-budget it’s hard not to imagine that at least one band member – and let’s be honest, we’re talking about James Hetfield here – thinking ‘What the fuck have we got ourselves into?’ Quite how that ‘script’ ever got the green light is an unfathomable mystery.

What role did MTV play in Metallica’s career?

Precious little, really. Famously the band didn’t make a promo video until their fourth album, and it’s debatable whether that video (‘One’) – as striking and innovative as it is – actually drew many new converts to a cause already growing exponentially on word-of-mouth recommendations. Even with The Black Album, and it’s blockbuster lead-off single “Enter Sandman”, credit should go to radio rather than MTV. “The Unforgiven” video is a masterpiece, but that aside, there’s little in Metallica’s videography – is that even a word? – that adds to the Metallica story.

Slash quote on the GnR/Metallica debacle: “Not only did we not go on early enough to fill the void left by Metallica, we went on three hours later than our scheduled time.” – To the best of your understanding — what happened that night in Montreal?

Well, there’s no mystery in regards to Metallica’s role in proceedings: Hetfield walked directly on top of some pyro and turned into a walking fireball. As for Guns N’ Roses’ actions – or inaction -on the night it’s hard to see past Axl Rose when it comes to apportioning blame. He simply refused to leave his hotel room when the emergency call came. Greater minds than ours have failed to make sense of Axl’s appetite for self-destruction, and we’ve no special insight into the man’s psychology having never been granted an audience with him, but such flagrant irresponsibility is difficult to understand. He could have been a hero that night. Instead, it became a defining moment in the singer’s seemingly endless capacity to gleefully piss upon his own fans.

interviewed Scott Ianrecently and he was telling me about how Metallica planned to give Lars the boot before Burton passed away. What would Metallica be without Ulrich today?

Nowhere. Had they kicked Lars out in 1986, they’d have imploded long before now. It’s unquestionably his drive, his vision, his utter inability to know his ‘rightful’ place that pushed Metallica into the big league. It’s Lars that keeps pushing Metallica on, even now: he’s been the engine from day one. James, Cliff and Kirk would still be making music, but not together, and not with the eyes of three generations of metal fans upon them: there would have been no drama in the dissolution of the group, at some point they’d simply have drifted apart without their guiding light.

You guys have the best description of Lars I’ve heard to date: “A combination of hyperactivity and Tourette’s.” Lars Ulrich: Asset or liability?

We might have already answered this above. If not, then we’ll say ‘All of the above’. Without Lars there never would have been a Metallica, and without him they simply wouldn’t be a going concern. Lars is entirely capable of being a dick, but he’s also a charmer, a workaholic and the most indefatigable advocate of his own band. It’s remarkable that he’s not been slapped around the head more often – indeed he surely would have benefited from it – but as much as he’s Metallica’s biggest liability, his value as the band’s biggest asset is immeasurable and often under-appreciated.

After reading your account of Lars’ take on Napster, I understood his point. In fact, his comments were pretty prophetic. You were there. What was Hetfield’s view?

In the famous Playboy interview published in 2001, and which was the final interview conducted with Jason Newsted in the band, James Hetfield was critical of some of the methods employed by Ulrich in his pursuit of Napster, while at the same time acknowledging that he supported the drummer’s aims, and that he was in fact acting as an envoy on behalf of the band. Obviously there were many flaws in Ulrich’s tactics with regard this battle royale – threatening to confiscate the hard drives of everyone who had illegally downloaded Metallica songs was a soundbyte from Hell, in PR terms – but his wider vision was both correct and even prophetic, which is something we try to establish in the book.

Cliff Burton gets to play a sort of Bon Scott loveable role in Metallica history. But Newsted never got to be Brian Johnson. Why is Jason Newsted’s legacy with the band so troubled?

