The great American philosopher and statesman Benjamin Franklin once wrote “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Make that ‘death, taxes and Metallica touring Europe in the summer time.’ Yesterday's announcement that the San Franciscan metal behemoths are to headline August’s Reading and Leeds festivals had a certain inevitability about it. Metallica have visited these shores for 13 of the last 14 summers, they played both Glastonbury and Sonisphere earlier this year and with Download already having their three main stage headliners in place, a decision to return to the festival they last headlined in 2008 has a clear logic to it for the band.
So why are UK metal fans pissed off with the quartet yet again? Well, the outrage appears to be based upon two separate issues: a) for the second summer running, Metallica have elected to play a ‘non-metal’ festival in the UK, thus betraying their core fanbase and b) this commitment to another summer of touring will almost inevitably mean that the wait for a new Metallica album will continue, which will represent, er, a betrayal of their core fanbase. The bastards! The cold-hearted, dead-eyed, soulless bastards!
Now, thinking rationally, the first argument here is something of a non-starter. Yes Metallica chose to play Glastonbury this summer, to predictable and not-entirely unreasonable howls of anguish from the most sensitive music fans in the world, but in closing out Sonisphere 2014 they also offered anyone feeling disenfranchised by that decision an opportunity to see them in their natural habitat. And yet there were literally thousands of tickets still available for that particular event right up until the morning of July 6th.
The second argument holds more water. Six years have now passed since the release of Metallica’s last ‘proper’ album, Death Magnetic, and in the intervening years it has often appeared that the quartet would prefer to do anything but commit to a new stint in the studio. In their first five years as recording artists the band delivered four stone cold classic albums which remain blueprints for their genre: in the past five years we’ve had one experimental collaboration album (Lulu), one dog’s dinner of a movie (Through The Never), and just one stand-alone new song, Lords Of Summer, which will make its debut on vinyl later this week. This, by any standards, is a terribly poor return for a creative union.
But then the harsh, uncomfortable truth is that in the modern age, Metallica aren’t really a band anymore, but rather the custodians of a multi-million dollar brand. The quartet’s co-manager Cliff Burnstein effectively admitted this fact in a 2011 interview with the Wall Street Journal. “We’re a US export the way Coca Cola is,” he stated baldly. “We look for the best markets to go to.” And when the corporation takes a financial hit – as it did with both Lulu, which has sold fewer than 35,000 copies in America, and Through The Never, a $30 million dollar film which recouped less than $8 million at the box office – that shortfall needs to be addressed. Bearing in mind that Taylor Swift is the sole artist to have a million-selling album in America in 2014, one doesn’t have to be a professor of economics to understand that the company balance sheet won’t be tipped into credit by till receipts for a new Metallica album, even if it’s the single greatest collection of songs that James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich have ever written.
So, please, dry your eyes. Metallica don’t care about their ‘true’ fans? Guess what? They never did. 14 years ago Lars Ulrich told this writer “One of the biggest misconceptions about Metallica is this whole thing of ‘We’re doing it for the fans.’ No we’re not fucking doing it for the fucking fans, we’re doing it for ourselves.”
Sod the new album, of course Metallica are coming our way again. Of course they are. Not because they miss dear old England, or because they have an emotional attachment to a festival that has long since stopped caring about metal fans, but simply because it’s time to fill the coffers again. And so once again James Hetfield will stand on a British festival stage, backed up with a setlist featuring almost no songs written this century, and talk about just how important and special the Metallica “family” are. In this, he’s being quite sincere, but let’s not kid ourselves: at this point the Metallica ‘family’ aren’t the poor sods shivering in faded Master Of Puppets T-shirts in the British summer rain, but rather the corporation’s loyal employees, from the highly skilled crew members put on retainers to sit on their arses for nine months a year, to the cleaners emptying the bins in Q Prime’s offices in New York, London and Nashville. All you are to them now is a walking wallet.
So, clock in… Hit The Lights baby… clock out. Thank you and goodnight England, see you next summer. Metallica loves you!
Paul Brannigan is the co-author (along with Ian Winwood) of Birth School Metallica Death: 1983 – 1991. The second volume of the band’s story, Into The Black: The Inside Story Of Metallica, 1991 – 2014, is out now in the US and will be published in the UK by Faber & Faber in January 2015.