As some may recollect, I’ve committed to actually publishing more of my unfinished, non-expert thoughts on the blog. I have perhaps half a dozen different posts that are in the 3000 word range that I’ve not quite been able to finish, and am now redoubling my efforts (the rest of this month and all of October are going to be extremely busy) in order to clear the decks. With that in mind…
On October 6, 1992 I attended the Guns N’ Roses and Metallica concert in Seattle, last date of the 1992 tour. This was the first major concert that I had ever had the opportunity to attend; we drove up from Eugene that afternoon and then back to Eugene after the conference was over (possible when you’re 18 but not recommended). I missed all of the opener (Motorhead) and about a quarter of Metallica because I was hanging out with a friend in Seattle.
Tonight I’ll be seeing GNR again; fourth time overall, second since their reconstitution. I’ve seen Metallica two more times, once in the early 1990s and once a few years back. Given the opportunity to see either Metallica or GnR this year, I opted for the latter mainly on the basis of price; it’s much cheaper to see GnR than Metallica at this point in the history of the bands. Because I think about these two bands a lot (cue Loomis asking “Why?”) it’s worth taking the opportunity to think about the divergent paths that GnR and Metallica have taken over the last 31 years. Folks forget the world-beating position that GNR found itself in between 1987 and 1992. Appetite for Destruction was a REALLY big deal, MTV loved the band, and the Use Your Illusion albums, while by no means perfect, seemed to open a path to something beyond LA hair metal. Recollect that while the 1992 tour was billed as a double feature, Metallica (still touring on the strength of the Black Album, now the 18th best selling album of all time) opened for GnR, which is kind of astonishing given how big of a deal Metallica had become.
Much of the history is well-known; GnR lost a couple key members, put out an album of covers, then slow-motion disintegrated over the course of a decade mainly as a result of Axl’s obsessiveness and orneriness. The 2008 album, featuring only one of the original members, was politely received but didn’t have anything approaching the cultural impact of the previous albums. Metallica’s path has been much different; they followed up the Black Album, which peaked at #1 in 1991, with #1 albums in 1996, 1997, 2003, 2008, and 2016. Their 2023 album peaked at #2, apparently demonstrating their waning influence. Of course the music industry has changed a great deal over the intervening period but this is still a remarkable run of long-term success.
So… why? I don’t think that this is an outcome that anyone would have guessed in 1992, except insofar as Metallica seemed even at that time to be able to get along with one another in a way that GnR couldn’t. But then I think it would be awfully difficult to predict Metallica’s future trajectory from what we knew in 1992. GnR’s music was at the time regarded as far more accessible than Metallica’s and much more likely to consistently find a large audience. Six of the top 2500 Spotify streaming songs of all time belong to GnR (all more or less written in 1985-1986), as opposed to five for Metallica. Thirty years on, however, even the constituent parts of GnR have struggled to have the same kind of artistic and financial success that Metallica has come to take for granted.
It’s not super unusual for a group of musicians to have a huge impact on culture and popular music, concentrated in a four year period. GNR had all of the usual problems, including heavy drug use by many of the members of the band and Axl’s public combativeness. These issues played out in very public ways and undoubtedly affected the quality of the Use Your Illusion albums, much less the band’s later production. But Appetite for Destruction is an awfully, awfully good album even 36 years on. Three songs are stone classics and still get regular airplay (Sweet Child o’ Mine and Welcome to the Jungle are both billion-streamed songs on Spotify) and it’s not unusual to hear Mr. Brownstone or a couple of others on mainstream rock stations. Several songs from the Use Your Illusion albums also remain pop culture staples. I’ve made the argument before that Appetite’s impact goes beyond what can be derived from its chart performance; it effectively killed the form of Southern California hard rock that dominated the airwaves for the first half of the 1980s by pushing all the way to the edge of what was possible in that genre. In other words, it was not possible to create an album in the genre of Appetite for Destruction that was as good as or better than Appetite. In this vein I’d argue that GnR is as responsible for the rise of Grunge Metal as Nirvana, which certainly puts the feud between the two bands into a different light. It’s also worth noting that many of the most important songs on the Use Your Illusion albums were written at the same time as the Appetite for Destruction songs, meaning that the core of GnR’s songwriting contribution actually happened in a very short period of time.
Even the constituent elements of the band have not recreated any of that magic. Chinese Democracy is… fine. It’s a listenable record, but none of its songs are particularly memorable. Duff’s solo album is… well, anyway Duff is an pretty interesting guy and a pretty good music and culture writer. Slash didn’t produce much of interest with Snakepit, and while Velvet Revolver has a couple of serviceable albums they’re a long way from being regarded as legitimate successors of GnR. Much was expected of Izzy after his first solo album, but those expectations haven’t resulted in anything beyond a few tracks of interest. Interestingly enough, Izzy Stradlin has argued that Steven Adler was critical to the early success of the band, because he lent it a certain swing and rhythm that later drummers, notwithstanding their technical proficiency, couldn’t provide.
As the endurance of many of their songs shows, GNR was neither a one hit wonder nor a flash in the pan. They were a cultural force that dominated the landscape for about five years on the strength of a bunch of songs written over the course of a few months. They didn’t quite disappear (I’m seeing them tonight!) but you can’t think about GnR without wondering “what went wrong?”
