Birth School Metallica Death

The Inside Story of Metallica (1981-1991)


By Paul Brannigan

By Ian Winwood

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Birth School Metallica Death is the definitive story of the most significant rock band since Led Zeppelin, covering the band’s formation up to their breakthrough eponymous fifth album, aka “The Black Album.” The intense and sometimes fraught relationship between aloof-yet-simmering singer, chief lyricist, and rhythm guitarist James Hetfield and the outspoken and ambitious drummer Lars Ulrich is the saga’s emotional core. Their earliest years saw the release of three unimpeachable classics (Kill ‘Em All, Ride the Lightning, and Master of Puppets), but it was the breakthrough of …And Justice for All that rent the fabric of the mainstream, hitting the top of the charts without benefit of radio airplay or the then-crucial presence on MTV. And in 1991, with the release of “The Black Album,” Metallica finally hit the next level with five hit singles and their first album atop the Billboard charts.

Veteran music journalists and Metallica confidants Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood detail this meteoric rise to international fame in an epic saga of family, community, self-belief, the pursuit of dreams, and music that rocks. Told through first-hand interviews with the band and those closest to them, the story of Metallica’s rise to the mainstream has never been so vividly documented.



On June 5, 1993, Metallica drew a crowd of 60,000 rock fans to Milton Keynes Bowl for their first open-air headline show in the United Kingdom. While this deliberately recalled such grand occasions as Led Zeppelin's historic two-night stand at Knebworth House in the summer of 1979, the quartet's appearance at the verdant man-made arena on that overcast June evening represented a very singular triumph, a triumph of determination and talent over compromise and equivocation. This was a group that had begun their journey not so much on a road less travelled as on a thoroughfare entirely of their own making. In the nine years that had elapsed since the San Franciscan band first played live on British soil, an appearance before just four hundred people at the Marquee club in central London, they had plotted their course to the stages of the world's largest venues with a ferocity of purpose that was always determined, and sometimes plain perverse. For the longest time, Metallica had resisted playing the standard music industry games, yet despite this – actually, because of this – the group had acquired millions of fans.

With their 1983 debut album, Kill 'Em All, Metallica staked their claim to be the fastest, heaviest metal band on the planet. Three years later their pivotal Master of Puppets album sold one million copies worldwide without a single, a promotional video or any support from mainstream radio or television, establishing the Bay Area quartet as the most compelling band of that decade. With the 1991 release of their self-titled fifth album – universally known as 'The Black Album' – this most uncompromising and defiantly independent collective became international superstars.

But even as Metallica shifted the tectonic plates upon which mainstream music stood, their audience affixed themselves to the group with a devotion that was remarkable even by the standards of modern metal. In acknowledgement of this fiercely obsessive fan-base, the band chose the occasion of their European tour in summer 1993 to deliver a most brazen statement. This they issued on the back of a black T-shirt displayed on boards erected behind and above the heads of the merchandise sellers exchanging soft clothing for hard currency at 'The Bowl' on June 5. On its front the faces of the four members of the visiting band were featured, each man's forearms positioned in a manner that resembled the crossbones on the flag of a pirate ship. It was, though, the words emblazoned on the reverse side of this garment that truly kidnapped the imagination:

'Birth. School. Metallica. Death.'

One might drive oneself mad attempting to replace the third of this quartet of words with the name of a different band. The field occupied by those that might make the claim that life can be distilled down to just four components, only one of which is nominated by choice, is vanishingly small. The Clash, perhaps; Nirvana, probably; the Grateful Dead, certainly. The difference is, of course, that each of these groups exists only in the past, their reputation burnished and buffed by the soft touch of nostalgia. But Metallica made this claim not only in the present tense but at the very first point at which they would not appear foolish. In doing so, the band exalted their own position without seeming to demean that of their audience. Rather than appearing arrogant, Metallica were simply being emphatic. It was a statement of chutzpah and brio entirely typical of the band. Two decades on, this is a group still equipped to make such a claim. And this is the story of their most extraordinary union.

