30 Years Ago: When Metallica Went Mainstream

From thrash metal roots to worldwide popularity, Metallica released their biggest album 30 years ago.

Metallica

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Forming 40 years ago in Los Angeles, Metallica played a loud, fast version of heavy metal that would earn the name “thrash” in the mid-1980s. But what stood above the volume and speed was the band’s willingness to break with expectations. Their songs could be lengthy with lyrics inspired by classic literature. They weren’t afraid to include instrumentals on their albums. During metal’s height in L.A., they decamped to San Francisco. Rebellious by nature and outsiders by inclination, they even managed to lose the Grammy in a category that was essentially established for them. But in August of 1991, the band that defied expectations did the most unexpected thing of all: they suddenly became one of the most popular bands of all time. Rising from cult status to underground underdogs, their fifth self-titled album connected with a whole new audience and catapulted them into the music stratosphere. Now, 30 years after Metallica, aka The Black Album, we look back on their Hall of Fame career.

Since the beginning, the core of the band has been vocalist/guitarist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich. The original line-up was rounded out by bassist Ron McGovney and lead guitarist Dave Mustaine. McGovney was soon replaced when Hetfield and Mustaine recruited Cliff Burton, a bassist that truly stretched the sonic capabilities of the instrument. As the group prepared to record their debut album in 1983, Mustaine was dismissed due to substance abuse concerns and other friction in the band. He was replaced by Kirk Hammett, who remains at lead guitar. The first album, Kill ’Em All, was released by indie label Megaforce and cracked the Billboard Top 200 Album Chart; while not financially lucrative, it did attraction attention from metal fans and sparked the beginnings of an adoring underground fanbase.

“Fade to Black” (Uploaded to YouTube by Metallica)

Ride the Lightning, released on Megaforce in 1984, actually broke into the Top 100 (at #100). The album demonstrated the band’s willingness to try new things, like the acoustic parts that open “Fade to Black,” one of the disc’s most popular songs. The album also introduced live staples “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “Creeping Death” (a heavy metal account of the Plagues of Egypt). By this time, Metallica was headlining their own tours, co-headlining with W.A.S.P., and scoring prime festival gigs. By August of 1985, England’s Monsters of Rock festival put them in front of 70,000 people. When their major-label debut Master of Puppets was released in 1986, it hit #29 and stayed on the chart for more than a year. It went Gold early with 500,000 sales and had sold six million copies by 2003. Widely acclaimed by music critics and extremely popular with fans, the record has been recognized by Rolling Stone as their #2 heavy metal album ever and one of the 100 greatest albums of all time (as of 2020).

Unfortunately, the incredible high of Master was followed by devastating tragedy. Bassist Cliff Burton died on September 27, 1986, when the band’s tour bus crashed on an icy road in Sweden. Despite the blow of losing the gifted Burton, the band, with encouragement from Burton’s family, decided to keep going. After auditioning dozens of potential replacements, the band brought on Jason Newsted from thrash band Flotsam and Jetsam.

“One” (Uploaded to YouTube by Metallica)

The first album with Newsted would be …And Justice for All, which debuted at #6 in September of 1988 and sold a million copies in its first nine weeks. The album led to a number of firsts for the band, including their first music video (for “One”) and first Top 40 song (“One” again, peaking at #35). “One” drew a lot of attention from the video in particular. With original footage shot in black and white, the video intercut performance clips of the band with scenes from Dalton Trumbo’s 1971 film adaptation of his novel, Johnny Got His Gun. Though Metallica had dealt with social concerns before on songs like “Fade to Black,” which addresses depression and suicide, “One” provided a wider introduction to the idea that the band was more than just volume.

Critics, however, had been aware of this for a while. And the increased praise and popularity for Metallica and other bands of the genre led the Grammys to create a new Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Vocal or Instrumental award for 1989. Infamously, flute-forward band Jethro Tull won the award, a revelation that included boos from the audience and visible disappointment from co-presenter Alice Cooper. The Grammys reworked the award the next year, giving Metal its own category; Metallica would win for various works the next three years in a row. After 1992’s win, Ulrich opened the band’s acceptance speech by thanking “Jethro Tull for not putting out an album this year.”

“Enter Sandman” (Uploaded to YouTube by Metallica)

In October of 1990, the band entered the studio with successful producer Bob Rock to make a new album. When they came out the other side of the process in June of 1991, Ulrich, Newsted, and Hammett had each gotten divorced. Rock and the band clashed frequently over everything from how to record the vocals to the lyrics Hetfield had written. Despite the tension (or perhaps because of it), the band emerged with a brand-new self-titled album. Frequently referred to as “The Black Album” because of its cover, Metallica debuted at #1 upon its August 1991 release; it would spend four weeks at the top, powered in part by lead single, the #16 “Enter Sandman.”

Metallica displayed a newfound concision on the part of the band, as well as a thorough embrace of the video medium. Though some of the songs drifted into the six-minute range, most were shorter and lent themselves to an arena-rock vibe (notably tracks like “Sad But True”). “The Unforgiven” found the band playing at a slower tempo; the almost-ballad’s video was a major presence on MTV. The album found an entirely new wave of fans, resulting it 16 million copies sold in the United States alone. It’s one of the most successful albums ever made, and spent more than 550 weeks on the album charts. It was also on the leading edge of a remarkable autumn for rock music in 1991, kicking off a period that saw classic releases by Guns ‘N’ Roses, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, The Pixies, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers all arrive over a two-month span. Metallica toured continuously on the back of the album through 1994, increasing their massive fanbase and becoming one of the biggest bands in the world.

Metallica performs “Master of Puppets” at the 2009 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. (Uploaded to YouTube by Rock and Roll Hall of Fame)

Since that time, Metallica has continued to be one of the most successful acts in the history of rock. Newsted left the band in 2001 and was replaced by Robert Trujillo; both bassists performed with the group upon their 2009 induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (an event that saw Ray Burton accept induction on behalf of his late son). In the years since Metallica, the band has released five further albums and toured vigorously (seemingly endlessly). They’ve sold over 125 million albums worldwide. In 2012, they became the first band to play on all seven continents with a visit to researchers in Antarctica.

During their Hall of Fame induction, Newsted remarked that Metallica represented a kind of “heavy metal ambassadorship,” a way of noting that they had carried the flag for the possibilities of the genre. Critically acclaimed for breaking form, eschewing clichés, and trying to write about meaningful subject matter, Metallica always endeavored to infuse active minds into their headbanging. After four decades of music and one of the most successful records ever made, they’ve proven their legacy won’t fade to black anytime soon.

Featured image: Maj.l / Shutterstock

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Comments

  1. Just wanted to point out an error on the release date of the Black album, that should be August 1991, not 1999.

    In October of 1990, the band entered the studio with successful producer Bob Rock to make a new album. When they came out the other side of the process in June of 1991, Ulrich, Newsted, and Hammett had each gotten divorced. Rock and the band clashed frequently over everything from how to record the vocals to the lyrics Hetfield had written. Despite the tension (or perhaps because of it), the band emerged with a brand-new self-titled album. Frequently referred to as “The Black Album” because of its cover, Metallica debuted at #1 upon its August 1999 release; it would spend four weeks at the top, powered in part by lead single, the #16 “Enter Sandman.”

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