Casual Metallica fans might have been confused when the band released Nothing Else Matters in 1991. A touchy-feely ballad that frontman James Hetfield had written about missing his then-girlfriend Kristen Martinez while on tour, the song was a far cry from the war’n’lightning imagery that had dominated Metallica’s past decade. But for fans who were paying attention, the song was the next logical step in the band’s progression.
Metallica had been weaving melody and killer hooks into their brand of thrash since 1984, when they had the gall to both include acoustic guitars on the intro to Fight Fire With Fire, and release Fade To Black – the closest thing to a ballad any thrash band had released at that point. Naturally, thrash fans hated them for it.
“There was an odd reaction to Fade To Black and to the variety of [Ride The Lightning],” drummer Lars Ulrich said to Rolling Stone in 2014. “It did surprise us a little bit. People started calling us sell-outs and all that type of stuff. Some people were a little bit bewildered by the fact that there was a song that had acoustic guitars.”
The band first crossed over into the mainstream when 1988’s …And Justice For All achieved top 10 spots across international charts, while its third single One – another ballad – blew up on MTV and ultimately nabbed the band the inaugural Grammy for Best Metal Performance. Such success didn’t come without its drawbacks however, as the band fell headlong into all of the cliches of 80s rock star excess, from emerging cocaine habits to the herculean amounts of alcohol they would consume that saw them dubbed ‘Alcoholica’.
It was on one of their hedonistic jaunts around the world that James Hetfield would write the lyrics to Nothing Else Matters. Where the band’s previous ballads had been written about the horrors of war and erm, the band’s amps being stolen (or at least, the feelings of despair that resulted), Nothing Else Matters was a breakthrough candid moment for Hetfield as a songwriter.
"At first I didn't even want to play it for the guys,” he admitted to Mojo Magazine in 2008. “I thought that Metallica could only be the four of us. These are songs about destroying things, head banging, bleeding for the crowd, whatever it is, as long as it wasn't about chicks and fast cars, even though that's what we liked. The song was about a girlfriend at the time. It turned out to be a pretty big song."
Initial reservations aside, Nothing Else Matters was one of four songs the band demoed for their self-titled fifth record on August 13, 1990. With the benefit of hindsight – and YouTube – the early version possessed the song’s characteristic emotional depth and fragility, but also lacked the sense of enormity that would ultimately turn it into a stadium-filling anthem.
For that, they could thank producer Bob Rock, fresh from producing Mötley Crüe’s chart-topping Dr Feelgood, who had a few ideas on how they could expand their sound, suggesting they add an orchestral component to the song for an extra touch of grandiosity. With composer Michael Kamen taking care of the orchestral arrangements, Nothing Else Matters was now a stirring, potent power ballad with immense emotional depth.
The band didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Rock during the recording sessions for the Black Album, but nobody could argue with the results when it was released on August 12, 1991. 5,000,000 copies of Metallica were sold in the US in that first year alone, the record spending four consecutive weeks at the top of the Billboard 200 while the band became a bona fide phenomenon.
“It actually changed something culturally,” Rock said to Reverb in 2017. “Everybody owned that album. Dentists loved the Black Album! There was a musical transition when the album came out and it changed radio, because that heavy sound was now on the radio[…] I don’t think I’ve made a record that had done that before. I’m very proud of that."
By the time Nothing Else Matters came out as the Black Album’s third single on April 20, 1992, the music industry was weaning itself off the power ballad. Back when the record had come out, a power ballad was near guaranteed chart-gold – Bryan Adams’ (Everything I Do) I Do it For You spent 16 weeks at the top of the UK singles chart for Christ’s sake – but the enormous success of Smells Like Teen Spirit coupled with an alt-rock and grunge boom meant power ballads were suddenly very, very passé. As NME put it at the time, “Enter Sandman kicks ass! Sad But True kicks God ass! Nothing Else Matters is … balladified! Icky icky! And it's their new single. Now, I like Metallica but I hate metal ballads, don't you?”
Sticks and stones couldn’t hope to hurt the behemoth Metallica had become however and nor could the banning of its music video on MTV during the daytime (thanks to some racy posters spotted in the background of the video’s studio footage). While not as successful as lead single Enter Sandman, Nothing… still surpassed its predecessor The Unforgiven by making it to #34 on the Billboard Hot 100, #6 in the UK and even #1 in Lars’ homeland of Denmark.
Nothing Else Matters has subsequently provided the emotional crescendo to many a Metallica show – making it all-the-more surprising that it didn’t see its live debut until the band played the Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati on March 2, 1992. How could such a huge song not make it into the set? Because guitarist Kirk Hammett was worried about fucking it up, the song marking a rare time where James Hetfield handled all guitar parts in the studio.
“We kept putting it in the set and taking it out until we were certain we were actually able to play it,” Hammett told Village Voice in 2014. “I had to relearn that whole intro part to play by myself onstage, which was a little bit intimidating for me at that point.”
It’s hard to imagine early-90s Metallica being intimidated by anything, particularly given the legendary status of the Black Album as one of the best-selling rock/metal records of all-time. Nothing Else Matters broke Metallica to the mainstream in a way that has endured for decades. Whether re-visited when the band teamed back up with Michael Kamen for the orchestrally-reimagined S&M, covered by pop artists ranging from Miley Cyrus and Shakira to Post Malone or featured in everything from videos of ballet-dancing excavators to upcoming-Disney movies, the song has a palatability that has allowed it to thrive in pop culture.
Still as powerful now as it was in ’91, Nothing Else Matters can light up any stadium, festival field or arena; the Zippos might have been replaced for phones and torches, but the view is no less dazzling. At this point, the song has transcended its original meaning to become something much more universal and inspiring.
"I remember going to the Hells Angels Clubhouse in New York, and they showed me a film that they'd put together of one of the fallen brothers and they were playing Nothing Else Matters – wow,” James Hetfield marvelled to Mojo Magazine. “This means a lot more than me missing my chick, right? This is brotherhood. The army could use this song. It's pretty powerful.”