GE & Jay Discuss Metallica’s Legacy

Metallica

The other day, I saw a random YouTube comment of somebody referring to their “least favorite Metallica song of all time.”  This bit of randomness inspired the following dialogue.  If the conversation bores or even infuriates you, I’d like to apologize in advance.

Jay: What are your top 5 best Metallica songs and bottom 5 worst?

GE: 

Top:
Eye of the Beholder
Welcome Home (Sanitarium)
The Wait (do covers count?)
Blackened
Creeping Death
My Friend of Misery (in case covers don’t count)

Worst
St. Anger, because HOLY SHIT
Enter Sandman
Nothing Else Matters
Unforgiven I, II and III that well was dry the first time, three times in makes me want to die.

Jay: Yes!  For some reason I thought you’d offer an intriguing answer to this one.  It’s so common to just dump on everything from Lulu or St. Anger or whatever.  Which, don’t get me wrong, is a strong argument… but I gather you have something against the self-titled album?  It’s funny how over time, the divisiveness of that one seems to have gone away.  Now, as far as I can tell (and maybe I’m out of it way too much), it’s remembered as a commercial success and that’s about that.  Maybe the more recent atrocities have erased the horrors of Metallica trying to make a pop album from the minds of too many fans.

Also, has any other band that’s gone as far as to point out that their song is a sequel in the lyrics?  I think 90% of sequel songs that I know of are more like inside jokes.  Not in the humor sense, but in the sense that you have to know the artist pretty well to understand a song is a sequel.  It’s pretty rare to find a band that just does it movie style and adds a roman numeral after the title.  Do you have to go all the way back to Peggy Sue Got Married to find something so lazy?  Even in that one, it’s not super obvious it’s a sequel.

 

GE: I just listened to the self titled album again about a month ago.  The problem with it wasn’t that they “sold out,” some of the tracks on there *crush* and My Friend of Misery is in my top five.

My problem with it is that you can pinpoint it as exactly the album where a band went from crushing the world under its feet in a “what motherfucker? You want a catchy song? I will give you a nine minute, 200bpm, almost incoherent rant about the Justice system” way to, “we are going to write the most moronically simple love song of all time.”

I mean, Nothing Else Matters is just open strings and two verses.

Load/Re-Load were them trying to be Jane’s Addiction.  St. Anger was them jumping on the nu-metal bandwagon eight years after everyone jumped off.  Death Magnetic was a bunch of 50 year old gajillionaires going thru a midlife crisis.  I hate Lulu, but at least it was honest in its terribleness.

Honestly, had they released Justice>Magnetic>St.Anger>Metallica>Load>Reload their legacy would probably be ok.  But they’re kind of like Mark Maron’s joke about a hipster getting dressed by running thru a time tunnel.

Their albums came out in a weird order for a band to musically progress.

Jay: Good point about things being in a weird order.  Garage Inc, the more I think of it, feels like it was their Santana/Supernatural phase.  Where they just tried to kinda use the success of others to generate their own buzz.  I get the whole second disc, because the few fans that didn’t have bootlegs of all the old covers were excited to get them, but a Bob Seger song?  The Silver Fuckin Bullet Band?!  Aye.  Lulu seemed to be the same scenario, for them and Lou Reed.  Of course, Reed has never turned down a paycheck.

So what’s the standard career arc for a successful band?  In a generic sense.  Someone has to have covered this, probably with a hideous infographic, but I can’t find anything.  In chronological order, it’d be something like…

-We’re young and ready to take over the world! (Kill ‘Em All and onward)

-We’re fairly young and famous and have the power to do anything! (Justice)

-We’re more interested in fame and just want to knock out some hits like Nic Cage knocks out bad films(S/T)

-We’re old and terrified of losing touch with our fans so we’re going to try and evolve (Load > St Anger)

-We’ll do anything for another paycheck.  Can we release a Greatest Hits Vol 2? (Magnetic/Lulu)

If you’re Paul McCartney, you can loop back into additional peaks over the years, until you marry someone younger than your kids.

