‘The Unforgiven’ is one of Metallica‘s best beloved and most well-known tracks. The second single from their hugely successful but no less controversial fifth album Metallica has remained a staple of their live set ever since it was first unleashed upon audiences ears 30 years ago.
Without a doubt the album’s heaviest power ballad, it was songs like ‘The Unforgiven’ that polarised the up until that point, dedicated Metallica fanbase, and earned them scores of new fans in the process. On tracks such as this, the Los Angeles metal heroes were clearly showing that they were more than a simple thrash band, regardless of what you think of it.
Typically Metallica, the song’s inspiration came from a couple of unlikely sources. The first actually makes quite a lot of musical and creative sense when you take a step back and actually think about it. On the TV show Classic Albums: Metallica – The Black Album, frontman James Hetfield revealed that the intro was taken from the score of a Western movie, but the band reversed it so it wouldn’t be identifiable.
The band have never disclosed what track it is for legal reasons, but given that the title ‘The Unforgiven’ invokes the title of a Clint Eastwood western, it is thought by many fans and critics to be one of his other films, the 1965 classic, For A Few Dollars More.
The second point of inspiration will shock you. Allegedly, Hetfield’s vocals on the track were inspired by Chris Isaak’s sensual 1989 country hit, ‘Wicked Game’. The album’s producer, Bob Rock, explained how Hetfield’s change in vocal melody came about.
In 2011, he told Music Radar: “At this point, James wanted to sing. He had done a lot of screaming, but now he wanted to go somewhere else. In the past, he had always doubled his vocals. He didn’t sing harmonies per se; he just sang the same thing on another track. But the process of doubling doesn’t give you character, really; in fact, a lot of times it takes character away, because you’re hoping that the second vocal gives you the depth that your first vocal should have.”
He explained: “I told James that we should record his vocal, but instead of listening to himself on headphones I wanted him to listen on speakers. The difference was amazing. He sang the song, and because he heard himself in a different way, there was a whole new dimension to his voice. It was big and deep and warm and jumped out at you.”
There is a distinctly western feel to the track, musically and in terms of title, but next time you find yourself singing along, remember it wouldn’t have come to fruition without Chris Isaak‘s wailing vocals on his hazy classic. Clearly, inspiration can come from anywhere.
Listen to ‘The Unforgiven’ below.