Rush Set High Musicianship Bar for Metallica

While rummaging around the library I came upon Enter Night, Mick Wall’s Metallica biography published in the U.S. last year, and I was struck by the role Rush played in the band’s development.

Although the band’s main influences were the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) acts like Iron Maiden and Motörhead, Rush was always in the background as a kind of a standard by which the members of Metallica were measuring their progress as musicians.

The key word is “musicians,” because you don’t get the sense that any of the band’s core members—James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Keith Hammett, and deceased bassist Cliff Burton—had any intention of moving in Rush’s progressive metal direction. In their early years their sights were set on playing faster and harder than the NWOBHM bands, and by all accounts they achieved that with their Ride the Lightning album in 1984. At that time, they were credited with essentially creating a new musical genre, thrash metal. After that, they set their sights on marrying thrash metal with mainstream rock, and they certainly accomplished that with their black album in 1991.

That’s a very different musical trajectory than Rush, but from the first time he picked up a pair of drum sticks, Lars Ulrich looked to Neil as the standard against which he measured his progress as a drummer. Neil was the kind of technically gifted craftsman that to Lars was what a drummer should be, and for the first eight years of Metallica, “‘I’m doing Ian Paice [of Black Sabbath] and Neil Peart things, proving to the world that I can play,'” he says.

At the bottom of his list, Lars says, were the drummers who keep a steady tempo but show no flash, drummers like Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones and Phil Rudd of AC/DC. In a bit of irony, after Metallica reached the top of the music scene, in the early 1990s, Lars came to appreciate what Watts and Rudd were doing and he started trying to improve his skill at keeping steady time.

Hetfield was a Rush fan, too, and in fact in the early 1980s, after his first high school band fell apart, he and a collaborator formed a band called Syrinx that only played Rush covers, but you don’t get the feeling that this was a natural move for Hetfield. And in fact, it quickly died. “That didn’t last long,” is how Metallica’s first bass player, Ron McGovney, put it.

Wall’s book actually gets a little confusing here, because shortly after Syrinx collapsed, Hetfield started up yet another band, called Leather Charm, which channeled Glam acts like Def Leppard, Mötley Crüe, and Quiet Riot, and then this band also quickly fell apart, when the drummer, Jim Milligan, left to play in another band that played all Rush covers.

Both of these anecdotes were based on recollections of McGovney, and it makes you wonder if he was getting his stories mixed up, because it seems like too much of a coincidence that both Hetfield and Milligan would both leave their bands to play in all-Rush cover bands. How many Rush cover bands were playing in L.A. at the time? It just seems odd, and since both stories come from McGovney, who was piecing together a history of events that happened some 25 years earlier, you wonder if he’s just getting details confused.

In any case, Cliff Burton, the bass player who replaced McGovney after Metallica self-released its first album, Kill ’em All, in 1983, was a Rush fan as well, and particularly admired Geddy’s finger-picking style. And in fact it was in large measure because of his technical proficiency that Metallica wanted Burton in the band so badly. As it turns out, Burton brought much more to the mix than his musicianship, which was lightyears ahead of the other band members; he brought a musical philosophy that enabled the band to grow into truly innovative musicians.

Over the course of the band’s career, Rush would factor in in other key ways, not least of which was the role Cliff Burnstein played in turning the band into a mainstream rock phenomenon. Until Burnstein and his Q-prime management company took over the band, Metallica had been managed by a mom-and-pop outfit that was dedicated, smart, and nurturing but simply didn’t have the resources or the connections to capitalize on the band’s growing popularity. When Q-prime came into the picture, all of that changed, and under its guidance the band went from being the leader of the thrash metal pack to a mainstream cultural touchstone. Burnstein, of course, was the Mercury executive who in 1974 had the insight to sign Rush to its label and help get them on the road to their success.

Another connection that comes out is Howard Ungerleider’s role in managing Metallica’s first big tour. The band had been touring almost nonstop since its first album came out, in 1983, but after they started going big time, Q-prime wanted a seasoned manager to oversee their first big tour, so he brought in Ungerleider, by then a veteran of a dozen Rush tours. Once the tour was up and running, Ungerleider, who was only on temporary leave from Rush, brought in Bobby Scheider to run things. Schneider was also a Rush person, having worked with Ungerleider on Rush’s most recent tour as lighting engineer.

Rush buddy and fellow Canadian Les Claypool of Primus also factors in. When Burton was sadly killed in Sweden after Metallica’s bus skidded out of control in the mountains, Claypool was one of the bass players who auditioned for Burton’s slot, and in fact was in the final running when the band decided at the last minute to go with Jason Newsted. Given how the band would treat Newsted over his 15 years with the band, Claypool can probably thank his lucky stars he wasn’t chosen. Hetfield, Ulrich, and Hammett were unconscionably tough on Newsted, who eventually left to record and tour with his own band, Echohead. Indeed, the band’s poor treatment of him is easily one of the story’s lowest points, although to their credit, Hetfield and the others acknowledged what they did and have genuinely tried to atone for it.

So, a lot of connections, and of course Metallica has been generous in its praise of Rush over the years. When they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, Rush was one of the bands they mentioned that should be inducted as well. Maybe that will happen in 2013, now that Rush has finally been nominated.

Wall’s book is a good read, and his subject is certanly interesting, given the intensity of Hetfield and the volubility of Urlich, and it’s great that Rush gets its due for serving as one of the markers of success for a band that went on to set its own markers of success.
—Rob Freedman, Rush Vault

Enter Night
Metallica: The Biography (Orion: 2010)
By Mick Wall
Hardcover, $22.95 (Amazon)
Paperback, $10.20 (Amazon)

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~ by rvkeeper on November 21, 2012.

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