[The Observer, Life magazine, 1999]
LIKE most things in this California college town, including the people, Berkeley's Community Theatre has changed little since the Sixties. Its rust brown auditorium and green swirled carpet lurk in a time lag midway between chintz and psychedelia; chintzedelia, perhaps.
The nervous music professor, a bearded figure hovering apprehensively in his office doorway, also resembles a relic from another age. Accustomed to operetta performances staged by local students, he looks deeply perturbed, and well he might. His sober garb and old brown briefcase render him profoundly out of place amid further dozens of bearded figures, every last one of them clad in the unmistakable roadie's uniform of black T-shirt, black jeans, laminates and fat. Suddenly, he is a stranger in his own land. One particularly stocky invader - high up in the pecking order, judging by the rich array of security passes hanging from his well-cushioned neck - is engaged in a friendly attempt to reassure him.
“Don't worry,” soothes the compassionate Goliath. “It'll all be over by Friday.”
Today is Tuesday. Soon Metallica, the biggest heavy metal act in the world, will have completed a brace of concerts alongside the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Such a notion would normally be the province of iffy comedy. Metallica, who possess an exquisite and largely unrecognised flair for iffy comedy, are perhaps the only band who could carry it off.
Outside, in the sunshine, an impromptu backstage area has been erected in the form of a large tent, furnished with portable balustrades still contained in their plastic wrapping. Swarms of Metallica crew lounge contentedly at the tables, with the magnificent indolence of men accustomed to clambering forty feet up a lighting rig in the small hours. Inside, the four band members and the ninety-odd orchestral players led by arranger and conductor Michael Kamen have concluded their last rehearsal. With the vast sound cut off, just like that, the silence hangs like fog in the empty hall, thick as syrup. It hurts the ears.
Lighting designer John Broderick stands beside Kamen on the podium, explaining his strategy for the dramatic overture. “You come on,” he tells Kamen, “and it's bland bland bland. The orchestra starts up and it's bland bland bland. James comes on - bland bland bland. Then Jason comes on - bland bland bland. Then Lars hits the first drumbeat and BOOM! It's the Fillmore, 1968.”
“Ah,” says Kamen. “So that was you. I simply assumed I was having a flashback.”
Kamen, best known as a film composer, is a veteran of rock/classical crossovers. His most notorious moment must be Roger Waters' outlandishly arrogant staging of Pink Floyd's already obese opus, The Wall. In Germany. To commemorate - inevitably - the fall of the Berlin Wall. No such pretensions attach to the Metallica shows. The idea is a simple one. It might sound good. Or failing that, it might be the only way in the world to make Metallica sound bigger.
Curiously, nobody will take credit for the idea. “Michael approached us about it via management,” claims Metallica frontman James Hetfield. Ask Kamen what he heard in Metallica that he felt demanded orchestration, and he replies, “I heard them ask me if I would do an orchestra concert with them.”
Metallica are, Kamen adds, “as symphonic as rock and roll gets; certainly as symphonic as heavy metal gets. I recognise that things like Deep Purple's orchestral efforts immediately pop in people's minds. I don't really value what they did, because it's a fish with feathers. But whether out of self-confidence or bravado or ego, I don't have any doubts about what we're doing.”
What they're doing is a far cry from anything the fledgling Metallica could have imagined when they moved to San Francisco in 1982. “I'd have been Doctor No back then,” says Hetfield. He pictures his 19 year-old self, a whip-thin streak of piss and fury, confronted with the concept. “No way.”
Hetfield had founded Metallica in Los Angeles one year earlier with Danish drummer Lars Ulrich. They were joined by guitarist Dave Mustaine and bassist Ron McGovney. The band had two interests: drinking, and playing the fastest, loudest, blackest and most savage songs to remain functionally recognisable as some kind of music. They agreed - three of them, at least, agreed - that to do this, they needed a new bass player; Cliff Burton, a San Franciscan who lucidly summarised LA as a “a fucking freak show.” So intent were they on recruiting Cliff that they changed towns.
“We came up here,” Hetfield recounts, “as soon as we knew any better. We were really drunk, all the time. Living in our leather jackets, drinking up on Strawberry Hill. We'd get arrested here and there, when they were trying to clean the street up of the scum of San Francisco. It is interesting, getting sweeped up off the streets and now playing with the San Francisco Symphony. It's quite a coming of age.”
IF HEAVY metal belongs to a caste, then it's the lower-middle-class, that unloved and unlovely demographic, blessed with neither the middle classes' status nor the working classes' veneer of authenticity. Metallica, in the eighties, were the epitome of young, lower-middle-class taste. Consequently, although their records shifted by the tanker-load, they were ignored by everyone else. If you weren't a fan, you wouldn't have heard of them. Their songs never so much as grazed radio playlists. They had no videos to for MTV to turn down. The mainstream press wouldn't have recognised Metallica if the band had scuttled up and bitten them in the arse, a not wholly implausible scenario.
