Metallica fan Timothy Cootes delves into their new biography, only to discover the pages are soaked in triumphant hubris. Sad but true…
Birth School Metallica Death – Volume 1: The Biography by Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood
Publisher: Da Capo Press
Hardback, 378 pages
In December 2013, when six of the world’s continents could no longer accommodate Lars Ulrich’s ego, Metallica made history by playing a gig at an Argentine research station in Antarctica. The band also gave its fans an early Christmas present and made the Freeze ‘Em All concert available online, free of charge.
This double-sided, complex character of arguably the world’s best-known metal band has been one of Metallica’s defining elements: Metallica is both grandiose and generous, seminal and self-absorbed. This duality has found expression everywhere: critical and commercial success versus fabulous flops (remember Lulu?); pioneers of the thrash metal genre versus contemptible, self-indulgent sell-outs. James Hetfield’s dark, lyrical ruminations have also given Metallica an intellectual quality absent in other heavy metal groups; this quality only presents itself, however, when Lars Ulrich stops verbalising his every thought.
As you can see, I can throw quite a few things at Metallica, both positive and negative. However, I could never accuse Metallica of being boring, which, unfortunately, is the first adjective I reached for when reading Volume 1 of the group’s biography written by veteran music journalists Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood and narcissistically titled, Birth School Metallica Death.
A slight qualification is necessary here. Volume 1 covers the band’s early years until the Black album and there are moments of decent writing. The authors make an admirable examination of the childhoods of each band member and find, unsurprisingly, that hardship, loneliness and family strife ensured that music became the only solace available. The memorable phrase “hormonal clusterfuck of adolescence” wonderfully captures James Hetfield’s isolation and aloofness, when social acceptance and popularity were still a long way off.
The authors’ exploration of the band’s formation and early struggles is also quite interesting. The intellectual merit I associated with Metallica at the outset was, at this point, somewhat rudimentary. Metallica’s forerunner, Leather Charm, produced the risibly titled, “Hades Ladies”. Had Ulrich and Hetfield chosen something else from their proposed list of band names, like say, Thunderfuck, it’s doubtful they would have found the same level of success. Such deft humour and interest quickly become scarce and are smothered by the laudatory sentiment adopted by the authors.
There is a dreary sense of destiny that Metallica was always going to become the world’s greatest metal group: Metallica’s “ascendancy seems inevitable to the point of being preordained”; the group’s originality is staggering, as they “had begun their journey not so much on a road less travelled as on a thoroughfare entirely of their own making.” This may flirt with the truth, but the painful repetition soon becomes tiresome.
The authors’ choice of subject matter is frustrating in parts. They spend far too long on tedious subjects and give scant attention to more complex themes. The tales of tour debauchery quickly exhaust the reader’s interest, while parts of Metallica’s history suggesting that the band is fallible receive the most casual of mentions. This includes the band’s poor treatment of original bassist Ron McGovney and the cruelty visited upon Jon Zazula, the tireless producer responsible for the band’s early success. The authors seem to dismiss this as a positive, even necessary cruelty that enabled Metallica’s advance to stardom. (The exception here is a semi-decent glance at Metallica’s conduct towards Jason Newsted, who comes across quite well.)
The end result of all this is a biography that reads like an extended schoolyard discourse on why Metallica is the greatest band ever and why all other bands suck.
This would have been an apt subtitle.
It’s not enough to heap praise on (almost) everything the band has done; the authors feel the need to throw stones at the bands who didn’t reach Metallica’s success. Anthrax, Slayer, Ratt and Scorpions all come in for criticism, or are presented standing in awe in Metallica’s vast commercial shadow. This doesn’t just seem misjudged, but pointless. The annoying, diehard Metallica fans who think that the four elements of the book’s title truly comprise life will no doubt lap this up, but the more discriminating listeners will be left discontented.
If the authors had excised just some of the more congratulatory sentences, the book’s length could have been significantly reduced, rendering unnecessary Volume 2, which was released last year. I will not bother to read it. I couldn’t stand to be informed that really, honestly, after the 12th listen, St Anger isn’t all that shit. It is.
So is this book.