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The Winners’ History of Rock and Roll, Part 5: Metallica

How the 'Black Album' changed everything

When someone says Led Zeppelin, people know what that is. When someone says Metallica, hopefully they’d know what that is, what it means. That was the goal.” —James Hetfield on the “Black Album,” 1991, in Rolling Stone

“If I’m in a corner, I like my corner. It’s the coolest corner I’ve ever been in.” —Slayer’s Kerry King, 2011, on VH1’s Metal Evolution

Who needs to stretch their legs? For perspective’s sake, let’s step out of The Winners’ History of Rock and Roll for a moment and ponder what’s been going on in rock thus far beyond the confines of our narrative. In Part 1, I quoted rock critic Jon Landau talking in 1969 about how Led Zeppelin “revealed the deep division in what was once thought to be a homogenous audience,” and how this splintering “evolved into a clearly defined mass taste and a clearly defined elitist taste.” Faced with this fork in the road, we chose the “clearly defined mass taste” route. But what about the road most traveled by rock critics — the one populated by the Joe Strummers, the Thurston Moores, and the Stephen Malkmi of rock history? What have we been missing?

In broad terms, the “elitist taste” wing of rock was forged out of seemingly contradictory impulses. On one hand, it was insurrectionist — the idea being that an underground culture pitched in opposition to the mainstream would eventually “take over” rock music, replacing “lame” bands with “cool” ones. Or at least that’s what would “rightly” happen, if this were a just world. Insurrectionists believe that a confluence of shadowy forces — including the media, the record industry, and the public’s plebeian sensibilities — conspire to keep great rock bands down.

I should point out that, for most of my life, I’ve been a rock insurrectionist. Many of my favorite bands from the last decade — The Hold Steady, Drive-By Truckers, Wilco, Deerhunter, Fucked Up, Japandroids — are enjoyed by about 150,000 people. I mean 150,000 people total — 10,000 or 20,000 here and there might not like one or two of those bands, but it’s generally the same pasty, 35-to-44ish, predominantly dude-y bunch. And I hate this. I hate that these bands have never headlined an arena, nor even had their songs played over an arena’s PA to get a crowd warmed up between acts. I believe they deserve a bigger audience. Drive-By Truckers compiled maybe the best discography of any rock band in the ’00s, and yet if you tried to play a cut from 2004’s The Dirty South on a typical classic-rock radio station, a mysterious, conspiratorial black hand would suddenly emerge and replace it with a Foreigner song.

Rock insurrectionists might have a paranoid view of the machinations of mainstream rock, but back in the ’70s and ’80s, they also were completely correct about the system being rigged against their favorite groups. Major labels controlled access to radio airplay by constructing a corrupt network of independent promoters guaranteed to get certain artists on certain stations — and certain artists not on those stations. The object was to lock out anybody who didn’t have the wherewithal to ply the program director at Topeka’s top rock station with coke and color TVs in exchange for playing the latest single off Styx’s Paradise Theater.

Sometimes even bands signed to majors were shafted if they happened to be even the least bit quirky. In his classic 1990 music-industry exposé Hit Men, journalist Frederic Dannen writes that CBS Records president Dick Asher was upset that his own PR guys were pushing REO Speedwagon’s Hi Infidelity, which became the best-selling album in 1981, to the detriment of The Clash and its 36-song experiment in high musical infidelity, Sandinista! But by then the filthy, stinking trench of record-business dirty dealings had been dug so deep that not even the guy in charge of flushing the toilets could shut it down.

But where some people wished that CBS would give The Clash the means to become the biggest band in the world, others were more than happy to keep The Clash and other groups of its ilk sequestered from the general public. This brings me to the other impulse at the core of elitist taste rock: isolationism.

The mono-media of the 20th century — with its centralized delivery and promotional systems, punk-averse prime-time dramas, and Doobie Brothers–obsessed sitcoms — helped to keep underground culture underground, and after a while this separateness sort of became the point. Anybody could be a fan of Led Zeppelin or Kiss; it didn’t mean anything to like those bands, because those bands were for everybody. But if you were into rock music that aggressively wasn’t like Led Zeppelin and Kiss, you could become part of an exclusive fraternity of in-the-know somebodies.

