For years, Metallica was the best-kept secret in heavy metal. Although the band's albums regularly went platinum -- in fact, every Metallica release since 1986's "Master of Puppets" has been a million-seller -- the quartet was barely known outside the metal underground. Radio refused to play the band's music, while the rock press gave the group only the most cursory coverage.
And when Metallica was among the nominees for the first heavy metal Grammy, in 1989, it lost out -- to Jethro Tull, of all bands!
Fortunately, things have changed since then. Not only did Metallica recently win its second Grammy a but with the quadruple-platinum "Metallica" the band is finally getting the respect it deserves: The cover of Rolling Stone. Heavy rotation on MTV. Even some Top-40 radio play, thanks to singles like the ominous-but-catchy "Enter Sandman."
So how does the band feel about all this long-overdue acclaim?
"It kind of freaked us out," answers singer James Hetfield.
Hetfield isn't complaining, of course -- not when Metallica has one of the most successful rock 'n' roll tours on the road right now. In addition to playing bigger halls this time around, the band is doing multiple dates in many markets (including a two-night stand at the Capital Centre, April 1-2), something which seemed inconceivable just a few years ago.
What happened? "The word of mouth has gotten around," he says, "and the media are starting to pick up on things we've done." Speaking over the phone from a tour stop in Roanoke, Va., Hetfield adds that while he and his bandmates are happy for the attention, Metallica makes a point of trying to keep things on its own terms.
"We've actually had to learn quite a bit about video and things like that, to do it our way without people really screwing with us," he says.
"And with all these new fans, we try and teach them the ways of the old days. You're playing a bigger place, and your crowd is a little more watered down; you don't have the real hardcore fans screaming the words all the time. So we have a film at the beginning of the show showing the history of the band. Instead of a support act, we kind of have this film telling the story of how we got where we are."
Nor is that the show's only innovation. Take the "snake pit," for example. Metallica is playing in-the-round this time out, with a custom-built, arrowhead stage that includes a diamond-shaped pit in the center. Originally, the pit was meant to hold special effects, like a replica of the Lady Liberty that appears on the cover of ". . .And Justice for All," but as the set-designers' ideas grew more elaborate, the band began to feel it was "a little too much.
"That's not Metallica," says Hetfield.
"So we said 'Let's think of something else,' and came up with the idea of putting a few fans in there. There are certain cities that only allow a certain number -- fire marshals kind of freak out on this because we do have some pyrotechnics, like at the beginning of 'One' -- but between 50 and 80 people can get in there. They don't have to sit in there the whole time. They can come and go."
Admission is by invitation only, and the band prefers to pack the pit with hardcore headbangers. "We're trying to get some of the older fans in there," says Hetfield. "We walk around the arena before the show, see people with Metallica shirts from, like, the 'Ride the Lightning' tour, and ask them if they want to come down there.
"A lot of them don't want it," he adds. "They say, 'I like my seat here.' But you don't want [industry people] schmoozing in there. Unfortunately, in places like L.A. and New York where there's management and the record company, it's like, 'Oh, I'll get you in the pit.' So we're looking down there, and people are exchanging phone numbers and stuff. It's really uninspiring."
Equally distressing in Hetfield's view are those rock acts that try to offer note-perfect replicas of what was on an album. "If I go and see a band and they don't screw up, I feel kind of gypped," he says. "It's like they're too good or something, you know? I want to see some human factor there."
With Metallica, he adds, the emphasis isn't on trying to get "the exact same sound" as on the albums, but to put the songs across in the most effective manner possible. "We don't have an orchestra on stage, we don't have backing tracks, we don't want to get into that crap. So we basically work with what we can. We've got two guitar players, we try and use that as much as we can. People understand all that, I think."
Of course, it helps that the band is so generous with its stage time. "We're out playing for like three hours," Hetfield says proudly. "Songs like 'The Unforgiven' and 'Nothing Else Matters' are getting attention now, and we feel we should play them. So we keep adding songs.
"But we don't know what to take out of the set, so the set's three hours long now. People coming to the show expect to be there for quite a while," he laughs. "Bring your pillow."
When: Wednesday and Thursday at 8 p.m.
Where: Capital Centre, Landover.
Tickets: $19.50 (Wednesday performance sold out).
Call: (410) 792-7490 for information, (410) 481-7238 for tickets