Metallica and friends: “‘The Black Album’ was a victory for the underdog”

30 years on from its release, the band and famous fans – including Alessia Cara and Sam Fender – celebrate the masterpiece with sprawling covers album ‘The Metallica Blacklist’

Metallica were mid-way through their 1988-9 Damaged Justice tour when they were hit with a sinking realisation. It was the thrash metallers’ biggest tour to date, their first time playing arenas, and a monster run hitting all 50 US states. They were supporting their fourth album ‘…And Justice For All’, a record that had booted them into the big leagues, and pushed their most progressive, cerebral tendencies right to the front.

But, as they launched into the album’s almost 10-minute title track, they noticed the attention of the crowd begin to wane: fans were checking their watches and gazing impatiently around the room. Someone yawned. The track’s batshit, pinball time signatures and breakneck solos weren’t going down quite as well as the band has hoped. Thank God there was pyro.

By the time the tour wrapped in São Paulo on October 8 1989, Metallica felt they had taken the increasingly fancy thrash of their first four albums as far as they could. “The songs had got longer, more self-indulgent and wackier,” drummer and unofficial bandleader Lars Ulrich says today, speaking to NME down the phone from his home in San Francisco. “We’d done almost a decade of feeling like we were on the same path. We needed to do a hard restart. We needed to switch it up, for our own sanity if nothing else.”

NME Cover 2021 Metallica
Credit: Ross Halfin

Their mission statement, when they headed into LA’s One On One Recording studios in October 1990 for album number five, would be to make a record the polar opposite of ‘…And Justice’. And they needed to go big. “It wasn’t just about precision or not fucking the song up,” says Ulrich, explaining the need to strip away the bravado and “self-indulgence” and edit themselves for the first time. “It was about trying to put attitude in there, or swing and swagger, or to try and be, dare I say it, more soulful. All of that stuff was completely foreign to us.”

Metallica came out the other end with the self-titled record that, thanks to its no-frills artwork, came to be known as ‘The Black Album’, a gargantuan beast of a record that knocked mainstream rock off its axis and turned them into the biggest band on the planet. The labyrinth-like art-metal was out and muscular, accessible anthems were in, weighty enough to blow chunks out of the floor and ready-made for stadiums.

To date, it’s sold over 30million copies and, to mark its 30th anniversary, has just been given the remaster treatment, reissued alongside ‘The Metallica Blacklist’, a sprawling 53-track compilation album that sees a mammoth, genre-crossing list of artists – from pop hero Alessia Cara to fellow rockers Royal Blood – put their own spins on the tracks, often with different takes on the same track. “Every artist was free to pick whatever songs [as] we didn’t dictate to anyone,” explains Ulrich. “[We said], ‘If there’s 20 versions of one song, that’s great.”

NME Cover 2021 Metallica
Metallica on the cover of NME

It seems the band’s original ambition with ‘The Black Album’ – which Ulrich, not too delicately, previously described as a bid to “cram Metallica down everyone’s fucking throat all over the fucking world” – has paid off. And then some. Statements like the aforementioned have won the band’s unofficial leader quite a reputation. He’s the loud-mouthed figure metalheads have loved to hate ever since the band sued file-sharing platform Napster in 2000 (a move that led to 300,000 users being banned from the service). His notoriety only increased with the band’s 2004 documentary film, Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster, which saw him scream “FUCK” in vocalist and rhythm guitarist James Hetfield’s face, before declaring his riffs “stock”.

Today though, he’s warm, welcoming and humble (“Hey you’re in Leeds? I was just talking in another interview about Leeds United in the 1970s!”), albeit sounding slightly weary after a long week of press. “It’s still surreal to have a record of this magnitude,” he says, “[and] that still means this much to so many people 30 years later.”

Even now, you can hear its impact rippling through modern music, from the blistering rage that courses throughout Rina Sawayama’s debut, ‘SAWAYAMA’, to the existential menace on Poppy’s ‘I Disagree’. Hell, listen to the nightmarish navel-gazing on Phoebe Bridgers’ ‘Punisher’ and countless others – beneath them all pulses the metal-for-the-masses sensibility Metallica put forward on ‘The Black Album’.

