Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Gods That Failed

Enter Night: A Biography Of Metallica by Mick Wall

St. Martin’s Press – 2010

Bangers, you know as well as I that whenever Heavy Metal is discussed Metallica will somehow enter the conversation for either good or ill. Usually the subject of the dreaded SELLOUT will be mentioned. Older fans like yours truly will then relate at which point they stopped listening to the band by saying, "I liked the first 3 (or 4 or 5) albums but after that they lost me."

I remember listening to Master Of Puppets when it came out in ’86 and thinking it was the tightest, heaviest album of all time. As the years went by Metallica seemed to have lost their way and caved into pressure from management and producers (Bob Rock in particular), and had diluted their sound to the point where they were just another hard rock band.

By the time they released St. Anger in 2003, it seemed obvious that they were completey out of touch with what it meant to be a hard rock band, let alone a heavy metal band. The 2004 Some Kind Of Monster documentary made the band look pathetic and clueless as these millionaires were crying and whining to a goofball therapist. Ugh. Truly this was the nadir of a once great band.

I thought I knew exactly what happened with them: Lars controlled the band and poor old James and Kirk followed along blindly while Bob Rock completely destroyed their sound in a quest for hits. It turns out that I and many others were completely wrong. Mick Wall’s new book Enter Night: A Biography Of Metallica sets us straight. The 470 page tome details the band’s career from inception all the way to the 2010 Big Four shows in Europe. Mick Wall has been covering the band since their earliest days for Kerrang! magazine and that puts him ins a unique position to write their biography.

Wall’s writing is excellent and fast paced and he does not hold back with his opinions. He also reveals a host of interesting facts about the band that I didn’t know. Among them are:

  • Metallica has never gotten along with Slayer, and Slayer feels likewise. Upon seeing Some Kind Of Monster, Kerry King called Metallica “fragile old men.”
  • Not only did the band try to get John Bush from Armored Saint to front them, but they also tried to get Armored Saint’s bass player Joey Vera to replace Cliff Burton when he died.
  • Immediately prior to Cliff’s death, James and Cliff had seriously contemplated firing Lars because of this his mediocre drumming. Dave Lombardo was someone they considered for his replacement.
  • Jess Cox of Tygers Of Pan Tang was also considered as a vocalist but the band had no way to contact him.
  • Metallica has more number one albums than any band in history including U2, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and The Beatles.
  • The four top contenders for Cliff’s replacement were Mike Dale of Corrosion Of Conformity, Willy Lange of Laaz Rockit, Les Claypool of Primus and, of course, Jason Newstead of Flotsam And Jetsam.
  • Jason Newstead was in the band for 15 years and he had exactly 3 songwriting credits.
  • Every album that Metallica has released since Metallica has sold progressively fewer units and St. Anger was a commercial disaster.
  • Lars has only ever been in one band in his life.
  • Lars is one of the savviest people in the music business and usually makes the correct decisions about the band's financials. He makes Gene Simmons look like a kid with his first lemonade stand.
  • James runs the band with an iron fist. All musical decisions are his and he also approves all major business decisions.
  • Kirk has little to no input into the band either musically or business-wise. He enjoys smoking weed, surfing, horror films and reading comics. He is essentially a non-entity.
  • James is a vicious drunk and a bully who has no clue who he actually is as a person. He is a real nasty piece of work and I have zero respect for him.
  • Both Flemming Rasmussen and Bob Rock forced Lars to take drum lessons during recording as his skills were rudimentary at best. In fact, Rasmussen had to teach Lars that drumming meant more than just fills and Lars didn’t even know what an upbeat was.
  • Kirk relied on Joe Satriani for help when he was working on solos early on. Joe was Kirk’s guitar teacher.
  • Jonny Zazula was still serving time in prison when he brought the band to New Jersey to record Kill ‘Em All.
  • Geoff Tate is an insufferable asshole. He labels Metallica fans as “low education, lower income, drunks, and drug users.” Geoff, what the fuck do you know about Metal anyway, you washed up, no voice-having shitbird. Release something as good as the Queensryche EP again and maybe I would listen to you, but until then shut the fuck up.

What makes this book invaluable is the understanding it provides about why Metallica makes the choices they make when it comes to musical direction. Here's the picture that emerges from the book.

Initially Lars and James wanted to emulate their heroes of the NWOBHM and thus they made Kill ‘Em All. Both Ride The Lightning and Master of Puppets were revolutionary and sounded like nothing else in Metal. It’s at this point that Metallica as a revolutionary force in Metal ended and the band became reactionary.

Believe it or not, …And Justice For All was a reaction to Guns ‘N Roses’ Appetite For Destruction and Lars really wanted an angry sounding album like Appetite. Later, Lars had been listening heavily to both The Cult’s Sonic Temple and Motley Crue’s Dr. Feelgood and wanted the drum sound in particular on the next Metallica album, so they brought in Bob Rock who had produced those albums. Both James and Lars wanted to go in a more commercial direction so they recorded music that would lead to singles and videos. The result was the massive Metallica album that has sold 25 million copies to date.

In 1995, the band regrouped and once again reacted to what they thought was the dominant music of the day – grunge. They were determined to stay on top commercially and thus recorded Load and “reinvented” the image of the band with the short hair, eye liner, cigars and Lollapalooza tours. It’s here that the band was too clever by half because Grunge had already over after Kurt Cobain gave himself a shotgun shampoo.

In essence, they miscalculated gravely and left a lot of money on the table. The smart thing for them to have done would have been to continue in the vein of Metallica and make commercial Metal. They failed to do this and as a result they alienated a large part of their old fan base and gained none of the Grunge audience who had zero interest in Metallica regardless of their hair length, tattoos or piercings. Their absence in the Metal market allowed bands like Pantera to pick up the ball and run with it to great success.

Following Load, the band pooped out Reload which consisted of the remaining tracks from the Load sessions. It sold half of what Load sold and was subpar at best. This was followed by Garage Inc., and S&M because the band had renegotiated their contract, which now allowed them to count live albums and compilations as part of their obligation to their record company. Thus they churned out stopgap material to satisfy their seven album deal.

By 2003 the band was in turmoil because of Jason's departure and James' stint in rehab. They had no clue what to record because there were no real trends to follow. Thus you get the unfocused nonsense that is St. Anger which is virtually unlistenable. Their label was beyond dismayed when they heard it and it was a disaster financially.

Finally by 2008, the band had noticed that the “classic rock” or “nostalgia” circuit was in full swing with bands like Kiss, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden cleaning up on the road. This led them to crank out Death Magnetic and then to agree to the Big Four shows. After 20+ years they cared about thrash again.

Thus Metallica has always been about being the biggest band in the world and not the biggest Metal band in the world. They want commercial viability above everything else and with Lars’s business acumen and James’s songwriting abilities they were successful beyond their wildest dreams. In many ways I admire them because they have achieved everything they wanted and more, but I am also sad because I now realize any integrity they had about being a Metal band was a fraud. They used that when it suited them and then discarded Metal when it was no longer fashionable.


The Bottom Line: I would recommend this book to anyone who's a current or former fan of Metallica. It’s chock full of details and revelations about the biggest band in the world but don’t be surprised if you become melancholy upon finishing it. The band you thought you knew and loved never really existed.


1 comment:

  1. I look forward to reading it so I can see how far they really fell.