Master Of Puppets, is sailing towards one million sales.
But just before seven o’clock on the morning of 27 September 1986, tragedy strikes. Passing through Ljungby, Sweden, en route to a gig in Copenhagen, their tourbus suddenly skids off the road and flips on its side.
Guitarist Kirk Hammett is woken by the terrifying noise of complaining steel before being flung from his bunk and momentarily knocked unconscious. He fumblingly puts his contact lenses in and crawls out of the roof’s emergency-escape hatch. The first thing he sees are bassist Cliff Burton’s legs protruding from beneath the wreckage. Burton, who had won the right to sleep in that berth in a card game, is dead.
As the emergency services arrive to lift the coach off Burton’s body with a crane, each member of Metallica deals with the accident differently. Frontman James Hetfield, having escaped by kicking out the back window, walks down the road in tears, looking for black ice – the apparent cause of crash – that he never finds. Drummer Lars Ulrich’s panicked reaction is to run from the scene, afraid that the vehicle might explode. Hammett asks for a blanket from the driver, who reaches down to take the one that has been placed over Burton. “Not that fucking blanket,” he says.
It’s a tragedy that would have stopped most bands in their tracks while they mourned, regrouped and considered their future. But one month later, Metallica hired a new bass player, Jason Newsted. Ten days after that they were back playing live.
Asked today if there was any question of not continuing without Burton, the usually verbose Ulrich’s answer is short and blunt, “No.”
This combination of bloody-minded determination and virtual indestructibility has not only kept Metallica together for 26 years, but also elevated them to the ranks of the world’s biggest rock bands. For a generation of fans who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, the quartet defined an era in the same way as Led Zeppelin did in the ’70s. Their 10 albums have sold a total of 95 million copies worldwide – more than the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana and The Police. There have been marathon stadium tours that, at one point, saw them earning a million dollars a gig, plus private jets and expensive art collections. There have also been vats of alcohol, crippling drug habits, breakdowns, rehab and – in the case of the unfortunate Cliff Burton – death. Metallica, it’s safe to say, don’t do things by halves.
For such a gargantuan operation, Metallica’s base of operations – known to all simply as “HQ” – is surprisingly unassuming. Located on a quiet suburban road in San Rafael, California, 20 minutes’ drive north of the Golden Gate Bridge, the grey, two-storey building may look like a builder’s merchants, but this is the hub of a multi-million-dollar operation. The band are here rehearsing material for their next album, due in 2008. Every other week, they travel to Los Angeles, where they work on the new songs with producer Rick Rubin. Soon they will brush up their back catalogue for this summer’s Escape From The Studio ’07 tour, which stops off at Wembley Stadium on 8 July.
The inside of HQ is immediately recognisable to anyone who has seen Some Kind Of Monster, the landmark 2004 documentary that exposed Metallica’s frailties, fortitude and immense wealth as they fought to save themselves from annihilation at their own hands. The long wooden table in the spacious kitchen is where many of the band’s interpersonal problems were discussed with Phil Towle, their $40,000-a-month therapist and “performance coach”.