What a long strange trip it has been. Formed in Los Angeles in 1981 by James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich, and fuelled by the influence of Motörhead, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) and nihilistic American punk rock, Metallica began life as front-runners of the nascent American thrash metal scene, an underground community powered by fanzines, the trading of badly dubbed cassette tapes and a peer-to-peer buzz gradually amplified from a whisper to a scream. But in the three decades that have elapsed since the release of their debut album, the band have effectively developed into two separate groups. One of these is a crowd-pleasing operation that rolls into motion each summer as the quartet convene in foreign fields and stadia to play songs – most of which are more than twenty years old – for tens of thousands of people in exchange for appearance fees in excess of a million pounds each night. It would be wrong, however, to suggest that these days Metallica spends its entire time in the pasture. Because for the 'other' Metallica, a group that constantly seeks to stand in opposition to the established order, the fear of becoming creatively irrelevant is a demon that never sleeps. This anxiety has led the quartet to act with a sense of creative and artistic derring-do the fearlessness of which borders on the reckless, as evidenced by their collaboration with Lou Reed on 2011's brutally uncommercial Lulu album.

Occasionally Metallica as brand and Metallica as band coalesce as one. This was the case on the weekend of June 23 and 24, 2012, when the group staged the inaugural Orion Music + More event, their own bespoke, self-curated music festival. The gathering was staged at Bader Field, an abandoned airstrip in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and featured appearances from groups as diverse as Modest Mouse, the Arctic Monkeys, Best Coast, Roky Erickson and Fucked Up. The event also featured installations such as a showcase of James Hetfield's classic cars and a display of guitarist Kirk Hammett's collection of vintage horror movie memorabilia. Elsewhere a talk was given by music journalist Brian Lew, one of the authors of Murder in the Front Row, a fabulous coffee-table book chronicling the Bay Area thrash metal scene that first gave Metallica life. Indeed such was the scope of the lovingly compiled festival that Lars Ulrich was even moved to joke that Orion Music + More would feature Metallica toilet paper, with each patron afforded the choice of which band member's face to despoil.

While at pains to point out that Orion was emphatically not a 'metal' festival – 'Because we're doing it, it gets branded as a particular thing,' Lars Ulrich noted. 'If Radiohead does it, it's cool. If we do it, it's not.' – inevitably and fittingly, Metallica themselves headlined their own event. On the first of the two evenings, the group performed their 1984 album Ride the Lightning in its entirety for the first time, while night two saw 'The Black Album' profiled in full. As has been their tradition, the quartet called time on their set both evenings with 'Seek & Destroy', one of the highlights on their debut album. Introducing the song on June 24, James Hetfield addressed the mass of people gathered in the darkness before him at Bader Field.

'We've had the spotlights on us all night,' he said. '[Now] we want to turn it on the fifth member of Metallica … [you] the Metallica family.'

Hetfield's belief, some might say obsession, that Metallica and their audience together comprise a family is strong and sincere. For their part the feeling of the people that have provided his band with wealth beyond their dreams and sometimes pressures beyond their nightmares is mutual. But while this union may be familial, it is not democratic. Metallica's first responsibility has always been to please themselves, it is just that in doing so they have managed to delight millions of people.

This book is the first of a two-volume biography. It spans the period from the childhoods of James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich to the point at which Metallica stood ready to secure the title deeds to the planet with the release of 'The Black Album'. For the authors it has been an excursion into the world of a 'family' that at times resembles a mafia organisation, occasionally a cult, and often the coolest gang in the world. In pursuit of the story we have attempted to retrace the journey made by our subjects. These endeavours have taken us from the front door of the erstwhile 'Metallica Mansion', the bungalow in which James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich roomed together upon relocating to San Francisco's Bay Area, to the building that once housed Sweet Silence Studios in Copenhagen, where both Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets were recorded, to stage left at various stops on the quartet's most recent world tour. Combined with this are insights gained from interviewing Metallica on scores of occasions. As teenage rock fans we stood in the front rows of Metallica concerts in the United Kingdom and United States; as working journalists we have flown on the band's private jet and sat in dressing rooms from Cowboys Stadium in Dallas to the BBC Television Centre in London's White City. We have seen the band perform with an orchestra in Berlin and on the back of a lorry, in front of an audience of just two people, in Istanbul. Theirs is a remarkable story, one embracing community, self-belief, the pursuit of dreams and the continued dominance of a musical form they have made entirely their own. Volume two of Birth School Metallica Death, set for publication in the autumn of 2014, will document the band's journey into a future as yet unwritten, their status as the Led Zeppelin of their generation assured. No rock band will ever again come to equal their success.

