They say there’s no such thing as a new story, and the same certainly applies to music. Like words, there are only so many possible notes you can play. Unsurprisingly, a whole lot of songs sound alike. For example, there are numerous jokes about how every pop song is Pachelbel’s Canon in D. Plus, covering other group’s music (typically with credit to the original) is common. Most of the time, it ends up quickly dismissed. However, the accusations bear closer scrutiny when it’s not just ‘a’ song but rather ‘the’ song that made a mega-group like Metallica mainstream famous. A big band getting caught up in some scandalous accusations is hardly new. However, hearing that Metallicas’ “Enter Sandman” may have poached other music isn’t the same as saying they didn’t write Whiskey In The Jar.
Metallica Is Serious About (Getting Paid For) Their Music
A lot of fans won’t remember Napster. Twenty-six years ago, the music-sharing and file-swapping service was the way to listen to music. Although Napster still exists, they have changed substantially over the years, and a lot of the reason is that Metallica sued them for giving away music for free. Although Metallica weren’t the only ones named in the suit, it’s clear that they are serious about artists’ rights and getting paid for their songs. In 2018, Kirk Hammett told Rolling Stone that he still believes they were right to sue Napster. While there’s no doubt that artists deserve to get paid for their work, there was a lot of backlash around the idea that the band was greedy. What does that have to do with the current scandal? Well, if the rumors are true (and we are not saying they are), then Metallica is not just getting paid for their music. It seems pretty disingenuous to fight so hard for the right to get paid for a song when it might not even be your song.
Poaching Versus a Cover
There are a million fantastic cover songs out there. Metallica covered a classic called Killgary Mountain or Whiskey in the Jar that is often attributed to The Dubliners or Thin Lizzy. No one sued over that. Similarly, Mongolian metal band, The Hu released a spectacular cover of Metallicas’ Sad But True in 2020. Again, there was no issue with that use. So what’s the big deal? Isn’t one band allowed to use a song someone else wrote? The incredibly short answer is that yes, a band can play another band’s song. However, as Soundfly points out if the second band gets paid for that cover, they have to give part of the royalties to whoever wrote the song originally. Playing music is considered fair use whether you modify it or not. The trouble comes in when you start collecting money on a song you didn’t write, buy, produce, or otherwise have the original rights to. Oddly, this dates all the way back to player pianos that reproduced tunes without a musician.
Metallica’s Sordid (Alleged) Music Thieving History
Taking credit for another band’s song is clearly not the same as playing it and giving them credit and royalties. While it’s undeniable that many songs are similar, it’s worth noting that this is not the first time the supergroup has been accused of song theft. In fact, there’s a list of songs they are alleged to have taken from other artists.
Fans of Incubus aka Opprobrium (since 1999) will be familiar with the 1988 album Serpent Temptation. If the song Hunger For Power sounds a little too much like Moth Into Flame from 2016 to you, then you’re not alone. According to Loudwire, Metallica even received a cease and desist over the song. However, in a surprising twist that Loudwire covered in an update to the same article, Opprobrium later released a statement saying that they never sent the letter. Moreover, they say they are big fans of Metallica.
Something From Exodus
Gary Holt of Slayer and later Exodus also had a bone to pick with Metallica over a song. This story is a bit convoluted since Kirk Hammett was also a member of Exodus before he replaced Dave Mustane in Metallica. The song in question is Creeping Death, where Holt says the “Die By My Hand” riff was used without permission or compensation. Again, this is a case where no formal cease and desist was ever sent. Metallica still has full credit for Creeping Death, and as far as we could uncover, no one ever paid Gary Holt or Exodus for the riff that may have come from Kirk’s time in the other band.
Bleak House Rainbow Warrior
If you’re not listening to Bleak House, it’s well worth taking the time to do so. That said, parts of Rainbow Warrior sound a whole lot like Metallica’s Welcome Home (Sanitarium). Is it stolen, or is it ‘just similar?’ Like other times the band has been accused of poaching, no formal charges, cease and desist, or royalties were ever an issue.
Guess What’s Definitely NOT Stolen: Hint, It’s Megadeth
Dave Mustane certainly wrote plenty of songs for Metallica before he was kicked out for alcoholism. He also clearly uses some of those tunes for Megadeth. However, you won’t have a hard time discovering that he has credit for and the right to his own work. Metallica also has a right to play songs written for the band. When Dave plays his own tunes with Megadeth or the band they were written for plays a song by someone who is no longer a member, this is a clear example of what is not poaching. You can’t poach from yourself. It doesn’t work like that.
Enter Sandman was not Metallica’s first song, but it is almost certainly their most well-known. More importantly, it’s a fantastic song that helped catapult the band into their widespread popularity. The trouble is that Dan Clements of Excel played it first in Tapping into the Emotional Void from the 1989 album The Joke’s On You. That ironic title might be a lot more apropos that Excel knew at the time. However, the riff in question is played in a different key. That confuses the issue. On top of that, Excel has said they will not pursue a lawsuit because of the difficulty involved. So, is it their riff or not? Legally, as long as no one stops them, songs like Enter Sandman, Creeping Death, Moth Into Flame, and Welcome Home are Metallica songs. It could be a case of simple mistakes and musical similarity rather than malicious intent. Ultimately, no judge is arbitrating, so every fan has to decide for themselves whether this matters and whether they consider the songs Metallica originals or not.
While this is an important question, the only ones who can answer it are the bands. Do you think Enter Sandman was an intentional ripoff of Excel’s 1989 song Tapping Into The Emotional Void? If a song has the same hook in a different key, does it matter? It’s all a matter of perspective. Certainly, Pachelbel might have some thoughts on people using his music if he were around today. He might be flattered and fairminded about sharing, or he might sue half the pop artists from the last four decades for his cut. We’ll never know, but we do know that none of these bands have sued Metallica.