Metallica’s Rise to the Top: Heavy Metal and Open Minds

Metallica has always been a love ‘em or hate ‘em band like so many other heavy metal groups from Black Sabbath to Megadeth. Given the sales of their new double album, (reaching no. 1 in the US and overseas), Hardwired…to Self-Destruct, more people love them than hate them. The California metal band is one of the best-selling acts in the history of recorded music. Their live shows after nearly four decades on the road continue to draw big crowds.

After many years in the business, they have earned a mainstream following and have become “respectable” in ways metal bands rarely do. These days they pick up Grammys, play often on mainstream TV shows, and are in the Rock Hall of Fame. Their financial success no longer comes only from recording and touring but from real estate investments and a remarkably successful licensing and merchandising operation.

Without question, Metallica is now the best known heavy metal band in the world. Known for their complex musical style and intelligent lyrics, they are still at the top of their game. 

Drummer Lars Ulrich and guitar player/singer James Hetfield got together when Lars took out a newspaper ad and James responded. Dave Mustaine, who later founded Megadeth, was recruited to play lead guitar. Their musical chemistry was apparent from the start.

After gaining attention and fervent fans by opening for several other metal bands, they recorded a demo, No Life ‘Til Leather that quickly became a favorite among tape traders. After a string of successful shows in the San Francisco Bay Area, Metallica decided to relocate there and added bassist Cliff Burton to their line-up.

Traveling to New York in a stolen U-Haul, they recorded their first album, Kill ‘Em All, and replaced Mustaine, who soon thereafter formed Megadeth, which went on to become one of the four horsemen of the thrash apocalypse, along with Metallica, Slayer, and Anthrax. 

After Mustaine was asked to leave, guitarist Kirk Hammett joined the band and the boys hit the studio to record an album that contained three instant classics: “The Four Horsemen,” “Whiplash” and “Seek and Destroy.” Their initial success was followed by Ride the Lightning, recorded in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1984. Their songwriting chemistry on compositions like “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “Fade to Black” helped the band achieve an international following. Album number three, Master of Puppets, followed and was another huge international hit. Metallica was now invincible.

On September 27, 1986, they suffered an unanticipated setback that nearly broke the band’s spirit. While touring Sweden, their tour bus skidded and flipped, and bassist Cliff Burton was killed in the crash. His serious knowledge of music theory and creativity was sorely missed. Jason Newsted was chosen to replace Burton—after they had auditioned more than forty bass players—and the band regrouped to quickly record The $5.98 E.P. — Garage Days Re-Revisited in Lars Ulrich’s refitted garage.

Their next full-length album, And Justice for All, reached no. 6 on the charts. They made their first music video for "One” from the album and cemented their place as a unique band that helped redefined the genre.

Beginning with their self-titled album, known better as The Black Album, Metallica entered the stratosphere of rock music history. Newly hired producer Bob Rock gave them a fuller sound and simpler arrangements. Almost immediately the album climbed to no. 1 worldwide and stayed there for two years or so while selling 16 million records, including several singles, and earning Grammy, MTV and American Music Awards. One of their signature songs, “Enter Sandman” has become a permanent highlight of their live set lists. Their emotional ballad “Nothing Else Matters” also became a favorite of fans, even attracting new ones. 

After recovering from relentless 300 shows per year tour schedule, Load, released in 1996, signaled a profound exploration of the band’s musical style. Their tours added technology-driven feats and tricks to their live shows as their popularity continued to grow across the globe.

When Jason Newsted left the band in 2001, the three members who remained worked on new material with Bob Rock until everything screeched to a halt when Hetfield suffered a major mid-life crisis and left the band temporarily to find his way before returning.

A Metallica documentary, Some Kind Of Monster, filmed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky between 2001 and 2003 soon appeared. Originally planned as a marketing promo, it became one of the most revealing music documentaries ever made, showing the band’s artistic (and personal) struggles—and their ultimate redemption.

After another break, Metallica again re-grouped to consider their next move. In early 2006, top producer Rick Rubin was asked to work with them on a new album. As he often does with established performers, Rubin suggested they go back to their early roots. The album didn’t disappoint. It was a number one hit across the world. 

In a more unusual move, 2011 saw them into a collaborate with veteran alternative rocker Lou Reed on a strange album called Lulu, based on the life of a 19th Century French prostitute. It wasn’t well received but showed that Metallica was not about meeting expectations; they would go their own way, refusing to be pigeonholed by critics or fans. More experiments followed—from organizing their own music festival to playing for a Metallica night in San Francisco at a Giants game (which became a regular event), with Hetfield and Hammet playing the national anthem.

After playing concerts in South Africa and China in recent years, they became the first band to ever play Antarctica! Performing to a group of contest winners and resident scientists under a custom-built geodesic dome. Metallica also became the first musical group to play all seven continents in the same calendar year. 

When Ulrich placed his ad seeking musicians to form a new band, it’s unlikely he could have imagined that the band he founded would make the world listen. 



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