The game's over: Metallica won.


On the bathroom wall of Metallica's headquarters in San Rafael, California, there can be seen a photograph of the band as they appeared in 1982. Shot in the dressing room of one of the insalubrious San Francisco nightclubs where they served their apprenticeship, it captures four young men in the aftermath of a live show, stripped to the waist and bristling with attitude as they leer into the camera lens. Drenched with sweat, adrenaline and testosterone, it is a snapshot of teenage machismo so studied and gauche as to appear almost charming.

Today the image holds bitter-sweet memories for James Hetfield. When Metallica's front man appraises the image, he can see beyond his band's two-dimensional posturing and recall, with genuine warmth, a more innocent time, a time of youthful excitement, camaraderie and shared dreams. But, inevitably, his eyes are drawn to the centre of the frame, to the acne-scarred face of a sad, damaged teenager, ill at ease with the world and furiously unhappy with his place within it. And blacker memories are quick to surface, recollections of betrayal, abandonment and loss. It was, says Hetfield, a difficult time.

When it comes to telling stories, musicians are not always the most reliable of narrators. Beyond its blue-chip corporation boardrooms, the music business is run from offices full of the trickery provided by smoke and mirrors, where perception and reality rarely share desk space. In the battle to transform artists into brands, truth is often an early casualty, and musicians' back stories are carefully manipulated, manicured and managed. But when James Hetfield rolls out one of the rock 'n' roll industry's favourite clichés, telling you that without music, without Metallica, he'd be 'dead, dead or in jail', he does so without a flicker of a smile, without a trace of self-doubt. That boy in the photograph, he'll tell you, was a 'really sad kid' who had imploded with his own anger. Music, he says, 'cracked the shell' he'd pulled around himself since early childhood, and became his 'escape and therapy and saviour'.

In the mid-Nineties Metallica's front man commissioned the renowned Californian tattoo artist Jack Rudy to ink on his left forearm an image of an angel delivering a single musical note through tongues of flame into his outstretched hands. Within the piece, an image signifying struggle and salvation, are the Latin words Donum Dei – 'A gift from God'. And if the welter of motivational mantras tattooed elsewhere on James Hetfield's upper body – Live To Win Dare To Fail, Carpe Diem Baby, Lead Us Not Into Temptation, Faith – are designed to act as road markings for his journey ahead, that one simple tribute serves to signal his gratitude for paths not taken.

'A gift from God' was the phrase that Virgil and Cynthia Hetfield employed when informing family and friends of the birth of their first-born son, James Alan, on August 3, 1963. Faith had brought the couple together as the decade of peace and love dawned. A truck driver by trade, with a modest haulage company of his own, Virgil Hetfield spent his Sunday mornings doing God's work, preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to the children of his adopted home town, Downey, California. Cynthia Hale (née Nourse) had initially accompanied her sons Christopher and David to Sunday School classes from a sense of parental obligation, but in the wake of the dissolution of her first marriage, Virgil Hetfield's calm, thoughtful meditations on suffering and strength in adversity began to chime within her with a profound resonance. Romance soon blossomed. When the couple married in Nevada on July 8, 1961, Cynthia thanked her Lord and Saviour for delivering unto her a second chance of happiness.

On the face of it, the newly-weds were very different people. California-born Cynthia was vivacious, creative and liberal-minded, a thirty-one-year-old artist and graphic designer with a love of light opera and musical theatre; five years her senior, Virgil was taciturn, reserved and conservative, a broad-shouldered Nebraska-born grafter whose sole indulgence of frippery came in the form of his meticulously maintained goatee beard. But the couple shared an adherence to the Christian Science belief system, a curious blend of olde worlde Puritanism and superstitious mumbo-jumbo relying heavily upon faith in the healing power of Christ. They viewed their union as being part of God's preordained plan.

