The Meandering Path of Metallica's (Heavy) Mettle
Metal is, at its best, a niche genre of music these days, relegated to random satellite radio stations and populated mostly by bands unknown to the general public. Except Metallica. It’s been thirty-one years since Metallica released its seminal opus …And Justice For All and while the album wasn’t the band’s first release nor close to their last, the work stands today as a milestone for the band going from prominent in the heavy metal scene to owning it outright. After the success of the album, Metallica never looked back, plowing ahead and doing whatever it wanted while indulging nearly every creative and commercial whim en route to becoming one of the biggest bands in the world.
Like any transcendent artistic entity, the band is merely itself, undefined by any category or genre and able to rely on a solidified base of fans who will largely approve (or at the very least tolerate) whatever it does. There are few musical acts in this territory historically and it stands to reason that someday this century, Metallica will simply become the singular embodiment of heavy metal, similar to how casual music fans see Bob Marley as being reggae despite the vast array of other reggae artists in existence. Many music fans today might find comparing Metallica to the Beatles either blasphemous or patently absurd but this isn’t an entirely unreasonable place to start when assessing Metallica’s place in music history or their role in the future of how music is seen decades from now.
Let’s be clear before delving too far with this comparison. Do I think Metallica can claim the same place in popular music’s historical, cultural consciousness as the Beatles? No. But no band will ever match the Fab Four in this particular way since music now is completely different than it was during their limited (but momentous) run. Metallica will be no exception. It’s often said the Beatles had great timing, something which is not false but a bit misleading and actually undermines how great the band really was. Popular music was indeed around, charts and all, by the time the band made its way to the United States after years of sharpening their musical chops in Europe. But if they hadn’t come in 1964 they certainly could have come the next year or the one after that and still had roughly the same impact.
In essence, the Beatles created the time in which they were a dominant cultural force rather than simply occupying an era already created for them. There is a difference. The impact of the Beatles in the years after coming to America is obvious and undeniable, its imprint on popular music irreversible and permanent even after they broke up for good. Metallica’s not equaling that type of impact. But then again, nobody will. The conditions are simply not available for this type of singular impact to happen again, ever. Music is simply not perceived or consumed this way and never will be again. But a musical act doesn’t have to be the Beatles to become a singular force that rises above its perceived genre and become a permanent fixture in the ongoing musical landscape. In this respect, Metallica has as large a profile today as anyone who’s ever played.
Who are other musical game changers? Think Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, U2, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Beyonce. Led Zeppelin. The Rolling Stones. Maybe Prince, Taylor Swift, The Eagles, Jay Z. The biggest of acts don’t always reach this level of exclusivity (think Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand or Billy Joel, for example), not because they aren’t significant enough or lacking greatness or widespread popularity but because they aren’t alone in what they do. There are many other rappers besides Jay Z. But who will else define the genre? Who has risen above it most to be heard by those not considered hip hop fans? So far, Jay Z. Others have come close and perhaps still will in the years to come (Eminem or possibly Kendrick Lamar if he keeps chugging away for another decade or more), and hip hop stands the best chance at creating another one of these types of transcendent talents considering it’s reach in popular culture today. But not yet. If you have to pick one transcendent country artist, it’s Cash all the way. Was he the best? It doesn’t really matter. All of the above artists have something particular in common — at one time or another, every one of them pissed off their fan base. In a big way. In most every case, this was the best thing they could have done because it earned them even larger audiences. All transcendent acts rise above their perceived artistic boundaries and tribes to reach new fans, often angering and alienating their original fans in the process. Historically this is temporary and most fans gets back on board at some point. But in order to become truly big, this type of artistic betrayal is necessary.
Metallica has done this multiple times in a variety of ways. And because of this tendency to do what it wants in whatever way it wants, it became among the biggest bands the world’s ever seen. They could have become KISS but wound up somewhat becoming metal’s U2. The list of Metallica’s perceived sins is long and at times, petty. Here’s a partial review. They released an album of covers. They stopped thrashing (not forever but for awhile). They made some country songs. They played at a Raiders game wearing game jerseys. They cut their hair. Lars Ulrich can’t (supposedly) drum very well (a claim which seems on its face utterly ridiculous). They made a documentary (Some Kind of Monster) about getting group therapy which struck some as almost satirical and decidedly Spinal Tap-ish. They ran through multiple bassists after the untimely death of original member Cliff Burton. They sued their own fans over using Napster. Ulrich sips champagne and is a million dollar art collector (OK, this last one is pushing it but it’s true. I think it actually makes him more sincere, but some fans hate it. Watch the documentary and decide for yourself). They made a live album with an orchestra. They performed with Lady Gaga on an awards show. Controversial? Sure. But these are things you do if you want to be huge. And clearly, Metallica has never been unclear about this ambition. They are huge. Even if heavy metal isn’t. This is an important distinction.
Formed in 1981 in Los Angeles, Metallica established itself as a band that was louder and cruder than the spandex wearing “hair” pop-metal bands in the area at the time, something which earned the band die hard fans while pushing it outside of mainstream success initially. They weren’t singing about getting girls or partying or any of that nonsense. They were singing about big things, deep, dark stuff not heard since the heyday of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. And they were louder, heavier and faster than either of those classic bands. Robert Plant and Ozzy Osbourne were intense vocalists and performers, but neither came off as enraged and intense as frontman James Hetfield. Armed with his guitar and sneering growl, he was more metal warrior than a lead vocalist.
