Today Metallica released their tenth studio album, Hardwired…to Self-Destruct. At least two people alive now were not alive when the previous album, Death Magnetic, came out eight years ago. One of them is my daughter. The other is my other daughter. Both of them can read now (more or less) and both are being subjected to me trying to build my calluses back up in order to learn the riffs to “Atlas, Rise!” This post is for them. Not really. Actually it’s for me, and other’s like me. Maybe you, even. To quote James Hetfield in the split-second moment of silence before the explosion of a Kirk Hammett guitar solo: “Go!”
The Beginning (1981-85)
A band from England called Diamond Head writes a song called “Am I Evil?” which resonates in the bones of a young Danish tennis player named Lars Ulrich. Lars quits tennis and comes to America to be a rock star, bringing with him a tape of the song. He plays it for a kid he meets named James Hetfield. James likes it too but thinks Diamond Head performs it like a bunch of wimps. “That singer ties his shirt tails and prances about,” says James, finding this to be evidence against the evil in question.
Guitarist Dave Mustaine and bass player Cliff Burton join. They too learn “Am I Evil.” None of them change a note. What they do change is how tough they look while performing it. Tied-off shirts and prancing? Out. T-shirts and frowning? In. And a rule is made: No smiling.
Metal fans approve of these tweaks. Tied-off shirts, prancing, and smiling, are starting to feel dated, and Diamond Head songs are discovered to be better without them. So Metallica learns more, practices looking tough and frowning, and builds a good following. But the supply of Diamond Head songs is finite, and soon they must start writing their own.
They write a bunch. Fans respond well. So does a record label. Metallica travels from San Francisco to New York to record their first album. Many of the songs they will record are by this new guitar player, Dave.
Dave drinks a lot. A whole lot. So much that he leaves almost nothing for the other guys, who want to drink a lot too but can’t because Dave’s drinking everything. This is a big problem in a band whose nickname is Alcoholica. It’s a real big problem for Dave, because it gets him kicked out of the band. Right before they record some of his songs for their first album, no less.
This pisses Dave off big time. He may still be a little pissed even today.
A guitarist named Kirk Hammett takes Dave’s place. Kirk learns Dave’s solos and plays them note-for-note. This further pisses off Dave, and when Metallica releases these songs as the album Kill ‘Em All, Dave seeks revenge by banging Kirk’s girlfriend. The effect of this on Kirk is insignificant, as he is now in Metallica and has unlimited access to girlfriends.
The Kill ‘Em All songs mesh well with the tough guy, no smiling vibe, and are a hit in the metal world, so Metallica takes the next logical step, which is to record a couple more Dave songs they know, add some of their own, and put out a second album, Ride the Lightning. This comprises
cheerful, uplifting songs that have nothing at all to do with death eight songs about horrible ways to die. By electric chair, by drowning, by suicide, in battle, from plague, by decree of Pharaoh, that sort of thing. Okay, seven if the instrumental Call of Ktulu is not counted. But even that one has moments where Cliff makes his bass scream like someone is dying.
Fans love it, and Metallica plays Bill Graham’s Day on the Green with Scorpions and Ratt.
The Middle (1986-1989)
Metallica is getting big, but they’ve run out of Dave songs and are forced to write an album of entirely original material. The result is Master of Puppets, arguably the best heavy metal album ever.
If you think Dave was pissed before…
Dave’s new band Megadeth is not doing poorly at all, but nowhere near as well as Metallica. Dave is so bitter that one day when he sees his old band’s tour bus pass by, he begins to shout nasty things and run along after it.
He chases it all the way to Europe. Somewhere in Sweden he finally gets close enough to poke a drum stick between the spokes of a front wheel, and the whole thing goes ass over tea kettle.*
*Okay, Dave’s part in this is entirely made up, but it’s funny to imagine. The bus did crash, though, killing Cliff Burton, which is not funny at all. Ironic, though, that this was one of the few ways of dying not explored on Ride the Lightning. Anyhoo…
With Cliff gone, Metallica hires Jason Newsted to not play bass on the next album. This part is true – bass guitar is absent on the final cut of …And Justice For All because Metallica is hazing the new guy, who’s replacing the dead guy, who’s so recently dead that these kids haven’t had a chance to mourn properly. Being only 23 or so, they don’t know how. Plus, they are pushed by management to plow ahead without pause. Plus, they are assholes.
None of this stops the video for “One” becoming Metallica’s first mainstream hit. Now their fans are not just long-haired freaks who don’t smile, but regular short-haired dudes doing a Scooby Doo head-tilt and going “ruh?” at this new type of heavy metal that might just be not too terribly uncool to like.
