Seek and dee-STROY!” Moments after that warm sentiment wafts over the PA system of the Niedersachsenhalle in Hannover, West Germany, Metallica, the hard-core heavy metal band, launches into a musical medley that approximates the sound an F-14 might make on an indoor bombing run. Lars Ulrich, 24, bangs the drums anything but slowly, discarding splintered sticks and reloading from a nearby quiver. Bassist Jason Newsted, 25, in a headbanger’s trance, snaps his cranium up and down to the breakneck beat. Guitarist and singer James Hetfield, 25, and guitarist Kirk Hammett, 26, put out a sonic blast so intense that bystanders cover their heads. Finally, a technician pleads, “Could you turn down the G-force on the guitar?”
To the techie’s surprise, the request is heeded, but only because this is an afternoon sound check. Tonight the Metallicans will come back and give it their all, and any gripes from the fainthearted will be drowned out by the lusty cheers of 5,000 beer-swilling German metalheads. On the first leg of a nine-month, 200-concert world tour, Metallica is celebrating the success of its fourth album,…And Justice for All, which has percolated into the Top 10 of Billboard’s pop album charts—a surprising achievement for a band that has never made a promotional video and, in the judgment of most commercial radio programmers, has the appeal of botulism. “We always wanted to be different from the rest of the music business,” says Ulrich. “It’s too classic: You make a record, you make a video. We were the first to give the finger to the music industry in America.”
If not the first, Metallica is at least one of the more successful. No glam rockers, they dress in T-shirts, jeans and sneakers, are 100 percent mousse-free and prefer beer to bubbly. Instead of hook-rich, cliché-ridden pleas to party girls, Hetfield writes punklike lyrics that rage at death, drugs, war, conformity, pollution and any authority figure who comes to mind. Some subjects, including satanism (“an ideological crutch,” says Hammett) and love, are taboo. Asked if he’ll ever write a love song, Hetfield says, “Yeah, about beer.” As Los Angeles Times writer Jonathan Gold put it, “When Metallica sings about a guy trapped under ice, they’re not alluding to the existential hopelessness of the human condition. They’re really singing about a guy trapped under ice. It’s kind of refreshing.”
Metallica coalesced in the Hetfield family garage in middle-class Norwalk, Calif., in 1981. The son of strict Christian Scientists, Hetfield was working in a factory when he hooked up with Ulrich, who had planned to become a tennis pro until he discovered he was “not even in the Top 10 on the block.” Ulrich in turn recruited guitarist Dave Mustaine and bassist Cliff Burton. After a year of garage practice sessions, the band recorded a tape that became a word-of-mouth hit in the metal underground and, in 1983, landed the group a record contract. At about that time, Mustaine left (eventually forming the group Megadeth) and was replaced by Hammett. Ignored by critics and radio deejays, Metallica’s first LP, mellifluously titled Kill ‘Em All, sold 350,000 copies.
The band released two more albums, which sold well, in 1984 and 1986, and then tragedy struck. While the group was touring Sweden, their bus crashed on an icy road, killing Burton instantly. Mourned by his mates, who include his lyrics in a new song called “To Live Is to Die,” Burton was replaced by Newsted. He and Hetfield hunt rabbits on the California ranch where Burton’s ashes were spread. “I feel close to him there,” Newsted says, “even though I never met him.”
While it can’t be said that the Metallicans have settled down, two of them—Hammett and Ulrich—are married, and Newsted will wed in December. Maintaining a strong relationship in the face of the separations wrought by touring—wives stay home—isn’t easy. “She’s grown with the thing,” says Hammett of wife Rebecca, 22, “but it’s very delicate, very fragile.” Hetfield, the only unattached band member, says, “I have a few chicks around.” For relaxation when not on tour, he and Hammett play together in a bar band delicately named Spastic Children, one of whose songs, “Bra Section,” is about a kid who drools over mail-order catalogs. In San Francisco they performed in their underwear, only because the club owner wouldn’t let them sing nude.
On the road, Metallica’s members while away the hours downing suds and watching spaghetti Westerns on the VCR. On the current tour, which arrives in Ohio this week, shows run two hours, usually with three encores. Each night “the adrenaline goes so fast my eyes bulge,” Hammett says. “I can hardly stand up anymore.”
Cooling off in a local bierhaus after the Hannover gig, a sweat-soaked Hetfield agrees. “You’ve gotta keep fit to play that hard every night,” he says. “Better order five more beers.”
—Steve Dougherty, and Alexander Connock in Hannover