Please Let This Be Our Last Story on Metallica’s ‘…And Justice for All’ Bass Controversy
... And Justice for All was both a high and low point for Metallica, and three decades since its release has not changed that at all. The high point came from the songs on the album -- scalding-hot diatribes on death, religion, war and apocalyptic visions -- and the success the album brought the band.
But it was also a low point, in that bassist Jason Newsted, who had been with Metallica around two years then -- is largely absent from the proceedings, though he was involved with the recording from Day 1. It's an oft-told tale we're going to tell one last time, with a twist or two you might not have heard before.
When Metallica recorded their fourth album, … And Justice for All, in 1988, one thing was pretty clear from the outset: Drummer Lars Ulrich and guitarists James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett still had not gotten over the death of bassist Cliff Burton, who had been killed in a tour bus accident in Sweden in 1986.
They had chosen Newsted to replace Burton, and he had performed admirably (and audibly) on 1987's The $5.98 E.P. / $9.98 CD: Garage Days Re-Revisited, but the band had hazed him mercilessly, virtually from the moment he agreed to join the group.
“I feel and I think the general feeling in the band is that he was never treated with the respect that he deserved,” producer Flemming Rasumussen told Rolling Stone, a contention the band has subsequently admitted since Newsted quit the group in 2001.
“The truth is, we grieved through Jason,” Hetfield told MTV. “We hazed him so hard. … He was always thought of as the new guy; there was the three of us and Jason.”
The ill treatment of Newsted extended into the recording of … And Justice, to the point that his playing was all but removed from the final mix of the record — a lasting slight that is still discussed among fans.
Listen to Metallica's 'Eye of the Beholder'
The band’s hazing of their bass player added to an already messy process. According to Joel McIver’s book To Live Is to Die: The Life and Death of Metallica's Cliff Burton, the band brought in Mike Clink to produce the album. Clink had produced albums for UFO and Triumph, and, most recently, Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction, but he clashed with Ulrich and Hetfield from the opening weeks of recording … And Justice. Eventually, they called in Rasumussen, who had produced both Ride the Lightning (1984) and Master of Puppets (1986), and fired Clink.
Through this chaotic process, each member of the band was recording his parts separately from the others. Newsted worked during the day with an engineer, while his bandmates kept to a more nocturnal schedule. As a result, he received minimal feedback on his work.
“Lars and James weren’t around to say, ‘You should try that there instead of that there,’” he told McIver. “No real producer or a manager or anybody [said], ‘That’s okay.’ I’d go in and record three or four songs in a day or an afternoon. … And there’d be mistakes and whatever. I’d just play it and that would be that. And it was like, ‘Okay, you did good — bye!’”
And as if the process of recording weren’t sufficiently troublesome, the mix of … And Justice left little if any audible bass to be heard, a circumstance that rankles just about everyone involved with the record (save Hetfield and Ulrich) to this day.
Hetfield claimed the bass was obscured in the mix for instrumental and frequency reasons.
“Jason tended to double my rhythm guitar parts,” Hetfield told Guitar World, “so it was hard to tell where my guitar started and his bass left off.
“Also,” he continued, “my tone on Justice was very scooped — all lows and highs, with very little mid-range. When my rhythm parts were placed in the mix, my guitar sound ate up all the lower frequencies. Jason and I were always battling for the same space in the mix.”
Listen to Metallica's 'Blackened'
Engineer Steve Thompson — whose resume included mixing albums for John Lennon and Mick Jagger, as well as Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction — confirmed that Newsted’s bass closely follows Hetfield's guitar, but said there’s another reason it’s so hard to hear it: Ulrich wanted it that way.
“[Ulrich] goes, ‘See the bass guitar?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, great part, man. He killed it,’” Thompson told Ultimate-Guitar.com (via Metal Injection). “He said, ‘I want you to bring down the bass where you can barely, audibly hear it in the mix.’ I said, ‘You're kidding. Right?’”
Ulrich was not kidding.
“He said, ‘No. Bring it down,’” Thompson continued. “I bring it down to that level and he says, ‘Now drop it down another 5 dB.’ I turned around and looked at Hetfield and said, ‘He's serious?’"