“Metallica have been able to transcend genre. They’re so much more than a rock band” – Alessia Cara

The cross-genre list of artists who signed up for ‘The Metallica Blacklist’ is proof of just how far Metallica have penetrated popular culture. For Alessia Cara, who has collaborated with Mexican rock band The Warning on a version of ‘The Black Album’’s defining anthem ‘Enter Sandman’, all gale-force guitars and sultry vocals, the new compilation is proof that brilliantly written songs render genre boundaries irrelevant.

“They’ve been able to transcend genre and space and time – they’re so much more than a rock band,” she says, admitting that she was taken aback when the band approached her. “I didn’t think they would know who I am! My first memory of hearing them was seeing the ‘Enter Sandman’ video and being so scared of them. I was the monsters-in-your-closet type of kid and there were these images of this little kid in bed. I have a lot of cousins who were in bands growing up and my dad’s a big rock fan so as I got older, I started to appreciate rock music. I was very honoured to be asked to carry on this amazing legacy they’ve created.”

Newcastle singer-songwriter Sam Fender, whose haunting rendition of ‘Sad But True’ is one of the most arresting moments on the album, adds: “They’re iconic. It’s incredible that they have been together for 40 years. It gives inspiration for a new generation of bands knowing they have had that longevity as a group of friends playing music together. They created one of the most legendary rock records ever.”

NME Cover 2021 Metallica
Credit: Ross Halfin

In true rock’n’roll style, ‘The Black Album’’s recording sessions were famously tumultuous. Looking to nail a thicker, more muscular sound, the band had brought in Mötley Crüe producer Bob Rock. He attempted to push the band out of their comfort zone, and they fought bitterly against the tide.

“We’d never worked with a producer like Bob before and we were very suspicious and uncomfortable being told what to do,” remembers Ulrich. “Because Bob, in some way, represented everything that we’d tried to avoid for 10 years, which was to have somebody try to force us to change. There was a lot of turmoil internally.”

Indeed, the 1992 documentary A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica revealed the relentless drama and inter-band battles. In one scene, Ulrich asks Hetfield to and do try a take of ‘The Unforgiven’ with vocals, and he tells the drummer acidly, “You want to hear it with vocals? Go sing it.”

When it was released on August 12, 1991, though, ‘The Black Album’ went straight to Number One on the US Billboard chart, where it stayed for four weeks. “That wasn’t meant to happen!” says Ulrich, who remembers the sudden shift in public attention. “I remember we were in New York six, nine months after the record came out and people would say, ‘Hey – are you the guy from Metallica?’ That had never happened before anywhere. Everything that fuelled us and made us get out of bed was trying to be contrary to what the mainstream was. [We received] these updates every day from management: ‘Oh, now you’re Number One for the third week in Switzerland’. It was like, ‘Huh?!’”

Even so, Ulrich denies it felt like they were creating something “important”, adding: “That word wasn’t in our vocabulary at the time. No one had the imagination or the bandwidth to even think that any of this could be possible.”

“It’s surreal to have a record of ‘The Black Album’’s magnitude” – Lars Ulrich

He agrees that the album’s success was symptomatic of a shift in the zeitgeist. By the end of the ’80s, a sense of fatigue had crept into the hair metal scene that had ruled mainstream rock for almost a decade with darker, edgier bands such as Alice In Chains and Soundgarden (whose 1989 album ‘Louder Than Love’ inspired the riff for ‘Enter Sandman’) starting to appear on MTV. ‘The Black Album’ only accelerated that shift, along with Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’, which was released six weeks later; together they provided the final one-two punch that would put hair metal out of its misery.

“There were kindred spirits in grunge in that we always felt we were outside the mainstream and that we’d carved our own path,” Ulrich says. “It was a victory for the underdog and the disenfranchised, for all the music lovers that lived on the edge. It didn’t feel we had moved to the mainstream. It felt like the mainstream came to us.”

