Why Metallica’s Music Still Inspires Devil Horns 40 Years Later
Metallica are celebrating their 40th anniversary this month. From the band's earliest days, fans have been an important part of the group's growth.
They have a long history of rewarding fans, whether it's limited-edition Fan Can releases for fan-club members, that were loaded with previously unreleased content or exclusive club shows for followers.
In an exclusive excerpt from Metallica: The $24.95 Book, Ben Apatoff offers a look at some corners of Metallica fandom as well as the impact the band has had on its fans that goes beyond the music.
“All are welcome in the Metallica family. There’s no requirement, but it helps if you’re a fuck up.”
The New York Times podcast Caliphate follows the journalist Rukmini Callimachi in her coverage of the terrorist organization ISIS in Iraq. She’s helped by a translator and fixer called “Hawk” (not the guy involved in the later Caliphate scandal), a Mosul native who lives with terrorist violence and risks his life daily to help this correspondent uncover some of the worst ISIS atrocities, including beheadings, throat-slitting, running tanks over civilians and throwing LGBTQ people from buildings. On Episode 7 of Caliphate, Hawk reveals a secret. He loves Metallica.
Their music is banned in Iraq. The only Mosul record store where Hawk can find them keeps Metallica records hidden. But Hawk risks his life so he can hear their music alone. “The first time I played the tape, I was like ‘What the fuck is this?’” Hawk recalls. “Just all noise and chaos. But after, like, two or three times I listened to it, actually, most of his songs are really sincere. It’s about armies and wars and ‘Why are we dying in vain?’ Since I was born, I have seen nothing in this country but wars, and more wars, and more wars. So I made some kind of connection that stood deep with me. And from that minute on, I was like, ‘That’s what I’m looking for.’”
There’s no one idea or force that makes Metallica relatable. But listening to and reading over fan accounts, one constantly sees how Metallica helps people process pain. Not by escaping it, although there is an escapism in throwing your horns up and screaming along with “Seek & Destroy.” But Metallica fans understand the world through their songs. It’s what makes someone like Hawk break the law to find their music. Hawk is not the only one — in the 2007 film Heavy Metal in Baghdad, Iraqi band Acrassicauda bond over illegal Metallica records and perform “Fade to Black,” years before they moved to America with refugee status.
Watch Metallica Perform 'Seek & Destroy'
“There’s you’re typical ‘Dude!’ high fiving guys,” Hetfield described Metallica’s fan base. “And there’s other people. ... ‘My Dad struggled with alcohol, and I’m proud of you for doing this.’”
Everyone who loves metal has a mental and emotional attachment to Metallica, whether or not they know it. People from all metal worlds have Metallica stories. The most steadfast obscurists love bands whose lives were changed by Metallica, and the staunchest traditionalists love bands who were amplified by Metallica. No trauma or anxiety is too slight to be addressed in Metallica’s music, a judgment-free world in which childhood fears like the beasts under your bed are legitimized as much as adult fears. Even at their most blunt, Metallica channel something personal, a fight that sustains its listeners no matter how removed they may be from Metallica’s lives, ideologies or politics. “The more that people know about my troubles, the easier it’ll be to connect with people,” Hetfield said in a 2004 interview. “I put myself out there, and if people choose to stomp on my heart or to embrace it, that is up to them.”
In a 2017 interview with Jayson Greene, acclaimed indie musician Phil Elverum recounted the last days of his wife and collaborator Genevieve’s struggle with cancer. Elverum showed Greene his wife’s “aspirational book,” a homemade children’s book started by the late Genevieve chronicling her hospital experience. Looking through the book, Elverum points out a drawing of his wife in a vintage-looking Metallica shirt.
“That was real,” Elverum says. “It was her special chemo shirt. One day she just said, ‘Phil, buy me a Metallica ...And Justice for All shirt on eBay,’ and I instantly did. It was her thing to be the young person in the chemo room, drinking her crazy carrot juice and being so charming to all the nurses.”
Metallica might not seem like an obvious source of comfort for chemotherapy, particularly at their most Spartan on ... And Justice for All. But there they are, the freedom and catharsis in their music making the hospital less lonely in the throes of terminal illness.
Metallica can be as fallible as anyone who loves their music. AC/DC isn’t going to let you down. Slayer doesn’t have a Load or a St. Anger. Metallica love is a very human, dare I say adult love. No Metallica fan loves every record they’ve made (except maybe Dave Grohl), to the point where talking about Metallica’s misfires is a popular pastime for metalheads. But through Metallica’s embarrassments, we see a band that stays restless and curious, unsatisfied by any amount of success or acceptance. It’s why one of the most inclusive bands of all time can still feel private, like your personal band.
Even as one the world’s biggest acts, they’ve stayed outsiders in the mainstream. They’d be an unlikely choice to play the Super Bowl or the Academy Awards. Rodrigo y Gabriela could take their Metallica-inspired flamenco all the way to the White House for a state dinner in 2010, but Metallica won’t get that invitation. They’re the only band big enough to headline Glastonbury and still create controversy for accepting — Metallica sold T-shirts at the 2014 festival featuring disparaging quotes from other performers and publications fuming at the idea of Metallica headlining. (Metallica also filmed a Julien Temple-directed intro video for the show, wherein some fox-hunting Brits were gunned down by rifle-wielding bears. The bears pulled off their heads, revealing themselves to be James [Hetfield], Lars [Ulrich], Kirk [Hammett] and Robert [Trujillo].) “If Radiohead does it, it’s cool,” Ulrich said in 2012, answering questions about Orion fest and Metallica Through the Never. “If we do it, it’s not.”
Watch Metallica's 2014 Glastonbury Introduction Video
“They’re determined and focused only on what they want to achieve, not what others expect from them,” Dimmu Borgir’s Silenoz stated in Justice for All. “That’s why we got the Black Album in the first place. People seem to forget that bit when they bash Metallica.”
“Anyone who has ever been to a Metallica show, and banged their head, and thrown up the devil horns, has been a part of something great for humanity,” said Flea in 2009. “All those kids at a show rocking so hard to the brutal beat of Metallica have come together for those couple of hours in a way as healthy as any spiritual exercise, any group meditation, any loving anything.”
In the Mexico City performance on Live Shit: Binge & Purge, Metallica rip through the last few notes of “Blackened,” sending the crowd into a unison chant of “Mexico! Mexico!” For another artist, maybe they’d yell “Slayer!” or “Ozzy!” For Metallica, they yell “Meexico!,” feeling their own power as forceful as the band’s. When we see Metallica, we yell for ourselves.