From 1983 to 1988, Metallica released four excellent and memorable albums (Kill ’Em All, Ride The Lightning, Master of Puppets & …And Justice For All) which put the band in the driver’s seat of the revived heavy metal scene. The band then left Los Angeles and headed out to win an audience on the road. The group lost Burton in a tragic bus accident in 1986 but pressed on with Jason Newsted (who would quit and replaced by Robert Trujillo in 2003) and by 1991 were in a position to pretty much do anything it wanted. Instead of getting louder and faster, the band took a slight detour and recorded their most commercially successful and creatively pivotal album ever, Metallica (or more commonly known as “The Black Album” for it’s somber black cover with only a slightly visible band logo in the corner and “Dont Tread On Me” snake symbol from the American Revolution-era Gadsen flag). The album was loud and bombastic but lean and condensed in a way which attracted music fans who maybe liked hard rock music but weren’t necessarily into thrash metal. There were hit singles (and two quasi-ballads) to anchor a bunch of other high quality songs on a relatively concise (a dozen songs clocking in at just over an hour) release. Selling over 16 million copies (when numbers like this still mattered), the band was arguably the biggest thing going.
If you chart album sales, Metallica’s career arc looks identical to a mountain, with everything pre-Black Album climbing upward while everything after gradually declining (the band’s last official album, Hardwired…To Self-Destruct, was released in 2016 and sold just over a million copies in the US). Overall, they’ve sold a boatload of albums (over 125 million worldwide) and sold out tours year in and year out. In between they’ve done some really cool and weird stuff. Aside from the documentary, they recorded a strange album with Lou Reed (Lulu) and made the aforementioned live album with the San Francisco Symphony (S&M) while doing pretty much anything else they wanted, including starting their own brand of whiskey and a new line of watches featuring the covers of their early albums. Later this year the band will perform with the San Francisco Symphony once again (called S&M2) The band has also established a “Metallica Scholars” program aimed at helping students gain secondary education through colleges which reside in places the band tours. Heady stuff.
If album sales haven’t become an outdated statistic, it certainly is on its way to going the way of the Dodo bird. As fans regularly and increasingly become consumers of digital singles (not albums) on various platforms, sales of albums become nearly irrelevant. Touring, downloads and sales of merchandise to create and maintain a specific brand is where money and influence is to be had, and in this modern arrangement, Metallica still looms large. They are a dependable brand in the most legitimate of ways, one with a consistent and broadly appealing product. This isn’t a criticism of their music at all. Their latest album is good, maybe the best they’ve had in a decade or more. But many people won’t hear it or know what it is or that it’s even released. But because of the new world musical order, this doesn’t matter. For Metallica, the work is done. They are huge and will remain so for years to come. Remember decades ago when Mick Jagger made ill advised and premature comments about singing “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” when he was old? Hetfield never claimed any such thing and today can roll on, belting out “Enter Sandman” for years to come and nobody will have a problem with that.
Music has undergone seismic changes in the last twenty years, many of them so infant we don’t know their complete ramifications. One thing we do know — perceptions of musicians today and the standards by which they’re measured will change. Cash was big in his day but in death has reached near mythical status. People seem to forget that in between his magnificent and most powerful artistic output was lots of mediocre filler. If you do a deep dive of Cash, prepare to sift through lots of stuff you probably won’t want to listen to. But the stuff that works is pure gold, the likes of of which we won’t see in country again. Cash’s esteemed cultural value today has as much to do with his image as a rebel and maverick as it does his music. Cash’s lyrics are less modern country than they are hip hop but just way before his time.
Dylan will always be known as a different artist to different people since he underwent so many creative transformations during his career. Folk Dylan now stands as a small phase in his lengthy and storied history even though it remains a powerful benchmark for 1960s protest culture. For some, Folk Dylan is the only Dylan that ever existed. The Beatles have a very defined period of time in history and distinct musical catalog, one which got richer staring in the 1990s with released demos and other versions of their more well known recordings. Decades after breaking up, The Beatles remain one of the biggest bands in the world. The Beatles aren’t great just because of their music but because of their permanent influence on popular music. I suspect strongly people will always know who the Beatles are even if they get the details wrong. It can be argued the band’s most commonly accepted “greatest work” (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) isn’t it’s best work after all. That’s true greatness.
Metallica is firmly in this territory no matter what they do from here on out. Just as the Beatles define popular music today, Metallica will soon become heavy metal and the genre’s decreasing cultural importance actually increases the band’s chances of establishing this legacy permanently. They’ve come and conquered due to talent, drive and timing. No metal band, no matter how good, can ever hope to match Metallica’s impact because the landscape of modern music won’t allow it to happen.
Metallica’s in and not going away and no other up and coming or successful band in its genre will alter that reality one bit. The band can keep cranking along for years to come, much like a metal version of the Rolling Stones, and the legacy will only grow. “Nothing Else Matters” may not be “Yesterday” but it’s closer than you think.