This success didn’t go down well with some purists, who felt alienated by the band’s new-found emphasis on simplicity, not to mention towering ballad ‘Nothing Else Matters’, which even James Hetfield has admitted he initially feared was too vulnerable to include on the record. Metallica lead guitarist Kirk Hammett recently told Classic Rock magazine of the initial backlash: “Did we give a fuck? We gave a fuck for maybe five minutes.” Ultimately, he embraced the brand-new audience who had suddenly become aware of the band and their back catalogue as a result of the ‘The Black Album’.

NME Cover 2021 Metallica
Credit: Ross Halfin

Sam Fender was in that new raft of fans. “When I was a kid, I used to watch MTV and ‘Enter Sandman’ was always on, so I discovered Metallica there,” he tells NME. “Then I started having guitar lessons and my teacher was a shredder – total legend – and he taught me Metallica riffs. When I was a teenager, it was one of my in-roads into shredding, which I didn’t continue with – but that technical ability that I picked up from metal has definitely bled into my guitar playing and made me progress as a player in general.”

“Metallica bridged the gap with ‘The Black Album’,” explains Royal Blood drummer Ben Thatcher. “They brought metal music into a world that was not for metal fans. Instead of this thrash metal they were known for, there were songs and hooks… people could sing along. It’s where they really started to turn the pages of metal and push boundaries.”

The drummer admits – ironically, given Metallica’s spat with Napster – that he first heard the metal titans via an illegal download. Like Fender, Royal Blood have turned in their own version of ‘Sad But True’ on ‘The Blacklist’, although their drums and bass version cleaves more closely to the original, albeit with a slick, sexy swagger that’s more rock than roll. “It was interesting trying to cover a Metallica song without any guitars,” he laughs. “The song itself is quite a bold song and as a band we feel quite bold. We’ve always tried to win over crowds, so we felt like we had to pick a single.”

“Metallica brought metal music into a world that was not for metal fans” – Royal Blood’s Ben Thatcher

While it’s enjoyable to hear their immediate peers, including Slipknot’s Corey Taylor and Swedish cult faves Ghost, take on Metallica classics, the number of metal artists contributing to ‘Blacklist’ seems to have been rightly limited. Things get really interesting when the lines begin to blur and tracks are pushed in unexpected directions – take J Balvin’s reggaeton reimagining of ‘Wherever I Roam’, or Phoebe Bridgers’ haunted circus spin on ‘Nothing Else Matters’.

“Diversity was the battle cry,” says Ulrich, explaining the logic. “To have as many musical genres, voices and nationalities represented. One of the things that makes me happy is how Metallica reaches all over the world, so we wanted to make sure this record would be as much of a global thing as possible.”

When NME asks him which songs from the compilation have blown his mind, Ulrich exclaims: “What about Sam Fender’s version of ‘Sad But True’!? Or, if you stick with ‘Sad But True’, what about [country singer] Jason Isbell’s version? It’s pretty crazy to hear Phoebe [Bridgers]’s version. I’ve known her for a few years; we’ve hung out a bit. When she said yes to doing this project, I didn’t know what she was going to do. She initially told us she was doing one of the other songs… Then when we got sent the tapes. It was ‘Nothing Else Matters’ and it was like, ‘Holy fuck!’

“It’s such an incredible and daring take on the song; so vulnerable and so incredibly beautiful.”

NME Cover 2021 Metallica
Credit: Ross Halfin

‘The Metallica Blacklist’ is now introducing Metallica to a brand-new generation of fans, just as ‘The Black Album’ did 30 years ago. On YouTube, the covers by J Balvin, Weezer (who polished off a typically power-poppy ‘Enter Sandman’) and Miley Cyrus (whose version of ‘Nothing Else Matters’ features Elton John) have been viewed millions of times. Meanwhile, a recent video of Miley performing the track with Metallica on The Howard Stern Show clocked up over a million views within a day of being uploaded to the platform.