Situated fifteen miles south-east of Hollywood, Downey at the dawn of the 1960s was, as now, a wholly unremarkable little town, devoid of glamour or intrigue, which suited Virgil and Cynthia just fine. But in the year of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, with civil unrest spreading from state to state as the nascent civil rights movement gathered momentum, few American citizens were immune to escalating national tensions. From the moment baby James left hospital, then, his doting parents sought to cocoon him in cotton wool, as if their blue-eyed angel was made of fine bone china and Downey's quiet suburban streets were under threat of invasion by barbarians wielding hammers. Where other truck drivers took their offspring on drives across state lines, bonding over AM radio songs as the asphalt rolled beneath their wheels, Virgil Hetfield determined that his son's world should be safe, sheltered and snow-globe small. Each morning Cynthia clutched James to her side for the three-minute walk to Rio San Gabriel Elementary School; each afternoon she would be in place at its gates as classes discharged, shepherding her boy away from his classmates for the short walk home, lest a single misdirected strand of school yard badinage might despoil her child's innocence.

Rio San Gabriel's curriculum presented an early test to the family's religious convictions. As Christian Scientists Cynthia and Virgil were duty bound to forswear health education, as their faith contends that the human body is merely the vessel that houses the soul of the believer: consequently, James's teachers were informed that their son would not be permitted to attend health class, the school's introductory science course. In place of this, each afternoon the youngster would be required to stand alone in the school hallway, or outside the principal's office, drawing unwanted attention as passing students wondered aloud as to the nature of the actions that had resulted in this punishment. Word soon got around that young Hetfield was 'different', a tag no child welcomes.

'That alienated me from a lot of the kids at school,' Hetfield recalled. 'Like when I wanted to get involved with something like football. You needed a physical from a doctor, and I would be like, "I don't believe in this, I have this little waiver saying I don't need this." In a way, it was going against the rules, which I kinda like. But as a child, it really fucked with me as far as being different from other kids. You wanna be part of the gang, you wanna do the things they do.'

Virgil and Cynthia were largely too preoccupied to notice James's growing isolation from his peers and the attendant anxiety this engendered. With the arrival of their first daughter, Deanna, in the summer of 1966 the couple now had four mouths to feed from a single income. As much as the head of the family assured his wife that God would provide, the Almighty wasn't prepared to clock in at 6 a.m. each morning in order to drive an eighteen-wheel rig for minimum wage, so Virgil's stints on the road expanded from days at a time into weeks. With her eldest boys having descended into the hormonal clusterfuck of adolescence, and her infant daughter reacting to Virgil's prolonged absences with ever more rebellious behaviour, Cynthia considered her sensitive youngest son's sullen silences the least of her worries. But in a bid to bond with the boy, and draw him out of his black moods, she suggested to James that he might enjoy piano lessons, just as she herself had as a child. If three years of tuition proved to be an utterly joyless experience for Hetfield – 'I hated it,' he has stated baldly on more than one occasion – nonetheless in later years he was gracious enough to concede that it was not time entirely wasted, admitting, 'I am so glad it was somewhat forced upon me, because the act of left and right hand doing different things, and also singing at the same time, it gave me some inkling of what I do now.'

With his interest in music piqued, the child began experimenting with some of the other instruments lying around the family home. His half-brother David played drums in a rock 'n' roll covers band called the Bitter End, while Christopher Hale, much taken by the developing singer-songwriter scene developing in the Los Angeles Canyons, flirted with acoustic guitar: neither instrument initially made much sense to James's young ears, though the obvious irritation his exploratory noise-making caused other family members secretly delighted the youngster and served as some incentive to persevere. But it was the discovery of David Hale's record collection that truly brought the power of music into focus for James. David had warned his half-brother countless times that the vinyl in the corner of their shared bedroom was off-limits to him, instructions which only served to inflame the younger boy's curiosity. And so, one afternoon while David was at his accountancy class, nine-year-old James plucked up the courage to rummage through the dog-eared sleeves. He was drawn, 'like a magnet to metal', to one album cover in particular, the artwork for which featured a mysterious, unsmiling black-garbed woman standing outside an old watermill in a woodland clearing. He placed the black vinyl within on David's record-player turntable, and dropped the stylus on its outermost groove. The sound of rainfall, thunder and a single, solemn, tolling church bell crept from the stereo's battered speakers. And in that moment everything changed for James Hetfield, changed utterly.

