Metallica wants to dictate terms

Whether in the courtroom or in the studio, the thrash-metal group knows its own strength.

Pop Music

July 02, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Music Critic

"We're selfish," says Metallica guitarist James Hetfield with a wicked chuckle. "We're in this for us, man."

Hetfield is speaking about his band in the most general sense. Ever since he and drummer Lars Ulrich first formed Metallica in San Francisco almost two decades ago, the band has made a point of doing things its way.

When Metallica roared out of the Bay Area scene in the early '80s, it was with a sound unlike anything in hard rock. Metallica's music was harder, faster and more uncompromising than anything offered by mainstream American hard rock bands. It essentially began the evolution from heavy metal to thrash, and while that made it difficult for the group's early recordings to get any sort of air play, the intensity of its live show eventually built a large and loyal audience for the band.

In recent years, however, Metallica's penchant for having things its way has tested the patience of some fans.

First, there was the radical retooling of the band's sound and image with the 1996 album, "Load," for which the four heavy rockers sheared their shaggy locks while adopting a sound some listeners found suspiciously like alt-rock. Then last year, Metallica made an even larger stylistic leap, teaming up with the San Francisco Symphony for "S&M," an album that translated the band's over-amped ferocity into orchestral terms.

"From day one, we were trying not to be pigeonholed," says Hetfield of the band's ever-broadening musical approach. "We escaped the moniker of thrash metal, which only put us in a smaller box. And we kept breaking out of smaller boxes, and ending up in bigger ones.

"It is really hard to explain what we do," he adds with a throaty chuckle. "But we'd like to be able to do it all -- go play with the symphony, go play in clubs, go play in stadiums. Play fast, heavy stuff, and slow, really moving things.

"We want it all."

Wanting it all has its drawbacks. Earlier this year, the band made what may prove to be the most controversial move of its career when it announced that it considered the distribution of its music via Napster to be theft and was taking legal action against both Napster's owners and its users.

Granted, the members of Metallica weren't the only people in the music industry with a beef against Napster. Although the data-sharing network Napster created was intended to make it easy for registered users to find files and share files of any sort on the internet, Napster quickly became known as a sort of global lending library for those looking for MP3 music files. All a user had to do was type in the name of an artist, and Napster would direct him or her to every available file in the network -- which in some cases amounted to an artist's entire catalog.

Being able to get copies of every song Metallica ever recorded seemed a boon to some fans. But all those free downloads became the bane of the band's existence; CD sales for Metallica's back catalog dropped precipitously as Napster's popularity soared. As Hetfield and his bandmates saw it, Napster was taking money out of their pockets, and so the band filed suit.

But even though the courts have so far supported the music industry's insistence that the distribution of music on MP3 files without paying royalties to copyright holders is illegal, some fans are far from convinced. "There are some fans -- really, not our smartest -- out there smashing CDs," says Hetfield. "They're saying, 'Oh, I lost all respect for Metallica.'

"Wait a minute -- whether you have to pay for it or not, if you like the music, you like the music. Don't you?"

War with Napster

It's not as if Hetfield and his bandmates are trying to turn back the clock or slow the pace of progress. "We know technology is moving faster than the court papers are," he says. "We're avid fans of the Internet and its potential."

Metallica has even reconciled itself to the reality of sampling, thanks in part to Kid Rock's current single, "American Badass," which draws extensively from the Metallica oldie "Sad But True."

"He's pretty much lifted the whole song and rapped over it," says Hetfield. "But I guess he's honoring us in a way. Somehow,' he laughs. "He says that song was part of his roots. So we'll take it as that, not as someone's trying to rip us off."

Just as Hetfield reluctantly admits that the Kid Rock track "has some cool qualities," he also recognizes that some fans up in arms over Metallica's Napster move may be reacting without a full understanding of the issues involved. "They just know that we're trying to stop them from doing something, and that ticks them off," he says.

Still, what ticks Hetfield off is the notion that Metallica is somehow guilty of greed in its war against Napster. "I really don't get that," he says. "There was actually an interview -- I think it was on MTV -- with this law student at one of the colleges. He was saying, 'Well, it's just a few CDs, and they've got enough money, anyway. So this is OK.' "

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