Metallica was formed in Los Angeles, California in 1981 by drummer and former tennis prodigy Lars Ulrich from Newport Beach, California, and guitarist and vocalist James Hetfield from Downey, California, who met after each had separately placed classified advertisements in the American publication, “The Recycler”. Bassist Ron McGovney also from Downey, California, was also an original member, and the band used a few transient guitar players, such as Brad Parker and Jef Warner, in the course of settling on a four-person lineup.
Metallica got its name when drummer Lars Ulrich was helping San Francisco-area metal promoter Ron Quintana pick out a name for a new magazine to promote metal and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands. Quintana came up with a suggestion “Metallica”, but Lars quickly suggested another and decided to use that name for the band he and James Hetfield had just started.
In early 1982, Metallica recorded “Hit the Lights” for the first Metal Massacre compilation. Guitarist Lloyd Grant was brought in to do the lead guitar solos on the track but was never a full member of the band. Desperate for a full-time lead guitarist, Ulrich posted an ad in the local newspapers. Dave Mustaine from Huntington Beach, California, a guitarist from Panic responded, and upon arrival started a sound check. Ulrich and Hetfield were so impressed with Mustaine’s equipment that they asked him to join before hearing him play. A few months later the band recorded a full demo, No Life Till Leather, which quickly drew attention on the underground tape trading circuit. By this point bassist Cliff Burton from Castro Valley, California, had also joined Metallica, lured from his band, Trauma, in exchange for the other members of Metallica relocating to the San Francisco area.
Upon arriving in San Francisco, the group quickly built a healthy local following in the Bay Area Thrash scene via word-of-mouth and live performances. Metallica then traveled to New York in 1983 at the urging of local promoters Jon and Marsha Zazula, and after a few gigs the band signed with the Zazulas' brand new label, Megaforce Records. Megaforce released Metallica's first two albums. Shortly after arriving in New York, Mustaine was fired due to various disruptive, unproductive behaviors all related to alcoholism and other addictions. Kirk Hammett was drafted from Exodus to replace him. Mustaine would go on to create the thrash metal band Megadeth.
Metallica's first album, Kill 'Em All, set the template that they would follow throughout the 1980s, prominently featuring the heavy vocals and aggressive rhythm guitar of James Hetfield. A year later, the next album, Ride the Lightning, expanded and improved their form with longer songs that featured both instrumental pyrotechnics and lyrics which rose above some of the more puerile songs on Kill 'Em All. Perhaps the most significant feature of Ride the Lightning was the inclusion of “Fade to Black”, a slower, more interior song that mused on the thoughts of someone contemplating suicide. Indeed “Fade to Black” is the first such song in a tradition that would come to include “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” and “One”. The inclusion of these slower, introspective songs distinguished Metallica from most other thrash metal bands such as Anthrax, Slayer, and Megadeth.
Metallica's formation was seen by some fans as a direct reaction to the prevalent rock and roll music of the early 1980s. Inspired by bands such as Motorhead, Diamond Head (Indeed, Metallica compared themselves and their sound to a combination of the “epicness” of Diamond Head with the sound of Motörhead in the sleeve notes of 1998’s Garage, inc., humorously citing that two heads were better than one.) and Saxon, the so-called New Wave of British Heavy Metal, as well as hardcore punk like the Misfits and Discharge, Metallica was single-minded in their desire to break the grip of soft metal on heavy metal fans.
After signing a major label deal with Elektra Records in 1984, Metallica went on to produce another album, Master of Puppets, released on February 21, 1986 and regarded by many of their fans as their best work. However, on September 27, 1986, during a European leg of shows, bassist Cliff Burton was killed in a tour bus accident in Ljungby, Sweden. Three weeks after Burton’s funeral, Jason Newsted, formerly of Flotsam and Jetsam joined the band on October 28, 1986. With Newsted, the band finished the Damage, Inc. tour in the early months of 1987 before recording Garage Days Re-Revisited (EP) in July that year. This EP continued Metallica's fascination with covering songs by relatively obscure (to American audiences) British metal and hardcore bands.
