Remember When: Metallica Finally Made Their First Music Video 35 Years Ago

In 1989, when Metallica released their daring music video for “One,” two things happened. First, heavy metal had officially emerged from the underground, and second, the glam metal and hard rock bands dominating MTV would soon be replaced by grunge.

Videos by American Songwriter

Metallica’s members—James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett, and Cliff Burton—stubbornly refused the video trend as they released seminal albums like Master of Puppets (1986) and Ride the Lightning (1984). The Bay Area band overcame tragedy when Burton was killed in a bus accident while touring to promote Master of Puppets in Sweden. They then recorded the groundbreaking album …And Justice for All.

Replacement bassist Jason Newsted is barely audible on …And Justice for All, as if Metallica had intentionally left a sonic gap signifying the missing presence of Burton.

Elektra Records released “One” as the album’s third single. An unlikely hit, it’s a seven-and-a-half-minute epic about a critically wounded soldier begging for death. It became Metallica’s first charting single in the United States.

Music Television

By the late ’80s, MTV was a necessary tool for commercial success, and hard rock bands like Guns N’ Roses and Mötley Crüe sold millions of records thanks to the music channel’s nonstop exposure. If you watched MTV in the late 80s, you remember Axl Rose stepping off the bus in “Welcome to the Jungle” or Tommy Lee thrusting a switchblade onto the tabletop if a strip club in “Girls, Girls, Girls.”

However, Metallica bucked the trend and built an enthusiastic following without MTV or radio exposure. “Bon Jovi ruled the world, and we had our little place in it,” Ulrich told Pitchfork in 2015.

Inspired by a bleak novel from 1938, Metallica sketched plans for their first video. Said Ulrich, “The idea took [precedence] over the assumption that we had to do a video because that’s what you did when you were putting out your next single. We were pretty comfortable with the idea right away—dare I say even excited about it.”

They planned to use a 1971 film adaptation of Dalton Trumbo’s novel Johnny Got His Gun, a story that echoed Hetfield’s lyrics in “One.”

An Unknown Filmmaker

In December 1988, cinematographer Bill Pope filmed Metallica performing inside a warehouse in Long Beach, California. He captured black-and-white footage of the band as they played the song 20 times.

Michael Salomon, a Los Angeles-based editor, then interspersed worn scenes from Trumbo’s film with the performance footage. Salomon came to the band through his work with director Wayne Isham, who crafted popular glam rock videos for Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, and Mötley Crüe.

Metallica initially wanted Isham to direct “One,” but he couldn’t solve how to merge the film’s grainy clips with Metallica’s performance footage. However, the band liked Salomon because he wasn’t a high-profile director. Ulrich said Salomon wasn’t “going to come in and f–k with whatever the Metallica mentality was or turn us into Warrant.”

Unlike most of the videos on MTV then, “One” isn’t glossy. It’s not “Nothin’ but a Good Time,” and stood against every major label marketing norm. Though Jane’s Addiction and eventually grunge ended the careers of many Sunset Strip acts, Metallica’s “One” helped clear the room for alternative music’s takeover. Heavy metal, like alternative music, was once a subgenre. Not anymore.

Technical Challenges

Locating a film copy of Johnny Got His Gun presented a challenge. It was out of print in the United States and Salomon said they eventually located a “sh—y video copy in Italy.” He also struggled to condense the film’s sweeping narrative into a seven-and-a-half-minute video.

Furthermore, would anyone even see it? Metallica wasn’t a household name and how likely is it that MTV would play a sprawling and dreary music video?

Salomon completed three edits: the full-length video, a shorter “single” version, and a performance-only version.

Video Killed the Radio Star

“One” exposed Metallica to an audience beyond their cult fanbase. The music video carved a path for complex heavy metal music to occupy significant space in mainstream culture. …And Justice for All reached No. 6 on the Billboard 200 and has sold nearly 10 million copies.

MTV premiered “One” late at night on January 20, 1989. Following a barrage of fan requests, Metallica’s video was placed into heavy rotation.

Like everything in Metallica’s career, it arrived without compromise.

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Photo by Pete Cronin/Redferns

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