Dirty, obnoxious, noisy, ugly, and everywhere: when Metallica painted the world black

Metallica in 1992 - Sygma
Metallica in 1992 - Sygma

On Saturday August 3 1991, Metallica drew a crowd of more than 14,000 people to the turquoise and crimson seats of Madison Square Garden, in New York, without playing a note of live music. Instead, the crowd gathered to hear the San Franciscan band’s forthcoming self-titled fifth LP, soon to be known by all as ‘The Black Album’, pumped through the PA system of "the world’s most famous arena".

The grandstanding event was the idea of the group’s record company. Elektra’s high hopes for their signatories’ latest LP were realised when The Black Album entered the US Billboard Hot 200 at number one. It has since spent 580 weeks on the American chart. Toward the end of the attendant 23-month world tour its authors issued a T-shirt on which were written the words, "Birth School Metallica Death". Try as I might, I can think of no other band who could justifiably make such an outrageous claim.

To mark the album’s 30th anniversary, today the group unveils The Metallica Blacklist, a 53-song collection featuring a dazzling, and sometimes dizzying, array of cover versions by artists as diverse as Miley Cyrus, Biffy Clyro, Weezer, Sam Fender, Royal Blood, Chase & Status, and dozens more.

For those with £250 to burn, today also sees the release of Metallica (The Black Album) Remastered, a 14-disc compendium of original demos, live albums, picture discs, a lyric folder, a 120-page hardcover book, and other trinkets and ephemera associated with the album and its subsequent tour. A remastered edition of the parent LP is also included.

“The response when we put the word out that we were looking for people’s interpretations of our music was so overwhelming, and the stuff was so good, that it was hard to say no to anyone,” Kirk Hammett, the band’s lead guitarist, told Kerrang!. “So we just decided to say ‘yes’ to everyone.”

The genesis for The Black Album occurred at an Aerosmith concert at Toronto’s CNE Stadium in the summer of 1990. Watching the New Englanders perform to 60,000 people, Metallica’s co-manager Cliff Burnstein turned to singer and guitarist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich and said, “If we really want to do this we can take [your band] to a lot more people. But that will mean that we have to do certain things that on the surface seem like the games other people play.”

As well as much else, in the 1980s Metallica had proved they were not a band that played by music industry rules. An intoxicating blend of feral energy and virtuosic chops, the group’s considerable success had been achieved not in spite of their trenchant, snarling sense of opposition, but because of it. As one, their fanatical audience recognised the group as ideologues and trailblazers. Saviours, even. Master Of Puppets, their deeply revered third album, sold more than a million copies in the US alone despite the absence of a single or a music video.

As journalist Sue Cummings noted, "Metallica are too proud to dress up; their uniform is the uniform of the average fan, the teenage American slob: sneakers, ripped jeans, t-shirts". In Faces magazine, Dave Roberts was blunter still. "They’re dirty, obnoxious, noisy, ugly and I hate them," he wrote, "but you can’t deny their success.’ (Sufficiently delighted, the band splashed the quote above a picture of themselves bearing impish grins in a 1986 tour programme.)

But by the end of the eighties, Metallica had scrapped themselves into a corner. Despite its multi-platinum status, their fourth album, …And Justice For All, was a maze of ill-disciplined songs diminished yet further by a brittle production that sounded like the band were trying to make a papadam rather than a record. James Hetfield barking on about issues he didn’t really care about - a title track concerning the vagaries of the US court system was cribbed from the Al Pacino film of the same name – didn’t help matters either.

“It was obvious that we needed guidance,” the singer said.

The guidance came from Bob Rock – his real name, apparently – who had made his bones as a producer for Motley Crue and an engineer with Bon Jovi. Dependably defensive to the grave charge of ‘wimping out’, Metallica were at pains to explain their motives. “The sound of [those] albums was great,” Hetfield once told me, “[but] the songs were crap and the bands were f______ gay.” Squirreled away at studios in Los Angeles and Vancouver, Rock and Metallica worked and warred for nine months. They spent a million dollars. The album was given the working title Married To Metal.

Metallica on stage in Chicago, 1989 - WireImage
Metallica on stage in Chicago, 1989 - WireImage

Rock’s job was to persuade the group to abandon their habits of indulgence and fussiness. Metallica’s role was to protect the parts of their character – obduracy and defiance, to name just two – that had served them so well in their career’s remarkable first act. Lars Ulrich liked to work in the night’s smallest hours while James Hetfield preferred daylight. As if three seasons of sleep deprivation weren’t quite enough, the band’s two alpha males hazed their new producer without mercy.

“We really put him through the wringer,” James Hetfield said. “[But] he survived. We were testing him and s___, making sure that this guy can drive the Metallica train.” Rock nicknamed Hetfield ‘Dr. No’ on account of the guitarist’s refusal to entertain almost all of the producer’s suggestions.

But Bob Rock was no pushover. Recognising that Metallica represented a breed of younger metal bands defined in part by their deficiencies, he insisted that the much-criticised Lars Ulrich take drum lessons to address his erratic timekeeping. James Hetfield – whose vocal contributions to the band’s first four albums had consisted of “basically yelling in key” – agreed to see a vocal coach. “I didn’t end up singing like an opera singer, which I couldn’t do even if I wanted to,” he said. “I still sing like a sailor.”

