The Metallica Episode with Author Ben Apatoff

by Corey O'Flanagan

Ben Apatoff is an author who recently released Metallica: The $24.95 Book. It's all about... you guessed it, Metallica! As a reader of many musical biographies, I was pleasantly surprised to read this because it breaks the format that many books of this nature follow. I highly suggest you give it a read... after listening to this show, of course.

Ben and I dive into a long list of lingering questions I have had about Metallica. So, whether you are a seasoned fan or just discovering Metallica, this episode of the Songfacts Podcast is for you.


Metallica Naming The Prices On Release Titles

It was something they did on a few releases in the '80s, like on Cliff 'Em All, they called it "The $19.98 Home Video," and on the Garage Days EP, they called it "The $5.98 EP." It was a way to keep retailers from overcharging the fans.

They were labeled the way the book is labeled, with a little price sticker-looking format on the top. So I put that on there as sort of a tribute.

Goal In Writing The Book

This is a little cliche, but it's true. My goal was to make it the book that I wanted to read that I didn't have. There are Metallica biographies and behind-the-music type of stuff, but I didn't want it to be stuff you could look up on the Internet. I wanted it to be a little deeper than that. I wanted it to be wide-ranging and encompassing.

The comparison I've been making - and I know this is pretentious - is how Moby Dick has the story chapters and the character chapters and the philosophy chapters. I wanted this to be a little bit like that, where there are the fact chapters, but also the "What are the questions this is raising?" chapters and the character chapters. Who is Kirk? Who is Robert? Stuff like that. I wanted it to be a wide range of Metallica.

I wanted it to be about their art and the questions they raised in the music. I didn't want it to be a gossipy book.


When Ben Became A Metallica Fan

I became a fan in the '90s. It's funny talking to younger people who have different views about the newer records, and older folks think that the '90s is when they started to go downhill. So I do have a bias towards the '90s era of the Black Album and stuff like that. But my first Metallica records were the '80s ones, which I got because they were used. So I had those old records before I heard the Black Album, and I was not disappointed when I heard it.


Metallica's Beef With Dave Mustaine

Dave Mustaine was Metallica's lead guitarist when they formed in 1981, but he was booted from the band two years later, the cause for termination a very kettle-black "drug abuse." He made some contributions to their debut album, Kill 'Em All, and is listed as a writer on four songs, but he has sparred with his former bandmates over credits. Soon after he was ejected, Mustaine formed his own group, Megadeth, which didn't reach Metallica levels of renown but exceeded expectations to become a major force in heavy metal. As for Metallica, Mustaine's replacement, Kirk Hammett, has not only excelled in his role but has survived the power struggles and legendary dysfunction imposed by the group's leaders, James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich.

I think the biggest fight they have over his writing credits are on "Leper Messiah" on Master Of Puppets. He's so competitive with them that I think their success is a big part of his - he's just so focused on out-playing them and out-doing them as much as he can. He's got a lot to be proud of.

It's morally ambiguous: They kept some of his songs after kicking him out, and you can argue whether that was the right thing for them to do. But the songs are there and Kill 'Em All sounds great, including the stuff he wrote on it.

In the pre-Kirk songs with Dave, they let him write some of the lyrics and he was not really the Dave Mustaine we know now yet. He wasn't a very good lyricist and when Metallica kept his songs they sort of picked and chose what they liked. They mined his music for the stuff that would work best for them. It's fascinating to listen to when you hear No Life 'Til Leather [1982 Metallica demo] or the older Metallica songs he plays on.


The Biggest Change In The Band Between Their First Two Albums: Kill 'Em All (1983) and Ride The Lightning (1984)

On Kill 'Em All and Lightning they were pretty much a different band. Kill 'Em All was pretty much written by Dave, James and Lars, and "Anesthesia" by Cliff [bassist Cliff Burton]. On Ride The Lightning, Kirk is on board, Cliff is more of a songwriter. And Master Of Puppets is more of a confident version of that sound.

By Ride The Lightning they were still trying to find a new lead singer. They were still saying, "Okay, James is going to be here as long as we can't get John Bush from Armored Saint to do it." By Master Of Puppets they are confident in their abilities as a band and they've played around the world.

On some of the earlier recordings, James sounds like a lion cub learning to roar. He's finding his voice. On Master Of Puppets they have a very assured setting. You read about the making of that record, and there are some decisions that are like, "Thank God they didn't do that." But they feel like a very assured and developed band. They were only 22 when they made that, but they feel very advanced.


Which Song On Master Of Puppets Shows Their Growth?

"Orion." I remember listening to that for the first time and thinking it's gonna get heavy, like "Battery" or "Thing That Should Not Be," but it doesn't.

Scott Ian [of Anthrax] has a quote. He says listening to that song, it sounds like they get a bottle of Beethoven pills. Like, how did they come up with that?

On that record, they sound like they're playing stuff they didn't sound capable of on Kill 'Em All. They sound like they are just so much more advanced as songwriters and musicians even though there's a punk kind of innocence to Kill 'Em All that I love.


Moving Beyond Heavy Metal On "Ride The Lightning," "Fade To Black," And "One"

It's funny because those are all considered classics now, but if you look at old reviews, a lot of them talk about how it's where they went bad, like, "Goodbye, Metallica, we're going to Megadeth and Slayer now." Spin called Master Of Puppets the corporate death of Metallica album, and you see people are horrified about "Fade To Black." And now, the hardest metal fans, if you watch them play "Fade To Black" at the Big Four shows, people are cheering and freaking out, but back in the day, people were very angry and shocked about those songs.