Released on Friday February 13, 1970, Black Sabbath's self-titled debut album stands as a death knell for the idealistic hippie dreams of the Sixties. Inspired by horror movies, bad dreams, drug come-downs and the terminal grind of the factory floor, it was designed to unnerve and unsettle – 'Everybody has sung about all the good things,' reasoned bassist Geezer Butler. 'Nobody ever sings about what's frightening and evil.' – and succeeded in offending the sensibilities of every notable music critic of the era. But in Ozzy Osbourne's baleful vocals and guitarist Tony Iommi's dread-laden, down-tuned riffs, young James heard the sound of liberation. 'This was more than just music,' he recalled, '[this was] a powerful, loud, heavy sound that moved [my] soul.'

'Sabbath was the band that put "heavy" in my head,' he said. 'That first Sabbath album I would sneak out of my brother's record collection and play on the forbidden record player. I wasn't supposed to touch any of that stuff, but I did, and the first Sabbath album got in my head. That initial song, "Black Sabbath", was the one [where] when you'd put your headphones on and sit in the dark and get scared to death. Then the Devil's riff comes in, and it got you!'

For Hetfield the Black Sabbath album served as a portal into an alternative universe. Each forbidden excavation into his half-brother's record stacks brought forth new delights – Led Zeppelin, Blue Oyster Cult, Alice Cooper, the Amboy Dukes – a succession of lank-haired libertines channelling the raw, ragged howl of the blues into monolithic proto-metal. When Hetfield placed his headphones over his ears and twisted the volume control on David's record player hard right, the world outside his bedroom seemed to fade away.

'Music was a way to get away from my screwed-up family,' he explained. 'I liked being alone, I liked being able to close off the world and music helped with that a lot. I'd put on the headphones and just listen … Music would speak my voice and, man, it connected on so many levels.'

Perhaps if he had been a little less immersed in his elder sibling's vinyl treasure trove, James might have been a little more aware of the escalating rumble of domestic discord at home. As it was, he remembers nothing special about the day in 1976 on which his father walked out on his family. There were no cross words exchanged that morning, no lingering hugs on the doorstep; no tear-moistened note of farewell was found resting on the mantelpiece as Virgil hit the road. In point of fact, months would pass before Cynthia Hetfield gathered James and Deanna to her side and informed them that this time their father would not be coming home from his travels. The children were hurt, angry and confused, scarcely able to comprehend their mother's words. When Cynthia told James that he must be strong, that with David and Christopher now living their own lives under their own roofs, he was now the man of the house, the teenager was terrified. He withdrew further into himself, raging against his father for his selfishness, despising him for not even saying goodbye. 'It devastated me,' he admitted.

To block out the constant hiss of white noise in his head, James attempted to drown himself in sound. Pocket money previously spent on candy and Topps trading cards was now deflected towards the acquisition of a record collection of his own, with Lynyrd Skynyrd's 'Sweet Home Alabama' single and Aerosmith's Toys in the Attic album the teenager's first two purchases. Inspired by a poster of Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry adorning his bedroom wall, he began picking out chords and melodies on Christopher's guitar, slowing down his favourite songs on David's turntable from 45 rpm to 33 rpm so that he could play along.

'My ear was developed quite a bit from the piano playing so I knew what was in tune, what was not in tune, what sounded right and what didn't,' he says. 'I was always into the big, fat riffs. I was drawn to the rhythm and percussion bit because I had messed around on drums as well. The rhythm style came from percussion as well, hitting the guitar as hard as you would a drum.'

