They’re not really thought of as innovative these days, but long before thrash metal had a name, Metallica were combining the rapid drums of hardcore punk with the giant riffs of the New Wave Of British
Heavy Metal (NWOBHM).1981’s ‘Hit The Lights’, written by James Hetfield in his pre-Metallica band Leather Charm, is frequently cited as one of the earliest true thrash songs, and ’tallica were the first
of thrash’s Big Four to form (the others being Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth).
For a band that would go on to be ripped off by umpteen others, Metallica slightly stole their name. Fanzine editor Ron Quintana asked Lars Ulrich back in 1982 which would be the better name for his metal ’zine, Metal Mania or Metallica. Ulrich convinced Quintana that Metallica sounded a bit crap, which led to the fanzine being named Metal Mania and Ulrich acquiring a kick-ass band name.
Much of the angst and anger that dominates Metallica’s work can be traced back to Hetfield’s upbringing as a Christian Scientist. This religious offshoot believes in rejecting medical intervention, something that has a tendency to end badly – both Hetfield’s parents died, painfully, of cancer. His religion also meant he was often taken out of lessons to avoid learning about the human body, which led to feelings of alienation. Tracks like ‘The God That Failed’, ‘Leper Messiah’ and ‘Mama Said’ came directly from Hetfield’s feelings of guilt and rage.
Metallica’s second bassist, Cliff Burton, was crucial to the development of their sound. He was also so good that the band relocated to accommodate him
when he refused to move to LA. But in 1986, during the Swedish leg of the Damage, Inc tour, Metallica’s tour bus skidded off the road. Earlier the band had drawn cards to determine who got to sleep where – Burton had won with the ace of spades and taken guitarist Kirk Hammett’s bunk. He was thrown through the window and crushed beneath the bus as it rolled.
The band earned the nickname Alcoholica in the 1980s, but have all left the drink and drugs behind. Hetfield’s experiences in rehab for the demon drink were probed in ‘Some Kind Of Monster’, and he now sports a straight-edge tattoo. Hammett battled cocaine addiction and experimented with heroin, while Ulrich got off the coke with the help of, of all people, Noel Gallagher.
During the band’s early years, no interview was complete without some reference to shower-averse, herring-chomping Ulrich’s stench. The band as a whole were described by the normally polite Newsweek as “ugly, smelly and obnoxious”. Ulrich’shygiene hasn’t necessarily changed – in 2001, he said, “I don’t think there’s anybody in this band who hasn’t hadcrabs a couple of times”, and he’s proudly compared Metallica’s endurance to that of herpes.
As seems inevitable for the lead singer of a band as pyro-happy as Metallica, James Hetfield is no stranger to being engulfed in flame. While co-headlininga 1992 shoe with Guns’N’Roses, a pyro charge exploded, and it was onlyHetfield’s guitar that stopped him being burned to a crisp. He suffered second and third-degree burns, later remarking, “Your own burning flesh doesn’t smell too good.” He also had a clause placed in his record contract forbidding him from skateboarding after one too many broken arms.
One of Ulrich’s most polarising acts ever was his 2000 attempt to sue Napster and 300,000 of its users for $10 million. He personally delivered a 60,000-pagedocument to Napster’s office, documented by press he’d called in, and was amazed by the backlash from fans, many of whom now saw the band as spoiled, petty, greedy millionaires. “If you’d stop being a Metallica fan because I won’t give you my music for free, then f**k you, I don’t want you to be a Metallica fan,” he told Playboy. Patti Smith, conversely, described the lawsuit as “just about the most uncool thing you could do”.
The relationship between Hetfield and Ulrich is rife with friction, yet it’s key to the band. For a drummer who’ll freely admit his shortcomings (including drumming), Ulrich is extraordinarily ambitious, and his single-mindedness and determination are responsible for a lot of Metallica’s success. Hetfield is a self-described “control freak”, and the pair constantly butt heads. Hetfield sums it up as it as, “We love each other and hate each other. We’re like brothers.” They’ve fallen out and reconciled countless times over the years, with Hetfield coming close to firing Ulrich on multiple occasions. During the making of ‘St Anger’ they brought in a performance coach to work on inter-band relationships – the scene in ‘Some Kind Of Monster’ when Ulrich shouts “F**************K!” into Hetfield’s face is extraordinary.
The new album ‘Hardwired…’ features no writing credits for guitarist Kirk Hammett after he lost his phone containing 250 riff ideas in Amsterdam airport. Some of their clumsiness has made it to vinyl: ‘Broken, Beat & Scarred’ from ‘Death Magnetic’ features the amazingly awful lyric “What don’t kill you make you more strong”, which sounds like it’s been put back and forth through Google Translate a dozen times.