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:: Spotlight :: Interview with Mick Wall - Author of Enter Night - Metallica: The Biography

By: Justin Donnelly

Any band that’s had any measure of success will undoubtedly have had significant press coverage including traditional print media, and the internet. And while most of that literary content stems from interviews, it’s a true measure of success when the story itself turns into a book. Take a look at any bookshelf in any book retailer worth their salt and there’s bound to be a plentiful supply of books on most musical groups that have attained success on a worldwide scale. And it isn’t limited to mainstream rock and pop acts either, with the hard rock/metal scene well represented with tomes dedicated to names such as AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses and Queen.

But surprisingly enough, Metallica, who are unquestionably the biggest metal act to have ever emerged from the Bay Area (San Francisco) scene, have quite a few books written about them – yet few are hardly what you would call in-depth or must have efforts for Metallica diehards.

That was until now.

Two years after the release of the critically acclaimed Led Zeppelin biography ‘When Giants Walk The Earth: A Biography Of Led Zeppelin’, renowned/legendary music journalist Mick Wall has finally unveiled his latest book ‘Enter Night – Metallica: The Biography’.

With the book finally hitting the shelves, I caught up with Wall at home in Oxfordshire, England to talk about the challenges he faced in putting a fresh spin on what is now quite a familiar story, why he chose to begin the book at the tragic and darkest chapter in Metallica’s illustrious career, and to find out why Wall would take on the daunting task of tackling Metallica given that almost every aspect of Metallica’s long and storied career has already been well documented.

“Well, there’s a couple of reasons really why I decided to write a book on Metallica. The first reason is that I think it’s unusual for a group of such stature as Metallica to have never really had a serious book written about them. There have been some decent books, but they’re essentially fan books, and they generally join up the dots for you from album to album. That’s all well and good, and absolutely fine, but what I wanted to do was try and tell the story from the point of view of someone who isn’t necessarily a huge fan. Someone who doesn’t let them off the hook or forgive them their sins, but tries to understand the more mature aspect of their story, and presents the reality of their story. As is in the case of Led Zeppelin’s story, no-one is all good, no-one is all bad, and no band does nothing but make amazing albums. They make duds, they become selfish, they become full of avarice, they admire themselves too much sometimes, and at other times they hate themselves too much. And the second reason, to be completely honest with you, after writing the Led Zeppelin story, I was looking for a great story to tell. And I think Metallica have that great story.”

There’s no denying that Metallica is one of the biggest metal acts in the world. And while some may question the quality of band’s releases from throughout the storied career when compared to the likes of the others that make up ‘The Big 4’ (Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax), Wall insists that it’s the story that’s important, and not the music.

“They’ve just finished touring over here with the so-called ‘Big 4’. All of those bands have made some truly fantastic albums, and all of them have interesting stories, but they all pale into insignificance compared to Metallica. None of them have had the extraordinary courage and sheer arrogance to try and achieve what Metallica wanted to achieve. I mean Metallica was the first by leaving the whole thrash metal thing behind and become bigger than Bon Jovi, which was an extraordinary feat in itself. It was an idea of utter madness, and such a ridiculous suggestion back in the late ‘80’s. But somehow, they managed it. And then in the ‘90’s with the shift into grunge era, and the general wiping out of all the Metallica-like generation of bands, they then did something even more audacious and insane, and that was get even bigger and more successful. By the tail end of the ‘90’s, they were quite self harmful when they tried to reinvent themselves as a band of the ‘90’s. I mean they put on make-up, they had body piercings, and Kirk Hammett (Lead guitarist) and Lars Ulrich (Drummer) were now kissing each other in public, which only sent James Hetfield (Vocalist/rhythm guitarist) insane. They were also bullying the new boy Jason Newsted (Bass). The only thing Newsted ever got out of Metallica was rich. He got no respect, and he was never treated as an equal. In fifteen years, he got exactly three co-song writing credits on what happened to be their three least interesting tracks. And in the end he walks out in a state of dreadful anger and bitterness, which then causes the band to kind of explode. At the same time, you have the whole Napster thing. Even as it was happening, everybody knew it was a dreadful mistake. Metallica suddenly looked like the sheriff of Nottingham, and Napster looked like Robin Hood. It really was a case of stealing from the rich to give to the poor. It didn’t matter who was right or who was wrong, images of Ulrich in a courtroom trying to sue three hundred thousand of his fans just stunk to high heaven. And in a lot of ways, they’re still living it down. But then of course you get this fantastic story arc where they do the ‘St. Anger’ (2003) album, which kind of resolves all the issues. It’s probably their least enjoyable album. I know many Metallica fans, many serious musicologists and writers who get very angry about that album. It’s very contentious. They really, really don’t like it. Many really do dismiss it entirely. You can see in the book just how much people hate that album. Even the band doesn’t play anything from it any more. And yet for me, it was the last great musical statement they ever made. For me, it’s a work of art. It is fairly un-listenable, but then so is ‘Metal Machine Music’ (1975) by Lou Reed. It really is a work of art. And then of course you get this latest album ‘Death Magnetic’ (2008). It’s so crowd pleasing, and ticks all the boxes with its ‘going back to their roots’ kind of vibe, you can’t but feel that it might as well be a pop record. It’s a fantastic journey they’ve been on, and that’s what I was looking for – a great story to tell.”