Anyway, it still boggles the mind that the s/t album through Death Magnetic were all #1 albums.  I understand, Enter Sandman came out at the perfect time.  We were done with fruity 80′s music and collectively wanted something angrier, MTV was huge at the time and the video was cool for the era and they had four albums worth of building a huge following in the hard rock/metal world.  Releasing an album that successful buys you easily two follow ups worth of guaranteed #1′s just based on the halo effect of that success.  But four albums before anyone realized things weren’t right?

U2 is the only band I can think of that followed an amazingly successful album (Joshua Tree) up with a long line of egregiously terrible music that still was universally adored (at least in terms of sales and charts).  U2 is way worse, actually, but Bono’s ego is impossible to stop.

GE: I disagree with you on some of this.  Like, when Garage, Inc. came out Metallica were, literally, the biggest rock band in the world.  No other group of people who played their own instruments and wrote their own songs made more money on record sales and touring than Metallica during the Metallica through Re-Load cycle. So, even though they did a Bob Seger cover, they were bigger than Bob Seger looking at the rest of the track listing on that album (Discharge, Diamond Head, Black Sabbath, Motorhead, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Blue Oyster Cult, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Thin Lizzy, Budgie, Queen, Mercyful Fate, Sweet Savage and The Anti-Nowhere League) there is not a single, active, band that Metallica wasn’t bigger than at the time.  In comparison, Santana was a nostalgia act who basically grabbed a bunch of new, popular acts to try to be relevant.  He’s not only never denied this but has outright stated that the whole point of Supernatural was to get his music/message out to new fans.

Lulu, I feel was much more of an attempt to join their legacy to someone else’s.  I just wish that someone was a good song writer.  I mean, Lou Reed was a fearless songwriter, but the fact that he has one and a half true classics to his name (Wild Side and Heroin) really has more to do with the insane amount of music he released than the fact that he was good at writing.  Fearless, yes.  Good, no.

I also feel that Death Magnetic was basically, “Holy shit!!! We’re in a classic rock band!!!!! We’re old, let’s do something that young people do!!!!!!! DON’T LET US BE OLD!!!!!!!!!!”

I turned 40, three months ago.  I can relate.

Again, I think a much more logical career trajectory is:

– Kill ‘Em All/Ride The Lightning – Figuring out the sound

– Master of Puppets – Everything clicked, the sound is figured out.

– …And Justice For All – Now that we’ve got the formula down (and it was a formula.  Kirk Hammett even noted once that if you look at Ride, Puppets and Justice the track order is exactly the same) let’s hone it to a fine point

– St. Anger – We’re pretty big, but we still have our ear to the ground, we’re going to experiment with some of the stuff the kids are doing.  We’re going to fail, but we’re going to try. Also, we’re not going to make the drums sound like someone beating on soup cans.

– Death Magnetic – A “return to form.” As a drummer, Lars Ulrich has always made a good art collector.  Time is not kind to a thrash metal drummer, Death Magnetic would have benefitted greatly from being recorded when Lars was in his early 30s, and thus able to keep pace.  It also would have benefitted greatly had they grabbed Flemming Rassmussen from whatever bar he’s tending and had him produce it.

-The Black Album – Still crunchy, but simpler than before.  Less thrash, more straight ahead heavy metal because late 30s/early 40s, that’s why.

– Load/Re-Load – Shit, man, we’re in our late 40′s/early 50s and also rich.  Pretending to be angry young men is disingenuous. We’re just going to write good, solid, rock albums.

So while I kinda get how The Black Album came after ..And Justice for All (I still remember my uncle picking me up from school and asking me for this week’s “White people music that I don’t understand,” tape and me putting in Justice.  He was completely unimpressed until Eye of the Beholder, which he instantly fell in love with.  That song could have EASILY been on The Black Album) it still feels like they jumped to the end of their career at the middle and are trying to go back to the middle at the end.  It worked for them, commercially, but artistically, I think it failed.

Jay: I don’t know if I’m trying to backtrack or what, but I guess Garage Inc feels out of place.  Unless they had such an ego at that point that they thought they could release all those covers and do them better than the original artists, why do it?  Maybe I just answered my own question.

