As outlined by Mick Wall in his new biography, the band — Lars Ulrich, James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett, and a succession of bassists — have enjoyed a career that has had its fair share of Spinal Tap-like moments as well as its successes. Among the band names they toyed with, for instance, were Thunderf**k and Nixon, and their first album was originally to be called Metal Up The Ass. When distributors baulked at handling such a title, Metallica called it Kill ‘Em All instead.
Founded in Los Angeles in 1981 by Ulrich, a Danish kid whose parents were well-to-do bohemians, and Hetfield, a taciturn working-class hardcase, Metallica rode to success on the coattails of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, headed by Iron Maiden. Metallica were one of four thrash metal bands that rose to prominence in the 1980s, the others being Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax. When one considers how hard those others can be on the ear, one may better appreciate how Metallica soared above them, both in their musicianship and commercial success.
As Wall recounts, Ulrich’s father was a tennis pro and jazz musician. The family moved to America so Ulrich could train as a tennis player. But he soon became side-tracked by his love of metal music. His meeting with Hetfield was fortuitous; their shared determination and fierce work ethic saw them cohere into a creative force that took no prisoners in its forward momentum. Inevitably, there were casualties; guitarist Dave Mustaine was fired for substance abuse after the recording of their first album, and though he went on to enjoy success with his own band, Megadeth, he seems never to have forgiven Metallica for replacing him with Hammett.
Wall has some unlikely fixations, such as on Ulrich’s “European” approach to personal hygiene, which saw him go unshowered for days on end. His attempts to big the band up as a subversive force in music are fairly risible, particularly when he writes sympathetically of diehard fans’ dismay in the mid-1990s, when the members of Metallica cut their hair and started sporting designer clothes, jewellery and tattoos. Surely the fans’ bewilderment only served to highlight their inherent conservatism?
As the money rolled in, the individual members of Metallica developed some strange and expensive habits. Ulrich, for instance, amassed a vast art collection — including works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jean Dubuffet and Willem de Kooning — which he eventually auctioned off for more than $40 million. Hetfield, meanwhile, declared himself an environmentalist, and joined the National Rifle Association, at much the same time, then bought a ranch in the country, where he indulged his love of fast cars and fire-arms.
At one stage, Metallica hired a group therapist, Dr Phil Towle — for $40,000 a month — and had him sit in on recording sessions. Towle’s arrival coincided with that of a film crew, who recorded the band’s near-disintegration and renewal in the acclaimed documentary film Some Kind of Monster.
Metallica also achieved notoriety when they sued Napster over file-sharing, which the band argued was theft. But they soon wised up to the marketing possibilities the internet offered, and they have learned to adapt and survive as the record industry melts down around them.
Metallica have toured extensively over the past three decades, but what is truly peculiar about a book like this is its inability to conjure up the chaos and decadence of life on the road. There are descriptions of alcohol and drug abuse — and dalliances with groupies, of course — but there is no sense at all of a bunch of diehards skirting with self-destruction. Only Hetfield seemed possessed of a genuine outlaw spirit, and even he checked into rehab on the cusp of middle age. Perhaps, if the truth be told, Metallica were just careerists who got hammered at the weekends.