What’s left to be written about the biggest metal band of all time? Seasoned writer Ben Apatoff hopes enough to justify his new book. As a Metallica die hard, I'm keen to agree, but who else should read the cheekily named $24.95 Book?
Title: Metallica: The $24.95 Book
Author: Ben Apatoff
Released: August 15, 2021 (Backbeat Books)
Danny Bednar is Canada’s second greatest geographer of outer space, an amateur (wannabe?) heavy metal musicologist, and part-time Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography and the Environment at Western University. He spends his days saving the world at the Canadian Space Agency and is an author with Mango Publishers. All views are his own.
As somebody who wants to one day drop all this space stuff and become a metal writer, I’ll admit to a sense of jealously when I see someone putting out a book about my favorite band.
Beyond jealously, the other thought that strikes me when I see a new Metallica book is “good luck”. Writing a book about any band as big as Metallica is rife with the challenge of balancing respect, and even fandom, with credibility as a researcher and writer.
In facing the dual challenges of being prejudged by my jealously, and addressing one of the biggest musical acts of past forty years, writer Ben Apatoff does well.
Apatoff won me over early, not necessarily though the evidence of his fandom, but more so by what I have called in previous book reviews (and countless assignment comments) “evidence of effective research”. No doubt the author’s fandom of Metallica is apparent. Thankfully though, Apatoff doesn’t let this tilt his version of the bands place in popular culture toward an unprofessional lovefest.
Metallica in the 21st Century
In my sub-title I facetiously asked “what’s left to be written about Metallica?” I’ll admit, like the Beatles, U2, The Stones, and Kiss (among others) it’s possible there is absolutely nothing new to write about how the band formed, their influences, their albums, or even their brushes with evening news stories, be it Napster or co-causing a riot in Montreal. (Tangent: Could you imagine trying to write a Beatles book? “Uhh, the Beatles yes, from Liverpool, the once port city of the Titanic. This book will explore the Beatles through the lens of the great oceanliners in history”).
While nothing new may be left to write about Metallica’s history, Apatoff’s book reveals two valuable responses to such a question. First, Metallica is, knock on wood, far from done. There are albums to come, tours to undertake, personalities to grow, and, surely, more experiments to try (playing in Marvel movie? releasing an album with Billie Eilish? Signing more artists to their record label? Playing in space?!?!?). With every passing year, their history gains new wrinkles and adds retroactive potential to exploring their past. Given there hasn’t been a major Metalli-book in about a decade, Apatoff had a good reason to provide one.
Beyond their ongoing career, Apatoff (especially in the first few chapters) reveals one more reality left to mine for curious Metalli-writers. The world around Metallica has changed. MeToo, Trumpism, climate change, growing global inequality, and a rapidly transforming media landscape of instant streaming and social media, among just a few, have placed Metallica in a world unrecognizable from 1981, 1991, 2001, or even 2011.
Don’t let this scare you into thinking the $24.95 Book is series of weak-take articles in the tone of “It’s Time to Rethink Metallica’s Frayed Ends of Sanity and It’s Problematic Portrayal of Mental Health”. No, there is none of that, in fact Apatoff mentions very few of the issues I did above. But there is, probably for the first time in a Metallica book, explicit recognition of the discomfort that can come from some of the misogyny and homophobia in Metallica’s past.
Apatoff doesn’t go about calling members homophobes (Lars had that under raps in the Playboy interview) or writing scathing 20/20 accounts of how past Metallica fans, members, or friends have acted in interviews. Nonetheless, in a welcomed change, Apatoff writes as, dare I say, a modern Metallica fan. Praising the band and their history, but not stepping back into morals of the past to do so. Lord knows every Metallica fan with a conscience cringes at the thought of ever again having to sit through the roadie scenes from A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica.
Metallica: The 83 Cent Chapters
The 269 page book is broken down into thirty short, very digestible, and very easy to read chapters focused on one band member, album, or pop-culture intersection at a time (movies, books, fashion, religion, etc…).
Before these chapters, the book begins with an insightful foreword by music journalist and ethnomusicology Laina Dawes author of What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal. The forward has a much more academic tone to it than the rest of the book (to be expected from a professional ethnomusicologist), but it’s hardly the unreadable jargon one would expect from a still-in-the-tower academic (I’m allowed to say that cause I escaped). Instead, Dawes’ forward is an honest, experience-driven, take on Metallica’s cultural relevance. The writing is grounded in what is clearly a dense knowledge of the metal world and Metallica. I don’t want to take the thunder from the forward, which deserves to stand on its own, but the core thesis that Metallica IS a political band is a well-argued point.
