US metal titans Metallica return to the UK to tour their latest album this autumn. Entitled ‘Hardwired to self-destruct’ it’s a wry nod to an unstable world and their own tempestuous place within it.
I’ve always admired the 2004 musical documentary Some Kind of Monster about how they accepted performance coaching to unite against their many demons. For a metal band that’s a rare beast to take on, let alone document publicly. It’s an unflinching portrait of a band struggling to contain egos, opinions and addictions – an analytical take on the macho, adrenaline-fuelled world of stadium rock.
I consider rock and sport similar in their tribal power and physicality: big dreams, attitudes and risks…and sometimes, big courage in seeking the assistance to get back on track. How exactly do people thrust into the limelight deal with stepping off stage, pitch, whatever – and being ‘human’ again? How do you retain the simple hunger of the early days? In this respect is there little internal difference between musician, sportsman or the rest of us? Are we content to remain frustrated by these hurdles or can we push through them with the correct tools?
Formed in California in 1981 and known for their fast tempos, uncompromising lyrics and aggressive musicianship, Metallica have sold 110m+ records and won multiple Grammy awards. Historically dubbed ‘Alcoholica’ for being so liquid-fuelled, a major catalyst in the alchemy of some uniquely powerful music is the intense relationship between founders James Hetfield (guitar/vocals) and Danish-born Lars Ulrich (drums).
Every squad has an Achilles’ heel, that one member that seems to be perpetually replaced: Metallica struggle with bassplayers. The late, talented Cliff Burton succeeded original bassist Ron McGovney; Burton passing in tragic circumstances when the band’s tour bus overturned in Sweden in 1986. Replacement Jason Newsted abruptly departs prior to the start of recording in 2001. The loss of Burton is still evident, exacerbated by the rawness of Newsted’s exit.
Rock Star. The term evokes preservation in the amber of teenage angst, spared a conventional reality by a swarm of fans, management and label, all with interests in keeping you there. All need your next output to be bigger and better, but there is a never a straight trajectory and no manual to illuminate the path. Reliance upon individual performance as a commodity – an indicator of self-worth – is undermining, opening the door to excessive self-critique and poor self-esteem. If the pitch equates to the stage, then the practice field or gym would be the recording studio, some musician’s idea of heaven – or possibly hell. Having been miked up behind glass in the studio (the drummer lays down the beat first for the other instruments to be anchored to) other band members watching – and intently listening – from the control room, that weighs on the mind. It’s a penalty kick. You practice to get it right first time.
According to producer and stand-in bassist Bob Rock, their eighth record was conceived as ‘a band jamming together in a garage for the first time, and the band just happened to be Metallica.’ Originally intended as an ordinary ‘making of’, as tensions rose and demons were uncovered, the cameras kept rolling. The subsequent 1,000hrs of footage were distilled into two hours depicting the protracted struggle of 2001-2003.
Enter self-titled ‘performance enhancement coach’ Phil Towle who specializes in stripping back the layers of ego and tension amongst sportsmen, musicians and other high-profile talent. He encourages his charges to speak freely to each other in order to address their underlying turbulence. It was a brave move for such a dysfunctional behemoth to visibly wrestle with their disparate opinions. Not so thought the departed Newsted, revealing ‘The things we’ve been through and decisions we’ve made, about squillions of dollars and squillions of people…and this? We can’t get over this?’
‘I’m not enjoying being in a room with you playing.’
‘I don’t understand who you are; I realize now that I barely knew you before.’ ‘It’s been a beast and it’s sucked a lot of me into it.’
Progress soon stalls: Hetfield, a burly, analytical type struggling to box personal demons, the pressure of being the frontman and principal lyricist and his own latent hedonism departs to enter rehab for ‘alcoholism and other addictions’. He disappears with little discussion of where to or how long for. ‘The unraveling of a band…and then there were two’ laments Ulrich. In the ensuing hiatus, one of his penances is confronting guitarist Dave Mustaine (now frontman of rival band Megadeth) ousted two decades previously for alcoholic excess. ‘People hate me because of you’ states Mustaine. ‘Do I wish it was 1982 all over again and you guys woke me up and said ‘Hey Dave you know what, you need to go to AA?’ Yeah…I’d give anything for that chance.’
