Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Great moments in music history: Metallica go to the Grammys

It seems hard to remember now but before Metallica became a fiercely commercial band they were a fiercely un-commercial band. Their music was relatively underground but even with no radio airplay and no music videos, they accrued a massive following. Their music was often impenetrable 9 minute thrash operas, they rocked epic mullets that you couldn't take home to mother and lead singer James Hetfield had the habit of writing EET FUK on his guitars. If you constructed a graph, they were as far from the mainstream as it is possible when represented in mathematical form.

Four albums in and they finally released their first video - a seven minute concept video for One - a cheery little ditty about a mute amputee war victim begging for death. While it wasn't huge, the roar amongst the metal community was deafening so Metallica received their first Grammy nomination and were invited to play at the 1989 awards ceremony... oh my.

Now the Grammy's have never been a hot bed of innovation. In fact, the 1989 winner for the best rap performance was Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince for Parents Just Don't Understand. Meanwhile, George Michael won album of the year for Faith and Robert Palmer won the Best Rock Vocal Performance for Simply Irresistible.

So, as the above video attests, Metallica came out in full metal garb, mullets a-flailing, and assaulted the audience with the sheer brutality of One. Remembering that this was the first time this type of music was played to an audience wider than the metal fringe, it is a thing of great beauty for many reasons. Firstly, the 1989 Song of the Year went to Bobby McFerrin for Don't worry, be happy and the thought of Metallica singing "Hold my breath as I wish for death" to that guy brings me no end of pleasure. Also in the crowd were the Manhatten Transfer, Tina Turner, Terence Trent D'Arby, Phil Collins, Aretha Franklin, Linda Ronstadt and Tracy Chapman. Hetfield, at the time, said something along the lines of that he couldn't tell if people enjoyed it but Stevie Wonder was swaying along in the front row. I can imagine this as Stevie always seemed to be swaying but he was probably indicating he wanted to escape.

Things got even better still when the awards were announced. In the category of Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Vocal or Instrumental, the nominees were:

Metallica - And Justice For All
AC/DC - Blow Up Your Video
Iggy Pop - Cold Metal
Jethro Tull - Crest of a Knave
Jane's Addiction - Nothing's Shocking

Presented minutes after Metallica performed, Alice Cooper and Lita Ford announced the winner was Jethro Tull. If you don't know Jethro Tull, they're a prog-folk band which is famous for having a lead singer who plays the flute while standing on one leg... yep, I said flute. He looks like this:

At the time, Hetfield looked like this:

This was typical of the Grammy's, giving the award to an established older artist which is totally out of touch with what's happening on the wider musical community. The rumour was that there was booing when the award was announced but I can't confirm that. One thing's for sure, it changed the way the Grammy's approached rock because One was nominated and won the same award one year later in 1990. I'm pretty sure they were afraid that Hetfield would eat them alive if they didn't win next time.

That being said, the Grammy's didn't learn from this mistake. In 1992, Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit was nominated for Best Rock Song. Of course, the award went to Eric Clapton's acoustic version of Layla.


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