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The Story Behind The Song: 30 years of Metallica's era-defining 'Enter Sandman'

The legendary dark lullaby ‘Enter Sandman’ is one of the most beloved and widely played metal songs of all time — certainly one of the best Metallica have ever written. It reached number 16 on the US Billboard and went platinum after it sold more than 1,000,000 copies in the US alone. Thanks to its spine-tingling central riff, eerie lyrics, and radio-friendly structure, it managed to enter the public consciousness in a way that few songs achieve.

As a result, it’s probably one of the most talked-about songs in music. So why have we ignored the real meaning behind the lyrics for so long? For the passive listener, it might sound like James Hetfield is singing about little more than a particularly frightening cheese-induced nightmare. But on closer inspection, it’s clear to see that his lyrics are a criticism of the way, even as children, we are taught to live in fear. In this article, we’ll look at how ‘Enter Sandman’ liberates its listeners from that fear.

‘Enter Sandman’ is the opening track and lead single from the band’s self-titled 1991 album, also known as The Black Album. If it wasn’t for Lars Ulrich, however, ‘Holier Than Thou’ would have sat in its place as the album’s opener. After a long and heated debate between the band members, Ulrich eventually managed to convince Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield otherwise, securing ‘Enter Sandman’ its rightful position.

It’s strange to think what would have happened if Lars hadn’t been so convincing, but it’s just as well he was because, to this day, you can hear that way that song acts as an engine for the whole album, revving it up with sinister glee. As a result, the album debuted at number one in the US as well as in nine other countries, propelling Metallica to international fame.

The song marks an obvious shift in Metallica’s writing style. Rather than the ’12-tempo-change’ style songs which had come to define both Metallica and cheesy hair metal, the band wanted to make something fresh. Lars Ulrich pointed out that: “After four records and being in LA, you could feel the imminent death of the whole hair stuff and that wanky fucking radio bollocks coming out of America. Bands like ourselves, Alice In Chains and Nirvana were ready to enter the ’90s with a different aesthetic.”

As a consequence, the song revolves around just two key riffs, both written by Kirk Hammett after he’d been listening to Soundgarden’s song ‘Louder than Love’. Ulrich, insightful as ever, suggested that the central riff should be extended to three bars, and they were away. The instrumental sections of ‘Enter Sandman’ were finished easily, but Hetfield’s lyrics went through many transformations before they were ready, leading ‘Enter Sandman’ to be the last song on the album to have finished lyrics.

Ulrich remembered the tension this caused: “So in the spring of ’91 he came in with these lyrics about crib death – the line ‘Off to never-never land’ was originally ‘Disrupt the perfect family’. Nice, friendly feel-good lyrics! We sat down and said, ‘No disrespect, you’ve written great lyrics over the years, but maybe the subject matter and the vibe in these doesn’t fit the mood of the music’.”

After Ulrich and producer Bob Rock told Hetfield he needed to try again, he went for a different angle, choosing to use the story of The Sandman (a character from folklore who sprinkles sand into children’s eyes when they are dreaming) as the song’s sinister centrepiece: “Tuck you in, warm within/ Keep you free from sin/’Til the sandman, he comes.”

In these few lyrics, Hetfield conveys a whole world of fear, one associated with childhood nightmares and creatures under the bed, a world designed to keep children frightened and obedient. Hetfield pointed out that the band had the title ‘Enter Sandman’ for a long time but that: “It was originally gonna be about crib death – y’know, baby suddenly dies, the sandman killed it. But that’s a little corny. I wanted more of the mental thing where this kid gets manipulated by what adults say.” But despite the unbearable spookiness of his lyrics, Hetfield can be argued to be using the song to urge the listener to ignore this type of control and to think for themselves. With the lyric: “Hush, little baby, don’t say a word/ And never mind that noise you heard/It’s just the beasts under your bed/ In your closet, in your head.”

Hetfield subverts the lullaby motif, calling not more obedience but for freedom from anxiety, freedom from the fear which controls so much of what we feel and what we believe we are capable of. The story behind ‘Enter Sandman’ is the perfect example of Metallica practising what they preach.

The writing process itself threw up several challenges and tested Hetfield’s ability as a songwriter. But rather than succumbing to that crippling fear of failure which we are all so familiar with, Metallica embraced it, weaving it into the very fabric of their music and, in doing so, banishing it.