In contrast, wholly unthreatened in his position as Mustaine’s replacement is Kirk Hammett, the perpetual salve in an inflamed joint. He’s a mellow, affable soul, in stark contrast to the insistent, chugging riffs and wailing solos through which he often speaks. ‘We just set our instruments down and started talking’ he laughs ‘I spent a large amount of my time trying to downplay my ego and be an example to the other guys’. He’s a testament to the work-life balance, shown surfing or sat astride a horse in the Californian hills as his antidotes to the pressure.
‘If he walks away from Metallica I’m not sure it would surprise me – I’m prepared for the worst.’
‘I’m afraid to get close to people because I don’t know how to do it; I don’t know how you’re supposed to do it.’
‘I hope he will come back and try and finish the making of this record.’
By the time Hetfield returns, a year has passed. Ulrich feels controlled by Hetfield’s newfound discipline – rehab conditions impose inflexible working hours of 12-4. In Hetfield’s absence, the band – the dominant hand of Ulrich on the tiller – struggle to avoid the inevitable decision-making. Ulrich is a perpetual ball of tension, best known outside the band as the individual who warred single-handedly with music- sharing site Napster in the late 1990s. He is perhaps still dealing with this, trying to do what he believes is the right thing and collecting a cartload of opprobrium along the way. That his outspoken intensity comes from his equally candid father is also clear to see. On hearing the latest work of his boisterously proud son, Ulrich senior, a brooding, wraithlike figure and former Grand-Slam tennis player calmly states: ‘Delete that…a guy shouting in some kind of echo chamber?’
It’s an uneasy watch – seeing Ulrich swear in Hetfield’s face is excruciating. To his immense credit, Hetfield silently leaves; but his percussive assault as the door slams is one Ulrich himself would have been proud of. Throughout, Towle cuts an incongruous, jumper-clad figure as resident anger management shaman: ‘Save up the tension…tension produces results’. Rock meanwhile, has the onerous task of trying to bottle whatever lightning he can from this incendiary mix and can often been seen squirming at what is unfolding. There are frequent glimpses of what millionaire musicians do on their downtime: surf, run, hang out with families or just bicker like a litter of irritable puppies. A few unsavoury excesses appear, but the band come across as flawed, likeable individuals struggling to coexist in a high-stakes battle. That is, there is little difference between Metallica and the rest of us.
Gradually, as we uncover a band re-learning for itself, green shoots begin appearing. A discussion of the monster technique of newly recruited bassplaying demon Robert Trujillo evokes a palpable sense of the grief surrounding the loss of Burton finally
being addressed. Explaining to the inmates of notorious San Quentin prison, whilst filming a video, Hetfield remarks: ‘If I hadn’t had music in my life its quite possible I could be in here or be dead – I’d much rather be alive.’ There’s a watershed moment when Towle, accustomed to everyone depending upon his communication strategies – the studio littered with mantras imploring ‘zone it’ – realizes he has equipped his charges with all they need to shrug him off. ‘We’ve still got some trust issues that I think we need to sort out’ he implores as the guitars are loaded up and thoughts turn to the forthcoming tour.
‘I can finally express myself with these lyrics’
‘It’s not about what you think; it’s about how I feel’ ‘From day one it’s been competitive’
Fixtures or albums sometimes unite or separate opinion; matches or gigs sometimes transcend the moment – or just frustrate players and fans. Whilst the documentary was well received, the accompanying album garnered mixed reviews. What matters is that both were a means to evolve. Not everyone understood their decisions at the time, but the band is all the stronger and better respected for controlling their own fate. They offer a window into the early millennial mind and a reminder that extraordinary progress requires extraordinary humility and digging deep. It’s real and visceral, like their music; an antidote to the easy commodity of sanitized, manufactured product.
I defy anyone to remain uncaptivated by the roar of 15,000 that welcomes the house lights going out and their trademark stirring intro tape playing as the band step back on stage for the first night of the tour.
See you on the road.
Light it up – oh, light it up
Another hit erases all the pain
Oh, kill the truth
You’re falling but you think you’re flying high – High again
Same rise and fall
Who cares at all?
Seduced by fame…
A moth into the flame