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Metallica fell in love with San Francisco. Then they made thrash metal a new kind of art

Before a Chase Center backdrop emblazoned with corporate logos, Lars Ulrich and Robert Trujillo sat attentively, hands folded, as Mayor London Breed declared that Dec. 16 would henceforth be known as “Metallica Day” in the City and County of San Francisco.

The two thrash metal titans smiling and nodding politely as they accepted an honorary declaration from a government official was surely an odd sight for fans accustomed to Ulrich and Trujillo baring their teeth and whipping their heads onstage. Is this not the finely tuned rhythm section of one of the loudest, heaviest and hardest-hitting metal bands on the planet?

But it all made perfect sense: Metallica has always been a big deal in this town. Now, as the band prepares to celebrate its 40th anniversary with December’s “San Francisco Takeover”—a raft of concerts and special events at art galleries, movie theaters and concert venues all the city—their midnight-black shadow is growing yet again.

Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo (left), drummer Lars Ulrich (center) and Mayor London Breed at the Chase Center on Thursday, Dec. 16. | Photo by Camille Cohen

Coming Home

Metallica was officially founded in Los Angeles in October of 1981 by guitarist and singer James Hetfield and drummer Ulrich. But before long, they landed in the Bay Area, where they found a highly engaged community of metal fans uniquely primed for the fledgling band’s blistering live performances and genre-defying musical vision.

Eric Peterson, guitarist and founding member of the Alameda-bred thrash group Testament, remembers those heady headbanging days. He attended his first Metallica show at the Old Waldorf—now The Punchline—in San Francisco in 1982.

As Peterson recalls, Metallica was billed on the flyer as being “Imported from L.A.” Within months of that first show, however, they had relocated to the city—in part because their first bassist, the late Cliff Burton, was still attending high school in Castro Valley.

But according to Peterson, there was another very important reason for the move: “They were like, ‘Fuck L.A.,’” he says. “These people love this shit.”

Ulrich put it a different way when addressing the reporters and radio personalities gathered to witness the mayor’s declaration: “We absolutely did not fit into anything in Los Angeles—the Sunset Strip, Hollywood, any of that. We felt like complete outsiders. When we came up here in September of 1982 … we were embraced, and we were taken in, and we felt so welcome and so loved up here.”

Generation Kill

If L.A. was a mecca for highly polished acts like Mötley Crüe and Bon Jovi, the Bay Area had a reputation for a grittier sound and style—more denim than leopard print, more Lemmy Kilmister than Freddy Mercury—where the tastes of East Bay hardcore punks freely commingled with those of San Francisco’s headbanging crowd. It was into this energetic environment that Metallica’s 1983 debut, Kill ’Em All, emerged. The fans ate it up.

The record would go on to earn a triple-platinum ranking some 16 years after its release. However, with no social media, music blogs, or Spotify to rapidly and widely disseminate cultural currents, the influence of Kill ’Em All was largely a local phenomenon at first, according to Peterson.

Still, that influence was pronounced, Peterson adds, noting that Metallica’s appearance on the scene changed the way he and many others in the Bay Area thrash community approached songwriting. “When I saw them it all clicked,” he says. “Lars and James were onto something.”

With Kill ‘Em All, Metallica established a blueprint for an entirely new style of music: Blending the breakneck tempos and abrasive tonal textures of ’80s hardcore with the slick, classically influenced guitarmonies and vocal stylings of ’80s metal, and forging something that was at once familiar and novel.

By the time of Metallica’s major-label debut, Master of Puppets, the band had further refined and expanded its stylistic breadth. Though the record is an exemplar of thrash metal, it also demonstrated a marked improvement in the band’s songwriting. And the jump from indie label Megaforce Records to market giant Elektra brought with it improved production values that would only serve to sharpen the Metallica sound.

The next great leap forward was 1991’s self-titled LP, known colloquially as The Black Album. Easing back on the beats-per-minute allowed the music (and listeners) to breathe, and provided more space for melody and lyrics to catch the ears of audiences outside the insular metal sphere. A massive critical and commercial success, Metallica debuted at the No. 1 spot on album charts across the globe and demonstrated remarkable staying power: Its 635-week reign on the Billboard 200 chart is bested only by Pink Floyd, Bob Marley and fellow San Francisco band Journey. 

Metallica in San Francisco on June 4, 1996. | Photo by Jay Blakesberg

High-Minded Metal

Two decades after their formation, the band found itself at a crossroads. The release of Load, Reload, and S&M—a collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony—had accompanied a sartorial makeover and a high-profile lawsuit, Metallica, et al. v. Napster.

