Why Metallica should never have cut their hair

Forget indie and punk and their conformist ‘anti-establishment’ views. Heavy metal is the real music of rebellion.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

Although I was a massive fan of Metallica in my teens, I slightly resented their mainstream popularity.

After their eponymous ‘black album’ appeared in 1991, they became the heavy metal band that it was okay, even fashionable, to like. This was not how heavy metal should be. Heavy metal in the 1980s was by its very essence unfashionable, and herein laid its appeal. To be a metaller was to be genuinely anti-mainstream. And unlike punk or indie, with their conventional, conformist ‘anti-establishment’ mantras, being a metaller was actually far more radical, in that it took more courage to dress like an idiot, have no friends and listen to songs about dragons, mountains, insanity, devil-worshipping, the Holocaust and not having a girlfriend.

Metallica may have pleased the voguish, self-satisfied music snobs at the NME who otherwise loathed heavy metal, but I was just as happy listening to Iron Maiden and their preposterous yet wonderful adaptation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, a 14-minute epic unleashed in 1984 (1), or singing along to Napalm Death’s incomprehensible death-metal ditties such as ‘Suffer the Children’ (1991) (2).

Verity Sharp, presenter of Metallica: A Culture Show Special on BBC2 on Sunday, also ‘confessed’ to being a fan of Metallica in her teens. This was not as brave as it purported to be. It’s like confessing to being partial to AC/DC or Motorhead, similarly safe and fashionable hard rock bands of that era. Now, if like me, you declared that you went around in 1990 wearing t-shirts bearing the titles of bands such as Obituary, Carcass, Slayer and Lawnmower Deth [sic] (the best metal spoof band ever, whose greatest tracks include ‘Satan’s Trampoline’, ‘Cobwoman of Deth Meets Mr Smellymop’, ‘I Got The Clap And Me Knob Fell Off’ and a cover of Kim Wilde’s ‘Kids in America’), that would have been a bit more interesting and revelatory (3).

Sharp joined up with Metallica in Bergen, Norway, during the band’s summer tour of Europe, and it chiefly involved interviews with rhythm guitarist and lead singer James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich. In many ways, it picked up where the 2004 documentary film Some Kind of Monster left off. That film had centred on the fractious relationship between Hetfield and Ulrich, and had an all-too-knowing nod to This is Spinal Tap (1984) and that fictional band’s love-hate relationship between Nigel Tufnel and David St Hubbins. It also pandered to the popular perception that heavy metal bands are rather ridiculous. But of course they are: that’s the whole point of them. Metal is where fantasy meets pantomime meets the minor key. You might as well complain that Wagner’s operas were a bit overblown, Tolkien’s books are unrealistic, or that Roy Lichtenstein’s artworks just look like Marvel comic books.

Verity Sharp thankfully avoided any Spinal Tap allusions. Hetfield and Ulrich were firmly kept clear of any amplifiers or speakers that might have suggested they went up to 11. Instead the programme focused on the Hetfield-Ulrich relationship, and how they seemed to have patched things up. ‘I don’t need to put a suit of armour every time I go to the studio’, said Ulrich, referring now to Metallica as a ‘family’. It was a nice narrative. The singer and the drummer seem to have recognised that their relationship is akin to brothers. They realise that brothers may not often get on, but they bicker because deep down they love each other.

Metallica: A Culture Show Special was thus a strangely heart-warming affair; but it skated over two important issues. We were reminded of Hetfield’s alcoholism and his rehab, and how he was traumatised about his father leaving him at the age of 13 (a particularly delicate age), but unfamiliar viewers who might have thought all of Metallica’s music was angry, incoherent, existential nonsense might have been interested to appreciate that most of it is actually about Hetfield’s personal problems. The opening lyrics from their 1986 song ‘Master of Puppets’ speak volumes:

‘End of passion play, crumbling away / I’m your source of self-destruction / Veins that pump with fear, sudden dark is clear / Leading on your death’s construction / Taste me you will see / More is all you need / You’re dedicated to / How I’m killing you.’ (4)

This track has been interpreted by many as being about warfare, regarding soldiers being sent into combat against their will, but if you read the lyrics (5), and many other of Metallica’s lyrics, you will see that it is clearly about Hetfield’s addiction and about his sense of loss.

Secondly, and I appreciate Verity Sharp was obviously trying to be kind to Hetfield and Ulrich, the programme overlooked the fact that Metallica haven’t made a decent album since 1991. Even the Metallica album of that year and …And Justice For All (1988) were a bit bloated at times.

Their only subsequently noteworthy release was not original. This was Garage Inc (1998) a collection of cover tracks, which, as many of those still remembering the late Ronnie Drew might be interested to know, features an intriguing and Grammy-winning rendition of the Irish folk song ‘Whiskey in the Jar’, a cover version of the same song by Thin Lizzy, which itself was a cover version of the song popularised by the Dubliners in the 1960s, and a song whose origins date back to the 17th century (6). Admirable as Metallica’s cover version was, you could hardly it fresh.

This is not just me getting old. Most Metallica fans concur. Sharp alluded to Metallica trying to recreate the ‘freshness and the hunger of the first three albums’, but that was about it. The rest was pretty sycophantic. She should have asked why the 2003 album St Anger was shocking. My diagnosis for this decline is Metallica’s decision to cut their hair in the early 1990s. The same happened with Iron Maiden after lead man Bruce Dickinson shed his locks.

Still, it was also nice to see coverage of Metallica at the Reading Festival at the weekend, performing their 1983 anthem ‘Seek And Destroy’ (7) (incidentally, I always thought ‘Sikh And Destroy’ would be a good anthem for Kashmir separatists). ‘Seek And Destroy’ is an utterly juvenile, retarded, brilliant, fantasist song about revenge, anger and hatred, penned by James Hetfield, a rather troubled man – yet as the BBC2 programme revealed, a rather nice chap at the same time.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist. Visit his blog here.

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) See ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ here

(2) See ‘Suffer the Children’ here

(3) See ‘Kids in America’ here

(4) See ‘Master of Puppets’ here

(5) See lyrics for Master of Puppets’here

(6) See ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ here

(7) See ‘Seek and Destroy’ here

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Topics Culture


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