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Exploring Metallica's most iconic track, 'Enter Sandman'

There are some guitar riffs that you just know will set the world alight. Sometimes bands must be jamming in their practice rooms, then suddenly, the guitarist chucks in a riff to the jam that just elevates it into something special. The band look up from their instruments into one another’s eyes as though to say, “Hang on, we’ve got something here.”

One such instance of this simply has to be Metallica‘s anthemic ‘Enter Sandman’ from their 1991 album, Metallica. The track is by far the band’s biggest and best-known hit, having just shy of 100million more plays on Spotify than their next top hit, ‘Nothing Else Matters’, with a whopping 895,245,710 plays.

‘Enter Sandman’ is one of those tracks that is known everywhere, regardless of what age you are, what music you’re in to, hell, even irrespective of whether or not you even like the damn thing. ‘Enter Sandman’ is a prime example of a track reaching out as far as it possibly can, drawing you in as though it is the titular nightmarish villain itself.

The track starts with one of the most iconic guitar riffs of all time, often sang or hummed acapella by fans who don’t even realise they’re doing it, what with it being so downright catchy. It was written by Kirk Hammett and was originally only two bars in length. However, Lars Ulrich suggested that Hammett repeat the first bar of the riff three times and for the second bar to be played every fourth.

James Hetfield had felt that the song was somewhat catchy and commercial, which would explain the aforementioned hooky nature of the track. To counterbalance the light sonic mood of the song, Hetfield wrote dark lyrics about a crib death that a family had kept secret and, in turn, had destroyed the family’s dynamic from within. 

However, for the first time in Metallica’s history, Ulrich and the band’s producer, Bob Rock, believed that Hetfield could write better lyrics than what he had initially provided. The song’s lyrics that we know today are, therefore, not the original ones Hetfield had penned. 

Hetfield would then write new lyrics that surround the ‘sandman’, the character from folklore who makes children go to sleep. The song is about being afraid of nightmares and features much of the concept of fearful sleep, including Hetfield teaching a nursery rhyme, ‘Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep’, to a child soon to, hopefully, be in the arms of restful slumber.

After the clean guitar intro riff, Ulrich comes in hard on the toms and kick drum in his signature style to build up the tension before a distorted guitar begins to play a distorted version of the classic riff. Then all hell breaks loose as the band goes for it, full force. 

The song was something of a departure from Metallica’s previous thrashy numbers and followed a more traditional verse-chorus-verse-chorus-solo-breakdown-chorus structure. There were also more elements of classic rock in the track, particularly in Hammett’s guitar solo, which arguably drew inspiration from the playing style of Guns’ n’ Roses’ Slash.

There was a debate in the Metallica camp as to which track from Metallica ought to be released as the first single. Bob Rock felt that there were five or six songs on the album that had the potential to be ‘classics’ and that ‘Holier Than Thou’ should probably be the first to be released. However, Lars Ulrich felt that it should be ‘Enter Sandman’ – even before the band had recorded the song. Eventually, Ulrich won the argument and ‘Enter Sandman’ was the first single to be released from Metallica.

Metallica charted at number one on the Billboard 200 and is widely regarded by both fans and members of the band as their best album. Last year saw the release of The Metallica Blacklist, a tribute album featuring 53 covers of the Metallica tracklist, including efforts by Kamasi Washington, My Morning Jacket, Moses Sumney, Weezer, Royal Blood, Corey Taylor and Biffy Clyro, amongst others.

Ultimately, with ‘Enter Sandman’, Metallica created one of the most instantly recognisable tracks in the history of rock music. It helped to cement Metallica’s place as arguably the most significant metal group of all time. Whether you actually like the song or not, you’re almost certain to know it; such is its catchy nature and iconic status.