The band’s shorter hair, smoother sound and anti-file-sharing stance led to criticism from fans that they had sold out. In another sign that Metallica—and heavy metal as a genre—were getting older, academics started weighing in.

In 2002—the same year MTV aired the first episode of a reality show starring Ozzy Osbourne—Craig Swanson, who was then teaching sociology at North Central Michigan College, completed his master’s thesis, The Heavy Side of Metal: Metallica’s Counter-Hegemonic Trilogy.

Nearly two decades later, Swanson chuckles at the highfalutin title. “It’s easier to explain it by calling it ‘counter-cultural’ rather than ‘counter-hegemonic,’” he says. But Swanson stands by the central idea of his thesis. “The lyrical content is scathing against contemporary society.” 

Swanson emphasizes that while Hetfield and his bandmates don’t present themselves as sociologists, Metallica’s music comments incisively on social issues, including personal, interpersonal, and institutional violence. “And it’s a pretty thorough analysis,” Swanson says. “A lot of metal is just ‘break shit.’”

What’s more, Swanson says, Metallica’s more sophisticated approach influenced the scene. “They really did open up a niche for other bands to fill,” he says. Many bands that followed in Metallica’s wake would place newfound emphasis upon “highly critical [music and lyrics] that are actually saying something instead of just making noise.”

Giacomo Fiore, a writer and musicologist who teaches at U.C. Santa Cruz and University of San Francisco, agrees with many of Swanson’s points, noting that Metallica was “great at combining different tendencies in music.” The band drew from European metal and progressive rock, marrying those influences to the primal energy of punk. Before Metallica, he says, “If you asked your average teenage metalhead, they’d say, ‘If it’s metal, it can’t be punk!’” Hetfield and his bandmates were key in shifting that paradigm.

Fiore points to the 1999 live album S&M, which merged Metallica’s roar with the finesse of the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Kamen, as an example of the band’s ability to find the sweet spot between aggression and sophistication

Metallica frontman and rhythm guitarist James Hetfield and lead guitarist Kirk Hammett at the Filmore in San Francisco, May 18, 2003. | Photo by Jay Blakesberg

Heavy Legacy

It’s been more than five years since Metallica released a studio album of new material. But that doesn’t mean their discography hasn’t expanded since 2016’s Hardwired… to Self Destruct.

The recording of S&M2 brought the band and the San Francisco Symphony back together in 2019—this time under the baton of music director laureate Michael Tilson Thomas. An album version of that performance was released in 2020. And then of course there’s The Metallica Blacklist, which dropped in September and commemorates The Black Album’s 30th anniversary.

The sprawling 53-track cover album includes renditions of “Enter Sandman” by Alessia Cara and Mac Demarco; “The Unforgiven” by Flatbush Zombies and Moses Sumney; and a supergroup interpretation of “Nothing Else Matters,” led by Miley Cyrus with help from Elton John and Yo-Yo Ma, among others.

A cynical take on the record might reduce the entire exercise to a record industry cash grab; pop artists are regularly coaxed into churning out sub-par covers in an effort to drum up publicity and goose sales. But the participation of artists well outside the sphere of metal—and even rock in general—help make it far more than that, and underscores the degree to which Metallica has made a lasting impression on the world of music.

In the runup to Metallica’s two headlining shows at the Chase Center—Friday, Dec. 17 and Sunday, Dec. 19—a slate of other “Metallica Takeover” events are scheduled throughout the city. Jazz sax virtuoso and bandleader Kamasi Washington—one of the many artists to appear on the Blacklist—headlines The August Hall on Dec. 18, the same day that a gallery show of Metallica photography by Ross Halfin shows at 198 Utah St. and a Metallica-themed film festival opens at the AMC Kabuki.

The official kickoff show was Thursday, Dec. 16 at The August Hall, where Louisville indie rock outfit White Reaper performed their take on “Sad But True” from the Blacklist along with other rollicking hits from their catalog.

“We’re all humongous Metallica fans,” says Ryan Hater, keyboardist for White Reaper. He adds that it was a “huge honor” to be invited to play on the Blacklist

Hater, who is now in his late 20s, says that Metallica was one of the first bands that he truly fell in love with as a kid growing up in the mid-2000s. In fact, he thinks that “Enter Sandman” may have been the first song he ever put on the iPod Nano his parents gave to him.

While he was initially drawn to Metallica’s aggression as an angsty teenager, he says he remains a fan to this day. And, as a musician, he says he continues to find new reasons to admire Metallica’s work. “Every couple of years I can go back and rediscover something that maybe I missed.”