Rock was especially hard on Kirk Hammett. With the clock ticking on the completion of the pivotal lead work on The Unforgiven, one of ‘The Black Album’s standout tracks, the producer insisted to Ulrich that the guitarist “[has] got to f______ eat, breathe and sleep this f______ [part] until it’s done.” Speaking to the Hammett directly, he snarled, “Cut to the f______ chase and play, okay?... Let’s hear the f______ Guitar Player [magazine] of the year.” Insulted and aggrieved, the guitarist duly delivered what for my money is the finest solo of the past 30 years in a single take.

“You could say that maybe I was a bit of a jerk,” Rock would later say. “But there were a lot of jerks around that studio at that time.”

Men in black: Metallica in 1992 - Getty
Men in black: Metallica in 1992 - Getty

Maybe, but at least the effort and rancor were worth the candle. Applying only the lightest splash of hyperbole, the producer enthused to anyone who would listen that the pummeling Sad But True was a Kashmir for the 1990s. With a good deal less prescience, he told Hetfield and Ulrich that the somewhat rote Holier Than Thou – a song immeasurably improved by Biffy Clyro on The Metallica Blacklist – was a shoo-in for the album’s leadoff single.

Lars Ulrich knew better. As the man responsible for piecing together his group’s songs from a mountain of riff tapes submitted by the two guitarists, Ulrich is both Metallica’s chief architect and its visionary. Following an appearance at the Glasgow SECC in the spring of 1990, he heard a motif inspired by the Soundgarden album Louder Than Love on a cassette tape submitted by Kirk Hammett. From this, Enter Sandman, The Black Album’s first single and its authors’ biggest hit, was born.

The following year, Bob Rock was asked to piece together a 60-second snippet of the recorded song for use at a convention of radio programmers in San Francisco. “A few days later we heard back that it blew the doors off the room when they played it,” recalled Adam Dubin, the group’s documentarian during this period. “You just had to know you had a hit on your hands.” In the space of a minute, Metallica went from an ephemeral presence on radio to a staple of rock stations from Tacoma to Tampa.

The group also sold two million copies of the single Nothing Else Matters. Resolute and only somewhat clunky, James Hetfield’s first love song was one of a number of tracks on The Black Album in which the singer exposed the fears and vulnerabilities that lay at his troubled core. “All I could think at the time was, ‘James wrote a f______ love song to his girlfriend?’ That’s just weird,” said Kirk Hammett. “For him to write lyrics like that – showing a sensitive side – took a lot of balls.”

The album is not without its duds. The jingoistic frippery of Don’t Tread On Me might have been forgivable - just - were it not harnessed by music that is stuck in second gear. (Suitably appalled by the song’s sentiment, Rolling Stone advised Hetfield to "go fight in a war [yourself]. Then wave the flag and jump on the yellow-ribbon bandwagon, if you still want to.") Its final two tracks (My Friend Of Misery and The Struggle Within) herald a tail-off so acute that when the group performed the LP live in its entirety, in 2012, the running order was reversed.

Despite its astounding success, The Black Album wasn’t – and isn't - universally loved by its authors’ core constituents. So the complaint goes, its release saw Metallica swap their status as outlaws for a residency on MTV. The only problem with this claim is that it’s palpable nonsense; the band were just more visible, is all. Certainly, the jet-black heaviness of songs such as The God That Failed and Of Wolf And Man support the theory that it was they who dragged the mainstream onto their turf rather than vice versa.

And they certainly didn’t stop being weird. For The Black Album’s second single, The Unforgiven, director Matt Mahurin was allowed to spend several hundred thousand dollars filming a deeply unsettling black and white video featuring five minutes of perfect silence but not a single member of the band. Out on the road Metallica were, if anything, even more feral than before. Live versions of earlier day favourites such as Whiplash and Battery were dispatched with the swivel-eyed ferocity of a band who were in, rather than of, the mainstream.

James Hetfield on stage in 1992 - Getty
James Hetfield on stage in 1992 - Getty

“Heavy metal has always lived in its own bubble,” Andriy Vasylenko of the podcast Metalligeek told the Independent. “The Black Album was the only real leak of metal into the broader public. Almost everyone has heard Nothing Else Matters or Enter Sandman at some point in their lives.” Or, as the music journalist Mark Blake memorably put it, The Black Album gave a generation of listeners permission to paint their bedroom black.”

Lars Ulrich was in Budapest when he learnt that his group’s new LP had walloped its way to the top of the US Billboard album chart at the first time of asking, and where it would remain for the next month. On tour in Europe as special guests to AC/DC on that summer’s Monsters Of Rock caravan, the drummer absorbed the news with a sense of anticlimax.

“You think that one day some f_____’s gonna tell you, ‘You have a number one record in America’, and the whole world will ejaculate,” he said. “I stood there in my hotel room with this fax [which said] ‘You’re number one’ and it was, like, ‘Well okay’. It was just another f______ fax from the office.”

In truth, the omnipotent success of The Black Album can only be partially explained by its (mostly) towering music. The more fundamental reason for its enduring profile - and that of its authors, who today remain capable of filling any stadium in the world – can be found in the defensive and invariably agitated intransigence of Metallica’s DNA. For them, nothing, not even global domination, is ever enough.

“One of the biggest misconceptions about Metallica is this whole thing of, ‘We’re doing it for the fans’,” Lars Ulrich once told the journalist Paul Brannigan. “No, we’re not f______ doing it for the f______ fans, we’re doing it for ourselves. The reason fans relate to what we’re doing is because our music… isn’t [compromised by] what somebody else expects or wants from us. That’s been the party f______ line from the start. Yes, we sign autographs and we’re accessible and we don’t put ourselves on pedestals above our fans, but we don’t do this for them.”

The Metallica Blacklist is on release now