How Metallica’s …And Justice For All raised the bar for heavy metal

Following the death of Cliff Burton, Metallica found themselves at a crossroads in 1988. This is the story of the album that changed them – and metal – forever…

How Metallica’s …And Justice For All raised the bar for heavy metal
Paul Brannigan

Viewed from the stage of LA’s Memorial Coliseum, Metallica’s 1988 homecoming party appeared perilously close to becoming a full-scale riot. When James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich initially moved from Los Angeles in February 1983 to take up residency in San Francisco, they left behind a city almost wholly indifferent to their still-evolving musical experiments. But five years on, LA’s metal community welcomed back their prodigal sons with a reception bordering upon frenzy.

On July 24, Metallica’s first stadium show in the city – a fourth-on-the-bill booking on the Van Halen-headlined inaugural U.S. Monsters Of Rock tour – dissolved into chaos even as their traditional intro music, Ennio Morricone’s The Ecstasy Of Gold, was ringing out. Initially it was just those closest to the stage who left their allocated seats to rush to the front, but soon thousands more fans began streaming from the stands to join them, trampling down fences and knocking over security personnel. Five songs in, the band were forced to cut short a vicious Whiplash as a chair was hurled on to the stage; seconds later they departed for their own safety as yellow-shirted security staff struggled to contain an audience now hurling forward safety barriers, seats, bottles, plastic glasses and anything else they could lay their hands upon.

Six tense minutes passed, and a dozen arrests were made, before the quartet were permitted back onstage. By the time the four musicians thundered into a climactic Battery, it was evident to all in the stadium that this would be the undisputed high point of the day.

“Metallica is making the metal of the moment,” the reviewer from the LA Times duly noted, “and likely the future.”

Within the Monsters Of Rock caravan, Metallica’s growing strength and confidence was already a talking point. The tour, scheduled to visit 23 cities between May 27 and July 30, was barely one week old when Don Dokken, the frontman of LA hard rockers Dokken, requested that the daily running order be switched so that his band would not have to follow Metallica. “I know we’re making twice as much money as Metallica, but can you please put ’em on after us, because they’re killing us,” the singer implored Q Prime’s Cliff Burnstein, co-manager of both bands. Cliff’s refusal was not borne from simple favouritism: the fact was that Metallica needed to play as early in the day as possible to allow James and Lars time to catch regular flights to Bearsville in upstate New York to oversee the mixing of their eagerly-anticipated, and behind-schedule, fourth album, a collection roundly expected to propel the band into the mainstream.

“We were very determined,” bassist Jason Newsted recalled, “to be that American band that brought this kind of music to people.”

Such lofty ambition might have seemed extremely fanciful at the point where Metallica relocated to San Francisco in early 1983 but, largely fuelled by their hyperactive, precocious drummer’s vision, the quartet quickly developed an innate, irresistible belief in their own destiny. By the end of 1984, with Ride The Lightning having passed the 60,000 sales mark in Europe, Lars felt sufficiently emboldened by his band’s burgeoning success to tell UK underground metal fanzine Metal Forces that Metallica were set to usher in a new age for metal.

“Cliff Burnstein, who signed us to our management deal in the States, has this big belief that what we are doing will be the next big thing in heavy metal,” the drummer bullishly declared to long-time supporter Bernard Doe. “I honestly believe that the kids who are into Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, KISS, and [Twisted] Sister will take on what we’re doing. I’m not saying it’s something that’s going to happen overnight, but it could start developing and Metallica could be the front runners of a new branch of heavy metal.”

Two years on, as the peerless Master Of Puppets album notched up one million sales worldwide with no single, no promotional video and no daytime radio airplay, Metallica’s ascension into metal’s premier league seemed every bit as assured as Lars’ confident prediction. The back cover of the album featured a shot of the group onstage in front of 50,000 metalheads at the 1985 Day On The Green festival in Oakland, California: though the Bay Area band were not the event headliners, the image suggested that they believed this was where they rightfully belonged. Even the shocking death of bassist Cliff Burton in Sweden on September 27, 1986 only temporarily stalled their forward momentum: exactly one month and one day after Burton’s ashes were scattered in Castro Valley, California, Metallica were back onstage with Jason Newsted in his place.

