Metallica’s Most Riveting Video Remembered 27 Years Later

Metallica sent out a reminder to its fans via social media last week in which they marked the 27th anniversary of the release of their first video.

On January 20, 1989, Metallica’s video for “One” premiered on MTV’s heavy metal show, Headbanger’s Ball. It was the first video release for Metallica, who had previously lambasted the entire concept of making a music video or appearing on MTV. However, when Metallica’s first video premiered, it was unlike anything else MTV fans had ever seen.

The first unusual thing about Metallica’s first video was the song itself. Normally, videos in those days tended to be less than three or four minutes long, with the only notable exceptions being produced by the likes of Michael Jackson and his “Thriller” mini-movie. Metallica’s “One,” from the album …And Justice for All, clocked in at almost eight minutes, which was exceptionally longer than most metal videos.

The second unusual thing about Metallica’s first video was the content. The topic of Metallica’s “One,” is about a soldier who loses his arms, legs, face and ears in battle. The idea for the song came during the tour for Metallica’s previous album, Master of Puppets. After work began on the song, Metallica found out about a book with an identical premise. Lars Ulrich recalls that time and the subject matter.

“We were talking about what it would be like to be in a situation in which the guy in the song is in, which is basically he can’t see, hear or speak, and he doesn’t have any limbs or anything… and then we found out that there was a book written about a guy in a similar situation set against the background of World War I, which was obviously this book called ‘Johnny Got his Gun’ by Dalton Trumbo.”

Johnny Got his Gun was an anti-war novel written in 1938 as a direct response to the first World War. The book won the National Book Award in 1939. The plot of Johnny Got his Gun is much as Urlich described it above. A young American soldier serving in World War I wakes up in a hospital bed unable to see, hear or speak. Additionally, his arms and legs have been amputated, leaving him a prisoner in his own body. In the book, the soldier attempts to suffocate himself but he’s been given a tracheotomy which he can’t remove on his own. The soldier eventually uses his head to “stamp” out messages in Morse Code, telling the military officials that he’d like to be toured around America in a glass box as a deterrent to future wars. When that wish is not granted, the soldier “stamps” out the words, “kill me,” over and over again. However, once more the military denies him his wish, sentencing him to living out his life forever in his own body.

Metallica says that they didn’t become aware of the movie, Johnny Got his Gun, until the song was already completed. Once they were, they knew that the striking visuals of the 1971 film directed by Dalton Trumbo, the author of the novel, would be perfect for a video of the song.

Metallica went ahead and acquired the rights to Johnny Got his Gun, and decided to use the song, “One,” to tell the story of the book and the movie, without “just making the song sort of a musical background for the story.”

The video for Metallica’s “One” was shot in Long Beach, California and directed by Bill Pope and Michael Salomon. The shots of the band playing the song in an abandoned warehouse were almost entirely in black and white.

Key sequences from the Johnny Got his Gun film were then intercut with shots of the band throughout the video. Finally, the video was released in three different versions. The original “long” version, which was the first to appear on Headbanger’s Ball in 1989, contained scenes from both the band and the film. The second version was just a shortened version of the original, cutting out, some would say, the best, latter parts of the song. The third version was called the “jammin'” version, and only contains footage of the band playing in the warehouse, and also cuts out the latter part of the song.

Metallica’s “One” has weathered Father Time well. Even after 27 years, it remains a striking video for a classic song.

[Photo by Jo Hale/Getty Images]

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