In the summer of 1990 the biggest heavy metal band in the world stood at a crossroads. Metallica, who headline Slane Castle this weekend, had entered the new decade goliaths within the metal scene. But they were also, they feared, hurtling towards a dead end. Having conquered metal, where did they go next?
This existential crisis was unfolding in the shadow of the death of their bass player and early driving force Cliff Burton. He was just 24 when, in 1986, Metallica’s tourbus skidded off a road in southern Sweden, having apparently struck black ice. He was flung through a window, dying almost instantly.
Burton was crucial to Metallica’s initial success. The group’s founders, singer / guitarist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich, had been so eager to have him join that they relocated from Los Angeles to suburban San Fransisco just to accommodate his homeboy instincts.
Through the years that followed his death, his bandmates had struggled to process their grief. Ironically, they did so as their popularity soared. Which is how they came to find themselves in such a funk following the release of 1988’s six-million-selling …And Justice for All.
That record had been their biggest hit to date. Yet it also captured musicians deeply at unease with themselves. During the recording, Hetfield and Ulrich had edited out all of new bass player Jason Newsted’s parts. The result was a clattering and muggy affair, powered, to an overwhelming degree, by Hetfield’s guitars and Ulrich’s drums. They felt it had backed them down cul de sac
What would they do next? The obvious answer was to cross over – to go from being one of the biggest metal groups in the world to one of the biggest bands full stop. And that summer, out of the blue, they’d received an offer that could help them achieve just that. A man named Bob Rock had touted himself as the visionary they needed to produce their next LP
Ulrich and Hetfield were in two minds. They weren’t ashamed of …And Justice For All. It had, after all, peaked at number six in the Billboard Charts. They also knew that they couldn’t go through the experience of making that record a certain time.
Nor was there any doubt but that Rock possessed a magic touch. He had produced Mötley Crüe’s Dr Feelgood and engineered Bon Jovi and Aerosmith. Hits were in his blood.
Metallica had actually reached out to Rock. But only for him to help polish the LP as its engineer. Metallica always produced their own albums. Rock had a better idea: let him sit in the controller’s booth and apply his vision to their music.
He didn’t need to add that his ear for slick, catchy smashes were just what Metallica required.
“Of course, we said: ʻWeʼre Metallica. No one produces us; no one f**ks with our shit and tells us what to do,” Ulrich would remember. “But slowly, over the next few days, we thought maybe we should let our guard down and at least talk to the guy. Like, if the guyʼs name really is Bob Rock, how bad can he be?”
What happened next changed rock music in the Nineties and forever altered the trajectory of Metallica’s career. Released in August 1991 “Metallica”, often referred to as “the Black Album”, was a heavenly marriage of the band’s hellfire headbanging and Rock’s commercial instincts (though the actual process of recording was highly fraught, with Metallica and producer clashing repeatedly).
The Black Album sold in unwholesome numbers – 31 million units and counting – and yielded the hits Enter Sandman, Nothing Else Matters and The Unforgiven. The early 90s tend to be associated with grunge. It was also the heyday of Metallica and coming of age of metal.
Enter Sandman, Nothing Else Matters and The Unforgiven are all on the setlist of the band’s current tour and so are likely to feature when Metallica play their first Irish concert in a decade at Slane. More than 50,000 are expected as Metallica join that exclusive club of rockers to headline the County Meath venue (see also: Guns ’n Roses, Rolling Stones, U2…’erm…. The Stereophonics).
Yet the success of the Black Album also placed Metallica in the uncomfortable position of being both a flag-bearers within metal – where their thrash sound was regarded as pioneering – whilst also being firmly in the mainstream. Ever since they have arguably struggled to reconcile these positions. They did themselves little favour in 2000 when they tried to crush file sharing site Napster.
The sound has been checked & the waiting has begun! Tune in to the #NBAFinals on ABC & Sportsnet tonight to see James & Kirk play “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the @warriors take on the @raptors. Tip off is at 9 PM ET/6 PM PT, so tune in early! 📸 by David Dow/@NBA pic.twitter.com/CacdvaeF38— Metallica (@Metallica) June 5, 2019
Nevermind Napster would signal the beginning of the digital piracy era that would gut the music industry and make it impossible for many artists to earn an adequate living. In the moment, Metallica were the millionaire rock gods, Napster the plucky start-up. To the public they came across as bullies.
“We weren't quite prepared for the sh**storm that we became engulfed in," Ulrich would tell The Huffington Post. "I think history has proved that we were somewhat right. It'll be in the first five sentences of my obituary, and I sort of accept that."
Metallica had by that point spent their time in the trenches. Haunted by Burton’s death they had spent the years following the tragedy drinking themselves into oblivion. They looked back on the 1988 Monster’s Of Rock tour, in which they opened for Van Halen and the Scorpions, as their nadir. That tour was all about coping. And by coping they meant hitting the bottle. All the bottles.
“We used to start drinking when we woke up. We’d get the gig over by three o’clock, and then we’d have eight or nine hours to drink,” Ulrich would recall.
Thirty years later, Metallica are older, calmer and more follically challenged (and long since married with families). But they still pack a punch live. The setlist for their Worldwired tour is a breathless overview of their career, from the protean tumult of 1983’s Kill ‘Em All, to the elder statesman stomp of their most record long player, Hardwired…To Self-Destruct, from 2016 (though they will give a generous berth to Lulu, their panned 2011 collaboration with Lou Reed, based, of course, on the work of the late Nineteenth century German playwright Frank Wedekind).
“Metallica were in the right place at the right time,” says Oran O’Beirne of hard rock website Overdrive. “They assembled the primitive elements of the thrash metal explosion in the early 80s and fused it with a more refined approach to song structure, arrangement and delivery.
“Are Metallica relevant today?” he ponders. “Yes, for their ability to fly the flag for heavy metal as a global movement, and for, no doubt, being that gateway band for younger fans to eventually discover some of the many sub-genres that exist in heavy metal.”