In this context, true greatness in rock can’t be summed up by record sales, hit singles, or the ability to fill hockey arenas. Rock isolationists deal in a far less concrete form of currency: credibility. Only how do you properly tabulate the value of this currency? It’s easy enough to look at a Billboard chart and determine who’s won or lost. But for isolationists, losing out in the marketplace can be a win, because it shows that you’ve effectively done something weird, challenging, or progressive enough to alienate the masses. Losing out there is the whole point in here.

A funny thing happened in the ’90s: ET rock and MT rock converged a little bit. Bands that had existed for years with little or no mainstream footprint suddenly became an insurrectionist force in American culture. There was Nevermind and grunge rock on Top 40 stations. There were Pavement videos on MTV. Even the Butthole Surfers had a hit single. When R.E.M. re-upped with Warner Bros. for what was then the largest record contract ever, a new paradigm seemed to finally be in place — though this proved to be true for only a brief window of time. For about four or five years, the only rock bands who sold millions of records were bands who claimed not to care about selling millions of records. Even if alt-rock was 85 percent marketing,1 it was still a smart business position to at least pretend that you hated popularity. It was an insurrectionist’s dream come true.

The most successful band to make the transition from underground rock linchpin to aboveground rock superstar was Metallica. Its fifth album, 1991’s Metallica, is still the most popular record of the modern SoundScan era, with nearly 16 million sold in the U.S. alone.2 The “Black Album” was so successful that Metallica toured the world for over two years supporting it, playing 300 shows in the process, and showering with an estimated 9,600 naked women afterward.3 All the while, Metallica insisted that it had conquered the mainstream with its precious credibility intact. “People look at Metallica and go, ‘this is fucking real.’ They know that this is the real shit,” Lars Ulrich told Rolling Stone in 1991. “It is not fabricated. It is not product. It is real people, writing real songs, being pissed off, having certain feelings, writing them down and making music without worrying about what the fucking consequences are.”

A few years before the release of the “Black Album,” the name “Metallica” was thrown around by other musicians as shorthand for hard-assed, borderline irritating integrity. This was at the time of 1988’s … And Justice for All, a brutally humorless lecture about the risks of allowing alcoholics to watch CNN in the waning days of the Reagan era.4 When pressed by a Rolling Stone reporter about his band’s hard-rock credentials in a 1989 cover story, Bon Jovi’s Richie Sambora threw up his hands and replied defensively, “I’m not here to make the guy in Metallica happy. We depend on our public as our barometer.” But in the aftermath of the “Black Album,” a significant portion of Metallica’s audience no longer thought of the band as the real deal, much less the “fucking real” deal.

Hetfield
Bon Jovi was now a reference point for Metallica, rather than the other way around. The “Black Album” was produced by Canadian music industry veteran Bob Rock, a protégé of Slippery When Wet producer Bruce Fairbairn and the architect of the multi-platinum Dr. Feelgood by Metallica’s onetime Sunset Strip nemesis, Mötley Crüe. This wasn’t lost on Metallica’s former colleagues in the ’80s thrash scene. When Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo heard Metallica, “I threw it down the stairs,” he says in the VH1 documentary series Metal Evolution. “I said, ‘What the hell is this?’ I couldn’t believe it. I felt that the thrash in thrash metal was gone. I saw it conform to the MTV style of music promotion.”

Lombardo pledges allegiance to the isolationists’ credo: “We don’t want to change,” he says of Slayer in Metal Evolution. “We are who we are.” Where Lombardo is wrong about Metallica is that the “Black Album” finally made them what they always wanted to be: a band with Led Zeppelin’s “everybody” appeal. Even before the “Black Album,” Metallica had produced its own “Stairway to Heaven” with “One,” a breathtaking (and pretty!) antiwar ballad that appropriated the soft opening-rocking climax structure of “Stairway” while substituting Tolkien for Dalton Trumbo in the lyrics.5

All along, Metallica had been an MT rock band in ET clothing. This explains why Metallica wasn’t torn apart in the ’90s by the tension of wanting to reach a huge audience while also yearning for the comfort and control of a niche scene, as many alt-rock bands were. Metallica never pretended to be a punk band; the members never retreated from fame to tour with Mike Watt or pal around with Ian Mackaye; they never tried to challenge the corporate institutions that made them millionaires; they never tried to pass themselves off as something they weren’t. Metallica was committed to the rock audience as a living concept. It wanted to be the band that serviced those millions of people like the bands of the past had. What Metallica didn’t know was that the audience it had won over would be composed largely of isolationists by the dawn of the new century.