Interestingly enough, Wall begins ‘Enter Night – Metallica: The Biography’ on September 27th 1986, the night the band’s tour bus had an accident while travelling through the Sweden countryside by night, which tragically took the life of bassist Cliff Burton.

“What I dislike about books is that most start out with ‘Once upon a time, there was a little boy named Lars Ulrich…’. I always want to, as much as possible, parachute the reader right into the action from the word go. And for me, the absolute key event in the Metallica story is the death of Burton. It could have gone either way for them at that point. It really could have been the end of the band, but in actual fact, it was the making of the band. I felt that on a symbolic level, a practical level, and on every level you could possibly think of, the death of Burton actually is the beginning of the story of Metallica. So therefore I thought a good place to start the journey was on that rotten cold morning in September 1986 when the most important and knowledgeable musician in the band actually dies.”

While many acknowledge Burton as a key figure in Metallica’s early days, Wall regards Burton as the most important member of the band, and whose influence was felt both before and after the tragic accident that took his life.

“He certainly was incredibly important. I think without him, there would be no them. But I think also because he died, people trot out a lot of clichés about what happened. And the biggest cliché is that they had to carry on, because that’s what Burton would have wanted them to. My response to that is simply ‘Get over yourselves!’. That’s bulls**t. They carried on because that’s what Ulrich and Hetfield wanted to. The other thing is how his death kind of freed them to become the monster success they became. I think had he stayed in the band, they would have made a much more interesting album than ‘…And Justice For All’ (1988). But the fact that he wasn’t around really did leave Ulrich and Hetfield to run the show without any interference. And it’s Ulrich and Hetfield that have run the band ever since. You know Hammett gets his two cents worth in every now and then, but unless it’s something that Ulrich and Hetfield thinks is a good idea, it isn’t going to happen. And that’s how the black album (Otherwise known as the ‘Metallica’ album from 1991) came about. I have serious doubts that the black album would have happened had Burton not died. So the irony is that he gave them their soul, but his death allowed them to go out there and sell it for the highest price, and really grab the bull by the horns and make music videos, release countless singles and get in Bob Rock as producer. These are very courageous and shrewd decisions they made, but decisions that were easier to make once Burton wasn’t around to be the other voice – the whispering conscious voice in their ear. Another thing is that had Burton lived, there’s a suggestion that they would have got rid of Ulrich. That’s something that the book looks at, and it’s something Burton talked about before he died. I know from various people that it was a very real discussion that Burton and Hetfield were having. Burton and Hetfield were very close before he died. Ulrich, bless him, is a brilliant businessman, but not the greatest drummer. If you listen to Dave Lombardo of Slayer, now there’s a drummer. Burton too was an extraordinary musician. But Ulrich has never been a great musician. So again, Burton’s death is timely. People go on about the untimely death of Cliff, but it’s actually extraordinarily timely. God forbid we all wish he hadn’t been in that terrible accident, but in terms of the Metallica story, it’s a very big crossroads and it explains a lot of what came next, which is to go from being this incredible cult act, to a hugely successful U2 sized band.”

A lot has been written about Burton throughout the years, but usually without having actually met the man himself. And while Wall may not have had too much to do with Burton himself, he did spend some time with him in the band’s early days.

