This weekend, Metallica will perform 1984’s Ride the Lightning and 1991’s Metallica during their Orion Music + More Festival in Atlantic City. In the spirit of reviving those albums, frontman James Hetfield and lead guitarist Kirk Hammett talked about select tracks from each album. Today, they look back on their band’s breakthrough from 20 years ago.
“Nothing Else Matters” was a major departure for the band. It pissed off some fans expecting thrash metal, but it’s still played at almost every show.
James Hetfield: It’s absolutely crazy, that was the song that I thought was least Metallica, least likely to ever played by us, the last song anyone would really want to hear. It was a song for myself in my room on tour when I was bumming out about being away from home. It’s quite amazing, it’s a true testament to honesty and exposing yourself, putting your real self out there, and taking the risk, taking a gamble that someone’s either going to step on your heart with spikes on or they’re going to put their heart right next to it, and you never know until you try. That solidified, I think, that we were doing the right thing, writing form the heart about what we felt, and you can’t go wrong that way. It has become an unbelievable song live, and from the New York Hells Angels putting it in their movie to sports people to people getting married to it, all kinds of stuff, people relate to it. I’m grateful that the guys forced me to take it out of my tape player and make it Metallica.
In A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica, there was a running gag about how you had trouble learning “Nothing Else Matters,” which delayed its live debut. Is that amusing to you in retrospect?
Kirk Hammett: We kept putting it in the set and taking it out until we were certain we were actually able to play it. I had to relearn that whole intro part to play by myself onstage, which was a little bit intimidating for me at that point, we never had a song that started that way. After a while, once we got it down, it was no problem. Once we put our sights onto whipping a song into shape and getting it together and ready to play, we’re pretty good about putting it together and making it happen.
What do you find so compelling about the themes in “The Unforgiven” that you decided to revisit the song for two sequels?
James Hetfield: Maybe it’s not done, maybe I didn’t feel forgiven or wasn’t able to forgive. It’s one of those songs to me that is pretty personal, obviously revolving around forgiveness of the world and self and whatever else you have some resentment against, working through that. The melody itself never went away in my head, it’s potent for me, and lyrically, stuff kept coming along with it, and probably the fact that you’re not supposed to do a trilogy or something, or keep writing the same thing onto the next album. I think after “The Unforgiven III,” we’re kind of done with it. I think I’m able to forgive, forgive myself and move on.
“The God That Failed” is an extremely personal song that you used to lash out about your Christian Scientist upbringing and your mother’s death after refusing to seek medical treatment. Does playing that song now take you back to the same place that it came from?
James Hetfield: It will take me back there as much as I want it to. I’ve made a lot of peace with my upbringing and religion and all that, and I know why it happened and how it had to happen, and I’ve come to terms with it all. When I was writing that song, I was in the throes of hatred around it, an upheaval of some unpleasant childhood stuff. I know what my higher power is all about, and I now know what my parents’ idea of a higher power was all about. So I’m able to leave their stuff with them and take my stuff where I need to claim it. I’m able to move on with that. And the song is pretty damn heavy.
I imagine you were pretty proud of the line “the healing hand held back by the deepened nail.”
James Hetfield: “I’ve arrived. Move over, Bob Dylan.” It sounded pretty grown up coming from someone so angry.
In Year and a Half, there’s a scene where [producer] Bob Rock tries to convince you that “Holier Than Thou” should be the album’s first single, not “Enter Sandman.”
James Hetfield: Well, good. I think we probably all had a different opinion on what should be the single, and that made the album pretty strong, every song had its potency. “Holier Than Thou,” we’re still playing that live, and that’s one of those that people do enjoy live. It’s a complex song, but simple.
“My Friend of Misery” is one of the songs you’re playing for the first time on these black album shows. I always thought that was a standout track on the record, with the long bass intro and twin-lead guitar solo.
James Hetfield: It’s awesome, I love that song. It’s real moody. That song was originally an instrumental. I don’t know how or why, I just started adding vocals to it and brought it to another level. That twin solo-y thing is pretty cool, Kirk and I are pulling that off pretty good. Those are the solos that I’m able to contribute, some of those non-fast solos, more melodic with crazy harmonies, that’s what I like doing.
You make a pair of references to the Founding Fathers on the album: Thomas Paine on “My Friend of Misery” and Patrick Henry on “Don’t Tread on Me.” Were you reading up on American history at the time?
James Hetfield: No, nothing on purpose. “Don’t Tread on Me,” I love the song, but it shocked a lot of people, because everyone thought it was pro-war when they thought we were anti-war, and alls we’re doing is writing songs, we’re not standing politically on any side. “Don’t Tread On Me” was just one of those “don’t fuck with us” songs, and obviously referencing the flag and the snake and what it meant, that all tied into the black album and the snake icon on the album cover, and I think it’s great to play that song live. We’re over here in Europe playing it, and people aren’t appalled by the songs. We haven’t played it in Iraq or Iran yet, though.
I heard “Don’t Tread On Me” blaring out of a number of cars in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
James Hetfield: As long as it helps people, that’s what I take away from that. If it brings strength, that’s what I like our songs to do.
Kirk Hammett: That song was never really a big favorite, from what I can tell. People definitely relate to that song, and definitely have made the connection with it in certain political scenarios or war scenarios or whatnot, and our music is open to interpretation. We’re not going to say, “It means that, it doesn’t mean that, you can draw these conclusions, but not those conclusions.” Our music is basically up for interpretive grasp. That’s the one song a lot of people were into, and added that gravity to. It really puts over a feeling of “don’t fuck with me.”
Do you ever look at a setlist before a show, see “Enter Sandman,” and say, “Seriously, guys, not tonight.”
Kirk Hammett: There’s a certain amount of songs we know we have to play, because the audience expects us to play them, and songs we throw in because we feel like playing or get requests. The great thing about our music is most of it is really, really fun to play, and very dynamic, dynamic enough so that if we wanted to change part of a song or add a part, take out a part, it can pretty much survive that. When songs start to become a little tedious, what we’ll do is just change them, take parts out, add parts, or make it more dynamic, and that’s our way around getting around the whole boredom factor, which I think is a good approach, an honorable approach. There were times when the mention of “Seek and Destroy” would make me gag, but we started playing it in a heavier key, and now it sounds like a brand new song to me. We made the change six or seven years ago, and I love it all over again.
On Live Shit, you guys played “Seek and Destroy” for almost 20 minutes.
Kirk Hammett: Thank god we’re not doing it like that anymore.
Orion Music + More, with Metallica, Titus Andronicus, Eric Church, Arctic Monkeys, and others, takes place at Bader Field in Atlantic City on June 23 and 24.