In a nonscientific poll of Metallica fans that I’ve informally conducted for the past 21 years, I found that zero percent think that the “Black Album” is the band’s best record. The margin of error for this poll is roughly 25 percent, since most of the data was collected in bars and dorm rooms under the influence of various chemicals. But still, that’s an incredible figure considering that the “Black Album” (along with Nirvana’s Nevermind, Pearl Jam’s Ten, U2’s Achtung Baby, Radiohead’s OK Computer, and possibly Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness) is one of the last rock records that even non-rock fans would recognize from its radio songs. Hating the “Black Album” — or regarding it with a measure of hostility anyway — has long been a distinguishing mark of the “true” Metallica fan.6

But why? The great tracks on Metallica — “Enter Sandman,” “Sad But True,” “The Unforgiven,” and “Wherever I May Roam” — are undeniably great. “Nothing Else Matters” is easily Metallica’s third-best ballad ever, and only slightly wussier than “Fade to Black” and “Welcome Home (Sanitarium).”7 Even the dumb tunes on the “Black Album” are difficult for me to hate;8 in a 2001 Playboy interview, Hetfield called “Through the Never” “a little wacky” and “Holier Than Thou” “one of the sillier songs,”9 but I love them both.

What is it about the “Black Album” that inspires otherwise mild-mannered drummers in psychopathic metal bands to hurl it down stairways? It’s not just the fact that it made Metallica rock stars, because Metallica already were rock stars. Metallica went gold for the first time with 1986’s Master of Puppets, probably the consensus choice for the band’s best record. And Justice was as big a hit as most bands could ever hope for, peaking at no. 6 on the Billboard albums chart and selling a couple million within a year of its release.

The “Black Album” wasn’t about pulling Metallica out of obscurity; it was about selling the band, as Hetfield put it in Rolling Stone, to “people who’d never heard Metallica before.” And the ramifications of that, both real and imagined, are what really make the record so polarizing.

Reading interviews with Metallica from the “Black Album” period, it’s obvious that the band is sensitive about copping to the changes made to its sound to reach those new people. Instead of saying, “We made the songs catchier and the rhythms stronger and funkier,” Kirk Hammett told Spin “We wanted more of a groove thing.”10 The lyrics were described as introspective, rather than equally apt descriptors such as “sensitive” or “romantic.” In Rolling Stone, Ulrich claimed he was indifferent about Metallica debuting at the top of the charts — but since the “Black Album” had done that, he wanted the world to know it was done without compromise: “This whole thing was done our way. There is an inner satisfaction about that, to give a major ‘fuck you’ to the business itself and the way you’re supposed to play the game and the way we dealt with all that shit up through the mid-Eighties.”

Metallica‘s music spoke louder than the band members’ words. The fact is, Metallica did compromise; even if it was done by choice and not industry edict, it was hardly a “fuck you” to the music business, which benefited handily from the band’s new musical direction. The “Black Album” attracted a whole new class of Metallica fan. These were people who did not have a favorite Iron Maiden record, or know anyone who even owned an Iron Maiden record. Certainly Spin had no use for Metallica before the “Black Album.” In a 1991 cover story, journalist Bob Mack belittled Metallica’s ’80s records, writing that they “mixed the worst aspects of metal (bad haircuts, self-serving riffs) with the worst parts of punk (lousy vocals, calculated anger).” As for Metallica, Mack says “sociologically it’s the album that will make it safe to like Metallica,” due partly to the lack of “goofy heavy metal cartoonery” on the cover.

As for those who already liked Metallica, the band members testily deflected their criticisms. “I’ve run into fans who think the album’s crap,” Hammett said in Rolling Stone. “Friends of mine who are really hard-core fans have said, ‘Well, the album’s not as heavy. You guys aren’t as heavy as you used to be.’ I go, ‘Man you’re trying to tell me “Sad But True” isn’t heavy? “Holier Than Thou” isn’t heavy? How do you define heavy?'”

