The strange story of the song that some people thought ‘inspired’ Enter Sandman (but probably didn’t)

Metallica and the cover of Excel The Joke’s On You
(Image credit: Midori Tsukagoshi/Shinko Music/Getty Images/Caroline Records)

As the lead single from Metallica’s game-changing self-titled fifth album – aka The Black Album – Enter Sandman was the track that launched the band into the mainstream. It became an instant hit on its release in July 1991, shooting up to No.10 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Chart and hitting No,16 on the Billboard Hot 100. Its ominous, chiming opening riff and blockbusting chorus were both instantly recognisable and inescapable.

However, within a few months of the track beginning its inexorable ascent to classic status, people began to notice it sounded in part like another song – Tapping Into The Emotional Void, by LA skatecore thrashers, Excel.

Formed in 1985 by vocalist Dan Clements, guitarist Adam Siegel, bassist Shaun Ross and drummer Greg Saenz, Excel dispensed a coarse, lo-fi strain of skate thrash that struck a streetwise alliance between Fu Manchu and Suicidal Tendencies. They released their debut in 1987 and a follow-up, The Joke’s On You, two years later. It was the latter that featured Tapping Into the Emotional Void.

On the surface, there were definite sonic similarities. The Excel song opened with a stripped-down  acoustic riff that certainly resembled the opening of Enter Sandman. A barrage of drums stepped up the pace, not unlike the percussive stomp that kicked the Metallica song up gear at roughly the same point.

While the rest of Tapping Into The Emotional Void sounded nothing like Enter Sandman, the opening was enough to create a degree of confusion. The similarities were picked up by Philadelphia university radio station WXVU-FM, who began playing it. Other stations followed suit, apparently resulting in some people calling in to ask if it was a demo of the Metallica anthem.

“You don’t know what to think,” Extol’s Dan Clements told the LA Times in December 1991, adding that he was “shaken” by the similarities between the two songs. Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine – who was fired from Metallica in 1983 – was even more explicit, telling Metal Maniacs magazine in 2004 that his former band’s biggest song was “ripped off” from Excel.

But was it really? While there are some similarities, both tracks are in different keys: Enter Sandman is in E standard and Tapping... is in E flat, which means while they rest on similar-sounding notes at one point, the different tuning creates different intervals and thus different fret navigation. And the end of the riff is different between the two as well. Excel’s resolves into a sinister, hammer-on lick while Metallica’s ends with chunky power chords sliding back and forth between F# and G.

Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett has acknowledged that the iconic riff for Enter Sandman was indeed inspired by another band, but it wasn’t Excel. Describing the song’s genesis, Hammett said: “Back in ‘89 I’d just discovered this new musical movement coming out of the Seattle area. I was listening to a lot of Soundgarden. I was pretty impressed with the rawness of their sound and how heavy it felt. One thing we spoke about as a band was how much we all like bouncy riffs. So I was just sitting there with my guitar at three o’clock in the morning, thinking, ‘Soundgarden, bounce, flatten fifths...’ Almost simulating my mind to those sounds. And then this riff came out and I thought, ‘Whoah, that works!’”

The argument that Metallica ‘borrowed’ the intro for Enter Sandman from the Excel song became harder to back up with the release of the 30th anniversary reissue their 1988 album …And Justice For All in 2018. The expanded version of the reissue included James Hetfield’s ‘Riff Tapes’, a set of rough demos and sketches of riffs for the album. One one these demos, for the …Justice… track Dyer’s Eve, there’s a fleeting yet familiar riff. It’s just a brief snippet — a half-finished distorted doodle — but it sure does sound like an early version of Enter Sandman’s signature riff. That demo was recorded in 1987, a full two years before Extol released Tapping Into The Emotional Void (check out the riff in question at around 5:43 on the track below).  

In the wake of Enter Sandman’s release, Metallica’s co-manager Cliff Bernstein – who coincidentally also handled Suicidal Tendencies side project Infectious Grooves, featuring Excel’s Adam Seigel on guitar put the similarities down to coincidence, telling the LA Times: “If Excel could write that one [Tapping The Emotional Void], I’m sure they can write more. Then they’ll be successful.”

Excel declined to file a copyright lawsuit against Metallica, saying it “it sucks everything else out of your life.” The upside of the story was that that both Tapping Into The Emotional Void and Excel themselves suddenly found themselves the subject of belated attention. As Dan Clements told the LA Times: “I just want it to be known that it’s time more than 20,000 people [the reported sales of The Joke’s On You at the time] recognized that musically Excel has it and is ahead of its time.”

Joe Daly

Hailing from San Diego, California, Joe Daly is an award-winning music journalist with over thirty years experience. Since 2010, Joe has been a regular contributor for Metal Hammer, penning cover features, news stories, album reviews and other content. Joe also writes for Classic Rock, Bass Player, Men’s Health and Outburn magazines. He has served as Music Editor for several online outlets and he has been a contributor for SPIN, the BBC and a frequent guest on several podcasts. When he’s not serenading his neighbours with black metal, Joe enjoys playing hockey, beating on his bass and fawning over his dogs.