Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our new show, 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 12, which explores the history of Metallica and their biggest hit with help from Dave Chang.
Metallica’s self-titled fifth album—colloquially referred to as the Black Album—defined heavy music in the ’90s just as surely as Nirvana’s Nevermind did, but Metallica spent the rest of the decade letting the ’90s define them. Nevermind, and the grunge and alternative-rock explosion more broadly, rattled them quite a bit. Metallica’s reinventions, the makeovers, the zeitgeist schemes of really the next 20 years or so—it’s all baffling. Just incredibly strange behavior. Not terrible, even, necessarily. Some of it’s actually great. But all of it is just so strange. If only every rock band sold out with this much zest.
I don’t mean sold out as a pejorative, at all. The Black Album is fantastic. “Enter Sandman,” overexposed as it might be, is still fantastic. It’s commercial heavy metal at its finest; it’s the King Lear of jock jams. And before we get too bogged down by anything else, “Enter Sandman” is great because of the guitar riff. Lead guitarist Kirk Hammett’s riff. Let’s not overthink this. Pretty soon that’ll be Metallica’s job.
Metallica chasing radio play, doing radio edits, shooting videos for MTV—this was all unthinkable, once. Metallica formed in Los Angeles in 1981, which is when Lars Ulrich met James Hetfield. Lars played drums, he was born in Denmark, his father was a professional tennis player, Lars himself was a tennis prodigy (that’s what brought the family to L.A.), he was an only child, his godfather was jazz great Dexter Gordon, he traveled widely, bought tons of albums, and talked constantly. James Hetfield was born near L.A., and had a rough childhood. His parents were Christian Scientists, and James would talk a lot in interviews about not being able to see a doctor or sit in health class. His father walked out on the family. His mother died of cancer. He couldn’t afford to buy many records. And he didn’t do too much talking. James played guitar. He was more of a grunter than a singer, at this point—it would take him quite a while to get comfortable as a “front man,” though it arguably took Lars quite a while to get comfortable as a drummer. James found Lars to be quite spoiled. “We ate McDonald’s, he ate herring” is how James would later sum up the early band dynamic. These two dudes nonetheless bonded for life, in that they agreed to argue with each other for the rest of their lives. One day this will make Some Kind of Monster the best movie ever made.
At first, though, it was enough that James and Lars agreed on the new wave of British heavy metal, a genre that started in the late ’70s and condenses nicely to NWOBHM. A few NWOBHM bands would get quite famous—Motörhead, Iron Maiden, Def Leppard—and a few more—Saxon, Diamond Head, Tygers of Pan Tang—would get famous enough. Lars and James were lurking amid the ’80s L.A. metal scene that soon would tip toward hairspray, toward Spandex, toward cheeseball debauchery, toward Ratt and Mötley Crüe and Poison and, climactically, future Metallica tourmates Guns N’ Roses. Bad idea, that tour. Metallica, a name the fellas settled on after considering Helldriver, and Blitzed, and Nixon, and Thunderfuck—Lars really liked Thunderfuck—were after something harsher, grimier, trashier. Some punk rock in there, still. They wanted to call their first studio album Metal Up Your Ass. They’d already named a live demo that. Not a metaphor. The album cover was gonna be a machete sticking out of a toilet, and in their defense, early Metallica sounded like a machete sticking out of a toilet.
They settled for the debut album title Kill ’Em All. This is 1983. There was some early lineup calamity—they had a hothead lead guitarist named Dave Mustaine for a while who was a huge pain in the ass and acted like more of a front man onstage than James did—but they kicked Dave out, and by this point Metallica’s lineup had solidified. Lars on drums and virtually all the business shit. James on rhythm guitar and grunting. Kirk Hammett on lead guitar. And Cliff Burton on bass. The whole band moved to San Francisco to accommodate Cliff.
We could hang out in this era with me talking for 45 minutes; many devout Metallica fans would prefer to live in this era for the rest of their lives. I don’t blame them. Early Metallica is pretty incredible. At this point they’d functionally invented “thrash metal.” Not their term. They’d get sick of the term pretty quick, as one does. But they are nonetheless, canonically, one of the Four Horseman, the Big Four of thrash, alongside Slayer, Anthrax, and Megadeth, the latter being Dave Mustaine’s revenge band. Big Four status is both a huge honor and a super tiny box, stylistically, and all four bands would bust out of it in their own inimitable ways, Metallica, of course, most spectacularly, and immediately. In 1984 they put out Ride the Lightning, which is pulverizing and badass and merciless, and that applies even to the honest-to-god near-power-ballad “Fade to Black.”
But Master of Puppets, from 1986, is the real shit. This is where thrash metal peaks, certainly: ’86 was the same year as Slayer’s Reign in Blood. But for most fans, I suspect—or at least the most intense fans—Metallica never topped this, artistically. Forget “Enter Sandman.” Forget everything after. This is arguably the best metal album of all time. A violent argument being the whole point of heavy metal in the first place.
What would this version, this lineup of Metallica have done for the next 30 years, and more importantly, what would they not do, what would they righteously refuse to do? We’ll never find out.
To hear the full episode, click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Thursday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.