How Metallica’s First ‘Pop’ Song Changed the Band Forever
After releasing the complex and heavily progressive ...And Justice for All, Metallica believed their only remaining challenge was to write shorter, more commercial songs. They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams with "Enter Sandman."
By 1990, Metallica were faced with a crossroad. They'd built a solid following over the course of four albums, but their apocalyptic lyrics layered over sophisticated thrash metal had become... predictable. In an era when it seemed all had been seen and heard before, there was one corner Metallica had never ventured into. They realized they could make a record they'd sworn as kids that they would fight to the death never to make -- something so blatantly commercial that no one could have seen it coming. Or as drummer Lars Ulrich put it, “Cram Metallica down everybody’s f--king throat all over the f--king world.”
In August 1990, frontman James Hetfield met up with Ulrich to go through their usual pre-production demo process. They sorted through hours of a cassette they simply called the "riff tape," leading them to one of Kirk Hammett's ideas inspired by Soundgarden's Louder Than Love album. The riff would lay the foundation for their biggest hit of their career to that point, "Enter Sandman."
Having already come up with the song's title, Hetfield wondered if "Enter Sandman" could be about a baby dying in a crib. James put pen to pad on a story about a baby lying there, and the Sandman comes in at night and kills it, but for Metallica’s new fresh-faced producer, it was too much. Bob Rock told Hetfield that his lyrics about a baby dying were too gruesome to be accessible, plus it didn’t have any real meaning to James. Additionally, the lyric “Off to never never land” was originally “Disrupt the perfect family.”
James would eventually swallow his annoyance and come back to the studio weeks later with rewritten lyrics. “I wanted more of the mental thing where this kid gets manipulated by what adults say," Hetfield recalls. "And you know when you wake up with that shit in your eye? That’s supposedly been put in there by the Sandman to make you dream. So the guy in the song tells this little kid that and he kinda freaks. He can’t sleep after that and it works the opposite way.”
According to Ulrich, "Enter Sandman" became the "foundation to guide the whole Black Album." Released as a single on July 29, 1991, it became Metallica’s biggest song thus far, teeing up the next stage of their career.
“Enter Sandman,” overexposed as it might be, is commercial heavy metal at its finest. Metallica ventured into that unknown corner and made a commercial song they swore as kids they’d never make, but by getting out of their comfort zone and staying true to themselves, the world welcomed "Enter Sandman" being crammed down its f--king throat.
How 'Enter Sandman' Changed Metallica Forever
Watch the full story of "Enter Sandman" in the video above.