A 1991 album (which should have been called Black Snake as a diss to Whitesnake) often gets trashed for the wrong reasons. Many people are under the impression that Metallica would’ve remained as a thrash band if Cliff Burton survived. When James Hetfield and Jason Newsted did a TV interview with Canadian phone callers in 1992, somebody asked if Metallica would be quicker if they still had Cliff. James answered that speed metal wasn’t Cliff’s only musical interest. He was the most musically talented bandmate (academically taught). He liked country, blues and even orchestral music. He also listened to Jethro Tull, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd and The Police. He just happened to like speed metal too.
He was the most open-minded member who encouraged Metallica to think outside of the box. Who’s to say Cliff would’ve wanted to do more thrash albums after Master of Puppets? Maybe he would’ve felt, like other fans, that Metallica did the best that they could with that sort of tempo. Maybe their fourth album would’ve been a symphonic metal album because of Cliff’s taste in classical music. It makes sense because it would be taking the epic mid-tempo compositions of their third album and enhancing them with a symphony (since Cliff’s taste in classical music influenced some of their past songs). Had they done so, they would’ve been seen (with hindsight) as paving the way for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
Also, the S&M album would’ve been more embraced as well as being perceived as an abstract take on the greatest hits album (which Metallica unofficially did with the Binge & Purge live album). This may seem like guess work, but given that Metallica didn’t fold after the Sweden incident, the proof is in the pudding. As it stands, …and Justice for All (as it is) was best described as an operatic metal album without the orchestra. With Cliff around, it would’ve been less thrashy because he would’ve felt that there was so much more ground for Metallica to explore and excel within the misunderstood realm of mid-tempo metal. For example, Black Sabbath are slower but heavier than Judas Priest.
With Cliff around, their fifth album would’ve been an attempt to be less bombastic after the melodramatic nature of ’80s metal albums in general (not just the pop bands but the power ones). One such example was Savatage, who released Gutter Ballet in 1989. Kirk Hammett was also becoming self-conscious of the guitar virtuoso trend. There’s a probability that Cliff would’ve listened to Ministry, Godflesh, KMFDM, Voivod and Nine Inch Nails. This is not a load of hooey because, in the timeline of events that actually unfolded, Metallica were listening to Ministry (while being in their dressing room) during the Damaged Justice tour. If he was alive, Cliff might have convinced Metallica to do an industrial metal album.
This could have been their breakthrough album because it would’ve been heard by industrial as well as metal and mainstream music fans. This could’ve been like Fear Factory before they had exploded to prominence. Due to the complexity of undertaking such a project for the first time, it could’ve taken them as long to do as the black album did in the timeline of events that actually unfolded. Enter Sandman (which first began life years before as a song title) would’ve been more popular as an industrial metal song. Of Wolf and Man would have more atmospheric sound effects. Lars Ulrich would’ve convinced Cliff to embrace the radio-friendliness of Bob Rock because of his bass-friendliness.
There are too many die-hard thrashers who think Cliff would never have let Metallica do a bluesy album (Load), but they don’t know that he was a fan of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Aerosmith and The Eagles. There are so many knuckle-headed thrash-heads who think he would never let Metallica do an alternative rock album (Reload), but they either don’t know or have forgotten that he was a fan of R.E.M. and may have been okay with the idea of cutting his hair if not going through with the glamour aesthetic that Lars was striving for (the drummer puts the rich in Ulrich). With Cliff still alive, they would have the distinction for not needing music videos. In the ’90s, I had wrong assumptions about what the black album was about.
I assumed that Enter Sandman was Hetfield’s attempt to remake Dokken’s Dream Warriors because he thought it was too wussy-sounding (due to Don Dokken’s effeminate voice). With that said, Dokken’s Don’t Close Your Eyes (which is about A Nightmare on Elm Street) is the coolest song that Dokken ever wrote and composed. In 2008, I learned on YouTube that the main riff to Enter Sandman is reminiscent of Get Stoned by Stone (which is the thrashiest version of Enter Sandman). I’m surprised that Stone didn’t sue. Before they made the black album, Metallica visited Finland (where Lars was in a radio interview with Stone). This interview can be found from the Get Stoned, Stay Stoned DVD.