In 1988 they recorded . . . And Justice for All, an album full of some of the band’s most structurally complex music. The band actually refuses to play many of the songs from this album live because of its complex structures. Critics regarded . . . And Justice for All as a milestone in the history of metal, noting its intense focus on topics related to personal control and independence. Importantly, many writers also celebrated this album (and, by extension, Metallica itself) for the way it appeared to divorce hard rock from the blues in ways bands such as Motley Crue or Poison resisted. Also, the production of this album was heavily criticized as Lars Ulrich’s drums clicked more than thudded and the guitars had a thin sound to them. James Hetfield excelled himself, however, with some of the best riffery heard in metal music. Kirk Hammett’s solos were innovative and Lars’ drumming incredibly complex. Metallica's first music video appeared, for the morbid but accessible World War I-themed “One”. Featuring clips from the film Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo, it was popular on MTV and gained the band considerable additional exposure. Importantly, Metallica never lost interest in always providing fans with a sensational live act. They retained their original humility and sense of humor and occasionally gave the fans a “band-switch” treat. That is, the song “Am I Evil” would be played with James on drums, Kirk on bass, Jason on guitar, and Lars doing the singing.
In 1991, the self-titled album, Metallica (popularly known as The Black Album) broadened the band’s horizon again. The record was co-produced with Bob Rock, whose resume included work on albums by such pop-metal acts as Bon Jovi and Motley Crue, to create a more commercially viable product. The album featured a black cover that evoked humorous comparisons to Spinal Tap. The album featured the hit “Enter Sandman”, which exemplified the radically pared-down style of songwriting across the album; it became Metallica's most well-known song and has been used by wrestlers and baseball players as their theme music. Another hit was “Nothing Else Matters”, a more plaintive, acoustic ballad that outraged some of their more hardcore fans. The album was a massive crossover hit, bringing Metallica firmly into the mainstream, and it was with this album that the band first encountered significant accusations of having “sold out”. Charges of selling out would follow Metallica throughout the 1990s.
To which the band often joked that they did indeed sell out — each and every date of the tour. Indeed the tour following the Black Album was especially successful and eventful. Many dates were held with no opening act, instead showing an introductory film of band members horsing around backstage. The most well-known event was an incident in Montreal with pyrotechnics while doing a series of joint shows with Guns ‘N’ Roses in 1992. Hetfield suffered severe second and third degree burns to his left arm during the opening of “Fade to Black” and was unable to play guitar for a portion of the tour; former Metallica roadie and Metal Church guitarist John Marshall filled in while Hetfield continued to sing. The making of the Metallica album and the following tour was partially recorded in the documentary A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica.
After almost three years of touring to support the Black Album, Metallica took a respite until late 1995, when they came back into the studio with a new zest for recording. On December 13 they were recorded during their rehearsal for Lemmy’s 50th Birthday Party, the track “Hero of the Day” and four Motorhead covers were released as a limited edition CD. Ulrich and Hetfield, both of whom were very strict on Hammett and Newsted in previous endeavors, claimed to have loosened the reins somewhat. The resulting albums, Load (1996) and ReLoad (1997), represented a significant musical change for Metallica. The band’s breakneck metal tempos and layered guitar compositions had largely been replaced by bluesy rock songs, full of bent notes, warm guitar tone, slide guitar, and shuffle and swing rhythms. Hetfield’s vocals took a larger role than ever before, and several songs, such as “Mama Said” and “Low Man’s Lyric”, showed the band’s willingness to experiment with drastic stylistic changes, such as using the Steel Guitar, the type of guitar used commonly in Country music in “Mama Said” and the Hurdy-Gurdy, which has the sound of a somewhat cross between the Uilleann Pipes/Bagpipes and a vioin sounding guitar in “Low Man’s Lyric”. The intricacy and intelligence of Metallica's songwriting had not been watered down, but it had been presented in a radically different - or perhaps simply radically more varied - stylistic package. Hetfield noted later in the documentary Some Kind of Monster that many songs on these two albums were initially thought by the band to be of only average quality, and polished and re-worked repeatedly until judged to be releasable. On the most superficial level, all of the band members now had much shorter hair than before.
Many of the changes on Load and ReLoad had been anticipated by earlier experiments (especially on the Black Album), but listeners generally regard the two albums as the band’s turning point. Sales were lower than sales of any of the previous three studio albums. Previously rabid fans began to sarcastically refer to the band as “Poptallica” or “Alternica” in light of the band’s appearing to conform to the more mainstream style of pop or alternative rock music.