“I was actually in the studio with them while they were making ‘Master Of Puppets’ (1986). I can’t say I was great friends with Burton, because Ulrich always dominated the conversation. Ulrich was always the spokesman. It’s much more spread out these days. Ulrich is still very much the main spokesman, but Hetfield and Hammett do interviews these days, and even Rob Trujillo will do some interviews from time to time. But back in those days, if you wanted an interview with Metallica, you spoke to Ulrich. That was it. It was always Ulrich’s band. So yeah, Burton and I spent some time together, but he never went out of his way to impress music journalists, whereas Ulrich would bend over backwards to do everything he could to get your attention. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike Lars in any way! (Laughs) I think these days, the band have come through the fire if you will. They’re much more mature people. They’re family people. Ulrich and I speak from time to time. We’re both dads now. He has three kids, and I have three kids. And if you saw them on this tour, you’ll notice the amount of time they just spend talking to their fans after the show, and doing everything they can to have that connection. It really goes beyond anything I’ve ever seen from any other band. I think there’s a third dimension to them these days, even though they understandably want to keep the show on the road as big and as bad as they can. A lot has changed since the early days, and understandably, the guys in Metallica have changed with those changing times.”

Given the long standing relationship between Wall and Metallica throughout the years, you would think that the band would have given Wall some help with ‘Enter Night – Metallica: The Biography’. But as Wall points out, there are good reasons why the band weren’t involved at all with the writing of the book.

“Somebody asked me the other day whether I had sent a copy of the book to the band, and if so, what they thought of it. I told them that I had no idea, because I certainly haven’t sent a copy to them. There’s no bad feeling there, but I deliberately didn’t want to involve them. I let them know that I was doing the book ahead of time, and I did let them know that if they did want to speak to me for the book, then that would be absolutely wonderful. At the same time though, I made it absolutely clear that they would have no approval, no chances to make suggestions, notes or cuts, or a chance to make any remarks before it was published. The reason for that is because at the end of the day, I haven’t written this book for them. I’ve written it for us. The only reason books like these are any good at the end of the day is because they’re truthful, and the views expressed pull absolutely no punches. Where they’ve been terrific, I’ve gone out of my way to mention how amazing something was. And where they were absolute dickheads, I’ve gone out of my way to mention how absolute dickheads they were. They’re the same as all of us. If I was writing the story of my own life, chapter one would be called ‘Dickhead’. You learn from your mistakes, and throughout the book, you can see where Metallica have grown and become bigger than ever. Ulrich wanted to be involved in this book, and he made it clear that in some ways he owed it to me to offer some kind of co-operation. But Hetfield was absolutely against it. Hetfield is a control freak, and for understandable reasons too once you’ve read the book. Unless Hetfield has control of the situation, he just can’t deal with it. It’s not his gift to say, ‘I’ll let you do this, and do whatever you want with it’. He just can’t do that. It’s beyond him. So that’s why it never really came together. But Ulrich and I spoke, and he helped out where he could.”

Prior to the book's release, I kept up with Wall’s happenings by following his blog. Sometimes it was quite a serious posting, sometimes funny, and sometimes quite bizarre. But if there was an overall vibe that could be picked up during the entire time-span of the book’s creation, it was a slow descent into madness.

“Each one of these books is like having a baby. You end up with stretch marks, and being a little out of shape by the end of it all. Your hormones go mad, and you end up with a big depression at the end of it. But other than that, I’m absolutely fine! (Laughs) It’s really weird because you always see what you could have done better after the fact, and you always feel that if you had a little more time, it could have been just that little bit better. And I felt the same way about the Led Zeppelin book. I still feel that the first half of Led Zeppelin could have been presented better just doing another draft of it. But you kind of have to just let it go at some point. You have to realise that you’re no longer a good judge. Just write the thing, give it absolutely everything you’ve got with the time you’ve got and let it go. This book was supposed to be delivered in April. I actually finally delivered it in August. And that’s beyond cutting it fine. They almost nearly didn’t put it out until next year. That’s how late it was. So I have to accept that I’ve done the best I can. There’s a book I did about ten years ago called ‘Paranoid: Black Days With Sabbath & Other Horror Stories’ (1999). I remember that the first chapter took me three months to write, because I really didn’t know what I was doing. I really wasn’t sure what I was aiming for. But at the end of that three month period, I had a chapter that I thought was good enough to eat. I remember at that point a publisher got involved and wanted to put it out. To cut a long story short, I had to finish the book quickly. I couldn’t spend three months on every chapter. It turned out that the final chapter of the book was written in three days. Well of course I came away thinking that the first chapter was amazing, and it just goes downhill from there. The last chapter was this f***ing piece of s**t that was written in three days. But you know what? I swear to God Justin, I had to look for something in that final chapter a few months ago for some arty German magazine, and I found myself rereading that final chapter, I couldn’t tell the difference between that and the first chapter. I couldn’t see why I was so grieved and upset. You’re not a good judge by the end of it. The mind is so blown by the end of it, and your personal life is in such tatters that it becomes a burden. In the end, you don’t really know. Reading the proofs, I did get the sense that the book gets better as it goes along, and that it builds in momentum. Honestly, it really does. I got the same feeling when I was reading the proofs for the Led Zeppelin book. Personally, I find the early chapters when the band was younger and all that stuff a real hard slog to write, but I remember having the same problem with the Led Zeppelin book too. But in the end, I hope that it’s as good as my Led Zeppelin book. I really did put every ounce of energy I had into it, and it took as bloody long too! (Laughs)”