Two of the most significant metal albums of the decade were released within that same five-week period. On September 29, 1986 Iron Maiden issued their sixth studio album, the bold, progressive and futuristic-sounding Somewhere In Time. On October 7, Slayer’s third album, Reign In Blood, emerged, a recording of such ferocity, savagery and focused physicality that it instantly put a full stop on the thrash metal scene: it could not, and would not, be bettered. Metallica themselves had long since outgrown the genre, but the bar for forward-thinking, technically-dazzling, state-of-the-art heavy metal had assuredly been raised.

Yet if any album could be said to have informed the writing of Metallica’s fourth LP, albeit mainly in terms of emboldening the band to amplify their core strengths and push forward fearlessly, it was Appetite For Destruction. Asked recently by Rolling Stone magazine to select his 15 favourite hard rock and metal albums of all time, significantly Lars Ulrich chose Guns N’ Roses’ feral, street-wise debut as his only pick from the second half of the 1980s. The drummer first heard Appetite… on a pre-release cassette on a flight from LA to New York, and recalled being blown away by the album’s “swagger and attitude… spite and anger”. “That was the beginning of something life-altering,” he told the magazine.

Back in LA, the two bands were introduced by a mutual business associate, and bonded over hard liquor and white powders. Though their friendship would become sorely tested by an incident-packed co-headlining stadium tour in the summer of 1992, in 1987 the two camps were sufficiently tight that Slash made his bedroom in Hollywood available to James Hetfield for an enthusiastic hook-up with a lady friend at the climax of what the GN’R guitarist recalled as a night of “outrageous partying”.

“At that time we were hovering on the fringes of the leftfield,” Lars later recalled. “The mainstream hadn’t caught up to us yet, so we all still felt like outsiders. We were alienated and awkward and disenfranchised, all just wanting a sense of belonging to something. So we found solace in strength in numbers with the bands that were weird and awkward like we were.”

Though Metallica were never going to follow Guns’ sonic blueprint, their obsession with Appetite… led them to instruct Q Prime to hire both the album’s producer, Mike Clink, and mix engineers Steve Thompson and Michael Barbiero for their own forthcoming album.

Writing for that album began in October 1987. Given Cliff Burton’s huge impact upon the songwriting, dynamics and classically-inspired melodies on Ride The Lightning and Master Of Puppets, it must surely have been bittersweet for James, Lars and Kirk to return to the creative process with a riff authored by their ‘new kid’ bassist. But if Jason’s contribution to the spine of Blackened was more straight-ahead and direct than Cliff’s evocative opening to For Whom The Bell Tolls or the shimmering atmospherics of Orion, it undoubtedly delivered in terms of energy and impact. With hindsight, it’s evident though that Metallica’s core trio were not sufficiently adjusted to the loss of their friend to easily accept the reconfigured chemistry in the unit. Where Master Of Puppets was largely written with the four musicians convening in Lars’ garage in El Cerrito – a process replicated when Jason Newsted was ‘blooded’ with the cheerfully rough and raw $5.98 E.P.: Garage Days Re-Revisited – in the autumn of 1987, the band’s two alpha males, Lars and James, determined that the new album’s songwriting sessions would work best with just the two of them entrusted with the process of identifying, structuring and arranging the best riffs from a stack of individually collated cassette tapes. It’s impossible to imagine that this approach would have been proposed, much less tolerated, had Cliff been still part of the group. It’s telling that, in highlighting Cliff’s contributions to To Live Is To Die, James and Lars were adamant that their late friend’s spirit should continue to infuse the process as in the past. Jason’s considerations were deemed secondary, if not wholly irrelevant.

“It was me and James running everything with an iron fist,” the drummer later admitted. Without the more subtle promptings of their former bassist, the new Metallica material became an exercise in bravado and athleticism.

“It was just us really showing off,” James said. “We’ve jammed six riffs into one song? Let’s make it eight. Let’s go crazy with it.”

“Some shit is strong enough to be the main idea of a tune,” Lars told music journalist Richard Gehr in 1988, laying bare the methodology. “Then we go through the tapes and try to find possible bridges, choruses, middle bits or whatever. After we have the skeleton of a song, we start getting a feel for what the song’s really like. Then we search for a title from a list of titles that fits with the riffing’s mood.”

