Editor's note: Real Thing: A Sonic History of Seattle is a bi-weekly series looking back on hallmark performances and artist releases in our region.
I first heard Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” while standing knee-deep in a snowy backyard high above the secluded Methow Valley. Having devised our own variation of the “American Challenge” (the details of which I’d be wise not to divulge), one of my friends wisely chose the hit album “Ride the Lightning” to provide a musical backdrop for our excited shotgunning.
Shedding my bias against matted hair and the aggressive thrash metal sounds I previously decried as nothing more than “noise,” I began listening to Metallica with open ears, quickly discovering a YouTube clip of their professionally filmed 1989 show at Seattle’s Coliseum.
On a sweltering August night, a crowd of 1 thousand or so long-haired Northwesterners stuffed the interior of the Coliseum — the Seattle Center sports arena now known as Climate Pledge Arena — to hear Metallica rock.
Metallica — then comprised of James Hetfield on vocals and rhythm, Kirk Hammet on lead guitar, Jason Newsted on bass, and Lars Ulrich on drums — arrived in Seattle toward the tail end of their year-long, 219-show Damaged Justice tour to promote their fourth studio album, “...And Justice for All.”
The show begins as Metallica cascades the roaring audience with guitar riffs and pulsing drums, before launching into “Blackened,” which is followed immediately by “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” From there, Metallica thrashes, shreds, and roars into the night, with a performance that is intense and aggressive, but never unhinged or disorganized.
Hetfield — lion’s mane of orange hair and white, V-shaped guitar aside — has a stage presence that is truly impressive. Launching strings of profanities through his gritty (almost comically so) voice, he whips the audience into a never-ending frenzy.
“Hey man, you guys alive out there, I can’t fucking hear ‘ya,” says Hetfield at the beginning of “The Four Horseman.” “We’re going to play some old shit right now … just find out if you know what the fuck this shit is.”
Toward the end of the show, the spectacle appears to end, but the rumbling audience demands more, and Metallica reemerges to keep the show alive. This happens a total of three times before the band complies with the unabated calls for “Breadfan” and finally makes their exit — likely taking advantage of the “beer-drinking weather” Hetfield mentions earlier in the show.
Highlights of the performance have appeared on a confusingly high number of album releases, but the most easily accessible is the 2018 deluxe reissue of “...And Justice for All,” which streams on Spotify and Apple Music and contains the show in its entirety. Snippets of the video release can also be found with a quick YouTube search.
Can the enthusiasm of a Seattle audience and magical possibilities of a muggy August night in the Northwest account for the quality of Metallica’s Coliseum performance? Or was it the refinement that comes with prolonged touring and the band’s hyper-awareness of the professional film crew documenting their performance? Whatever the case, this show is one for the history books and might be the introduction to Metallica you never realized you needed.
Reach writer Henry Zing at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ZingHenry
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