Written by band members James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, and Kirk Hammett, this is about nightmares and things that go "bump" in the night. It has by far the most radio play of all of Metallica's songs.
James Hetfield's original lyric was about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (Crib Death), when a baby dies inexplicably in its crib. The line, "Off to never never land" was "Disrupt the perfect family," and the "sandman" kills the baby.
Pretty gruesome stuff, so their producer Bob Rock convinced him to change it to make it more accessible and meaningful. The band had a policy of not commenting on each other's individual contributions, but Rock was an outsider and felt free to speak up. To his surprise, Hetfield took it well and altered the lyric accordingly.
Speaking with Uncut in 2007, Hetfield said: "I wanted more of the mental thing where this kid gets manipulated by what adults say. And you know when you wake up with that s--t in your eye? That's supposedly been put in there by the sandman to make you dream. So the guy in the song tells this little kid that and he kinda freaks. He can't sleep after that and it works the opposite way. Instead of a soothing thing, the table's turned."
The line in the chorus, "Take my hand, we're off to Never Never Land" is a reference to the children's story Peter Pan
, as Peter lives in the magical world of Neverland. In this song, the Sandman lives in Never Never Land, and it is a much less pleasant place.
Metallica usually plays this as the last song in their encores.
Pat Boone recorded a hilariously upbeat version of this for his In a Metal Mood album. He sang lyrics like "Dreams of war, dreams of fire" and "Exit lights" in an almost laughing manner. The music was jazzy and Vegas-esque, and the opening guitar riff was noticeably shorter.
At 5:23 into the song, there is a rendition of an ancient children's prayer performed by James Hetfield and the song of Metallica producer Bob Rock:Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord, my soul to keep
If I die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take
There have been many more cynical renditions of this prayer which have the child pleading with God to take their life. When Pat Boone covered the song, he said the second part as "Guard me, angels, through the night, wake me in God's holy light," another traditional children's bedtime prayer.
The song marked a shift from Metallica away from the more complex tracks with multiple time signatures that were in play on their previous album, ...And Justice For All. In an effort to build "shorter, to-the-point" songs, they used just two riffs on the track and based the rest of the song off those. The result was a straightforward hard rock song that helped seal the coffin on hair metal.
This is often played at baseball games when an intimidating relief pitcher comes in to finish off the game for the home team. The implication is that the pitcher is about to secure the victory and put the other team to bed. One example is Mariano Rivera, the closer for the New York Yankees. Members of The Yankees scoreboard operations staff chose the song, as Rivera didn't care or listen to the music played when he entered the game. A few years later, a reporter told Rivera about the song, and he approved, liking the idea of giving opposing hitters nightmares.
The Sandman, a wrestler in ECW (Extreme Championship Wrestling) used this song as his entrance music. The fans would sing the chorus during his entrance. In an effort to save money on royalties, ECW had Motorhead cover the song very close to the original. This version was replaced on home video releases.
After the US invaded Iraq in 2003, this was one of the songs they played over and over is sessions designed to break the will of Saddam Hussein's supporters. The US military also played children's songs at these sessions, including selections from Barney the dinosaur.
Guitarist Kirk Hammett told Rolling Stone magazine how he wrote this song's memorable riff: "Soundgarden had just put out Louder Than Love. I was trying to capture their attitude toward big, heavy riffs. It was two o'clock in the morning. I put it on tape and didn't think about it. When [drummer] Lars [Ulrich] heard the riff, he said, 'That's really great. But repeat the first part four times.' It was that suggestion that made it even more hooky."
Hammett told Kerrang! September 13, 2008 about this song's guitar solo: "A lot of people can probably hum this one note perfect, but aside from the fact that it's an insanely popular song I think the solo is amazing in its own right. It fits in perfectly and adds a different dimension to the music."
Nielsen SoundScan announced in December 2009 that Metallica's self-titled album (sometimes known as The Black Album) had surpassed Shania Twain's 1997 CD Come On Over to become the best-selling album since they began tracking sales for Billboard on March 1, 1991.
In a 1991 interview with Guitar World, Hammett explained his penchant for the wah-wah pedal: "There's something about a wah pedal that really gets my gut going! People will probably say, 'He's just hiding behind the wah.' But that isn't the case. It's just that those frequencies really bring out a lot of aggression in my approach."
In 2015, the magazine ranked Hammett's solo on this track at #4 on its list of greatest wah solos of all time.
The video was directed by Wayne Isham, the first of six Metallica music clips he directed. It won Best Hard Rock Video at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards.
Metallica used this on their 1999 live album with the San Francisco Symphony titled S&M. They weren't originally going to use it because they didn't think it went well with an orchestra, but then decided to because it was one of their most popular songs.