If the process lacked the spontaneity and communal vibe of the Master Of Puppets sessions, it was nonetheless effective. In the wake of Blackened, the second track to come together was the hulking grind of Harvester Of Sorrow. Then, inspired by Venom’s Buried Alive and Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun, the epic One, a horrifying, harrowing tale of a soldier losing not only all four limbs, but the power of sight, speech and hearing. Within nine weeks, a total of nine songs had been demoed. The pair were not so blinkered as to rule out contributions made by their talented lead guitarist – Kirk Hammett would ultimately receive a co-writing credit on four tracks – but post-Blackened, Jason found himself frozen out of the process.

“We were waiting for [Jason] to write some big, epic stuff, but it never really came,” Kirk later recalled. “It was a nonstarter, in retrospect. It was great that he was there and was enthusiastic about it, but he didn’t make any huge contributions. I don’t know why that is, but it’s kind of just how the chips fell.”

“I knew my place,” reasoned Jason, ever the diplomat, “and I couldn’t write songs better than James.”

Q Prime blocked out three months in the band’s schedule, from late January ’88 to the beginning of May, for the recording of the album at One On One Studios in LA, leaving the group a three-week window to rehearse for their Monsters Of Rock excursion. Within days, however, the quartet realised they were struggling to connect with their new producer. While Mike Clink had done a masterful job in capturing Guns N’ Roses’ raw, live energy on tape, he was less suited to Metallica’s more complex, fastidious and idiosyncratic recording methods, where, at odds with convention, James Hetfield’s rhythm guitar was the bedrock on which the songs were built. With James and Lars soon convinced Clink was unsuited to the task ahead, calls were hurriedly made to Ride The Lightning/Master Of Puppets producer Flemming Rasmussen to salvage operations. In mid-February the Danish producer arrived at One On One just as Clink was packing up.

“It was a bit awkward, obviously,” Flemming recalled. “But he seemed like a nice guy. He didn’t hit me or anything.”

Though Flemming’s arrival was met with relief by his old friends, the sessions at One On One remained arduous and exhausting. James and Lars put in 12 to 14-hour days daily, patiently constructing songs more involved and labyrinthine than they’d ever previously recorded. Remarkably, neither the band’s two founding members nor the producer was present when Jason recorded his bass tracks, the new man being given a single day in the company of inexperienced studio engineer Toby Wright to nail the arrangements. Kirk wasn’t invited to participate until the final 10 days of the sessions, only adding to the stress: he would actually tape his final solo for the record, the middle solo on One, in New York’s Hit Factory studio on June 9, some five shows into the MOR tour. Flemming, meanwhile, had challenges of his own, namely trying to coax James to sing rather than grunt in key, a suggestion rebuffed by the frontman.

“He was a very angry young man,” Flemming later told this writer.

With the benefit of hindsight, and a little amateur psychiatry, one might wonder whether all the piss and vinegar in James Hetfield’s lyrics on what became …And Justice For All weren’t, in fact, a smokescreen for deeper, more personal issues. Years later, the singer referred to Metallica’s fourth album as “the complaining album,” noting “lyrically, we were really into social things, watching CNN and the news all the time, and realising that other people really do kinda control your life.” But even as he railed against environmental destruction (Blackened), political corruption (…And Justice For All) and censorship/political witch hunts (The Shortest Straw), James, no liberal snowflake, never seemed as engaged with his subject matter as he did when tackling the repressive nature of his own upbringing on the seething, splenetic Dyers Eve. One wonders whether, for the most part, his scattershot rage wasn’t at least partially rooted in the tormenting memory of seeing his friend Cliff lying lifeless on a Swedish highway.

September 5, 1988 saw the release of ...And Justice For All via Vertigo/Phonogram in the UK, and one day later on Elektra in the U.S.. The most immediately startling aspect of the album was the sterile, bone-dry production, with Jason Newsted’s bass, so up-front on the $5.98 E.P.: Garage Days Re-Revisited, mixed down to the point of being practically inaudible. Flemming Rasmussen was horrified, laying the blame at the doorstep of Steve Thompson and Michael Barbiero, who in turn pointed the finger squarely at Lars and James, particularly the drummer. For his part, Lars still maintains that the insult visited upon Jason Newsted was never malicious.

