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40 years of Metallica

Silke Wünsch
October 28, 2021

A double anniversary: The heavy metal band was formed in 1981, and their self-titled album — one of the world's best-selling records — was released 10 years later.

 Lars Ulrich, left, James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett, and Robert Trujillo of Metallica perform at Louder Than Life Festival 2021.
Back on stage after the COVID break: A performance in September 2021Image: Amy Harris/Invision/AP/picture alliance

It all started in 1981 with an ad placed in a local LA newspaper by a 16-year-old from Denmark called Lars Ulrich, which read: "Drummer looking for other metal musicians to jam with. Influences: Tygers of Pan Tang, Diamond Head and Iron Maiden."

He was then invited to audition for a band being planned by a certain James Hetfield, who wasn't convinced at first and admitted years later in a Rolling Stones interview that they actually ran away from the rented rehearsal studio, letting the drummer pick up the bill.

Still, Lars Ulrich did not give up. Even before having formed a band, he managed to convince the producers of a metal compilation album titled Metal Massacre to let him record a song for it, and then had Hetfield join him.

Metallica was officially formed on October 28, 1981.

James Hetfield playing the guitar
James Hetfield, co-founder and main songwriter of heavy metal band MetallicaImage: picture-alliance/CITYPRESS 24/Meinen

40 years of successes and losses

There were ups and downs at the beginning; band members changed several times before the group's line-up was found.

When Ulrich, Hetfield and guitarist Dave Mustaine finally met bassist Cliff Burton, they wanted him in the band so badly that they all agreed to move to San Francisco to join him.

That's where they began to develop their new sound.

At the time, bands from England such as Iron Maiden, Venom or Motörhead were already famous as part of the new wave of British heavy metal (commonly abbreviated as NWOBHM).

The guys from the US wanted to be even heavier. Building on the music of their British idols, bands like Metallica, Anthrax, Exodus or Slayer unleashed a brutal sound, characterized by overall aggression and fast tempos. Their thrash metal went beyond anything known as hard rock in the early 80s.

Metallica posing backstage in 1983, long-haired musicians holding their instruments, one of them drinking a beer.
Metallica posing backstage in 1983Image: Gene Ambo/MPI/Captital Pictures/picture alliance

And so the four members of Metallica started thrashing through the music scene of the West Coast of the United States and became the secret music tip of the time.

Their debut album was released in 1983: Kill 'Em All was praised as one of the fastest and heaviest albums ever recorded.

Just before recording it, guitarist Dave Mustaine was kicked out of the band because of his alcohol problem — even though the other members of the group weren't exactly sober either. At times they were nicknamed Alcoholica.

When Master of Puppets came out in 1986, Metallica had reached the pantheon of rock.

It was during the European tour for that album that they had the tragic bus accident that killed their bassist, Cliff Burton. Metallica has been commemorating their former bass player at their concerts ever since.

Cliff Burton, bassist of Metallica playing on stage.
Cliff Burton died at the age of 24Image: picture-alliance/Photoshot/F. Griffin

Despite their loss, the band continued

The song "One" was released in 1990. Even though the seven-minute track was unusually long by commercial standards, its video ranked at number one on MTV.

They obtained their first Grammy in 1990, for best metal performance. Many more followed.

Their fifth studio album came out in 1991. Metallica, also called The Black Album because of its cover, included the megahits "Enter Sandman" and "Nothing Else Matters."

The intense recording process with producer Bob Rock drove the entire band nearly crazy. They spent a year working in studio, all while three of the band members were going through a divorce.

But their hard work paid off. Metallica conquered the charts in 10 countries, including the USA. The album managed the difficult balance of catering to the mainstream as well as metal fans. The music was still challenging, fast and technically impressive, but it was also more catchy, groovy and sometimes even softer.

That's how "Nothing Else Matters" became the first metal anthem to play on commercial radio stations.

Metallica at the Grammy Awards in 1992.
Metallica at the Grammy Awards in 1992Image: Imago/ZUMA Press

'The Metallica Blacklist'

Thirty years after the release of "Nothing Else Matters," Sir Elton John recorded a cover of the song on his new album. When the British superstar said in an interview that it was "one of the best songs ever written," James Hetfield teared up. Even the leader of the world's hardest rock band can get emotional when his work is honored by a knighted icon of pop music.

The cover by Miley Cyrus featuring Watt, Elton John, Yo-Yo Ma, Robert Trujillo and Chad Smith is among the songs on The Metallica Blacklist, an anniversary album revisiting the songs of the Black Album. It includes 53 versions of the 12 songs that originally led to more than 30 million record sales in 1991.

In addition to Elton John and Miley Cyrus, Depeche Mode singer Dave Gahan and pianist Igor Levit have also contributed to one of the 12 versions of "Nothing Else Matters."

Cover of 'The Metallica Blacklist'
'The Metallica Blacklist' brings together musicians of all genres to the 30th anniversary of the 'Black Album'Image: Rhino/Blackened Recordings/AP Photo/picture alliance

Weezer, Colombian singer Juanes and R&B singer Alessia Cara are among the musicians reinterpreting "Enter Sandman."

One version of "Sad But True" combines Mexican hip hop, dance hall and rock. The Australian punk trio The Chats revisit "Holier Than You" in their own style. Kamasi Washington jazzes up "My Friend Of Misery" and Volbeat and Portugal. The Man offer their versions of "Don't Tread On Me."

Even though it's not a work to be enjoyed in one listening session, the eclectic collection of covers will shorten the wait until the release of the next real Metallica album following Hardwired... To Self-Destruct, which came out five years ago.

Busy creating new songs, the band is said to be "in a very healthy place" after James Hetfield's renewed stint in rehab in 2019.

After their touring pause due to the pandemic, they have started playing their first concerts again, with larger shows being planned as well, such as a performance at the Hockenheimring festival in Germany in June 2022.

The band has also made it clear they have no intention of stopping anytime soon. And as James Hetfield said some years back: "Look, musicians never retire. They just become less popular," he explained. "It's what I do on this planet. That's why I've been put here, I believe. And if I stop that, part of me dies. There's no retirement. So we do what we do until physically we can't do it."