The Story Behind the Cover of Metallica’s Black Album
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When Metallica released their fifth, self-titled album — aka The Black Album — on Aug. 12, 1991, it signaled a new chapter for the band. The evolution wasn’t without its challenges, however, especially where the title was concerned. “It took us a long time to think up that title,” then-bassist Jason Newsted admitted to Guitar World in 2008. “I guess we could have just called it Five or named it after one of the songs. We wanted to keep it simple.”
Accordingly, the band scrapped the devil horns-worthy artwork (and titles) of previous albums for something far more streamlined: a basic black cover.
The idea for the stark concept came to Lars Ulrich early in the recording process, according to Mick Wall’s Enter Night: A Biography of Metallica. At the time, the drummer was “browsing through a typically colorful heavy metal mag, noticing how the ads for various albums all looked the same,” which was not sitting well with him. “All these cartoon characters and all this steel and blood and guts,” Ulrich said. “It was like, ‘Let’s get as far away as possible from this.'”
That translated to album packaging which focused on monochrome tones — slate-grey text and crude head shots of each band member — to match the striking cover art. Choosing the tones was a no-brainer, however. “The fact is that we all like black as a color,” Ulrich said in Enter Night. For an added exclamation point, frontman James Hetfield then added, “Here it is, black sleeve, black logo, f— you.” In fact, the Black Album’s cover was distinguished only by the band’s barely perceptible logo in the upper left corner and a coiled snake in the bottom right corner.
The latter element is significant. According to Encyclopedia Metallica, the serpent is “from the Gadsden flag ‘Culpepper Minute Men Flag’ presented by Philip Gadsden, delegate to the Second Continental Congress, in 1776 showing a coiled rattlesnake with the words ‘Don’t tread on me.’ Commodore Esek Hopkins, United States Navy, flew the flag on all of his ships during that time. Later, during the Civil War, similar flags were adopted by many of the Confederate armies.” (“Don’t Tread on Me” was also the name of a song on the record, and possessed a similar warning-driven theme.)
People drew parallels between the Black Album and other simple LP covers. Wall’s bio points out the album is “like the photo negative of the Beatles‘ White Album,” while others frequently invoke Spinal Tap‘s Smell the Glove, which also features a stark black cover. That comparison didn’t sit well with Ulrich in Enter Night. “Sure, there have been some people who’ve thought it was rather Spinal Tap, but if it came down to a choice between black and pink, you know what I mean?” he said. “People can throw all this Tap shit at me all day, it just reflects off me. I don’t give a s—.'”
Other members of Metallica have more of a sense of humor about this. In one of the funnier moments of A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica, Hetfield and guitarist Kirk Hammett encounter Spinal Tap, who confronted them about the similarities.
“Where did the idea come from to do an all-black album, Metallica representatives?” David St. Hubbins asks, as Hammett clears his throat in an exaggerated way. Nigel Tufnel chimes in and calls Metallica’s cover an “underhanded, left-wing tribute,” before the members of Spinal Tap settle on it being an “homage” instead.
“It was made as an homage,” Hammett admits.
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