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Birth School Metallica Death: Vol I
Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood
Metallica are one of the most successful groups on the planet. They have sold more records than the Beach Boys — more than Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner, or Prince. Formed in 1981 by Lars Ulrich, a Danish-born drummer, and James Hetfield, a Californian guitarist and singer, the band have turned out heavy-metal hits that have sold in their millions. Their 1991 record The Black Album, which lifted them from middling word-of-mouth success to private-jet-flying, ranch-buying superstardom, remains the biggest selling album in the world of the past 20 years.
All this has been achieved - as this sometimes hilariously overwrought biography makes clear - by a drummer who could barely keep time and a singer so painfully shy he could barely look an audience in the eyes. So unlikely a combination were drummer Ulrich and singer Hetfield that their first rehearsal, this book reveals, was an unmitigated disaster. Hetfield, crippled with insecurity, didn't even want to be the singer - they just never found anyone else to step in.
The authors of this first volume of a two-part life of the band are a pair of British rock journalists who have spent years traipsing after Metallica, interviewing Ulrich and Hetfield and their various cohorts. Clearly, the prolonged exposure to Hetfield and Ulrich's life of excess (the band are known affectionately by their fans as Alcoholica) has rubbed off on the book's authors.
While Metallica have indulged in every last cliche in the rock'n'roll rulebook (shooting firearms off hotel roofs, crashing cars, insisting that naked girls be waiting for them under running showers as they come off stage), the authors of this account have rebelled, instead, against readable English: To portray the group as being one whose sole concern was the pursuit of a good time all of the time is a construct without foundation, they write. Meaning, surely: Metallica may have partied like over-hormonal adolescents on a mission from hell, but they also put in a lot of hard work.
And so they did. Where this detailed life of the band excels is in explaining how a pair of men as odd and at loggerheads as Hetfield and Ulrichbecame one of the world's biggest rock acts. As other members of the band have walked away or been fired, Ulrich and Hetfield have cleaved to each other despite clearly hating one another's guts. Their animosity famously hit its peak in 2001 when - as captured in the superb documentary Some Kind of Monster - they hired a group counsellor, at a cost of $40,000 a month, to help them resolve their emotional differences while recording their aptly titled album St Anger.
This epic tome on their life, which leaves no music venue's interior decor undescribed, no band member's childhood undocumented in ear-bleeding detail, only reaches 1991, when the band stood on the verge of becoming the multimillion-dollar-spewing juggernaut they remain to this day, managed by none other than Peter Mensch, husband of the former MP Louise.
But the book reveals, intriguingly, just how much Ulrich and Hetfield goaded each other from the beginning. No sooner had they started gigging than Hetfield was storming across the stage at the end of a show to hurl his guitar straight at Ulrich and punch him in the stomach. Ulrich's recollection of an early gig, in a diary entry, is contrastingly dreary: Very nervous. Played so-so. His meekness wouldn't last. Later, he gloated that we began to f*** girls who came to the concerts ... It was just so cool.
He might not have been good-looking or even much of a drummer, but Ulrich was an unstoppable publicist, an infuriating, petulant, irksome megalomaniac driven by his stated ambition to cram Metallica down everybody's f****** throat all over the f****** world.
There is nothing pretty about Metallica's music - and that is why they have appealed so intensely and widely to legions of black-clad young male fans. Their songs are uncensored, id-filled squawks of rage. Ulrich and Hetfield's genius, as this book persuasively argues, was to ignore the Spandex and perms of late-1980s American rock and to model themselves, instead, on the unwashed, raucous heavy metal of British bands such as Motorhead and Iron Maiden. It has kept them popular - and furious - for 30 years. This volume of their life, like the band, is not clever - but it is big, and impressive, and, like its subject, irresistible.
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