Did Metallica Steal the Riff For Their Biggest Song?

Tony, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
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A colossal departure from their previous work, Metallica’s self-titled “black album” catapulted the band into superstardom and established heavy metal as a mainstream force to be reckoned with. Propelled by the mega-hit “Enter Sandman”, the band took the airwaves by storm, changing the culture forever in the process. 

Legend has it that the primary “Enter Sandman” riff came when Kirk Hammett was jamming by himself at home in his bedroom. When he brought it to the studio, drummer Lars Ulrich suggested he repeat the notes four times, which became that now-iconic hook. It’s the riff that launched a thousand ships, but it also closely resembles the work of one of Metallica’s less commercially successful peers, intentional or not.

Although an institution in the world of crossover thrash, Excel never gained mainstream notoriety. The band’s highest achievement was the album The Joke’s on You, released in June 1989. The Joke’s on You features a song called “Tapping into the Emotional Void,” a track with a main riff that “Enter Sandman” would strongly resemble two years later.

Speaking to the Los Angeles Times in 1991, Excel singer Dan Clements commented about the first time he heard the Metallica track: “You don’t know what to think.” Clements, having stood in line so that he could buy Metallica’s record when it came out at midnight, was shaken by the similarities. 

However financially advantageous, Excel was wary of a lawsuit at the time. Band manager Jane Hoffman said: “A lawsuit, unfortunately, sucks everything else out of your life. Every day you’re dealing with it. Instead of dealing with positives, you’re dealing with negatives, and nothing is proceeding.” 

For that matter, there were indeed a lot of positives. Having only sold 20,000 copies upon the release of the album, the controversy gave “Tapping into the Emotional Void” a new life. Caroline Records, the label that released The Jokes on You, reissued “Void” as a single, and it made the rounds on college radio. Janet Billig, Caroline’s director of artist and media relations, said: “Radio has really picked up on it. Sales–after two years of virtual inactivity–are really going to put the record back on track.”

Although Metallica has stayed quiet about the similarities between the two songs, manager Cliff Burnstein said at the time: “If Excel could write that one (as good as that), I’m sure they can write more. Then they’ll be successful.” It’s an oddly condescending comment coming from the man who also managed Suicidal Tendencies, a band whose Infectious Grooves side project featured Excel guitarist Adam Seigel (and future Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo, but I digress…)

Excel did indeed threaten Metallica with a copyright infringement lawsuit in 2003, but nothing ever came of it.

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