Ulrich was serious, and Thompson complied, but decided the request was ludicrous and would wind up making him — as one of the credited engineers — look bad, so he tried to quit the project.
“I called my manager that night,” he remembered, “and I think I talked to [Metallica’s managers] and said, ‘I love these guys. I think they're amazing and they've created a genre of their own, but I do not agree with the direction Lars is pulling me in. My name's gonna go on it, so why don't you find somebody else?’”
He was convinced to stay on, along with co-engineer Michael Barbiero, and both have indeed taken a measure of grief over the lack of low end on … And Justice for All. But even Rasumussen said such blame points the finger at the wrong culprits
“It’s not on them, that’s for sure,” the producer told Rolling Stone of Thompson and Barbiero. “It was Lars and James who said to turn the bass down. I know that for a fact because I asked them.”
Listen to Metallica's '... And Justice for All'
Newsted told McIver that Hetfield and Ulrich might not have been in the best shape or frame of mind at the time, and their decisions might have been affected by that circumstance.
“We were on [the Monsters of Rock] tour with Van Halen and Scorpions — the guys who invented partying,” he recalled. ”Piles of powder here and there and all that shit. That was the first taste for us, of dipping your foot in the actual scene of rock ‘n’ roll, you know?”
According to Newsted, on the tour’s off days, Ulrich and Hetfield would fly to Bearsville, N.Y., where Thompson and Barbiero were mixing … And Justice.
“So they’re partying,” he told McIver of his ex-bandmates, “going back and forth, getting no sleep, going there early, with a kind of attitude about the bass — ‘It’s not Cliff’ and yada-yada …” These conditions, Newsted said, are responsible for the decisions Ulrich and Hetfield made about the mixes.
Newsted was hurt by the slight implied by his removal from the mix, and the resulting absence of his playing from the finished album.
“I was so in the dirt!” he told McIver. “I was so disappointed when I heard the final mix. I basically blocked it out, like people do with this shit.”
Watch Jason Newsted Discuss ‘... And Justice for All’
No one seemed to notice the high-end-heavy mix. Contemporary reviews like the one in Rolling Stone make no mention of the lack of bass, though just about all of those reviews have something to say about the swirling aggression of the music.
The fact that … And Justice was a success that broke the band wide open globally made Newsted feel a little better about it, eventually. It was easily their highest-charting album in the U.S., topping out at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 albums chart; it also, surprisingly, netted the band their first Top 40 hit, with "One," due in part to the harrowing music video that accompanied the song.
Watch Metallica's 'One' Video
“It stands up over time,” Newsted told Loudwire, referring to the album. “Maybe not the mix, but the songs do. And the impact that it made, the mark that it made. The mathematical part of it — how far we went with the eight-minute song with 17 time signatures.”
It probably also helps Newsted that fans have taken up for him in the ensuing years.
“The other day, in Pontiac, Mich., a kid comes up and gives me … And Jason for All,” he told Loudwire, referring to … And Justice for Jason, the fan-made mix of … And Justice that adds or restores bass to the mix. “So he’s remixed the bass tracks back into Justice,” Newsted explained. “And I’d heard talk about it over the years and stuff; I didn’t really pay much attention to it. And he [said], ‘Dude, this is for you, man — how it was supposed to be.’”
Listen to ' ... And Justice for Jason'
Indeed, between the fans’ homemade tinkering and the addition of several … And Justice tracks in the Guitar Hero and Rock Band video games, people can hear a version of the album with low-end dynamics, if they so desire. And Newsted would wind up making his mark on the band — 1991’s The Black Album and subsequent releases would feature his playing without any shenanigans in the mix.
Listen to Metallica's 'One' in Guitar Hero
Just be careful how you bring up the … And Justice mix around Steve Thompson, as Ulrich did some years back.
“I remember when Metallica got elected to the [Rock and Roll] Hall of Fame,” he told Ultimate-Guitar.com, “they flew us out and I'm sitting with Lars. … He goes, ‘Hey, what happened to the bass in Justice?’ He actually asked me that. I wanted to cold cock him right there. It was a shame because I'm the one getting the shit for the lack of bass.”