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20 Years Ago: Metallica Court Controversy with ‘Million Decibel March’

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Giving away a free Metallica concert should be easy, right? But when the band tried to do just that to launch 1997’s Reload, it ended up turning into quite a struggle.

The stunt was designed to promote the album, and perhaps to generate some extra goodwill after their previous album – 1996’s Loadfaced some fan backlash.

The show took place in Philadelphia on Nov. 11, 1997. The road to get there would be anything but an easy one. Metallica had floated the idea of a free show to different cities around the country, which, much to their collective consternation, failed, with officials having denied the band by citing various local ordinances and the improbability of getting permits for such an event.

“We’ve been turned down by some of the finest municipalities in the country in our requests to play public parks, stadiums, abandoned Air Force and Naval bases, airports and parking lots,” drummer Lars Ulrich said in a statement that October. “Thousands of heads are better than four. We want this to happen, and we’re hoping that somebody out there can cut through all the bureaucracy and find a place for us to have a little fun with a few thousand of our closest friends.”

He then revealed a 1-800 number and an e-mail address for fans to send their suggestions, partnering with local rock stations as a cross promotion. Whichever city got the most votes would get the gig. Miami and Detroit threw their hat into the ring, as did Boston and Chicago, though the latter two quickly bowed out when city officials nixed the idea before the votes were even counted.

Some 120,000-strong called or e-mailed in and, in the end, Philadelphia was the winner, due in no small part to the relentless campaigning of radio station 94 WYSP and then Operations Manager Tim Sabean, who made it a personal mission to get the nod. The announcement came one week before the gig would take place in the CoreStates Center parking lot, a sports complex which played host to all four of the city’s professional teams.

“F—k red tape,” Metallica frontman James Hetfield said in a statement. “We asked our fans to find us a place to play, and they came through, and now on Nov. 11 we’re going to blow them away. There’s no better place to play millions of decibels than the Hard-CoreStates arena.”

Almost instantly, there was a local uproar about the event, now being called the “Multi-Million Decibel March,” later shortened to “Million Decibel March,” via residents in close proximity to the concert location, along with members of Philadelphia’s City Council. One in particular drew the ire of metal-heads everywhere, by comparing them to a buffoonish cartoon duo on MTV.

“On the face of it, I think it would be a big mistake,” said City Councilman James Kenney. “Once again, you’re going to have problems with crowds in a residential area. You’ll have noise and traffic congestion. If the heavy-metal rock group wants to hold a concert here, why not hold it inside the CoreStates Spectrum? And if you’re putting all these Beavis and Butt-Heads in the parking lot, where are you going to park the cars?”

CoreStates Complex at first had welcomed the band, but then rescinded the invitation due to the pressure, taking Kenney’s suggestion and offered the usage of the Spectrum, which held 18,000 people – about half the amount expected at the original location. Metallica rebuffed them, and took it to court.

The Saturday before the planned concert, U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III ruled that CoreStates Complex had entered into an oral contract with Metallica and were responsible for honoring it. The judgement also stated the group were culpable for security, insurance and cleanup of the lot following the event.

Predictably, CoreStates Complex sought a last-minute injunction by taking it to the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals. While those maneuverings were underway, on Sunday Nov. 9 at noon, WYSP announced that Comcast-Spectacor, the parent company of CoreStates Complex, mandated concertgoers would need tickets to get into the area of the parking lot where the event was to be held. Outlets such as Tower Records and West Coast Video would distribute the tickets, two per person. They quickly “sold out,” though it was unclear just how many were made available in the first place.

Late afternoon on Monday, just 24 hours before the scheduled show, U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals Judge R. L. Nygaard ruled against the CoreStates Complex. The gig was a go.

“God bless America’s judicial system,” Hetfield said in a statement. “It proves that even Metallica can get a fair hearing if you have a reasonable argument. Let’s rock.”

“They tried to shut Metallica down,” Hetfield told MTV on the tour bus en route to Philadelphia. “Everything was a go, and then it wasn’t a go. Because we’re Metallica.”

“Because they knew that we’d bring joy and pleasure to 50,000 people and they wanted to…break up the big party,” added guitarist Kirk Hammett.