For Ulrich, it’s all part of keeping his finger on the pulse of new music, something he tries to do wherever he can. He says he first read about Royal Blood “probably in the NME when the first album came out” and “our whole family fell in love with it”, adding: “It was my kids’ favourite band and favourite album. The first time they played in San Fran, my wife and I met them and hung out. We ended up driving them around and showing them the landmarks.”

His oldest son’s first band once had six Royal Blood covers in their live set. “They were basically a Royal Blood cover band!” he laughs. “Now he and his brother have a band down in LA called Taipei Houston. They’re a two-piece very much inspired by Royal Blood so still even seven-eight years later, Royal Blood is a big part of our family’s musical enjoyment.”

“It’s incredible Metallica have been together for 40 years. It gives inspiration” – Sam Fender

When we relay this story to Royal Blood’s Ben Thatcher, he smiles: “It’s crazy! To have someone like that back your band and not just back it, but think that you’re great, is such a nice feeling.”

At this point, anyone who still views Metallica as rock relics has obviously not been paying attention. Given their embrace of such a diverse cast list, it’s hard to believe that this is the same band who were so suspicious and unwilling to let anyone into their inner circle during recording sessions for ‘The Black Album’. Since the record’s release, Metallica have done more than probably any other metal band to break metal from its confines. In 2011, for instance, they recorded ‘Lulu’, their avant-garde collaboration with Lou Reed (which admittedly was seemingly despised by everyone other than David Bowie, who called it Reed’s “masterpiece”).

Three years later, they headlined Glastonbury with a historic performance (that same year Ulrich would be seen standing at the side of the Pyramid Stage, wearing a Royal Blood T-shirt, during the duo’s blistering set). Metallica were the first heavy metal band to get so much as a sniff at such a prominent slot, and half of the music industry predicted a disaster. Jarvis Cocker suggested it might be “too abrasive”, while Alex Turner couldn’t see it working in the “hippie nucleus”. In the end, Metallica had the last laugh with a thundering greatest hits set that surely converted any naysayers declaring metal had no place at Worthy Farm.

NME Cover 2021 Metallica
Credit: Ross Halfin

In 2017, too, they teamed up with Lady Gaga at The Grammy Awards for a chaotic, fiery performance of single ‘Moth Into Flame’, which was inspired by Amy Winehouse. Today, while Ulrich is reluctant to give the ‘The Black Album’ all the credit for the band’s continued openness, there’s no doubt that the album was a pivotal moment that set them on a more collaborative path.

“When I think of Metallica’s career, there’s no before ‘The Black Album’ and after ‘The Black Album’,” he says. “I’m not trying to play it down, but each one of the records we’ve made has its own set of experiences and memories. To me, every one of those experiences is a stepping stone to what came next. But I’m very appreciative that this led to this, which led to six incredible months with Lou Reed or any of the other life-changing experiences we’ve had with other artists.”

These days, he says, the band spend more time looking forward than recalling the past. “We’re always happiest when we’re experimenting,” he says. “We were fulfilled when we could look back and feel we were never tied down to something that the fans or anyone else wanted from us.” That contrarian energy, he says, boiled over on the ‘The Black Album’. “It was the result of those attitudes that had been inherent in us for years, but we weren’t confident enough to let them flourish and rise to the top.”

NME Cover 2021 Metallica
Credit: Ross Halfin

Has any album had the same impact as the ‘The Black Album’ since its release 30 years ago? “The fact that me and you are sat here talking about it warms my Danish heart,” he reflects. “I still like we’re four outsider loner dudes trying to figure it all out.”

When NME asks if he thinks history will deliver another album like it again, he ducks that question too. “I’m sorry – please answer that for me! Whatever you think is appropriate,” he laughs. “I’m just happy this record sometimes gets mentioned in the same breath as other classic records. I’m eternally grateful to have this album in our catalogue, and that people still give a shit.”

Metallica’s ‘The Metallica Blacklist’ is out now