I never bought into the theory that Metallica borrowed the riff from Excel’s Tapping into the Emotional Void. It’s not a coincidence that Metallica decided that the B-side would be a cover of Stone Cold Crazy by Queen. In the ’90s, I assumed that Sad but True was about Jason being the cub to Hetfield’s wolf. When you compare the lyrics to the situation which unfolded, it makes sense. I assumed that Holier Than Thou was about evangelism like one of their earlier songs (Leper Messiah). I assumed that The Unforgiven was about how Jason became the deprived scapegoat of Metallica’s anguish after they lost Cliff. I assumed that Wherever I May Roam was about a person who becomes homeless.
I assumed that Don’t Tread on Me was the theme for the U.S. soldiers who were participating in the Gulf War (news footage can be briefly seen in A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica). What’s not an assumption is that the riff inspired Pantera to do a variant for Walk. Ironically, they didn’t like the album that was almost titled Married to Metal because of three divorces. I assumed that Through the Never was about the universe’s black holes. I assumed that Nothing Else Matters was about Cliff. To understand this interpretation, you have to bear in mind that the official verdict behind Cliff’s death contradicted what was known by James, the police and a freelance photographer.
James claimed to have smelled liquor emanating from the middle-aged bus driver’s breath. James has a masculinity thing going on (the documentary doesn’t show footage of him attending singing lessons), hence why Lars noted that he tends to be more sensitive in private than he is in public. With that established, I can understand that James was afraid of homophobic metalheads accusing him of being gay for writing a ballad about Cliff. If the song was about him, it would’ve been more respected. To be fair, James said that his feelings about Cliff and his death would subconsciously creep into songs. Truth be told, if Nothing Else Matters is secretly about Cliff, it’s no more sissy than the homoerotic songs which Rob Halford wrote.
Speaking of Halford, Judas Priest recorded a triplet of pop metal songs with the U.K. equivalent to Desmond Child – S.A.W. i.e. Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman. This was in the late ’80s. Waterman claimed that the songs were the best which the trio had ever worked on. It’s too bad that they don’t own the rights to the songs. The songs will never be released due to the usual macho posturing (the songs can’t be any more embarrassing than Priest’s Turbo album). Much like what Mr. Rock did with Metallica’s eponymous album, the songs could be beefed up to sound like the epitome of machismo. In the ’90s, I assumed that Of Wolf and Man was about An American Werewolf in London.
I assumed that The God that Failed was constructed as a harder companion piece to, if not a rival of, the similarly-themed yet mellower-sounding Quicksand Jesus. If the Skid Row ballad is about people who only believe in religion when they want help, I reasoned that Hetfield’s lyrics are about people who blame every bad thing on God. Lars proudly mentioned that Metallica hung out with the semi-glam band during the making of their 1991 albums. I assumed that My Friend of Misery was about Dave Mustaine (whose miraculous luck that James has described as owning a horseshoe). Due to the amount of alcohol, cigarettes and other vices that he inflicted upon himself, it was a wonder that Dave didn’t lost his voice.
If he wasn’t going to lose his voice through singing, it would be through talking. He was afraid that his contributions to Metallica would be pushed to the sidelines. He underestimated his popularity because he was too busy focusing on Metallica’s success. He lost sight of the fact that there were many fans and critics who preferred Megadeth. Conclusively, I assumed that The Struggle Within was about celebrities, especially movie and music stars (particularly Madonna because she was made fun of in the rockumentary). Also, one of Hetfield’s favourite bands is Faith No More (whose guitarist was one of Cliff’s closest friends). In 1991, FNM were working on a song whose working title was Madonna.
This would later be known as Midlife Crisis (this was for the Angel Dust album). Two singles can make a difference as to how an album is perceived. If the black album didn’t have Enter Sandman and Nothing Else Matters (thus not having 12 songs like when Def Leppard recorded Hysteria), Metallica wouldn’t have been perceived as sellouts. If Kirk hadn’t switched places with Cliff on the bus then Enter Sandman wouldn’t exist nor would Jason’s My Friend of Misery. As for what would’ve been Cliff’s epic contribution in terms of an instrumental, Bob would have shot down such an idea as he did with Jason’s song. Part of the underlying tragedy in that scenario is that Lars and James would still be serving as credited co-producers.
If the black album sounded the same but was recorded by Terry Date (the main producer of Pantera), it would be more accepted by hardcore metal fans. Holier Than Thou and Through the Never would be perceived as thrashier whereas Don’t Tread on Me would be perceived as groove metal. Anyway, this month is the 24th anniversary of what is the antithesis (yet a companion piece) to Whitesnake’s self-titled album. Like it or not, Bob’s influence made the album go from being a caterpillar to a cobra. He gets trash-talked many times by many people for making them too commercial, but everyone had already made that decision. Even Gary Holt (of Exodus fame) described them as being the Rush of the eighties.
