Metallica’s “The Black Album” — which sold more than 16 million copies — celebrated its 30th anniversary last month, and a remastered edition comes out this Friday along with a 53-track tribute album. There are covers from Kamasi Washington, Weezer, Phoebe Bridgers, and Miley Cyrus. Even cellist Yo-Yo Ma makes an appearance.
“The Black Album” was a shift away from the band’s lightning-fast thrash and speed metal of the 1980s toward a more mainstream, commercial hard rock sound.
KCRW looks back on Metallica’s most iconic and polarizing album with Ben Apatoff, author of “Metallica: The $24.95 Book.”
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why is “The Black Album” such an important record?
Ben Apatoff: “I love ‘The Black Album.’ It's such a polarizing record. I think metal should be polarizing, it should be divisive. It’s so many people's gateway metal record. It's the one that gets people into Metallica and gets them into the older stuff and what some people say is the faster or heavier stuff. It's changed the world.
After ‘The Black Album’ comes out, suddenly there are the biggest ever successes by Rage Against the Machine and Nine Inch Nails. It kind of makes the world more open to heavier music and it's still controversial to this day. And I love that people argue about it. … It's a permanent puzzle, which is part of it. And the songs, production, and performances are great.”
How does the band feel about the album’s iconic status?
“Well, they're obviously celebrating it with this re-release. I think it might have been [drummer] Lars [Ulrich] who said, ‘It keeps the pool heated.’ They can't deny success. … Going back and doing research for this book, you see a time where they start to get kind of resentful of it. And they say … ‘We're kind of tired of playing “Enter Sandman.” And on our next album “Load,” we're going to try something completely different. We're gonna play the hits early to get them out of the way.’
But it seems that, unlike a lot of major artists, they seem very comfortable with their big hits, and they play ‘The Black Album’ hits and the deep cuts and they celebrate with this big box reissue nights. It seems like they're happy with that status. I've got a quote from Lars in the book where he says something like, ‘A record like “Back in Black,” or “Nevermind,” or “The Black Album,” you don't get more than one like that.’ And I think that they're okay with having that be their big album.”
What was your first experience with that album?
“It was my third Metallica record … and I loved it. I really got heavily into them. I knew the hits from the radio, but I got to a point where I was too young to understand why someone who liked the older stuff wouldn't like ‘The Black Album.’ ... You talk to people who grew up with Metallica in the ‘80s and they're like, ‘Yeah, we gathered around the TV for “Enter Sandman,” and oh my God, we were shocked. This is what they sound like now?’ They're so disappointed. But growing up as a ‘90s kid and loving both the older and newer stuff, to me it sounded heavy. They're catchy. They've got great lyrics.”
Is that what the controversy is all about? The old Metallica heads not liking the new sound of this?
“Yeah, I think that people were angry that they had a lot of hits and that they were on the radio. For a long time, they were such a cult band. And you see how important it was to fans that they could meet them backstage and they could play small clubs, and then suddenly they're headlining stadiums with Guns N’ Roses and they're dominating the radio. I think people were very disappointed by that. ... I think they changed what metal could and could not be. They didn't make a record that wasn't metal, they just innovated metal. They changed what it could do.”
What is it about Metallica that makes them so good? Why are they so revered?
“One thing you realize from putting a book together is that you will only get the smallest glimpse of how much this band means to so many people, and how much good they do for people every day of their existence. Metallica has a charity that has a day that they work at a food bank every year, and I volunteer and work with other metalheads.
Every new generation gets their own idea of Metallica. I think that they have an accessibility. They still kind of feel like outsiders in the mainstream. They're one of the biggest bands in the world, but they'll never get invited to play the Super Bowl, or the White House, or the Academy Awards. They've somehow managed to be one of the highest selling bands of all time, they've got ‘The Black Album,’ the highest selling record of the last 30 years, and they still kind of feel like they could be your band.
You see so many people who feel like, ‘This speaks to me, I never knew that there was music, I can express myself.’ And along those lines, they walk a good line where the music is expressive, but also just vague enough that a lot of people can hear themselves in it and they can interpret their own feelings in it. The lyrics are powerful, but … they're not like ‘this is specifically what it's about’ ... which I think is a part where they're so empowering to so many people.”
All of these established musicians are paying homage to Metallica on this covers album. Why are they still viewed as outsiders? Is it a lingering prejudice against heavy metal music?
“There is that. I think the way that it takes longer for horror movies or genre books to be canonized, it usually takes longer for metal to be canonized. And if you look at old reviews of Metallica in Spin magazine, it’s like, ‘What is this garbage?’ And then after a long time, it says like, ‘Okay, this is the one metal band people can like.’ And then once Metallica is around for a while it’s like, ‘Okay, well maybe there are other bands that are good like this.’ But they don't look like rock stars. There's kind of an accessibility to them. There are some rock stars who I love and great bands who you're like, ‘Wow, that guy's born with like a gift.’ Metallica doesn't really have that vibe.
They're clearly very talented, but ... they're probably the biggest band of that generation that doesn't have anyone who'd make a convincing Halloween costume. You could see how someone would dress up like Axl Rose or Kurt Cobain. You couldn’t really do that for [singer/guitarist] James Hetfield or Lars Ulrich. Even as multi-gazillionaire rock stars who've sold millions of records all over the world, they have an every-person vibe that I think a lot of people relate to.”