Metallica officially formed in October 1981, a little while after James Hetfield answered an ad that Lars Ulrich placed in a classifieds-only newspaper in L.A. That means the band turns 30 this month. For at least half of that time, the band has been an embarrassing grandfather-clause institution at best. Their recent history is essentially a story of one reckless PR blunder after another. There was the decision to release an even-shittier companion-piece album to their least-liked album. There was Ulrich’s grandstanding and generation-alienating (though economically and morally reasonable) demand that Napster-addicted kids pay somebody for the music on their hard drives. There was the overlong disaster-movie documentary that captured, in excruciating detail, the process of recording a total turd of an album, with every awful creative decision (no guitar solos!) immortalized so that the film could turn out to be way better-regarded than the album it chronicled. And now there’s the turd of a new single “The View,” the ill-conceived and worse-executed new duet with Lou Reed, which doesn’t exactly bode well for their collaborative album. For a while now, things have been grisly. And yet.
Metallica is, by some metric, the most important and successful underground rock band of all time. As whiskey-guzzling road dogs, they were headlining arenas long before they came within sniffing distance of MTV. They filled those arenas while making sprawling, antisocial albums that laughed in the face of commonsense notions of pop-song architecture and general approachability — and they did this while rough contemporaries like Black Flag were still struggling in their vans. When they finally did show up on MTV, it was with “One,” an almost comically dark seven-minute black-and-white vision of total powerlessness. And when they became megastars, they did it with the so-called Black Album, which brightened the melodies and slowed the tempos and shortened the track-lengths but still worked as the heaviest slab of post-Sabbath sludge that this writer’s young ears had ever heard. This band became wildly successful and changed the face of music first, and then went off the rails. And whatever dumb shit Lars Ulrich might pop off the next time someone shoves a digital recorder in his face, that legacy won’t ever go away. This was a band that mattered, and they mattered by rocking harder than anyone else.
I’ve seen Metallica live three times, and each time came when the band was, in the collective mind of its fanbase, teetering on the brink of total lameness. First time: July 1992, the first date of a massive co-headlining stadium tour with Guns N’ Roses that marked the band’s final stratospheric ascent into total megastardom. (Thanks to some errant pyrotechnics in Montreal, that tour also nearly marked the end of Hetfield’s life, another story entirely.) Second time: August 1996, as the once-defiantly-uncool band, hair recently cut to office-acceptable length, headlined the cooler-than-thou Lollapalooza tour and prepared to unleash their not-good-at-all album Load upon the world. Third time: March 2009, as the band celebrated the release of its Guitar Hero video game in front of a cool-kid crowd at SXSW. Every one of these shows came as the band moved a bit further from its teenage blood-and-thunder roots, and yet I can’t imagine the most hardcore fan leaving any of those shows in anything other than a state of giddy headbanged-out ecstasy. Live, Metallica, even when they’re playing the new shit, are a conquering beast, a ridiculously tight unit who will always be able to make their demonic din sound like the biggest music ever. I’ve seen Hetfield loom over his crowd like a gargoyle, demanding to know if we’re alive. I’ve seen them execute feats of mind-bending technical virtuosity while hair-whipping at neckbreak speeds. I’ve seen them stand in front of tens and thousands and cover songs by the Misfits or the Anti-Nowhere League, songs that much of their crowd would only ever know because Metallica covered them.
And then there’s those first four albums. (Some people say first three. I say first four.) Every time the group got together during the 1980s to record, whatever its lineup may have been at time time, it turned into an unstoppable force, a unit that translated all its influences into one massive sound that came out bigger than any of its predecessors. When you hear, say, “For Whom The Bells Tolls,” you’re hearing a band that knew exactly what it was doing, that realized exactly the moment that it should snap out of the brain-melt solo and into the battering main riff. In its hellhound fury, the sound that they developed blew way more teenage minds then Sonic Youth, the Replacements, and Eric B. & Rakim combined. For that alone, they deserve an anniversary salute. And if and when this Lou Reed thing turns out to be the disaster that we’re all expecting, at least they’ve earned the chance to make it.
Here’s some videos.