November 11 was a sunny and cool Tuesday. Many had the day off because it was Veteran’s Day, a federal holiday. This led fans to arrive early, where they saw the seven-foot wrought iron fencing circling the lot covered in black plastic to prevent the masses from gathering on the perimeter. Security initially attempted to enforce the need-a-ticket-to-enter decree, but were quickly overwhelmed by the sheer number who showed up without one and waived everyone through.

At a pre-show press conference, Ulrich addressed the controversy and fear of audience rowdiness from neighboring residents by saying, “We might not be the best-looking guys in the world, but we’re not going to go piss on your lawn or throw furniture through your window. [Stereotyping Metallica fans] would be the same as saying all ex-football players are potential wife-killers.”

One reporter asked about the ticket situation, of which Hetfield said tersely, “Not our idea. It’s a free concert.”

Metallica took the open-air stage just after 3:00p.m. News helicopters swarmed overhead. The across the street backdrop was Veterans Stadium, where the Philadelphia Eagles had lost to the San Francisco 49ers in a Monday Night Football contest during which a fan shot off a flare gun, notable as being the final straw and motivation for creating the infamous “Eagles Court,” where an in-venue judge would sentence those who got out of hand during games. Not surprisingly, it was Councilman Kenney who led the initiative.

Hetfield had promised there would be some surprises in the set, and the group didn’t disappoint. It was evident with the opener, a cover of Diamond Head’s “Helpless,” that the concert wasn’t going to be by the numbers by any stretch. In fact, half of the 14 songs hadn’t been performed live by Metallica since much earlier in the decade or later. Among the rarities were “The Thing That Should Not Be,” “Of Wolf and Man,” “The Four Horsemen,” “No Remorse” and the Killing Joke cover “The Wait,” a track which last saw the light of day live in the summer of 1989.

As the band warmed up in a makeshift backstage area prior to the first encore, a fan jumped onstage and began shouting unintelligibly into Hetfield’s mic before two security guards tackled him.

“You knocked my mic over…f—ker!” Hetfield faux angrily said when he came back out as the fan was carried off. Then he quipped, “Friend of yours Lars?” To which the drummer replied, “I think that was a member of City Council,” which drew some of the loudest cheers of the day from the crowd.

During the second encore, Hetfield came out clad in a black Philadelphia Flyers practice hockey jersey and did the riff to the ESPN theme song. He asked what song the audience wanted to hear. Ulrich began the drumbeat to “Enter Sandman” while Hammett started playing “One.” Neither would be heard; keeping with the theme of the day, “Damage, Inc.” would close out the set, its first appearance in five years.

Speaking of the Flyers, who played that night at the CoreStates Arena against the Ottawa Senators, one of their players, Janne Niinimaa, was a huge metal fan and went to the concert – a big no-no on match day. The defenseman was benched for the game, which the Flyers won, and was traded a couple months later, with his attendance at the show long-rumored to be the catalyst. The next spring though, the Finnish magazine Helsingin Sanomat Kuukausiliite published a season long diary by Niinimaa where he disclosed he was told well before by the head coach he wouldn’t be playing that evening.

“I decided that if that’s the case, I’d go and see Metallica,” Niinimaa said. “There were 50,000 people at the concert. I thought I’d sneak in quietly behind the stage but the PR-guys in Flyers knew that I’m a big fan of Metallica so they forced me to give my game shirt to the band. I thought that it would be done quietly but to my surprise there were a bunch of journalists and photographs backstage. And perkele (devil) it turned out so that it says in all today’s papers that I got benched because I went to the concert. It [will take] a couple of days before I can laugh at this.”

Technically, the “Million Decibel March” kicked off the Reload promo tour, officially named ‘Blitzkrieg ’97.’ Other than Philly though, the trek was set completely in Europe, where the band would do five shows coupled with a host of radio and television appearances. Eventually dubbed “Banned in Philly,” a pro-shot VHS of the entire show was released in 2001 through the Metallica fan club as part of Fan Can IV.

“It was part burlesque show, part rugby match, and hearing-loss loud,” one local newspaper reported. “The band was profane on stage and charming before the show. Police pronounced the fans better behaved than a Philadelphia Eagles crowd. And neighbors who feared the worst from the self-styled ‘Loudest Band in the World’ complained more about the sound from the news choppers circling overhead.”

Metallica Holograms? Get Ready..

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