Producer rejects blame for loss of classic sound – and says he just told band to listen more to Ulrich

Changes: Black Album era Metallica

Producer Bob Rock knows many Metallica fans blame him for moving them away from their classic sound by producing 1991′s Black Album – but he says it was nothing to do with him.

Instead he insists the band had already made a decision to abandon the thrash musical ethic, and he just helped them go where they wanted to go by persuading them to follow drummer Lars Ulrich more than they’d done in the past.

And he admits the experience was so fraught he told the band he’d never work with them again – and he believed the feeling was mutual.

Marking the twentieth anniversary of Metallica’s self-titled release, known as the Black Album by most fans, Rock tells MusicRadar: “They had broken through to one level but they still weren’t on mainstream radio. When they came to me they were ready to make that leap to the big, big leagues.

“A lot of people think I changed the band. I didn’t: in their heads they were already changed when I met them.”

Rock says he band wanted to “groove more” and were using AC/DC’s Back in Black album as a yardstick. The producer thought he could assist.

“I noticed Lars played to James Hetfield’s guitar, much the way that Keith Moon played to Pete Townshend. That’s fine for some bands, but no every one.

“I told Lars that in order to get that Back in Black feel, he had to be the focal point musically. So on certain songs the band played to Lars – they followed him. It made a real difference.”

Rock says Hetfield experience a challenging time as he struggled to make his lyrics more realistic compared to previous outings. “James wanted to go deeper,” the producer explains. “He wanted his songs to really matter.

“We talked about the great songwriters, like Dylan and Lennon and Marley, and I think he saw he could write for himself – but still touch other people. He had a tremendous breakthrough as a writer.”

Rock refused to let Metallica record in sections, and instead made them play live, telling them: “You’re a great live band and that vibe is crucial to this album.” He asked Jason Newsted to “play more like a bass player and less like a guitarist” and the result, he says, gave classic track Enter Sandman a “killer groove.”

But the label didn’t want to release it as a single: “At first they thought it could be the first single, then they realised the song was about crib death. That didn’t go over too well.

“I told James: ‘What you have is great but it can be better. Does it have to be so literal?’ Not that I was thinking about the single – I just wanted the song to be better.

“He rewrote some lyrics and it was all there: the first single.”

During recording sessions Rock taught Metallica about the drop-D tuning, which allows guitars to play a full tone lower than their standard setting, offering deeper and darker tonality. The producer says: “I realised every song was in the key of E. They said, ‘Well, isn’t that the lowest key?’

“So I told them that on Motley Crue’s Dr Feelgood, which I’d produced and Metallica loved, the band had tuned down to D. Metallica then tunes down to D, and that’s when the riff on Sad But True became huge.”

Rock wound up working with Metallica on five more albums.

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