In September 1977 Hetfield enrolled as a freshman at Downey High School on Brookshire Avenue. He instantly hated the place, with its cliques and clubs and insider codes. When he trialled for the school football team, the Vikings, Coach Cummings informed him that he had a choice to make: he could lose his long hair and join the team, or keep his locks and forfeit his shot at gridiron glory. Despite nurturing pipe dreams of a starting position with the Oakland Raiders, Hetfield turned on his heels, knowing full well that he was condemning himself to pariah status within the school echelons.

'I was a misfit,' he says. 'Didn't fit in, didn't want to fit in. I hid as much as possible in my music … I did not feel like I identified with anyone … Basically, instead of hanging out at school, I went home and practised guitar.'

By the school lockers one morning Hetfield ran into Ron McGovney, a former classmate from Downey's East Middle School. McGovney's parents owned a vehicle repair shop directly across the street from Virgil Hetfield's trucking company, but the boys had never been close: McGovney only remembered the younger boy because Hetfield was the one student in music class who could play guitar, while Hetfield did not recall McGovney at all. But cast adrift from their status-obsessed peers, each recognised a certain loneliness in the other. Drawn together by a common obsession with music, their friendship developed cautiously – McGovney's first clumsy attempt at bonding saw him scribble the word 'Fag' across a photo of Aerosmith's Steven Tyler on Hetfield's homework folder, while Hetfield taunted his new buddy by mocking the recent passing of McGovney's musical idol Elvis Presley – but soon settled into an easy rhythm. When James purchased a 1969 Gibson SG from the guitarist in the school jazz band, Ron began taking acoustic guitar lessons, keen not to be left behind. Later that year when Hetfield joined his first band, Obsession, the older teenager offered to act as his buddy's guitar tech.


  • “Brannigan and Winwood dig deep into the band members'' formative years…As former editor of Kerrang!, Britain's popular heavy metal magazine, Brannigan had the opportunity to interview a number of those in Metallica's orbit over the years, this special access and familiarity adds breadth to the book. This objective study is a refreshing approach to the traditional music biography. Even the most knowledgeable fans will eagerly await the second volume.”

    Kirkus Reviews, 12/1/13

    “[An] ambitious undertaking…The authors' enthusiasm for their subject is infectious. They're well-placed to show how Metallica learned from their British New Wave of heavy-metal forebears and, in true Oedipal fashion, killed the fathers to create something new. For metal heads and most fans of hard rock.”

    Mojo, December 2013

    “It's hard to imagine the tale of San Francisco metal behemoths Metallica being told more authoritatively than it is here…Gripping reading.”, 4/22/14
  • Classic Rock (UK), October 2013

    “Introduces us to the boys who went on to be metal kings…[Brannigan and Winwood] have worked closely with the band over the years, and it shows, both in the access they've gained, the anecdotes they witnessed first-hand and the warmth they afford their subjects. No stone is left unturned as the band's insane life is meticulously researched.”

    Q Magazine, October 2013

    “Roach shows how thoroughly she has researched her subject…while also giving modern readers something to think about in our own days of social and political witch hunts. Six Women of Salem…will provide a greater sense of the real-world lives of those who engaged in and were victimized by those events.”

    Metal Hammer

    “The Metallica story has been told many times before, but seldom as entertainingly or as smartly as this…Ian Winwood and Paul Brannigan's vivid prose makes this well-worn saga seem somehow fresh and fascinating again.”

    Publishers Weekly, 11/1/13

On Sale
Dec 9, 2014
Page Count
392 pages
Da Capo Press

Paul Brannigan

About the Author

Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood are two of the UK’s foremost music writers. A contributor to Rolling Stone, Classic Rock, Q, and Metal Hammer magazines, Brannigan is the author of the acclaimed This Is a Call: The Life and Times of Dave Grohl, while Winwood has written for Rolling Stone, the Guardian, Mojo, Kerrang!, NME, and the BBC. Both reside in London.

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Ian Winwood

About the Author

Ian Winwood is one of the world’s foremost music writers. He has written for Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Mojo, Kerrang!, and the BBC, and is the coauthor, alongside Paul Brannigan, of Birth School Metallica Death and Into the Black. Winwood resides in London.

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