Review of “Birth School Metallica Death: Volume 1” by Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood [Audio]

Birth School Metallica Death, Volume 1: The BiographyReminiscing about Metallica

There was hardly elbow room, that’s how packed with metal fans the open-air arena was — people with attitudes and a passion for good hard music.  The summer night was electric.  The anticipation for the Metallica Load tour to Indianapolis, Indiana, on 02 July, 1996, was unprecedented in our teenage minds.  Songs like “Sad but True” and “Wherever I May Roam” were on the tips of our tongues, waiting to be screamed out in unison with James Hetfield and other fans alike.  This 1996 tour was set at a time in Metallica’s career where their fan base was firmly and internationally in place.  I didn’t know a single person who had never heard a song off of the Black album, the frequency of “Enter Sandman” on Indy’s X103, the favored radio station for hard rockers at the time, contributing to this.  In fact, this was how my friends and I learned that Metallica was coming to Deer Creek.  We immediately went to the local Ticketmaster at Kroger’s and bought four tickets.  Like every metal fan going to their first concert, we worshiped those tickets on the altar of metal, and we banged our heads in acceptance of their awesome goodness.  The day finally arrived.  I had a car, so we all drove to the concert in my 1978 olive green Chevy “the beast” Malibu, listening to Master of Puppets and Ride the Lightning all the way to Indy, which was a good three hour drive for us.  This little road trip mentally prepped us for the energy and excitement of seeing Metallica live, on stage, at the Deer Creek Music Center for the first time.  How could we have had any idea for the sheer magnitude of such an experience?

Aaron was the only one who had been to a concert before.  He had gone to see Pearl Jam, which as a band compared in no way to the show we were about to see.  Rumor had it that Metallica put on an epic show, that they knew how to entertain their audience.  We were about to find out.  The opening act was setting up their stage as we entered the arena.  Jerry Cantrell, known for his part in Alice in Chains, opened for them, which was a pleasant appetizer, but it did nothing really to prep us for what was coming.  Our thirst could only be quenched with songs like “Metal Militia” or “Whiplash.”  Cantrell, a musician of some renown even, didn’t really stand a chance.  It was a great experience seeing him perform live, but it was just not what we were there for.  Finally, everyone cheered for Cantrell and his exit.  The stage went dark.  The night had settled upon us, and Black and White Rock Handsthe crowd was buzzing with energy.  The smell of pot and booze was everywhere, the open-air pavilion doing little to clear out the heavy cloud looming over all of the smokers looking for a fix just before the show.  Out of the darkness, Hetfield’s voice bellowed loudly into the night, “So fucking what?”  Signs of the horns were held high by everyone in the crowd, as the stage lights flared into existence and metal filled the air, revealing the only thing between us and the stage to be a sea of long conditioned hair waving in perpetual motion set to the razor-edged rhythm of fast-paced guitar rifts and drum percussions.  The rumors were right; what a great show that was.

Getting to know the Band

Birth School Metallica Death, Volume 1 is the coming-of-age story of the band that I worshipped as a teenager.  It is safe to assume that by this point the band really needs no introduction in this review.  If you, good reader, don’t know who Metallica is, then I recommend picking up the Master of Puppets album (1986) to listen to “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” or the Black album (1991) for a sample of “The Unforgiven” to get a feel for what this band is like.  Hell, any song off of any album will be telling for their style of music.  The moment I learned about this biography, I jumped at the opportunity to read about the metal band that I followed so diligently during my teen years.  I downloaded an audio copy of this book with the same enthusiasm I had those so many years before when I waited in line at the Ticketmaster.  Metallica was about more than simply banging heads and marching around angrily.  It was about having a release for that anger, for being different, for being ourselves.  It meant knowing that we weren’t alone, that we were fans, belonging to a like-minded collective — a legion really — of people who saw in Metallica a way of fitting in, but, most of all, it was about being cool.  That Metallica, themselves, were much the same as their fans only made them all the more influential, all the more important to us.  We could relate to them some how.  It was part of being a teen to like them, at least in the circles that I ran around with, especially during the 90s when music and popular culture were taking a darker, more burlesque, more sinister theme. This had its appeal.  The decadence of the 90s was marked and inspired by musicians like Trent Reznor, Marilyn Manson, Maynard James Keenan, Till Lindemann, Rob Zombie and Jonathan Davis, amongst others.  If it wasn’t dark, it simply wasn’t.  The undertones surrounding the 90s were dystopic; the millennium was approaching its end, and people were feeling jubilant (or morose) about the end of days.

Metallica always knew how to stand out from the crowd, though.  This biography, written by Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood, music journalists both, sets that clear.  This book helped to explain a lot of the emotions I was experiencing for the band in the early 90s when the Load album was released.  Like so many other fans felt, Load took some getting used to.  The rifts were milder, more melodic, not the same high-tempo rifts as their previous works.  Many saw this album as a break away from the thrash metal scene that Master of Puppets and And Justice for All so skillfully represented, and it disappointed fans, including myself.  As Lars Ulrich states in the biography, which has been paraphrased here, thrash metal was a scene they ultimately wanted to distance themselves from.  There was no future in it for them (qtd. in Brannigan and Winwood).  It had been their desire to perform first and foremost for themselves that makes Metallica the remarkable band that they are, but I failed to see this back then.  The only thing that I knew was that they were changing their approach to music, maturing as performers even, and I felt betrayed by what I failed to understand.   I eventually came to love songs like “Until It Sleeps” or “Outlaw Torn.”  In fact, I listen to the Load  album with a great appreciation for many of its songs now.

