How did Metallica give us the most listened to catalog in rock radio history?
Tune into any rock radio station in the country, and you’ll hear Metallica not only thrown in the middle of the typical schlock of midday minutiae, but as a separate segment of the playlist. The Mandatory Metallica 3-6 song block is a staple of the American radio landscape, like it or not, and on any given night, you can scan the airwaves and find, say, Trapped Under Ice, a deep track off of Ride the Lightning, or The Four Horsemen, a seven-minute, epically radio-unfriendly cut recorded on their debut Kill ‘Em All in 19 frickin’ 83.
Those two albums — Kill ‘Em All and Ride the Lightning — were released on Megaforce Records, not readily available until the band was signed to Elektra, and never reached higher than 100 on the Billboard Album Charts. Yet, combined, they’ve sold more than 8 million copies in the US, and all of their 18 tracks are in regular weekly rotation in nearly every single city in the country.
How does this happen?
In the beginning, Metallica were almost wholly unique in their own musical subset. Saying that Metallica is a metal band anymore is like saying that Green Day is a punk rock band. Sure, they have many of the tell-tale symptoms of their respective quasi-genres, but they really excelled because they stood outside bands with whom they were originally roped in.
The metal scene of early 1980’s Los Angeles was almost entirely glam. Bands like Mötley Crüe, Ratt and Dokken with their bright metal studs, leather belts and frizzed out hair ruled the Sunset Strip, and were generally reviled by the other musical movement afoot; punk rock.
American Hardcore is analogous to what Metallica helped create: Thrash Metal. What Black Flag was to The Clash, Metallica was to Diamond Head.
Hardcore American punk bands from LA in the early 80’s were taking their idols like Gang of Four, Television and The Ramones, cranking the speed up to 11 and generally alienating anybody outside of their tightly-knit scene. Metallica did the same thing with the NWOBHM music they idolized.
And Metallica wore jeans, not leather pants. They played metal music, so the punks hated them. They looked like high school dropouts instead of glossy androgynous facsimiles, so the metal kids hated them. But they weren’t entirely unpopular. On the contrary. They existed where no scene existed before. And they were not alone. Other acts in this new genre of thrash metal, Slayer, Motörhead, Anthrax, and ousted guitarist Dave Mustaine’s new project Megadeth, all eventually played large arenas and outdoor festivals.
So why, today, do you hear Fade to Black on the radio instead of Slayer’s Hell Awaits, or why does Master of Puppets kick off your drive time commute instead of Anthrax’s Madhouse?
Because by 1991, Metallica had evolved. They ditched the thrash metal 80’s and wrote music more introspectively than they had in the past. Gone were the songs of biblical destruction and in their place were songs of emotion, and — as best as James Hetfield can muster — poetry.
Looking back at the early 90’s through our time capsule, VH1 “I Love The…”-colored glasses, it’s easy to forget that the only earnest brooding happening in the music industry wasn’t just coming from the lips of Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain. Now far be it from me to compare the languish in the voice of Cobain to the cartoonish growl of James Hetfield, but the point is Metallica had turned the corner. Where Mustaine was still talking about cartoonish apocalypse in Symphony of Destruction, Hetfield was singing Nothing Else Matters.
But even when they weren’t taking a turn for the wholehearted, the rest of 1991’s self-titled “Black Album” was a modern rock masterpiece. The songs were accessible, straightforward, and had enough staying power to still receive a strong amount of radio play until their follow-up Load five years later.
So why? Why, after their early 90’s success did new fans go back to their first four albums which, while similar, were far more raw and uncommon?
Because a kid like me growing up in the 90’s wanted to hear the blistering, memorable, Satriani-esque guitar solos of Kirk Hammett. Because Beavis & Butthead generation wanted to throw up the devil horns and bang their heads. Because despite what history tells us, to a young teenager there was no major philosophical difference between the music of Pearl Jam, Guns and Roses and Metallica. Because, well, Metallica was just better than any of their thrash metal bunkmates.
Metallica spent the better part of a decade composing an entirely new genre of rock music and then made on of the most radio-friendly rock records of all time and became the biggest band in the world. No other band has ever done this. Throw out everything they’ve post-say, 1995. The short-hair posturing of Load and ReLoad, the comical thrash-redux of St Anger, the horribly pathetic and embarrassing Lou Reed experiment.
They did what no other band has done before or since: they created a whole new style of music, perfected it, took a left-hand turn and became more popular than ever, endearing them to a new generation of fans who wanted to discover their music; all their music. And radio stations everywhere, to this day, are still happy to oblige.