The Beginning of the End (1990-1993)
Enter producer Bob Rock, of Mötley Crüe fame. He listens to a new batch of songs Metallica has written, shortens them by half, simplifies the riffs, and makes James sing instead of scream on some. “You’ve already won over the people who don’t like smiling,” says Bob. “This will appeal to people who do.”
James and Lars furrow their brows and frown at this, but agree anyway. The result is The Black Album.
It is huge.
So huge that Metallica are now Certified Rock Stars, and at the pinnacle of their power. Here they are in Moscow putting the nail in Soviet Russia’s coffin.
The Middle of the End (1994-99)
Terrible things begin to happen after this. They start to do whatever Bob Rock says. They start dressing like U2. Lars and Kirk discover makeup. James cuts his hair, thereby broadening his appeal to the average American male and contributing to the rise of bro culture. (A topic deserving a post of its own.)
They put out the album Load. In time, this would prove forgivable. But next, they put out Re-Load, which will never be forgiven. More on that here.
When they start releasing covers of Bob Seger and Lynyrd Skynyrd songs, fans begin to boo.
Then they do a live album with the San Francisco Philharmonic Orchestra. Live albums at this point in a band’s career are almost always a bad idea. This was bad timing, but not necessarily a bad idea. In fact, it could have been a great idea. But it turned out bad.
Actually, it was terrible.
Jason quits soon after. Bob Rock starts playing bass.
The End of the End (2000-2006)
By now ten years have passed since The Black Album, and Metallica is in trouble.
For some reason, they lash out in courts of law against a brand new file-sharing service called Napster, and their own fans who use it. This doesn’t help things.
They decide it is time to stop fucking around and make another album. They start one, but can’t finish it.
They decide to make a movie.
They start one, but can’t finish it.
James tries to stop drinking and goes to rehab, which almost finishes Metallica.
All of this takes years to play out. At some point they find a guy named Robert Trujillo who played bass for Suicidal Tendencies and Ozzy Osbourne a pay him a cool $1,000,000 signing bonus to play bass for Metallica so Bob Rock doesn’t have to, which had been a terrible idea anyway.
Eventually James gets sober. He replaces his addiction to drink with an addiction to ink, which does little to help make the album St. Anger any good. It does help them finish the movie Some Kind of Monster, which turns out great, and gives everyone, or at least Lars, a chance to make peace on a therapist’s couch with Dave. Or at least make it look that way with editing, says Dave. Click here to decide for yourself.
Having hit rock bottom, Metallica fires Bob Rock and brings in Rick Rubin, figuring if he could save Johnny Cash he could save Metallica, too. He does. The result is Death Magnetic, their best (or at least their most “Metallica”) album since Justice.
Fans rejoice. Metallica is back. All is well with metal again. They tour the world with their buddy Dave and his band Megadeth, as well as their friends in Anthrax and Slayer, billing themselves as the “Big Four.” The fans turn out, devil horns held high.
Second Death (2009-11)
But new terrible things begin to happen. The band has an idea to make an album with Lou Reed. Somehow this is allowed to progress from idea stage to planning stage, then to the actually-happening stage. The result is Lulu, a spoken-word concept album based on a play by German playwright Frank Wedekind.
The folly of actually completing this project boggles the mind, as the opportunities to abort it must surely have been numerous.
After Lulu, Metallica is down for the count again. And so is Lou Reed, who passed away soon after. RIP, Lou.
Second (Mini) Resurrection (2011-present)
Metallica attempts to recover, both literally and metaphorically, by performing a series of shows in their hometown of San Francisco with an all-star lineup of metal legends including the likes of Glen Danzig, King Diamond, and Rob Halford, not to mention their old buddies Dave Mustaine and Jason Newsted, and members of Diamond Head. As damage control, this works pretty well.
Full Blown Resurrection & Recovery (2016)
On November 17, 2016, Metallica posts 12 music videos to YouTube, one for every song on their 10th album, Hardwired…to Self-Destruct. On November 18, the album is released. Here’s a track from it that will kick your ass:
Metallica is back, and as good as ever, although they now look like dirty old grandfathers.
And there you have it. You are up to date. If you enjoyed reading this half as much as I enjoyed writing it, then you enjoyed it a good little bit.
ImagesFeatured Image – blogher.com Diamond Head – theengineface.com James & Dave – metroactive.com Day on the Green – mylespaul.com Lars & Dave in Metallica – morereverbplease.com Hetfield After Rehab – uncyclopedia.wikia.com Unhappy Jason – rockrevoltmagazine.com Hatchets Mostly Buried – holierthanyou.tumblr.com