Brannigan and Winwood reveal how this wasn’t the first time fans felt disappointed for a move Metallica made in their own interest, what with the song “Fade to Black” on the Ride to Lightning album, the second to be released by the band in 1984.  This song broke from the head-banging, stage-diving, moshing traditions that were often associated to thrash metal concerts, and some fans immediately distanced themselves from the band for it.  Metallica stuck it out, though, and played the song, regardless of reactions from their fans — and more importantly, from the reviews that followed.  While their passion for the music they wrote is clear, the turbulence that came with being a rock band filled with adolescent emotions amidst the public eye takes a different toll on their music, especially as they were seen breaking away from normal conventions, a point the biography captures well with personal anecdotes from band members, music journalists, producers, and other friends to the band.

Keeping a Distance

One thing the band sought to keep its distance from was the drama that was often associated with stardom.  In fact, the band didn’t really make a major name for themselves until almost a decade after their founding with the release of the Black album by Elektra Records, the first major label to back up their name.  Before this, Brannigan and Winwood remind us that they had a lot of great reviews.  They were even adored by fans on the British metal scene and their West coast home front, but they were striving to move away from the same gigs.  They toured arduously with bands like Ozzy Osbourne, serving as the opening act, in order to get as much stage time as possible.  But, while Metallica was focused on playing smaller venues and opening acts, building a name for themselves with fans who identified with their simple image, hair metal bands like Motley Crue, Def Leppard and Poison showed off the glamor and glitz that came more typically with being rock stars of the 80s (notice the comparison between the two bands here):

Picture of Metallica

Copyright Megaforce Records, Inc.

Picture of Poison

Like night and day, we see from the two pictures above how Metallica appears dressed in little more than their jean jackets with torn off sleeves and long hair; no adornments of any kinds, as opposed to Poison, who dresses themselves in leopard-skin prints, tight-fitting leather pants, head bands and other such accessories that were typical of the 80s hair metal genre.  We need no audio samples to tell from these two pictures how differently each group was to one another.

Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield, the two original founding members of Metallica, sought to keep as much distance from these types of bands as possible.  From reading the biography, one even gets the impression that Ulrich and Hetfield loathed these other bands.  And with good reason.  According to one anecdote in the book, Ulrich and Hetfield were promoting their up-coming concerts by personally handing out flyers to people in one club, while band members from Motley Crue were flaunting their lifestyles around with chics at their table.  When it came to performing, Brannigan and Winwood make it clear to the reader that Ulrich and Hetfield were all about work first, then play.  The performance, not the “show,” was what mattered.    The fact that they made it to billboard charts without the aid of MTV or any radio airplay in America is a testament to the hard work they invested into the promotion of their music.  Ulrich, the more ambitious of the two, was always looking for connections and leads to promote their name,  the book revealing quite a holistic look at the groundwork being laid during their earlier years.  But, for all it was worth to keep the band’s name away from drama, it was an inevitable part of their careers as rock stars that it should find them.

The relationship with Dave Mustaine, who later went on to create the band, Megadeth, is an example of such drama.  His excessive drinking and thirst for satisfying his ego, a true rock star’s calling card, was one of the earliest friction points in the band, his lifestyle a contradiction to their hardworking mentality. Ultimately, he was replaced by Kirk Hammett, who has since been the band’s lead guitarist (Brannigan and Winwood).  The book tells us how this happened midway through a tour, with Mustaine sent packing back to California, while Hammett flew overhead en route to where the band was to replace him.  Another account that led to the inspiration for “Fade to Black” was a robbery of their equipment just outside of Boston while touring for Kill ‘Em All.  This set-back was a major burden on their financial situation at the time.  On the verge of entering into recording for Ride the Lightning, their profits from sales were fully devoted to financing this label, even to the point of living modestly.  At the time, Metallica was a band that set themselves apart from other bands like them, holding to a discipline and rigor unlike any other in the industry, but they weren’t really making much money doing it.  While there are a number of reasons to attest to this, one can definitely say that things started to look up for Metallica once Cliff Burton, the sought-after bassist from San Francisco, joined them, creating for the band a unique harrowing sound that helped to make a more professionally driven Metallica as a result.  They knew what they were making was good.  In fact, his baselines are  what made him one of the greatest bass players the heavy metal world at that point had ever known.  Regrettably, he is the source of Metallica’s third mishap with unwanted drama.  While in Sweden on their And Justice for All European tour, Cliff Burton was crushed in an accident as their bus’s driver lost control of the vehicle due in part to black ice on the early-morning road.  Band members had little time to mourn, though, as business is business, and they departed on their Asian tour scheduled to take place as originally planned, only four weeks after his death.  This forced them to move on, and fans were largely sympathetic to them all for it.

About the Book

This biography is worth the read if you are looking to learn more about an international band that established its roots first in hard work and self-image.  Without having that sense of what they themselves wanted from their music careers, they would have ended up like many other metal bands of the 80s, distant memories of an iconic era.  Instead, Metallica challenged many of the conventions that defined heavy metal at the time and paved the way for many bands to follow in their wake.  By setting their own ambitions around their commitment and passion for heavy metal, instead of catering solely to their fan base, they were able to withstand the test of time and have become one of the planet’s most influential bands.  Birth School Metallica Death: Volume 1 is an excellent look at not just the founding of one of metal’s most famous bands, but at the making of a genre of music that has since never looked back.  If you’re a novice to the metal scene and would like to learn more about what this subculture has to offer, especially from the vantage point of the 1980s, then this book is a great start.  Volume 2 of this biography will be set from the Black album (1991) onwards and is pending release “in autumn 2014” (Perry).

Works Cited

Brannigan, Paul and Ian Winwood. Birth School Metallica Death: Volume 1.  Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2013. Audiobook.

Perry, Andrew. “Back to Black: Birth School Metallica Death, Volume 1, by Paul Brannigan & Ian Winwood, review.” The Telegraph Telegraph Media Group Limited, 20 Nov. 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2014.