That’s a very good question. I think the fans themselves had no problem at all with Jason Newsted, and in fact for the majority of the group’s audience it will be Newsted with whom they most closely identify in the role of Metallica’s bass player. After all, it was after Cliff Burton died that the group’s status shifted from adored cult act to worldwide stadium-botherers. But Jason Newsted was given the job of bassist only three weeks after Cliff Burton was killed in the tour-bus crash in Sweden. Within five weeks he was on tour with the group in Japan. This was clearly far too fast for the three members – then only in their mid twenties – to process their loss or articulate their grief, so instead of healing and moving on with their new bass player, instead Newsted became the focus of much resentment, none of which was his fault. So to a degree the well was poisoned from the start. This is a shame, because Jason Newsted clearly loved Metallica, their sound and their ideals, and was in many ways like a union rep on the board of a giant corporation. The fact that this has never been fully acknowledged is almost a book in itself.

Do you think Metallica would have been a healthier and happier group had they remained at the level of popularity of a Megadeth or Slayer?

No, Metallica were always destined to try and take over the world. The dynamism of their drummer coupled with the creative talents of James Hetfield made it impossible for them to be anything other than the monster they became. Slayer desired only to be the heaviest and the fastest, and their reputation (as significant as it is) is rooted only in that desire. Megadeth are steered by their wildly inventive main-man Dave Mustaine, and some people may claim that this band’s legacy is more interesting than Metallica’s (in fact, one British journalist wrote an article to this effect). But Metallica are the band that they were always destined to become. The one thing that is mystifying to anyone who would like to believe that the group are still a functioning and forward-thinking creative entity is the lack of new music that has emerged since Newsted left the band. Two albums under their own name and one in collaboration with Lou Reed is not a bountiful harvest, and in this sense in 2015 Metallica can be said to be a brand as much as they are a band, and perhaps more.

I remember watching Some Kind of Monster wondering what turn of events could possibly take place that Metallica are filming themselves talking about their feelings with a therapist in a Cosby sweater. It’s like the least rock and roll thing ever. So I’ll ask you – how does this happen? 

(That being said, it seems as if Phil Towle won you guys over.)

Phil Towle did win us over, in the fact that he was so completely honest in what he had to say about the whole Some Kind Of Monster period of the group. Because audiences watching the film – the authors included – didn’t really want to face the true horror of what was materializing onscreen, in a sense Phil Towle became the whipping boy for all that was wrong with Metallica in the early 21st Century. But in person, away from the madhouse of HQ, he was reasoned and intelligent, and perhaps the only grown-up in the whole sorry farrago. That said, don’t doubt for a second that all groups don’t have their cliques and squabbles and their sense of horrible dysfunctional dynamics. It’s difficult to think of any band who would so nakedly, even brazenly, parade these on screen, and for this Metallica should be given great credit. Also, the sheer scale of their success means that these fractures seem larger and more fundamental than might be the case with other groups. But really there is nothing unique in the scenario illuminated by Some Kind Of Monster. The only unique thing is that Metallica made a virtue of it, rather than any attempt to keep their dirty laundry from the public eye.

You were kind to the Lou Reed/Metallica collaboration so I went back and gave it a listen. There’s a cut of “Junior Dad” on You Tube with no vocalsthat’s actually kind of nice. Which brought up a link to Pantera’s collaboration with David Allen Coe, “Rebel Meets Rebel”. (advantage Pantera) I know that’s not really a question but the Lulu record is really a bizarre footnote in the Metallica annals and I wanted to give you space to address it.

We think Lulu is probably one of the finest examples of Metallica acting as artists and artists only. In that sense, it is an almost ridiculously risky venture. Almost all of their fans despised the record and went so far as to conclude that the group had lost their minds in committing to it. But this is unfair. Much of the music on Lulu is not just challenging but also unique. In a just and fair world, it would be nice to think that in years to come the piece will receive some of the credit that it deserves.

You end the book with a skepticism concerning new music from Metallica. What are your thoughts of “Lords of Summer”?

It’s a good song. Whether it would stand tall on either Master Of Puppets or The Black Album is another question, but in and of itself there is much to recommend it. What is more worrying is the fact that this song has been standing alone since last summer. Where are the other songs that might join it to make up a new Metallica album? It’s this question that most sorely needs addressing.

What is the legacy of Metallica one hundred years from now?

Good question. A hundred years is a very long time. Given that almost no music from a hundred years ago is widely known by the general public, it’s tempting to say that it might not be remembered at all. But if it is, they will be recognized as the greatest metal band of all time.



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