James Hetfield Through the yearsAfter more than three decades thrashing out hits, Metallica co-founder James Hetfield says the reason the band are still gold is that they just love what they do
On August 3, James Alan Hetfield is born in Downey, California, to Christian Scientist parents. When he’s 16, his mother dies of cancer, choosing prayer over medicine. It shapes him: “I know what my higher power is all about,” he later said of writing the Metallica song The God Has Failed.
‘Drummer looking for other metal musicians to jam with Tygers of Pan Tang, Diamond Head and Iron Maiden’. That’s the listing Hetfield sees in LA paper The Recycler. Having learned piano, drums and guitar as a child, he is well placed to reply to the drummer, Lars Ulrich, and the first seeds of Metallica are sown.
Metallica’s demo tapes and small gigs get them noticed, but no record company funds an album. Their promoter borrows cash, sets up a label and in May they enter the studio. Still problems, though: guitarist Dave Mustaine’s drug habit sees him ditched for Kirk Hammett and there is the album’s title. Eventually, Metal Up Your Ass is changed to Kill ‘Em All.
With Hetfield on rhythm, Ulrich on drums, Hammett on lead and Cliff Burton on bass, Metallica grow both their profile and the thrash metal genre, especially with third album Master Of Puppets. But their tour bus crashes in Sweden, and Burton is killed in the accident. “I saw the bus lying right on him,” Hetfield said later. “I already wanted to kill [the driver].” An inquest absolves any blame.
More terrible luck, for Hetfield in particular. He suffers third-degree burns when a stage pyrotechnic shoots flames onto his arms and face during a show in Montreal in August. “I look down and watch the skin rising [on my arm],” he recalled. Metallica are touring to promote their fifth LP, Metallica, also known as the Black Album, which goes on to become the best-selling album in the US from 1991-2014.
Hetfield is now married and a father; his band is one of the world’s most successful and beloved. So, naturally, Metallica record a live album and concert movie with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. S&M has some critics, but more than eight million records and films sold shows Metallica can do no wrong.
Wait – this shows how Metallica can do wrong. The documentary Some Kind Of Monster focuses on the band in 2001-03, when Burton’s replacement Jason Newsted left and Hetfield spent seven months in rehab for alcohol abuse. Hetfield and Ulrich’s power struggle is also laid bare.
“CAN I GET A HELL YEAH?” That’s Hetfield opening his and Metallica’s acceptance speech as they enter the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame. (He gets what he asks for.) Newsted returns to play for one night only at the inauguration, alongside new bassist Robert Trujillo. Hetfield goes on to thank his wife “for saving my life many times” and his higher power for “the gift of music… Music is my therapy and I need to do it.”
Released on November 18, Hardwired… To Self-Destruct is Metallica’s 10th studio album, arriving eight years after the previous, Death Magnetic. Hetfield and Ulrich are sole songwriters; Hammett lost an iPhone with hundreds of riff ideas for the record, but he hadn’t backed them up. Of the 35-year-journey, Hetfield says, “We just want to write music that we like listening to… and we’ve got a lot of people that feel the same way aswe do, for some reason.”