The main text reads as a mix between Metallica reference book, mini-biography collection, and combined listicles. For better or worse this separates the book from other recent publications on the subject. For anti-listicle snobs this may be a turnoff. I, nonetheless, thought it worked well as fellow fan saying “if you haven’t already, go check these things out” (I also believe that lists are legitimate, even if overused, means of storytelling). Apatoff doesn’t try to arbitrarily rank things in his lists, he’s just telling you what he found in his research, which sometimes, is all that a good researcher need to do.
Highlights from the rest of the book include, for me, the chapters on Cliff Burton and Jason Newsted respectively. Though neither are necessarily under-discussed in Metalli-literature, both chapters are welcomed immersions into distinct periods of the Metallica family. Apatoff’s skill as a music writer is his ability to alternate between discussing topics with the ever-presence of their Metallica connection as well as on their own as distinct, non-Metallica, entities. In short, Apatoff gives topics and subjects room to exist as more than footnotes in the Metallica story, offering them autonomy while never lulling the reader into forgetting that this is a book about a heavy metal band.
Additional praise should be offered to the second chapter that covers the bands that influenced Metallica. While nothing Earth-shatteringly new, it is a a must-read accessible history lesson for any serious Metal buff. For me it is on par with the work of criminally under-appreciated metal historian Martin Popoff.
With 26 years served in the Metallica Family, I can say (confirm?) that Apatoff’s fandom of the band appears to follow a traditional arc. The first 4 albums are metal masterpieces while the band’s fifth album (the Black Album) is (for better or worst) a commercial breakthrough. Load is a disappointment, Reload and St. Anger aren’t good, but Death Magnetic and Hardwired are both welcomed return to forms (also Lulu sucks).
For diehards, this could be the biggest (only) disappointment, as it is a tale as old as time, and one many of us are sick of hearing (though we don't necessarily want “St. Anger is better than you think” hot takes if you don’t truly mean it). In the $24.95 case, the ramification of this approach is that records after the Black Album are not given a song-by-song breakdown. For those looking for new insights into Fixxxer, The Unnamed Feeling, or End of the Line, you may have to return to Chris Ingham’s respectable Metallica: The Stories Behind the Songs.
The only other note of aggravation might be Apatoff’s repeating of the not quite accurate “they sued their fans” line. Awkshually, they sued a start-up backed by a bunch of scummy venture capitalists, they never sued individual users. Sorry…I had to. But, other than the Napster nitpick, I didn’t note any obvious errors or research fauxpas. There is a typo on pg. 163 (“Lars wanted TO show”), but my first book had about 7 typos and an entire quote in Farsi that was mistranslated at the printers, so who the fuck am I to be holier than thou.
Overall, the book should sit well with a variety of audiences. Given that it’s built off of secondary sources (something I support as a means of equity in research), the book doesn't provide any headline-spawning bombshells. It’s strength is it’s writing, its format (short, punchy chapters), and the good research behind it. Ultimately, it’s like a combination of William Irwin’s Metallica and Philosophy and the aforementioned Metallica: The Stories Behind the Songs by Chris Ingham.
Who Should Read This?
I believe every book has an audience. My approximation of the ‘musthavedness’ of this book for various groups is as follows:
Metallica diehards = Must own (only you can catch all the lyrical Easter eggs planted within!).
Casual Metallica fan= Get it next time you’re looking for a good read.
Fans of metal history = Get it when you have the disposal cash.
Popular Music History Buff = Get it when you see it, or gift it to a Metallica fan you know and then borrow it after they read it.
“ Muhhh, they haven’t been good since Justice” People = You wont like it, but, honestly, do you like anything anymore?
If you like short music essays that connect to pop-culture = Worth grabbing from your local library (or asking them to get it in, they will #SupportLibraries)
Someone married to a Metallica mega-fan, or otherwise affected by Metallica fandom in their life = Honestly this is probably the best resource you could get to understand the nutter you’ve married, or is your best friend, or family member, etc... It provides all the background you need as quickly and painlessly as possible, but is also entertaining and is not JUST about Metallica. It’s like reading thirty fun Medium articles that collectively explain so much about your Metalli-infected loved one.