The dark original lyrics behind Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’

From day one, heavy metal was not meant to be a genre based on the pleasures of life. By the time rock and roll had started getting a taste for darker topics with bands like Black Sabbath, the dawn of heavy metal was far from songs about sunshine and roses, with most artists talking about dark spirits or going against the grain of what normal society wants from you. While Metallica had been in a state of transition when aiming for mainstream success in the 1990s, one song was far too dark to get past the radio censors at first.

When looking at where Metallica was in 1983, it would be impossible to think they were the same band that would one day write staples on the radio. Aside from their dense topics about war and the human condition, their songs were often far too long to be considered hits, occasionally venturing over eight minutes to get through one track.

By the time the band had gotten to And Justice For All, they realised there were only so many places they could take the medium anymore. After trying their hand at making something more progressive, the band often found themselves unable to remember where the songs would go, making it impossible to keep track of one musical movement to the next when they got onstage.

When they got into the studio with Bob Rock, they focused on making more straightforward songs compared to what they had done on their last record. Famous for working his magic for artists like Bon Jovi and Aerosmith, Rock would work with the band to refine their songs, pairing down the runtime and turning the album into a massive production on songs like ‘Sad But True’ and ‘Nothing Else Matters’.

While the band’s calling card would become ‘Enter Sandman’, Rock was horrified when he read the song’s lyrics for the first time. Unlike the central theme of nursery rhymes and nightmares, James Hetfield’s original take on the lyrics was far more macabre than what they would ultimately become.

Discussing the lyrics after the fact, Rock remembered talking with Hetfield about working the lyrics into something else, telling Music Radar, “At first, based on the music and the riff, the band and their management thought it could be the first single. Then they heard James’ lyrics and realised the song was about crib death. That didn’t go over so well. I told him, ‘What you have is great, but it can be better…It was a process, him learning to say what he wanted but in a more poetic and open sort of way”.

By making the track more poetic, Hetfield had turned in one of the most promising singles the band had ever made, serving as the promoter of heavy metal for the mainstream. Even though the band got the reputation of being sellouts from their longtime fans, the song also earned them a lot of respect from the mainstream, turning the accompanying Black Album into the heavy metal answer to Dark Side of the Moon.

The band would even find time to crib from themselves when working on their next album, adopting a similar construction to the song ‘King Nothing’ off their album Load. While a song about crib death may have been an ideal topic for a heavier brand of metal, ‘Enter Sandman’s drastic rewrites turned it from a promising song to one of the immortal anthems of the metal genre.

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