“It wasn’t [a case of] ‘Fuck this guy – let’s turn his bass down,’” he insisted. “It was more like, ‘We’re mixing, so let’s pat ourselves on the back and turn the rhythms and the drums up.’ But we basically kept turning everything else up until the bass disappeared.”

Whatever, no-one could deny that the album was uncompromising and another bold step forward for the band, taking the RTL/MOP template to the extreme. As predicted, ...Justice was an immediate success, debuting at Number 6 on the Billboard chart in the U.S. and at Number 4 in the UK.

“I can remember being pretty shocked when I was talking to a record company person after […Justice] was finished, right before it was released,” Kirk told Decibel magazine in 2011. “He was like – ‘Yeah man, it’s probably going to sell a million [copies] in the first couple of weeks.’ And I was like, ‘No way.’ I thought it was too heavy and too progressive and there was no way it would sell that much. But you know what? It sold more in those first two weeks than he even talked about. It was insane. All the right things happened at the right time. It was just our time, I guess.”

Now firmly in the spotlight, Metallica seized their moment. A decision was taken to permit film-makers Michael Salomon and Bill Pope to make a video for One, mixing a moody, stark performance of the song with footage from the 1971 film of Johnny Got His Gun. The result was a startling, often harrowing piece of art, with the song’s melodies mixed down in places to give prominence to the film’s storyline and dialogue.

“Pretty early on we felt we had something special on our hands,” Lars noted. “Whether it was great or shit, it meant something.”

The public clearly agreed: within weeks of its premiere on January 22, 1989, the video was the most popular clip on MTV. What could have been seen as a compromise by Metallica actually enhanced their reputation as artists with a singular vision and an unshakeable commitment to playing the game only by their own rules. This perception remained intact even when the Bay Area quartet accepted an invitation to perform at the 31st GRAMMY Awards ceremony one month later, on February 22. Even the most militantly anti-commercial Metallica fans seemed to recognise that, being nominated for the newly minted Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance (Vocal Or Instrumental) category for …And Justice For All, an opportunity to play the U.S. music industry’s most high profile event was too good an opportunity to shun.

Not that the band themselves didn’t have some initial concerns. “I thought, ‘Oh man, I don’t wanna be a part of this crap,’” James admitted. “But then it was, like, ‘Hey, this is an opportunity. You don’t get to do this every day, a chance to get on national TV and show all these boring fucks what we’re all about.’”

Ultimately, Metallica gained almost nothing from the show – their truncated performance of One was met with near silence in the auditorium, and they lost out to veteran English folk-rockers Jethro Tull on the night – but their tongue-in-cheek decision to sticker future pressings of …AJFA with the label ‘GRAMMY Award Losers’ ensured their credibility remained not just intact, but enhanced. Rather more importantly, by the time the 219-date Damaged Justice tour concluded in Brazil in October ’89, the band had sold two million albums in the U.S. alone, setting them up perfectly for a proper tilt at the stars with album number five.

From a present day perspective, one might argue that …Justice is Metallica’s most important album, both in terms of its influence, and the fact that it transported its creators from cult status to the heart of the mainstream music industry, laying the foundations upon which they would build so emphatically with 1991’s ‘Black Album’. Looking back on …And Justice For All for Rolling Stone on the occasion of the album’s 20th anniversary, both James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich were measured but clearly warm in their assessment of what is one of the undoubted cornerstones of their storied career.

“Sonically, it has its shortcomings,” James acknowledged, “but that is the one where we were able to step forward from …Puppets. Anywhere I go, whenever I ask someone what their favourite record is, someone’s bound to say …Justice.”

“…Justice obviously was a huge record for us,” Lars reflected. “We took the Ride The Lightning and Master Of Puppets concept as far as we could take it. That album sent us on this whole other merry way, because when we came back from touring on that record in 1989, we were like, ‘We have nothing more to offer on this side of Metallica,’ and that set us off on some other adventures…”

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