Anyway, I want to dig into this Black / self-titled (let’s just agree to call it the Black Album – err, I’m going to start doing that since you already are) business a bit more.

I think the conventional wisdom is that after “One” hit the charts as a mainstream single, they got the taste of fame and desperately wanted more.  Or some variation of that.

But what if the Black Album was actually part of an artistic evolution?  Like, take Led Zeppelin for example.  Their first three albums were compared to Black Sabbath.  They couldn’t shake it.  When they threw in some lighter songs, people liked them but said they didn’t fit (they were right).  Then they go the studio again, come back with a record that starts with Black Dog, Rock & Roll, Battle of Evermore, and Stairway.  I don’t think any rock album to that point has had a better first four songs.  Or since.  And they got Going to California and When the Levee Breaks for some additional huge hit credential.

And you could maybe argue that the success of that album changed them into fame whores, but I think it helped them realize who they were as a band.  When Houses of the Holy came out (I know it’s not everyone’s favorite) they didn’t sound like they were reaching for hits at all to me.  They just realized that they didn’t quite work as a grimey blues rock band and that they were more of a soulful/melodic rock band.  The songs fit that mold and fit them a lot better.  It works with Plant’s voice, it works with Page’s sloppy guitar (he’s so much better when he slows things down), it worked with Bonham (same issue as Page), and getting JPJ more involved with the keys and composition was a huge help.

For them, that sound carried on through the next few albums.  I think the only problem is they had so many years of touring and self-abuse and whatever else happens when you’re with the same four people constantly for over a decade… they just ran out of steam.  Everyone likes to point to Bonham’s death as the cause for the decline, but it seemed like things would’ve fallen off regardless.  In Through the Out Door was their first original music in three years, and it had two good songs and a bunch of tracks nobody remembers.  Coda wasn’t even new songs, just stuff that wasn’t good enough to make previous releases (and it showed).  So in six years, they only had two hits left in them.  Seems they were just spent.

Back to Metallica – so they had to figure out who they were without Cliff in the songwriting equation.  He helped pen all their biggest songs up to that point (minus Seek & Destroy).  That’s a big burden to fill.  They obviously had something with the James/Lars combo all along and that’s exactly who wrote probably the two most successful songs on Justice (One is obviously the most popular, Harvester of Sorrow I’m giving the #2 spot to).

Maybe they thought they were on to something?  Not just in the commercial sense, but that sticking to that duo worked and that’s how things should be.  Maybe the songwriting by committee approach they largely did before was a big burdon?  Maybe getting the other people out of the process just felt right?  Like they finally had their own version of Lennon/McCartney.  Kirk could just focus on adding his parts and doing what he does well (WAAAAHHHHHHH) and Jason could focus on being “the little bitch that replaced Cliff” (obviously not good for Jason).  Because when the Black Album came out, almost every song was James & Lars.

If you believe that the Black Album was a legitimate artistic progression/decision and not an attempt to be super famous, it becomes tough to make sense of Load/Reload.  They got the committee approach back for songwriting at that point.  They also took five years to release Load.  I know they filled it in with the cover songs, but any time a band takes more than 2-3 years to release original music you’ve gotta wonder if it’s because something is wrong.  I could make a lot of guesses about what that something was, but they’d just be guesses.

GE: I think The Black Album was them looking at Justice and realizing there was nowhere to go.  If you listen back through their catalog it got more and more proggy.  Given how completely uncommercial Justice is, it’s insane that it was their first hit album.

I think The Black album was them looking back at that and saying, “how can we take the core of that and write good songs around it.” I think they half succeeded.  50% of that album is really, really good.  Unfortunately, it was a HUGE hit.

Load/Re-Load, I think, was them chasing money.  It wasn’t like they reinvented themselves in any meaningful way.  They reinvented themselves in guyliner, fingernail polish and Armani.  Also, Kirk started acting gay…er.  When you consider the NiN’s, Orgy’s and what not’s that were popular at the time, it was the biggest underground band in the world reinventing themselves to be as mainstream as possible.

It could have worked if the songs subverted mainstream expectations, but come on, can you name a song that’s almost CAD designed to be on rock radio than “Fuel”?  And I *LIKE* “Fuel.”

