25 years ago: Lars Ulrich calls from Japan, says Metallica is broadening its horizons

Twenty-five years ago tomorrow—on Wednesday, May 31, 1989—Metallica played the Pacific Coliseum on a bill with the Cult.

This was just three months after the band had its expected Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance stolen away by Jethro Tull—whose Crest of a Knave album somehow beat out Metallica's mighty ...And Justice for All—and metal fans were still in shock.

Nothing against Jethro Tull—Aqualung is one of the greatest albums ever!—but they've never been "hard rock" and were definitely not "metal", so the win was a mistake. 

But Metallica got its Grammy glory the following year, anyway, when the Justice single "One" took the award for Best Metal Performance.

In advance of the Vancouver show, Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich called me from Japan to chat about the Grammy fiasco and the band's recent change in musical direction—or "broadening of its musical horizons", as he called it.  

Here's the story that ran in the Straight under the headline: Rock Group Gasses the Grammy Grannies.

Hey, I didn't write that part.

Anyone who tuned in to the 1988 Grammy Awards a few months back witnessed a couple of unusual events. The first was the live appearance of Metallica, a thrashy metal band from L.A. (the Grammys are better known for guest spots by the likes of Whitney Houston and Lionel Richie).

The other was the awarding of Best Hard Rock/Heavy Metal Grammy to folk-edged British rockers Jethro Tull.

As Metallica's drummer Lars Ulrich explained when he called the Straight from Nagoya, Japan, last week, TV viewers weren't the only ones surprised by the outcome of the awards. But he takes a logical approach to Metallica's losing out on the sought-after trophy.

"Well let's remember who it is that votes," says Ulrich. "It's the academy. Obviously it was great to feel that we had all the critics behind us, and there was a really positive atmosphere leading up to it that Metallica was gonna walk with it."

But Ulrich allows that those who vote for the awards aren't necessarily people in touch with all aspects of the music industry.

"We were told about this, and were quite prepared--even though our situation was looking very positive--that there was a very strong chance that it would probably either be AC/DC or Jethro Tull, simply because of the name-recognition factor."

According to Ulrich, playing at the Grammy's was the band's primary focus. "Everything else is very much secondary to the fact that we were up there playing. The award itself and all that other bullshit just pales in comparison to the fact that we were invited to play on the show and that we did."

And they played loud--a lot louder than anything the highbrow audience had ever heard before. "It was quite an interesting experience playing to 3,000 people in tuxedos," says Ulrich. "That was a slightly different audience than we normally get. But you take the challenges. Those five minutes of going out live to 80 trillion people was a pretty intense feeling. It's a lot of fun to look back on."

Rumour had it that Metallica was so sure of its win in the newly established category that T-shirts had already been made up declaring the victory. Ulrich says that wasn't the case.

"The record company had made up promotional posters for the record stores, and when we didn't win, we came up with the idea to take all the posters and stamp them so the word "Winner" was crossed out and replaced with the word "Loser".

Grammy Award loser or not, Metallica is a force to be reckoned with in today's world of heavy rock 'n' roll. The band played two nights in Tokyo earlier this month, selling out the first night in a 13,000-seat venue and cramming 10,000 riff-hungry Japanese into the second show.

When the band plays Vancouver this Wednesday (May 31), the stage will be shared with a group of slightly different mettle, the Cult. But Ulrich doesn't feel that the two groups are so contrary that people will only go to see one band or the other.

"I think that's too easy to say. On the first part of our U.S. tour we had Queensryche with us, and everybody kept going, 'Oh Queensryche is so different than Metallica.' Obviously we have our hardcore fans, and the Cult have people that are very strong Cult fans, but I think the area in between is a lot bigger than people actually think.

"The last thing we would want would be to have just another Metallica clone band on there. We went after the Cult because we really like and respect what they do, and apparently the feeling is kinda mutual. And even though both bands might not share too much in the musical area, I think that we share a lot of attitude."

The last time Vancouver fans had a chance to see Metallica was at the big hard-rock concert event, Monsters of Rock, which hit the Seattle Kingdome last June. Although that tour was a major disappointment for promoters, who hoped to retire on one show's profits, Ulrich says his band did fine.

"It turned out great for us, obviously; I think of all the bands on the bill we were probably the one that got the most out of it. It's too easy to say that the thing was a failure. There were too many people hyping it up, and it's a big mistake to try and hype something up when you don't know yet if you're gonna have the numbers to back it up. We went in and made the most of the situation, which was just to play to a lot of people."

Because Metallica shared the Monsters of Rock bill with such established and commercially accepted bands as Van Halen and Scorpions, and since their latest album, ...And Justice For All, has been across-the-board success, some people may think the group is forsaking its thrash-metal roots. But the suggestion that Metallica is mellowing out does not go over well with Ulrich—you can hear him bristle at the accusation from 3,000 miles away.

"Well I don't like...that's actually not the right way of putting it," he says. "I think that over the last four or five years we've been maturing, and just realizing that, yes, we love playing fast and hard, but we also love doing other things. Playing the fast, hard stuff is great, but it gets very monotonous if that's the only thing you do. I'd like to say that instead of mellowing out, we're just sort of broadening our musical horizons."

Considering that Ulrich listens to everybody from Blue Murder to Edie Brickell to Faith No More to John Lee Hooker, you could say that his musical interests are quite broad. But there's still no denying that Metallica was one of the first bands to wreak havoc under the "thrash metal" banner. He says the band has come a long way since then.

"Nowadays I'd say that is too limited a label for what we do. But we were the first band to break a lot of rules that have been set over the last few years," he says. "Rules about how you're supposed to make it and how you have to depend on things like radio and video to do it. We hope we've shown a lot of people that you don't have to just follow the rules. If you don't like the rules, you can do your own thing."

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