The night nu metal bowed down before Metallica

Metallica MTV Icons
(Image credit: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc)

When nu metal emerged in the mid-90s it provided a seismic shift in heavy metal culture. Grunge had already cleared glam off the board, but it left a vacuum for how metal looked and sounded that would ultimately be filled when the likes of Korn, Deftones and Limp Bizkit emerged later in the decade. 

But even as nu metal changed the way heavy metal looked and sounded forever, its bands weren't above paying tribute to some all-time greats - including Metallica

Metal's biggest band were just getting back on their feet in 2003, the departure of bassist Jason Newsted two years prior sending them into a tailspin as they hastily tried to close the gap in their ranks, ultimately recruiting former Ozzy Osbourne and Suicidal Tendencies bassist Robert Trujillo. 

At the same time, they had also been working on producing their eighth album Saint Anger, chronicling their struggles in the biopic Some Kind Of Monster (and we all know how that turned out). 

But even with all that strife, they remained at the top of heavy metal's totem pole, so were selected as the subject for the MTV Icon series in May 2003. An annual show featuring a range of guest musicians and celebrities, the idea was to pay tribute to some of music's biggest and most iconic acts. 

Before Metallica, MTV had hosted similar shows for Janet Jackson and Aerosmith, so the event seemed like the perfect opportunity for the refreshed four horsemen to make a massive public comeback, just a month before Saint Anger hit the shelves. 

The event kicked off with Canadian pop-punks Sum 41 blasting out a covers medley of For Whom The Bell Tolls, Enter Sandman and Master Of Puppets. Surprising as that might seem, it wasn't Sum 41's first flirtation with metal, the band having played with Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee and Judas Priest legend Rob Halford at another MTV event in 2001.

It was a bizarre and star-studded event, seeing the likes of Kelly Osbourne, Sean Penn and comedian Jim Breuer (covering If You're Happy And You Know It in Metallica's style) all popping up across the broadcast alongside a host of musicians who represented the hottest names in 2003. 

The real talk however was the assembly of musicians brought together for live covers sets. That includes a 'high-octane performance of Fuel by Avril Lavigne' (MTV's words), a fittingly emotional One cover by Korn (with an introduction from Linkin Park's Chester Bennington and Blink-182's Travis Barker) and Limp Bizkit playing Welcome Home (Sanatarium).

There are also some odd, less illustrious covers in there too. Snoop Dogg's Sad But True feels decidedly more in the former category while an acoustic Staind cover of Nothing Else Matters is wetter than Poseidon's backside. 

Still, it's a testament to just how vital Metallica were that they could bring together musicians across the pop-punk, post-grunge and nu metal divide, all capped off with a performance from the main band themselves as they burned through a medley set of Hit The Lights, Enter Sandman, Creeping Death and Battery.

A massive celebration of Metallica's history, the show also included some insights into the (then) recent split with Jason Newsted, boiling it down to tensions between James Hetfield and the bassist over the latter's choice to record an album with his side-project Echobrain. 

Interviews with both parties offered some insight into the split, drummer Lars Ulrich remarking that "the thing that’s so weird about it – or ironic, or sad – is that Jason Newsted’s model for what he wanted Metallica to be is what Metallica are now. Maybe he was the sacrificial lamb for that to happen.”

There are also gems about the band's contentious relationship with gatekeepers, Hetfield recalling an incident where a fan spat on him "because [we] sold out and made a video."

It's a fascinating insight into a period of time where the future was uncertain for Metallica, but also where heavy metal featured so heavily in popular culture. It's hard to imagine anything like this happening in mainstream culture in 2022, not least because heavy metal seems to be repeatedly snubbed at industry events.

Rich Hobson

Staff writer for Metal Hammer, Rich has never met a feature he didn't fancy, which is just as well when it comes to covering everything rock, punk and metal for both print and online, be it legendary events like Rock In Rio or Clash Of The Titans or seeking out exciting new bands like Nine Treasures, Jinjer and Sleep Token.