Behind the History and Meaning of the Metallica Song “Enter Sandman”

Formed in 1981 in Los Angeles by frontman James Hatfield and drummer Lars Ulrich, Metallica has been a staple in the genre of heavy metal music.

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With fast playing and booming rhythms, the group has also become one of the genre’s best-selling by any metric. Metallica is also often listed as one of the “big four” of thrash metal groups, along with Megadeth, Anthrax, and Slayer.

One of the band’s most famous songs is “Enter Sandman,” the 1991 track and lead single from the group’s self-titled album from that same year.

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The History and Meaning

The music for the song was written by Metallica guitar player Kirk Hammett, along with Hetfield and Ulrich. The subject matter for the tune was composed by Hetfield, who sings with a rugged growl about a child trying to fall asleep and the nightmares that ensue.

The single hit No. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1991 and it later earned platinum certification in the U.S. It also helped the band’s self-titled LP sell more than 30 million copies. Today, “Enter Sandman” is featured on all of the group’s live records and DVDs released post-1991.

According to the band, “Enter Sandman” was the first track that Metallica wrote for its 1991 self-titled LP. The song was written in Ulrich’s Berkeley, California home. It began with a guitar riff that Hammett wrote, which he said was inspired by Soundgarden’s 1989 LP, Louder Than Love.

The original riff was just two bars, said Ulrich on the Classic Albums: Metallica—Metallica DVD. But he encouraged Hammett to play the first bar three times in a row and end with the second bar played fourth. With the instrumental part of the song done, Hetfield took his time writing the lyrics. According to the band, it was one of the last on Metallica to have lyrics.

Furthermore, the original lyrics Hetfield wrote are not the lyrics that appear on the track today. Originally, feeling that the song sounded too commercial, Hetfield attempted to write about a “perfect” family being destroyed by a “huge horrible secret.” The song included a reference to “crib death,” or the sudden death of an infant in their crib.

But Ulrich thought the lyrics originally written by the band’s frontman weren’t on point. So he and producer Bob Rock told Hetfield that he could write better lyrics. He did just that, trying to hone in on a better story for the song that was, according to Ulrich, the “foundation, the guide to the whole record,” even before the final lyrics were landed on.

Taking Shape

The band recorded an instrumental demo on August 13, 1990. Later, Metallica was tracked in Los Angeles between October 6, 1990, and June 16, 1991.

Hetfield initially described “Enter Sandman” as having a “wall of guitars,” which included three rhythm tracks of the same riff performed by him. Said recording engineer Randy Staub, there were some 50 drum takes recorded because Ulrich recorded each second of the song separately and not all at once. Takes were edited together.

The song, which incorporated more bass than the band had previously worked with on past recordings, took 10 days to mix. It was that fundamental to the album.

Today, while the song is considered more simple than previous tracks from Metallica, like on their acclaimed speedy LP, …And Justice for All, Ulrich described the song as a “one-riff song.”

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The Guitar Solo

The band Heart helped to inspire one of the final licks of the song’s guitar solo, played by Hammett. The Heart song “Magic Man” was something of a guiding light for the shredder.

Spoken Word

Fans of the song are very familiar with the part on the track in which Hetfield is teaching a child of the spoken word bedtime prayer, “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.”

After the “lesson,” Hetfield sings in his signature growl, “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!”

This section goes, formally:

Now, I lay me down to sleep (now, I lay me down to sleep)
Pray the Lord my soul to keep (pray the Lord my soul to keep)
If I die before I wake (if I die before I wake)
Pray the Lord my soul to take (pray the Lord my soul to take)
Hush, little baby, don’t say a word
And never mind that noise you heard
It’s just the beast under your bed
In your closet, in your head

Exit light
Enter night
Grain of sand

Exit light
Enter night
Take my hand
We’re off to never-never land (yeah)

The Music Video

“Enter Sandman” marked the second music video from the album Metallica. Recorded on July 30, 1991, two weeks before the album was released, the video combines images of a child dealing with nightmares with those of an old man and the band playing the track.

In the video, the child dreams he is drowning, falling from a building, being covered in snakes, being chased by a truck, and falling from a mountain. It’s dark—but, hey, that’s Metallica. And during the part of the song when the child is saying the bedtime prayer, he is being watched by none other than the Sandman.

The video won Best Hard Rock Video at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards.

The Song in Use

Over the years, since “Enter Sandman” is so popular, it’s shown up in myriad arenas.

It was used by NASA mission control to wake up space shuttle astronauts aboard STS-123. And in 2003 during the invasion of Iraq, the song was played for prisoners for extended periods of time by American interrogators.

“It all seems so bizarre and so strange that Metallica’s music, which generally sort of facilitates bringing people together, is used in these bizarre circumstances. It’s certainly not something that we in any way advocate or condone,” said Ulrich on The Rachel Maddow Show,

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Also, famed baseball player Mariano Rivera, who was the closer for the New York Yankees pitching staff, would come out to the mound in the 9th inning to “Enter Sandman.”

Weird Al Yankovic used the song for his tune “Polka Your Eyes Out.” And the song was also used by UFC fighter Brock Lesnar as his entrance song for five of his MMA fights.

Final Thoughts

The song is a heart-pounding classic and will forever be one. Watch out—it may just appear in your next nightmare.

Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images

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