The story of Metallica and the ‘obscene’ punk cover that got them banned from MTV

Metallica against a purple background with an inset of Anti Nowhere League singer Animal
(Image credit: Niels van Iperen/Steve Rapport/Getty Images)

It’s November 14, 1996 and Metallica are all set to play King Nothing, the mostly harmless forthcoming single from then-new album Load, at the MTV Europe Music Awards.

At the last minute, they are instructed not to swear onstage. So naturally, they spontaneously decide to replace the song with two hugely offensive covers instead. Last Caress, originally by The Misfits, is bad enough with its controversial lines about rape and baby murder.

This is followed by a So What?, an amped-up cover of a brilliantly filthy song UK punks the Anti-Nowhere League. After delivering lines like ‘So what, so what, you boring little cunt?’ live on primetime MTV, Metallica were banned from the channel and their performance removed from all subsequent rebroadcasts. MTV was still a huge force at the time but, you know, so fucking what?

It wasn’t the first time the song had gotten a band into trouble. The Anti-Nowhere League had initially included So What? as the flipside to their 1981 debut single Streets of London – itself a cover of a song by cosy folk icon Ralph McTell.

Fans and faux-outraged tabloids seized on the sweary B-side however, with its lyrics encompassing bestiality and fellating old geezers, eventually resulting in the obscene publication squad raiding the band and their distributors. “It swept like wild fire, all our records were removed from shops and we were banned from radio and television,” frontman Nick ‘Animal’ Culmer recalled.

By the time Metallica came to record the song, the Anti-Nowhere League had disbanded and their erstwhile vocalist was working as a builder. In an interview with Uber Rock, Animal claimed that Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash suggested Metallica cover So What? as his own band “had just done [‘League song] I Hate People but Axl dropped that cos he couldn’t sing it properly.” Whether there’s actually a lost GnR version of I Hate People – presumably from the sessions for covers album The Spaghetti Incident? – we may never know. For their part, Metallica essentially said they decided to cover the song for a bit of a laugh.

“It's just so much fun to get up there and sing ‘I've even sucked an old man's cock’ and watch people in the audience go, ‘Huh?’ It's just shit that shocks people, and I can go, ‘Hey, I didn't write it’,” James Hetfield told Guitar World in 1998. “So What? was actually a song that we'd throw on the stereo in the early days just to piss off the neighbours. Whether they could hear the lyrics or not, it just felt good to blast the words ‘cock’ and ‘fuck’ and stuff like that. And that was absolutely why we chose to cover it it wasn't because it had some great riff or something.”

Metallica’s rendition first appeared on the B-side of the 12” vinyl version of single The Unforgiven in 1991. A sticker on the record warned: “Track two side two of this record contains some of the ruder everyday English expressions. If this is likely to offend, then move swiftly on… and buy some earplugs next time you walk out of the front door.” The cover resurfaced on the B-side of Sad But True and eventually the Garage Inc. compilation in 1998, as well as becoming a live staple at Metallica shows.

When the band played the UK on their Wherever We May Roam tour 1992, they invited Animal to join them onstage to play the song at Wembley arena. It was an appearance that ultimately led to the Anti-Nowhere League getting back together – at least after drummer JB had explained to the singer who Metallica were.

“All I can say is Metallica bought me a Harley,” Animal told Vice years later. “And they've only looked after me when I played with them. A band of that ilk to actually look after a smaller punk band, which they did, is something they didn't need to do. But they did it, and you gotta respect that. And we certainly appreciate it.”

The brand new issue of Metal Hammer (opens in new tab) features an in-depth look back at Metallica’s controversial Load and Reload period – and just how it changed the band forever. Buy your copy online now (opens in new tab) and have it delivered straight to your door.

Metal Hammer issue 367

(Image credit: Future)

Metal Hammer issue 367

(Image credit: Future)

Paul Travers has spent the best part of three decades writing about punk rock, heavy metal, and every associated sub-genre for the UK's biggest rock magazines, including Kerrang! and Metal Hammer