Jay: Definitely agree on Load/Reload.  And it’s really unfair that I compared them to both the Beatles and Led Zeppelin in this thread.  Metallica went on an amazing run – easily the best of all time for a “metal band.” So I don’t want to make excuses for the sins of their latter years, but also don’t want to hold them to an impossible standard.  They probably should’ve faced a huge fallout & breakup in the mid/late 90′s.  That’d be about the best possible thing for their legacy if history could be rewritten (within reason).

By the way, my top 5′s in no particular order…

Good:
…And Justice for All
Damage, Inc
Orion (I started playing my first instrument [bass] because of this song)
Last Caress/Green Hell (because covers count)
Master of Puppets

Bad:
The God That Failed
Mama Said
It’s Electric
St Anger
The Day that Never Comes

GE: You know, I think commercially, Metallica are the GoATs of metal.  Artistically, I’d argue that most of the B-Team bands (Exodus, Testament, Prong) have more consistently produced good albums than any of the “Big Four.”. I mean you can make an argument for Slayer, but that’s because every Slayer album in 20 years has tried to be Reign in Blood or Seasons in the Abyss.  It’s easy to be consistent when you actively resist change.

Jay: Has any other 80′s or later metal band crossed over into being a mainstream act?  Sugar Ray doesn’t count, hahaha.  I think the only ones that have would be the fluffy metal acts of the Bon Jovi era that tried to be mainstream-friendly from day one.  And none of them really count as metal.

GE: Megadeth has a number 2 album with Countdown to Extinction.  I’m pretty sure Anthrax charted with Persistence of Time.  Pantera had a couple of number 1 albums, but really the only band I can think of that got even close to as much mainstream play as Metallica was White Zombie.

Jay: I think Anthrax’ legacy will forever be all the fame whoring Scott Ian did in his later years (constantly on those VH1 top 10 shows where people make fun of the same things they thought were awesome 10 years ago).

GE: Anthrax is funny in that at the height of their popularity Scott Ian gave an interview where he said that they kicked Danny Spitz out for being, “too metal,” and that everyone else in the band were “hardcore guys.”. Which was basically a giant fuck you to the vast majority of their fan base.

But, yeah, Anthrax has the weakest legacy of any of the big four, but probably the strongest catalog.

  • My cousin is a musical therapist. Board certified.

  • I’m gonna toss in my $0.02, mostly b/c George continues to refuse to do the “Ebony & Ivory Podcast” with me so we can’t discuss such things there…

    I remember HATING the “Black Album” when it came out. But, I was 15 and all I really knew was that every jock in my school was suddenly listening to an album by a band I felt was “mine” for years prior. I didn’t want to see thrash become “jock rock,” but it had (as evidenced by “Enter Sandman” blasting through stadium speakers as our team took the field).

    Recently I went back and listened to the album in its entirety and I had to admit that 15 year old Sean was WAY off base. Aside from a few tracks (notably Enter Sandman) there is a lot of great stuff on that album. The catalyst for this revisiting was “Of Wolf and Man.” I think that song randomly came up on Pandora and I decided that it was so badass that I should track down the whole album it was on and give it a listen. I actually assumed I mis-read when I saw it on the track listing for the Black album.

    Songs like Wolf, Don’t Tread on Me, The God That Failed and My Friend of Misery would have fit just as well on some of the earlier albums. I even like the lyrics of Unforgiven, although I’m not a huge fan of the song itself (nor the sequels).

    All that to basically say: getting old is strange.

    • G. Edward Jones

      Sean,

      I will do that podcast with you as soon as you figure out a name that’s better than “Ebony and Ivory” because, *come on*.

      • Why do you hate Stevie Wonder?

        Or, is it more an issue with McCartney? B/C that I can totally get behind. The only time I like McCartney songs is when other people play them (see: “Live and Let Die” as done by GnR).

        How about “Mystic and the Cracker”??

        Or we could just be totally on the nose (and faux-Brits) and call it “Taking the Piss”?

        ….aaaaand, now I just totally threadjacked this blog post, so, Master of Puppets, great album right??