Rock biographies are everywhere, but the best ones have great access to the artists. Birth School Metallica Death is one of those books and it’s a rollercoaster read.
Like a classic Metallica song, Birth School Metallica Death is long and epic. Indeed, it’s published in two separate volumes and co-written by two journalists. Volume 1 is just out and Volume 2 will follow in 2014.
Gibson.com asked co-author Paul Brannigan (his colleague is Ian Winwood, both ex-Kerrang! editors) about getting inside the heads of the world’s biggest metal band…
Was Birth School Metallica Death always going to be two volumes?
“Yes, always. Obviously, there are many books about Metallica. But we (Brannigan and Winwood) wanted to make it different. So we decided there’d be a jump-point, from when Metallica headlined Madison Square Garden when they played the “Black” album. Quite an idea of theirs to play an 18,000 people venue just to play a new album. Not many other bands would have done that at the time, or even now. Up to then was volume 1. We were quite hard about it with our publishers. It was two volumes or nothing.”
Explain your love of Metallica?
“The very first issue of Kerrang! I ever bought, issue 115, had a 5-star review of Master of Puppets. I bought the album, and that was the start. I went back and bought the first two albums. I was onboard, if you like. So the early part of the book was more of a challenge as myself and Ian were 15-16 years old at the time of those records. We weren’t there. But people who were there helped us a lot. For the second volume (Brannigan later became Editor of Kerrang!) we were there. Lots of great access.”
Do Metallica approve of your book?
“I don’t know. It’s outside their world. We contacted Peter Mensch (Metallica’s manager) and he said it was OK to go ahead. It was like when I wrote the Dave Grohl book. Artists are so busy they can spend 10 or 20 years before they are ready to think about putting this stuff down. At that point, they may have forgotten things or want to put out a different version of history. That’s why some unauthorized biographies are better.”
There’s a few references in the book about metal being a teen obsession. Yet Metallica are still playing metal and you are still writing about it…
“Adolescent obsessions seem to remain close to people’s hearts. Some of the best heavy metal is ridiculous. But for people who have grown-up with a love for the music, they don’t mind that. Fans all know the inherent ridiculousness of men running around singing about avenging goblins, nuclear armageddon, or not being giving enough cookies by their babysitter.
“But it’s part of the appeal. Heavy metal is supposed to be larger than life. The drama, the melodrama, is all part of it. Led Zeppelin, Queen, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden… they all have ridiculousness. That’s part of the joy of the music.”
Has writing about Metallica and meeting them over many years changed your view of Metallica themselves?
“At the start they were very much a street band. They then became an arena band. In the Through the Never movie this year, there are laugh-out-loud moments. But I think Metallica’s fans have affection for all the ridiculousness. Again, it comes from liking heavy metal as an adolescent. I think Metallica fans, all metal fans, are almost in on the jokes. Metallica have hit a fine line at times, I guess. But fans understand that.”
What are your impressions of Metallica’s main members: let’s start with Lars Ulrich?
“The band wouldn’t exist without Lars. He’s sometimes portrayed as being a dick? Yes. However, Metallica wouldn’t be where they are without Lars. His drive and vision is incredible. He’s also very generous with his time. In 2000, I was flown out to Los Angeles to speak to Lars when the Napster controversy was happening [Metallica started criticizing their own fans for sharing live bootleg recordings online.] He was worried that Metallica were being misunderstood. He’d read all the press and the web postings – even fans saying, “shut the **** up Lars and get some drum lessons.” But he laughs at all that.
“He had to leave one of my interviews, already an hour long, to go to some awards show. I told him I had enough copy, but he said I should come in his limo to this show because he wanted to talk more. Another hour. He didn’t have to do it, but it was important to him. Over the years, I’ve interviewed Lars so many times. He always talks longer than the PR manager’s “allotted time.” He’s really generous with his time. Lars can talk a glass eye to sleep.”
And James Hetfield?
“He’s changed a lot over the years. When I first met him he was a pretty terrifying Alpha Male character. I think even the band were scared of James for a while. Strong and silent. People know what happened around Some Kind of Monster and James going into rehab… When you meet him now, he’s placid, calm – almost a fatherly figure. He’s really pleasant company, very thoughtful. Ten years ago, it could be quite nerve-wracking to be around James. He’d grump and growl at you. Not now. James is a much more humble and stable person to be around.”
And Kirk Hammett? Even some Metallica fans still regard him as the “new boy” and he gets his guitar playing criticized often…
“There are loads of opinions about Kirk. When Metallica got rid of Dave Mustaine, some even suggested they got Kirk in not because he was the best guitar player, but because he was easy-going. He obviously shared the same music taste, but some people I spoke to say it was more because he was relatively free of ego. Lars and James still have really huge egos. Dave Mustaine has the biggest of them all! So it seemed impossible for those three characters to exist together.
“So there’s always been the Spinal Tap analogy, when Derek Smalls says he’s the lukewarm water between the fire and ice of Nigel Tufnel and David St Hubbins. People think that is Kirk between Lars and James. But I wouldn’t say so.
“Kirk is a really nice guy, very laid back, and a great musician. He’s more free-spirited and open-minded than Lars or James, to me. He’s really into his surfing and his art, but he never alienates anyone in any social situation. He gets writing credits, of course, on lots of Metallica material but Kirk also seems to know his place in the band. It’s not his band. It’s Lars’ and James’s band still. But Kirk is cool with that. Kirk’s nature is more relaxed, and he can put up with the ebb and flow of some of Metallica’s mad business.”
And Volume 2 of Birth School Metallica Death is out in 2014?
“Yes, it’s still a work in progress. We haven’t decided when this book should end. Metallica keep doing things, so there’s no easy end-point. They’ve just announced the 2014 dates, Sonisphere and all that. The Through the Never movie could be an end point, but I don’t know. If they carry on working like this, there could even be a volume 3! Writing books like these are not really for financial gain. It’s about documenting history, of the band and the fans who were there. Writing an unauthorised biography, you can soon become the elephant in the room. But this is not a stitch-up.
“The book’s not uncritical of Metallica, but they’re used to standing up to criticism. I probably won’t be invited to Peter Mensch’s house for Christmas… but at the same time, I’m sure I’ll be sat in the same room as Metallica again soon. “
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