How Metallica Might Have Been Different If Cliff Burton Didn't Die In 1986

The thing about Cliff is that since he died young, everybody sort of projects their own image onto him. There are some people who say Cliff never would have sold out, that they would have still been a thrash band if he had been there. They would have stayed like their young selves. You see some of it on the S&M albums, but I think they might have gotten more classical inspired. They might have had more of the longer composition-type songs.

It's a lot to speculate on, but Cliff was so unpredictable on his own that I don't know if there's a solid answer. People would try to photograph him for publicity stuff and he wouldn't want to pose because he'd think it was poser stuff. He was such an independent-minded person.


Burton's Impact

Some of his contributions were very Motorhead-ish, like mile-a-minute, and just riff upon riff. You hear it on "Call Of Ktulu" and "Orion" and those other more Cliff-driven songs.


Why Was The Black Album So Polarizing?

It's kind of their "Dylan goes electric" moment. It's the moment when they tried something different and some of their fans were alienated and upset that they changed their sound, and the rest of the world was like, "What is this we've been missing? Where has this been our whole lives? We thought metal sounded different. This is unlike anything we've heard."

You could see the older fanbase getting annoyed, but speaking as a younger fan I liked the Black Album songs for the same reasons I liked the Ride The Lightning songs or the Master Of Puppets songs. But the thing Lars always says is, "We didn't come to the mainstream, the mainstream came to us," and I think they made the world safer for that kind of music.

You look at after the Black Album comes out and suddenly Pantera and Megadeth and Slayer and Anthrax and Korn and Rage Against The Machine and Nine Inch Nails and all these much heavier bands now have a space in the mainstream that they didn't before because of the Black Album. So I think it's more an instance of them making the mainstream accept their music than it was compromising their sound for popularity.


Influence Of Producer Bob Rock On The Black Album

He's definitely why it sounds the way it does. Bob Rock's best work sounds fantastic. Whether or not you like the songs behind it, his work tends to sound great. They are blowing out of the speakers.

It's important that he did not get star-struck working with Metallica because by then they had a reputation. They started off working with their friends when they were younger, and then they got Bob Rock, this big producer who hears ...And Justice For All and he's like, "I totally get it." And he's working with The Cult and Bon Jovi and Motley Crue, and then when he gets into Metallica, he's like, "Okay, I see them, I get more of a sense of it." He likes it, but he's also not so in awe of it that he's like, "You guys do whatever you want." He's like, "No, we should make this sound this way, and Kirk, you can play that solo differently." He's said in interviews, "I could never make them do anything they didn't want to do, I could just make suggestions and help them make the record." But I think it was helpful that he wasn't a fan, that he could have that outside influence.


Ben ApatoffBen Apatoff

"The Unforgiven"

In the movie Absent, James Hetfield says it's his most personal song, and it's the only song he's ever written sequels to. Something he's talked about a lot in interviews is shame. When he plays "The Unforgiven," he says "forgive yourselves" at the end. It's such a profound part of his life, and I guess it's the way that he comes to terms with his anger about his parents, about his father leaving him, about his mother not getting help when she was sick. Anger at himself for not being able to be sufficient in the ways that he wants to be. That theme of finding forgiveness for yourself and finding forgiveness for the people who have wronged you.

And finding forgiveness for religion. He lashes out at the God that failed. It's such a powerful expression and yet it's still vague enough that a lot of people can relate to it, which I think is part of Metallica's strength. He doesn't say specifically, "I'm so mad about my Christian Scientist parents," he says it in a broad enough term that conveys that intensity and the feeling but also speaks in a way that people who have different problems can relate to and find empathy with.


Symphonic Album S&M

Lars is a Deep Purple fanatic, and they did something with a symphony years earlier. They're also a band that's constantly looking into the next direction, and are also a very cinematic metal band. I think you hear that on S&M. They connect with the conductor, Michael Kamen, a famous film composer. By that time, by 1999, we already have symphonic black metal with Emperor and bands like that, and S&M sounds nothing like that, it sounds more like a movie score. One critic said it sounded very Tim Burton-ish. Songs like "No Leaf Clover" sound like they're written for the orchestra.


The "Big Four" of Metal

There's Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax, Metallica - they are four of my favorite bands in the world, four of my favorite things to talk about and argue about. I think everyone who loves that kind of music has had that kind of fight. People have had that argument and said someone else should be in the Big Four. It should be Metallica, Megadeth and Testament or Exodus or something like that. Or is Metallica just the Big One?

The way I compare the Big Four, if they were British Invasion bands, Metallica would be The Beatles, Slayer would be The Stones, Megadeth is The Who, and Anthrax is The Kinks.

I went to the Big Four show in New York City at Yankee Stadium, and I was impressed at how Metallica was clearly the biggest.


Favorite Metallica song?

"Blackened" is one of my favorites, "Wherever I May Roam," "Battery," they've got so many. There are some songs that I love, but I don't have that much to write about. Whereas a song like "To Live Is To Die" ended up bringing out a lot more than I thought it would. That's the one where, after Cliff died, they pieced his remaining leftover songs together and made this long instrumental, and there was so much weight and sadness. There's this moment when all the instruments cut out really suddenly - it's like a quick death. It just like gives me chills.

December 9, 2021

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Metallica: The $24.95 Book is available at bookshop.org

You can follow Ben at twitter.com/Bapatoff

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