In spite of these changes, some songs from Load and ReLoad did receive extensive radio play, including “Fuel”, “Until It Sleeps”, “The Unforgiven II”, “Hero of the Day”, “The Memory Remains”, and “King Nothing”. Many in the band’s thrash metal fan base remained hostile and cited these songs as “proof” that the band had sold out. According to them, Metallica was no longer playing metal.
In 1998 Metallica returned briefly to its role as a cover band and compiled a double CD called Garage Inc.. The first CD contained newly recorded tracks, ranging from obvious Metallica influences such as the Misfits, Thin Lizzy and Black Sabbath to more unexpected choices such as Nick Cave and Bob Seger (their take on his “Turn the Page” would gain some classic rock airplay). The second CD gathered together previously released covers, including the complete Garage Days Re-Revisited EP, which had at that point become a scarce collector’s item, as well as a collection of B-sides going as far back as 1984.
On April 21-22, 1999, Metallica recorded two performances with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Conductor Michael Kamen, who had previously worked with the band on “Nothing Else Matters” from the Black Album, had approached the band shortly after that collaboration with the idea of pairing Metallica's music with a symphony orchestra. Kamen and his staff composed additional orchestral material for a number of Metallica songs, avoiding most of the usual rock/symphony orchestra cliches and the concerts featured a collection of songs dating as far back as Ride the Lightning. Metallica also wrote (and Kamen scored) two brand new songs for the event, “No Leaf Clover” and “− Human”. The recording was eventually released as the album S&M in November 1999 on CD, VHS, and DVD.
On March 7, 1999 Metallica were inducted into San Francisco Walk of Fame. The mayor of San Francisco, Willie Brown proclaimed the day “Official Metallica Day” in San Francisco.
In 2000, Metallica discovered that a demo of their song “I Disappear” had been floating across the Napster file-sharing network. They soon discovered that, in addition to the demo, their entire catalogue was also freely available. The band immediately set out to sue Napster and, in the process, asked that 300,000 Napster users found to be trading Metallica songs be banned from the network. They also sued Yale University, University of Southern California, and Indiana University for not blocking Napster from their campuses. In 2001, Metallica and Napster agreed to an out-of-court settlement which did lead to many accounts being locked out. The band did not take action to sue any fans for copyright infringement. Nevertheless, the controversy created a public relations nightmare.
Before they went into the studio to record their next album in 2001, Jason Newsted left the band, ostensibly due to “the physical damage I have done to myself over the years while playing the music that I love”. However, subsequent interviews with Newsted and the remaining members revealed that Newsted’s desire to release and tour with his Echobrain side-project — and Hetfield’s intense resistance to such an idea — was the primary cause of Newsted’s departure.
This began a low-point in recent Metallica history, as Hetfield soon entered rehab due to “alcoholism and other addictions” in July 2001. For nearly a year the entity known as Metallica ceased to function in any meaningful way, and Ulrich and Hammett for the first time seriously considered the possibility that Metallica might be finished. Upon Hetfield’s return, though, the band slowly and cautiously continued as an incomplete three-piece throughout the writing and recording of their next album. Longtime producer Bob Rock handled bass duties for the sessions. Metallica eventually found a new member in early 2003, bassist Rob Trujillo (ex-Suicidal Tendencies), who was then playing with Ozzy Osbourne's band and touring with Zakk Wylde in Black Label Society (He appears in Black Label Society's DVD Boozed, Broozed, and Broken Boned). In an interesting turn of events, Jason Newsted, who had joined Canadian heavy metal band Voivod, filled Rob’s shoes playing bass for Ozzy during the Ozzfest 2003 tour (which Voivod also supported).
In June 2003, Metallica released their eighth full-length studio album, St. Anger. The album debuted at number one on the album charts, heralded as the band’s most aggressive album in over a decade. Metallica seemed to have recorded an intentionally raw and unpolished album as a response to critics’ complaints that they had lost their edge. Harsh criticism from fans followed, however, for the record’s underproduced sound (notably the sound of Ulrich’s snare drum and Hetfield’s “flexible” sense of pitch), overwrought songs, and total lack of guitar solos. Despite the criticism, Metallica won a Grammy in 2004 for St. Anger, the band’s seventh such award. The documentary, Some Kind of Monster, followed the album and offered an inside view into the daily affairs of Metallica like never before. While the film focused on the growing tensions within the band, it fulfilled its actual purpose in that it forced an album to be made.