As for the lack of thrash, Metallica were already moving in the direction of mid-tempo metal since Kill ’em All (which wasn’t as relentless as Darkness Descends by Dark Angel). As for the ballads, Fade to Black (from Ride the Lightning) had a keyboard melody which sounded less symphonic than the uncredited keyboardist in The Unforgiven (whose introductory acoustic melody was lifted from Silent Lucidity by Queensrÿche). For those die-hard Metallica fans who will cry sacrilege, you need to note that Cliff’s image was immortalized when he died at 24. You don’t know what he would’ve been like at 34 when they finished the Load album in 1996. After all, the equally multi-taste bassist of Faith No More cut his hair.
Even the iconic FNM guitarist (i.e. Jim Martin) had totally changed. Even Les Claypool used to be in a thrash metal band called Blind Illusion before he had more breathing room in Primus. Kirk produced the album that Les was featured on – The Sane Asylum (the most bass-friendly thrash album). This is because they became friends after attending the same school. People who are not hardcore loyalists tend to change their fashion sense. When I was at college, there was a girl who had a similar seventies style to Cliff (she even had similar hair). She had a diverse taste in music yet even she changed. She’s no longer as metal as she used to be. The tragic irony is that she used to be a fan of Metallica.
Maybe she would’ve liked them still if Cliff was still alive and made the band as diverse as FNM if not Mr. Bungle. As for what Load would’ve been like, we may not have heard a double album. It may have been one album followed by a series of EP records to be released while the band took a much-needed hiatus. I’m thinking of three follow-ups bearing titles such as Unload and Upload. With Cliff being smarter than Lars (something which James would agree with), he would’ve realized that people downloading music is like people recording music off the radio (or even trading tapes like back in the day). Perhaps Cliff would’ve saved Lars from being ridiculed over the whole Napster thing (the beginning of Metallica’s unraveling).
One of the favourite pastimes of Metallica fans is to see how Load and ReLoad can be condensed. With Cliff being a fan of The Misfits as seen above, he wouldn’t approve of James ripping off Snakes of Christ by Danzig for Thorn Within (even if it was a sleight way of highlighting Stone Temple Pilots doing the same thing for Sex Type Thing). If James insisted on not wanting to let the other songs go unearthed, one viable solution would be to have two albums with 8 songs and two EP releases with 5 songs (that’s 26 songs altogether barring the aforementioned rip-off). The idea being that the number of songs evokes memories of the track sequencing for both Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets. The records would’ve been better because bass became cooler in the nineties.
The above photo was taken hours after when Cliff died. It was taken by a 41-year-old newspaper photojournalist named Lennart Wennberg (a man who worked for The Expressen). The surviving members were outside Hotel Terraza (in Ljungby) where Anthrax were waiting inside. The guy exiting the car is the detective from the scene of the crime; the same guy (Arne Pettersson) who said that the track marks on the road were exactly like someone who falls asleep at the wheel. The Englishman should have drunk coffee instead of booze. The accident was so traumatizing that Joey Belladonna made a habit of ensuring that any given bus driver for Anthrax was well rested. Joey’s band are referenced by Bob in one of the funnier moments within Adam Dubin’s rock doc.
This is how Metallica should have travelled. This is how they would travel (along with planes and trains) after Cliff’s death, not just because they were traumatized but because they didn’t want to run into that British bus driver again. In a 1992 MTV Rockumentary special, Kirk mentioned that it wasn’t just himself and Cliff playing cards…but the whole band. Any one of them could have been in Cliff’s place. If James died and was replaced by John Marshall on rhythm guitar alongside Neil Turbin for vocals, people would complain that James put the metal in Metallica. If Lars died, Dave Lombardo (who would eventually leave Slayer for a short period around this time) would have elevated the band if not the business. If Kirk died then John would take over.
After all that heavy drama, it’s time for some comic relief. Clearly, Lars doesn’t like the fact that James made a joke at his expense. I think it’s got to do with a photo taken of the band with the bassist of Iron Maiden (Steve Harris). Lars revealed his naked self. The sight gag being that his snake isn’t even as long as a worm. With the accompanying scrotum (not quite dangly enough to be described as testicles), it looks like a snail.