25 Years Ago: Metallica Telegraph Tension on ‘King Nothing’
James Hetfield famously walked out of Metallica — temporarily — in July 2001, captured in Technicolor detail by filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky in their revealing documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. But the frontman may have telegraphed that tension some years earlier.
For "King Nothing," the fourth single from Metallica's polarizing 1996 album, Load, Hetfield drew on the parable that ambition fulfilled doesn't necessarily bring happiness — he even warns in the song, "Careful what you say / Careful what you wish / You may regret it / Careful what you wish / You just might get it."
Metallica certainly had many wishes fulfilled while creating Load. Its predecessor, 1991's Metallica (aka the Black Album), was a 16-times platinum, Grammy Award-winning behemoth that made them one of the world's biggest bands — if not the biggest. Success created pressure and expectations, and Hetfield — never one to shy away from expressing his angst musically — found that it also exacerbated the emotional and substance-abuse issues he'd grappled with over the years.
It made some sense then that he would channel some of the follow-up stress into song. And while "King Nothing" could well have been, and does work as, a broader sociopolitical statement, Hetfield's reference to "Enter Sandman" — quietly singing its "we're off to never-never land" refrain — seemingly nods, at least partly, to his struggles following that grand success.
"A lot of times I go back and I'll find things in the old things I've written, and, wow, I was more intense than I thought," Hetfield told this writer when Load's successor, Reload, was released in 1997. "I guess being vague in a lot of lyrics lends itself to growth. I can, a couple months later, think something different about what the songs mean. ... I feel a little better about what I'm putting on paper now, a lot more confident. Whether that comes across to others is for them to judge, but what I'm putting down feels right to me."
Watch Metallica's 'King Nothing' Video
It all boiled over for Hetfield in July 2001, while Metallica were working on what would become the St. Anger album and looking to replace bassist Jason Newsted, who left the lineup earlier that year. They were also in the midst of group therapy with Phil Towle. Some Kind of Monster captured Hetfield stalking out of the sessions and right into rehab, where he remained until that December. By the following April, he was back in the studio with Metallica, with St. Anger surfacing in June 2003.
"King Nothing," initially titled "Load," was demoed by Hetfield and Lars Ulrich in late November 1994 at Ulrich's home studio. The single — which featured a live version of "Ain't My Bitch" on the B-side — fared better later on than it did at the time. Issued on Jan. 7, 1996, it stalled at No. 6 on Billboard's Mainstream Rock Songs chart and No. 90 on the Hot 100 — the worst showing of Load's U.S. singles. But the Matt Mahurin-directed video, filmed in the snow in Park City, Utah, was well-received, and "King Nothing" has grown into a fan favorite.
"King Nothing" also had a notable appearance in another medium: In The Sopranos Season Two episode "From Where to Eternity," which aired March 12, 2000, the track soundtracked a conversation between Tony Soprano and Paulie Walnuts.