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When Metallica Headlined Lollapalooza the First Time, It Helped Kill ‘Alternative’

“The idea that we weren’t supposed to be here is why I agreed to do Lollapalooza in the first place,” James Hetfield said in 1996.

When Lollapalooza revealed this week that Metallica will headline the festival this summer, the announcement reminded some fans of the drama that resulted when the Bay Area bangers first headlined there in 1996. At the time, Lolla was still the premiere showcase for so-called “alternative” bands; top-billed acts in its first five years had included Jane’s Addiction, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Alice in Chains, and the Smashing Pumpkins.

Metallica, on the other hand, represented the mainstream — their mega-selling Black Album still dominated rock radio with singles like “Enter Sandman” and “Sad but True” — even though the band’s members were outspoken fans of alt-rock firebrands the Misfits, Killing Joke, and Fang, and by that point had moved away from the bang-your-head-until-it-bleeds thrashathons of yore. By 1996, Metallica had even cut their hair, worn eyeliner, and transitioned into more of a boogieing hard-rock sound for singles like “Until It Sleeps” and “Hero of the Day” (a song the band members likened to the music of ex–Hüsker Dü leader Bob Mould) on tthat year’s Load album.

“I think that we do fit in [with Lollapalooza],” drummer Lars Ulrich said at the time. “Because I think we have always been going against mainstream stuff. When the mainstream came to us, you know, it was very clear that they came to us.”

Despite all this, fans — and even some Lollapalooza organizers — weren’t having it.


The idea for Lollapalooza was born when Jane’s Addiction drummer Stephen Perkins and booking agent Marc Geiger saw “40,000 kids screaming ‘Debaser’ together” during a Pixies set at England’s Reading festival. Jane’s frontman Perry Farrell assumed a role as adviser and christened the fest after a Three Stooges movie, fashioning the fest as something of a traveling sideshow — a true alternative to the mainstream fests of the time, like county fairs. After five genre-defining years, Farrell stepped down from his role as an advisor on lineups in 1996.

After the fest’s organizers asked Metallica to headline, Spin magazine carried reports that detractors were derisively calling Lolla “Metal Fest ’96.” That year also marked the first time there were no regularly touring hip-hop artists on the trek, and fewer female artists and people of color than past lineups.

When Farrell heard Metallica would be headlining that year, he felt “very angry.” “I helped create the genre alternative, and alternative was against hair metal, teased-out hair, spandex, bullshit rock music,” he told Rolling Stone in 2015. “Metallica, in my estimation at that time, wasn’t my thing. I was into alternative and punk and underground. My friends were Henry Rollins and Gibby Haynes and Ice-T. … So I was not sure about Metallica back in those days. It’s my fucking party and I’ll have who I want.” (By the time of that interview, with nearly 20 years of hindsight, he’d come around. “I like their music,” he said.)

“[In 1995], we took a risk and pushed bands like the Jesus Lizard and the crowds didn’t respond,” Geiger told Spin in the Metallica announcement. “A lot of music is so imitative these days. We had to reach back to find what is exceptional and credible.” Geiger also denied booking Metallica just to make more money, though tickets rose from $27.50 to $35 that year. (Tickets for the four-day event this year range from $350 to $4,200.)

The booking agent came off even harsher about the state of alternative rock in a 1996 Rolling Stone interview. “We think the majority of what’s called alternative music is shit,” Geiger said. “Listen to any major-city radio station in the country — you’ll hear the same 10 to 12 bands. We don’t want to turn into a radio-station festival.” He went on to say, “[People] wonder what kind of signals we’re sending out by having a couple of heavy bands — ‘What’s happening to alternative music?’ I can give you a very simple answer: Alternative is dead. It’s been dead for years. It’s been dead since ’93, if not ’92. It’s dead. It’s over. It’s full of imitative bands, and we’re gonna look for great ones, period.”

In 1996, Ben Shepherd, bassist for Soundgarden, jokingly called the tour “Larsapalooza” in a Spin profile. “I had my criticisms about Lollapalooza the first time we did it — all the pretenses, the notion of alternaculture,” that band’s Kim Thayil said in the same feature. “But this isn’t that trip.”

The guitarist expounded on his philosophy more in a Rolling Stone feature on the fest. “Lollapalooza was a big alternative lie to begin with,” Thayil said. “They had a definite target demographic, and they hit that very well — white suburban people aged 18 to 24 — which doesn’t seem very alternative to me. If you go to a Metallica or Guns n’ Roses show, you’ll see that the audience is actually more diverse socially and economically.”

When Spin reviewed the Kansas City stop of Lollapalooza in 1996, they gave Metallica the benefit of the doubt, pointing out that bands like Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine, and Alice in Chains also wore their hair long and played loud, heavy riffs. “Metallica’s call-and-response ‘Hey! Hey! Hey!’ fist-clench gang-shouts weren’t all that far from Rancid’s ‘Oi! Oi! Oi!”s either and James Hetfield came off more cordially than I ever would’ve predicted,” the magazine wrote. “The opening bass sections of ‘One’ … and ‘Fade to Black’ were more gorgeous than anything managed by unlucky Kansas City Lollapalooza ‘special guests’ the Cocteau Twins.”

Rolling Stone was more critical. “‘Die! Die! Die! Die!’ chanted Metallica and their followers [during ‘Creeping Death’], as if they were saying goodbye to the original idea of Lollapalooza,” the magazine reported that year. “The main-stage acts had a pronounced debt not to Nineties cutting edge but to Seventies punk, metal, and psychedelia. It was in keeping with the turn-back-the-clock vibe of summer touring season in general, in which dinosaur acts including Styx, Foreigner, and R.E.O. Speedwagon have dusted off their instruments and are doing the shed circuit yet again.”

The next year, perhaps scarred by confused press clippings, Lolla’s organizers attempted to course correct and booked electro duo Orbital as headliners alongside Devo, the Prodigy, and the Orb. Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Octagon brought hip-hop back to the fest, whose biggest heavy offerings that year were alternative-friendly acts Tool and Korn.

By that point, many heavy acts had gravitated to Ozzfest, which Sharon Osbourne started after Lollapalooza rejected the idea of putting Ozzy Osbourne on the lineup in 1995; Osbourne later headlined Lollapalooza as part of Black Sabbath in 2012. Metallica, who had nothing but good things to say about Lollapalooza after the tour, returned to the fest in 2015 and headlined three of the fest’s South American events in 2017. They also launched their own Orion Fest in 2012, which offered eclectic lineups for two years.

After the electro-focused 1997 outing, Lollapalooza took a hiatus until 2003, during which time Coachella cropped up as the hip new festival. Since returning as a destination event, Lollapalooza has opened its doors even wider to include mainstream pop acts alongside cult heroes, and its lineups now embrace more of a diverse, Kim Thayil-approved definition of “alternative” than the original Lolla lineups — even if the major festivals all seem to be competing for the same mainstream acts these days. Now it seems it’s important to bookers for fests to be eclectic than alternative.

“The idea that we weren’t supposed to be here is why I agreed to do Lollapalooza in the first place,” Hetfield told Rolling Stone in 1996. “There was absolutely no way I saw us playing Lollapalooza before this year. Now I don’t think it fucking matters.”

From Rolling Stone US