In 1985, sandwiched between preening, strutting poodle acts at the British metal jamboree, Castle Donnington, Hetfield snarled, “If you came here to see Spandex, eye make-up, and the words ‘Oh baby’ in every fuckin' song, this ain't the fuckin' band.” Behind him, at the drums, sat Ulrich, resplendent in Spandex shorts. By now, Mustaine was long gone, replaced by Kirk Hammet, an altogether more amiable individual, although no less frenetic a guitarist. The following year, Cliff Burton would lose his life in a tour bus crash in Sweden, an event which left the band in a state of terrible fear and shock, and sent them hurtling back to the bottle. They took on Jason Newsted as their new bassist. That line-up remains to this day.
It was shortly after the release of their fourth album, And Justice For All, that Metallica began to see that a gap might be growing between their own interests and those of their hardcore fans. The record was again a huge seller, to the complete and by now traditional bafflement of the industry at large. After seven years, Metallica decided to release their first single and tape their first video.
The next thing Hetfield knew, “Two kids were flipping me off at some show, whining, ‘Fuck you, asshole, you made a video and you said you never would.’ That really shocked me. I went home, thinking, ‘Woah, man, the fans don't like us. What happened?’ You know. ‘Please stay small. Make your brain really small, like mine, and stay here.’ That was a huge revelation for me at that point, that you've gotta do what you've gotta do.”
Hence their accessible, monstrously successful, self-titled 1991 album (also known as The Black Album, thanks to an all-black cover deliberately echoing Spinal Tap's immortal Smell The Glove.) Recorded with Bon Jovi producer Bob Rock, it disgusted some admirers and won them millions more. And hence their subsequent dalliance with such metal no no's as acoustic guitars, ballads, female singers, string sections, country songs and - finally - symphony orchestras. In 1983, Metallica had chosen the unequivocal title Metal Up Your Ass for their first album. When this was vetoed by their record distributors, they changed it to Kill Em All, with specific reference to their record distributors. Now Metallica are big enough to do as they please, and it isn't always what others might want. “We still get letters from kids,” remarks Hetfield, “saying, ‘Now that you're big and famous and you can do whatever you want, why don't you call the next album Metal Up Your Ass.’ Well,” he grins ruefully, “it's just not quite the same any more.”
Ulrich concurs. “Even without these shows, I couldn't have imagined at 19 what my life would be like at 35 - being married, having a baby boy, the way my Motorhead records are gathering more and more dust. I love to embrace ageing, especially because in rock'n'roll it's such a negative thing to talk about. And I know it's a cliche in rock'n'roll to say, ‘We do whatever the fuck we want.’ But I believe I can say it, for the first time, 100 per cent truthfully. I don't think we could have done this kind of project five years ago, because I don't feel that we had the balls to do it.”
WHAT do Metallica sound like with a symphony orchestra? Often, like Metallica, with a symphony orchestra. Sometimes, curiously, a bit like the Manic Street Preachers. Frequently, like nothing on earth. A huge, mind buggering, all-encompassing throb of a noise. At times, when they and the orchestra fall slightly out of synch, they sound like the end of the world, like the soundtrack to the film of the Book of Revelations. Those parts are particularly good.
Metallica delight in playing unusual events. They once livened up an MTV Europe awards broadcast - “a turd of a show,” says Hetfield, with venom - by delivering, unannounced, a cover of the nihilist punk classic So What (“SO WHAT! SO WHAT! YOU BORING LITTLE CUNT!” and so on, in that vein.) More recently, they were booked for a party at the Playboy Mansion, where the first notes of their soundcheck sent Hugh Hefner's flunkies scurrying to check if any of the boss's flamingoes had exploded.
But this is the nabob, the panjandrum, the Grand Bull Moose All Comers Award Winner of oddball performances. It is epic. It is brutal on the eardrums. It is not a little nuts. This may be the first and last time I witness a man in a bow tie waggling his tuba in the air to acknowledge a sea of devil-finger signs. The only thing I have seen to even vaguely compare is Jeremy Deller's Acid Brass shows, where the Williams Fairey brass band performed popular house hits to frankly bewildered audiences. And compared to this, that was low key.
Almost as much fun as the spectacle on stage is the game of Spot The Metallica Fan. Band T-shirts are a giveaway among the numerous suits, but some local exotica add a dash more spice. The fetish girl, a kind of goth Jessica Rabbit in a red vinyl dress, standing on her seat and waving her black-gloved arms above her head in invocation - my guess is that she doesn't follow the Symphony from gig to gig. Likewise the bottle blonde with the shattered coiffure, shoulders swathed in a witchy-poo set of net curtains. As for the gargantuan Hell's Angel, constructed entirely from an arrangement of differently sized cubes, he is here, presumably, because he goes anywhere he damn well pleases.
Once, Metallica were a party band. Their Black Album tours spawned such stories of excess as “The biggest cocaine mirror on the planet,” on which a twenty-foot line was chopped out as a treat for the crew. Nowadays, things are calmer, if not entirely calm. “If I felt that I could actually get the orchestra to snort speed and smash up their instruments,” says Ulrich, a little regretfully, “I would.”
“I bet you if we take ‘em on tour,” leers Hetfield, “they'll fall under the wheel. They'll get a taste of the road.”
But for all their manifest presence, he is barely aware of the orchestra while he plays. “We don't have them turned up in our in ear monitors,” he explains, “because they're doing such wild, crazy and awesome things that it would really throw me off. But when the floor rumbles all of a sudden, I know something right is happening.”
Good to hear that some things never change.
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