Another challenge that Wall faced was giving the book a title. Although having settled on the title some time before announcing it to his publishers, Wall’s initial feedback to the title almost prompted a last minute rethink due to its somewhat cryptic play on words.

“I had the title ‘Enter Night’ some time ago, and I really thought was a great title. So I went to the publisher saying that I would like to call it ‘Enter Night’. But then some doubt entered my mind when my editor at my publisher’s office in London didn’t understand the significance of the title. Now this is a guy that doesn’t know anything about rock music. He knows everything about books, but nothing about rock music. At the time, I remember thinking to myself, ‘Well even he would have surely heard of the song ‘Enter Sandman’?’ Of course, he had never heard of it. So I tried singing the song down the phone to him to get him to understand. Even then he didn’t recognise it. So at that point, doubt really started to enter my mind. I was beginning to wonder if anyone would understand it. And then another friend of mine, another writer actually, figured out quite quickly that it was a line from one of their songs. And then I thought to myself, ‘Oh God! This is a terrible idea! It sucks! It’s awful!’ So I came up with about six other titles, and I went to a meeting with my publisher fully convinced that ‘Enter Night’ was the worst title in the world. I seriously thought that any one of the other six would be a million times better. So I went to this meeting, and it was attended by the head of the company, marketing people, sales people, promotion people, editors, art people, I mean everybody, from the guys that walk into the stores with boxes of books to the people that actually print the bloody thing. Anyway, at this meeting, they had already decided that they loved the title ‘Enter Night’. They thought it was a fantastic title. So here I was thinking it was terrible, and they thought it was great, so much so that they had already selling it to Amazon and some of the other retail stores as an upcoming title. When I last spoke to you, the meeting had only just taken place. I went into it wracked with doubt, but it all came out OK I always liked ‘Enter Night’, and I’m really pleased we didn’t change it now, because I think it’s a very evocative title, and also, in a strange way, it kind of sums up Metallica in a way.”

Having already read the book, I can attest that ‘Enter Night – Metallica: The Biography’ is indeed as good as the Led Zeppelin effort, and one that every Metallica fan should seek out. According to Wall, it’s a positive start for what are early days in terms of finding a genuine consensus on the book as a whole.

“The book is still a baby. I’m still waiting for it all to sink in. But to this day, despite being two years old already, I still get e-mails from all over the world about the Led Zeppelin book. There’s mail pretty much every week from someone telling me they had just got it, read it and telling me what they think of it. It can be incredibly touching and sometimes very weird when some people get it so completely. You think, ‘Wow! I’m not completely mad. People are actually connecting with this!’ And then occasionally you get someone who wants to show you where you’ve gone wrong. There was this one guy who had a problem with the Led Zeppelin book, and he sent letters to my website and my publisher. He made the same point every time, and that was that nobody was interested in the black magic stuff, and that I shouldn’t have put any of that in the book. If that’s his opinion, then that’s absolutely fine. But I mean three or four handwritten letters and around seven e-mails over the period of about a year? I’m thinking this guy is nuts! What do you want from me? So of course, you get some crazy stuff. But largely it’s been really gratifying just how many people enjoy good books. And I think that if you’re a real Metallica fan, it would be pleasing to have something that tells it like it really is, because they are an extraordinary band, and it has been an incredible journey they’ve been on. Of course, it’s been full of its high’s and low’s, but I think Metallica have had more of an impact, said more, done more, achieved more, lost more and gained more than any other band in the history of metal. And they’re a lot like Led Zeppelin, in the fact that they were a game changer. I set out to follow the band’s journey carefully and tell it like it really was. That’s where the real story is. And I think I’ve managed to do that with ‘Enter Night – Metallica: The Biography’.”

I would like to thank Mick Wall for his generous time and Brendan Fredericks at Hachette Australia for making the interview possible.

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