Rock Hall Class of ’09: Metallica — metal masters get call for Hall

By  Joel McIver

The 1986 Metallica lineup featured (from left) Cliff Burton, Kirk Hammett, Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield. (Ross Halfin/Elektra)

The 1986 Metallica lineup featured (from left) Cliff Burton, Kirk Hammett, Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield. (Ross Halfin/Elektra)
There are millions of people in this world for whom heavy metal is a mystery, an irrelevance, or a cause for extreme hilarity.

Such people wonder why the crazy longhairs with the odd-shaped guitars are shouting like that, and why the music (although they don’t really like to call it music) has to be so loud — and snicker in amusement at the amount of leather, denim and spandex that accompanies the riffs and squeals. What is this juvenile idiocy, they ask?

I’m familiar with this point of view, having spent a decade documenting the international heavy-metal scene and encountering endless sarcasm and bemusement along the way. When my 2004 book “Justice For All: The Truth About Metallica” (Omnibus Press) became a bestseller, shifting close to 40,000 copies in eight languages and several editions, non-believers would ask me how come it had done so well for a book about a “niche” band. Seriously.

Well, it must be apparent to everyone by now that Metallica are no longer niche, cult, underground or anything other than a vast, globe-straddling cultural phenomenon. Close to 100 million in album sales have been clocked up since the Californian-Danish quartet formed in 1981, with an incalculable number of singles, DVDs and items of branded merchandise flying off the shelves — and millions of gig-goers have been treated to massive doses of heaviness at their shows.

Metallica’s current world tour has grossed more than $60 million and shows no sign of slowing down — with dates stretching into spring 2010. Public enthusiasm for their latest album, Death Magnetic, was so fervent that it sprang directly to #1 on the Billboard chart on its release in September last year. In doing so, the album made history: Metallica is now the only band ever to have scored five consecutive U.S. #1s.

Not bad for a niche band, eh?

On top of all this hyper-achievement, Metallica is about to be inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, in recognition of the band’s vast successes over a quarter of a century (the minimum period of activity after which an act can be nominated for inclusion). E-mails have been flying around the fans and the press from their management company, Q-Prime, in search of various long-lost ex-members and associates who the members of Metallica want to invite to the ceremony. The event is clearly something of which the band is rather proud — and if you’re aware of Metallica’s humble beginnings, you’ll appreciate why.

The band has always been steered by Los Angeles-born frontman James Hetfield and immigrant drummer Lars Ulrich, a pair who are living proof that the power of heavy metal can unite people from the most disparate of backgrounds. Hetfield was a quiet, naturally introverted kid back in 1981, made even more so by the loss of his mother to cancer two years before. With a troubled family background based squarely in the Christian Science religion, it’s little wonder that he sought the annihilation of the senses offered by stadium rock and metal acts such as Aerosmith and Van Halen.

Ulrich was James’ polar opposite: diminutive where Hetfield was brawny; an inveterate motormouth when James was silent; born and raised in Denmark, in stark contrast to his friend’s all-American roots and values; culturally sophisticated and artistically literate, where Hetfield was neither. It was these two personalities who drove Metallica, from their inception as just another garage act to the position they occupy today as the world’s biggest heavy-metal band.

That trajectory has been written about many, many times, by me and a lot of other writers, but it still reads like an early draft of the “This Is Spinal Tap” script. Hetfield and Ulrich were gigging in South California by 1982, assisted by mercurial guitarist Dave Mustaine and bassist Ron McGovney; on replacing those musicians with Kirk Hammett and Cliff Burton, respectively, they released a debut album in ’83 on the tiny Megaforce label; recorded their masterpiece, Master Of Puppets, in 1986; supported Ozzy Osbourne; lost Burton in a coach crash in Sweden later that year; recruited Jason Newsted of Flotsam And Jetsam in his place; and consumed so much booze along the way that fans dubbed them “Alcoholica.”

Metallica’s quantum leap to the stratosphere came with 1991’s self-titled “Black Album,” which has shifted more than 15 million copies in the U.S. alone and which was at least partly responsible for the relocation of heavy metal to the mainstream, where it still resides today.

Three years of touring behind the Black Album ensured that the whole planet knew who Metallica was, and for the next 15 years or so they tried to return to that commercial peak. It wasn’t easy in that period, with the band releasing mundane, alternative-metal albums in the 1990s, losing Newsted in 2001, Hetfield enduring a spell in rehab in ’02 (suddenly the “Alcoholica” gags weren’t so funny any more) and an all-time career low coming in the form of the terrible 2003 album, St. Anger.

Still, the only way was up, and after funding and releasing the $8 million feature film “Some Kind Of Monster” — a documentary of their recent travails — Metallica returned from the brink, boosted by new bassist Robert Trujillo and rejuvenated by professional career-resuscitator Rick Rubin on Death Magnetic. The band’s rehabilitation is complete with the Hall Of Fame induction, although how long Metallica can continue to operate is a moot point.

It isn’t merely album sales which have snagged Metallica their place in the Hall Of Fame, of course. Their influence on countless other bands has been acknowleged since their first taste of success at the vanguard of the 1980s thrash-metal movement. Without Metallica, huge-selling bands such as Pantera, Sepultura and Slipknot would have lost a key influence. Grunge and 1990s alt.-rock would have sounded softer and less dynamic without Metallica’s catalog to inspire them. And it’s impossible to imagine today’s enormous, multi-stranded metal scene without their presence.

This is why we should care about Metallica — and if the whole noisy circus is still a mystery to you, then don’t worry. There’s still time for a late conversion to the cause.  

Joel McIver’s book “To Live Is To Die: The Life And Death Of Metallica’s Cliff Burton” will be released by Jawbone Press in June.
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