Metallica… is a lot different. Metallica’s best album by most accounts is 1986’s Master of Puppets, even if its most popular work is the Black Album. A lot of folks make the same argument about Master of Puppets that I’ve made about Appetite; that it effectively defined the boundaries of the genre and in so doing described that genre’s limits. I’m not sure that’s quite right; I think perhaps that MoP left open more space for innovation than Appetite, albeit in a genre that was inherently going to be less accessible to the general public. I leave it to serious aficionados of the thrash metal scene to contemplate that question. In any case, there’s a continuity to Metallica’s first three albums that’s fully comprehensible as the story of a talented band finding its feet and then fully exploring itself in a way that showed growth in both musicianship and songwriting.
MoP was successful but not astronomically so. And Justice for All… was clearly a transitional work but was also quite successful, based in part on Metallica’s decision to finally make music videos. Then, for a couple of reasons, Metallica started taking left turns, and the 1991 album was a popular success on a previously unimaginable level. The death of Cliff Burton (after MoP and before Justice) was a big part of this but I don’t know that it was everything; the first three albums owe much to Burton’s professionalism and careful musicianship, and if he had lived I think Justice would have sounded much different, but I suspect that the leap the band took with the Black Album would have been something that Burton would have facilitated rather than hindered; much of Burton’s contribution was in pushing the rest of the band to embrace best practices of popular song composition, which certainly would have comported with the decisions they made on the Black Album. Enter Sandman is their enduring popular contribution, although it’s worth noting that (at least as far as Spotify is concerned) it’s not in the same league as Sweet Child O’ Mine.
What’s interesting is that Metallica has managed, with a few twists and turns along the way, to sustain that level of success in a way that is, if not quite unique, very unusual in rock n’ roll history. They have done that by evolving their sound in ways that haven’t always resulted in artistic success but that have meant that each album feels distinct from all the others. In some ways, Metallica has behaved in precisely the way that you would want an incredibly popular band to behave. I don’t know how conscious Metallica was in the immediate wake of Master of Puppets that they had created for themselves a quandary; producing an album that essentially reset the terms of the genre and pushed it to its useful limits. And Justice for All is a lot different that MoP, but then the Black album was a LOT different, in ways that left their fans at the time extremely agitated. I think on balance that this was as much about identification as a Metallica fan as it was about the music, but that’s always the case when a band’s popularity begins to expand. You can like or dislike what Metallica did after Master of Puppets, but it’s obvious that they were committed to expanding their sound and exploring new ways in which they could make music, while at the same time holding to a degree of continuity with what they had already accomplished.
For my own part, I rarely listen to Metallica’s middle period (Load through Death Magnetic) and Lulu really is completely unlistenable (although its story is certainly fascinating) but I quite like Hardwired and 72 Seasons. This is one of my favorite visualizations of the evolution of a band’s live gigs:
So back to the original question: Why did it work out this way? From the point of view of 1992 I’m not sure you’d make the guess that Metallica, instead of Guns N’ Roses, would still be a relevant recording artist 31 years later. I’m not sure you’d make that bet about GNR independently, but given the genre I’d have put my money on Axl and crew before Hetfield and gang. And the most boring answer may simply be that the folks in Metallica figured out how to live with one another. Some Kind of Monster isn’t just the best rock n’ roll documentary ever made; it’s also a story about a family that loves one another but nevertheless finds itself in an existential struggle. I’ve never heard any account of GnR that described it in a similar way. One is left to wonder what Metallica might have become if Cliff Burton had lived, but it’s hard to imagine that band would have been more successful than the Metallica we have. One might be left to wonder how GnR might have been “fixed,” but there seem to have been so many broken parts that it’s difficult to imagine how fixing just one of them might have allowed the band to prosper in anything but the strictly financial sense.
And to clarify, because this is reading as too critical of GnR… All of the fellas from Guns n’ Roses are working musicians and have maintained honorable musical careers for the last three and a half decades. Axl’s obsessiveness has hurt his productivity (being able to take Yes for an answer is professional skill in many fields) but obsessing over his music is probably more admirable on balance than obsessing over, say, race cars or some such. And all five of the original members of GnR are still alive, which is certainly something that would have been difficult to predict from the perspective of 1987. Finally, and perhaps most importantly from my point of view, GnR still puts on a pretty good show. I’m quite looking forward to seeing them again this evening.
One last point: I think it’s time we all acknowledge that Lars Ulrich was fucking right about Napster. We might wish that his points had been made by an obscure indy artist who was being hurt in consequential ways by the determination that INFORMATION WANTS TO BE FREE INCLUDING THE MUSIC THAT OTHER PEOPLE HAVE MADE but it should be obvious that the unpopular case that artists should be compensated for the work that they’ve done needed to be made by someone with sufficient stature to be heard and to survive the brutal mockery that would ensue. Modern music production is a disaster, but it’s not exactly as if consumers are living in a dystopia; for a fraction of what I used to spend in a given month on music I can listen to the greater portion of the entire musical output of the last two centuries. The digital revolution hasn’t gone so great for artists, but then this was Ulrich’s point at the time.