It wasn’t a question of musical heaviness; the heaviness or lack thereof was metaphorical. The metal underground long ago had drawn lines between us and them; Metallica had drawn up some of those lines themselves, by playing harder and faster than any band on the planet for a time. “Crossing over” for Metallica meant leaving those distinctions behind. On the “Black Album,” Metallica sided — intentionally or not — with the anti–”goofy heavy metal cartoonery” people.

Metallica
If the “Black Album” was regarded in some circles as a betrayal, it was nothing compared to the band suing its own fans over file-sharing in 2000.

By going after Napster, Metallica proved it’s possible to be incredibly stupid and absolutely correct at the same time. Metallica had done what was necessary to “win” in rock — it toured endlessly, it slaved over albums that sold millions, it made cheesy music videos that MTV ran into the ground. Now people claiming to be their fans wanted to take it all away? How did that make any sense?

“I’m still shocked at the reaction people have,” Hammett told Playboy in 2001. “I thought it was so obvious: People are taking our music when they’re not supposed to, and we want to stop them. Computers make it seem like you’re not stealing, because all you’re doing is pressing a button. The bottom line is, stealing is not right.” Ulrich, of course, was more blunt: “If you’d stop being a Metallica fan because I won’t give you my music for free, then fuck you. I don’t want you to be a Metallica fan.”

Anyone who still thought Metallica was the edgy outsider band who would theoretically welcome an industry demolisher like Napster was sorely mistaken. Metallica had a lot to lose, and understandably wanted to protect it. Ulrich insisted that the most valuable commodity at stake wasn’t money, but control. “I want to choose what happens to my music,” he said in Playboy. “It’s pretty clear that the future is selling your music online. But common sense will tell you that you cannot do that if the guy next door is giving it away for free.”

But what Metallica didn’t get was that Napster was the ultimate insurrection. And Metallica was an ideal target because it was now an impersonal institution. Metallica had become just another rich rock band; even people who liked Metallica didn’t seem to think of it as being a part of them, as the kids who bought Kill ‘Em All and Ride the Lightning did in the ’80s. You didn’t have to care passionately about Metallica to know about Metallica’s music; those records were now just lines of text on a computer screen requiring a bare-minimum amount of effort — a quick mouse-click — to drop them into your hard drive.

Metallica worked for years to position itself as a larger-than-life band — which was precisely the worst thing it could be in that climate. It was like being stuck in a foreign land with a pocketful of currency that was suddenly worthless.

Metallica’s crusade against Napster is a turning point in The Winners’ History of Rock and Roll. You could argue that this is where our story should end.11 File-sharing effectively decentralized music distribution and severely diminished the metrics by which we award “winners” in rock. Napster leveled the playing field and pushed the participants toward an uncertain horizon that stretched into the infinite. Now listeners could hear something new every hour of every day if they wanted. In the new world, novelty and choice were in; slowly bleeding the same album of singles over the course of two years was out.

Metallica set out to become a touchstone band — a name that stood as tall as Zeppelin. But communities now gather around the Internet, not around bands. Perhaps Metallica should have heeded the prophetic words of Bill Flanagan, who wrote back in 1989 in Musician magazine that “the lesson of the ’80s may be that musical trends are now shaped more by delivery systems than any act. The next Elvis or Beatles may be technology.” But technology aside, rock is more blinkered than other genres. Even the snootiest, mainstream-hating hip-hop fan is aware of Kanye and Drake. But the average rock fan tends to burrow deep into subgenres and sub-subgenres, feasting on refinements of stuff they already like. Rock now caters in specificity, not broadness; most rock records these days are geared toward aging collectors already buried in rock records. The prevailing attitude is, “If I’m in a corner, I like my corner. It’s the coolest corner I’ve ever been in.” The insurrectionists won the battle, but the isolationists won the war.

Coming up in Part 6: Linkin Park is one of the few rock bands to rank among the top-selling acts of the 21st century. It’s also one of the few to survive one of rock’s last great commercially successful (and most maligned) subgenres: nu-metal. I’ll write about Linkin Park’s unlikely career durability, and how rock bands have tried to engage with rap music with, at best, mixed results.

Filed Under: Art, General topics, History, Metallica, Music

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Steven Hyden is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden