It was 9.30pm and I was standing in the middle of a field, very cold, very wet and very tired. The 110,000 people around me were also very cold, very wet and very tired. Most of them were also very drunk. And one of them had spent an hour that day whacking me on the head with a sex doll. Yes, it was festival season. My first festival, no less: Download 2012. Despite the chill, despite the rain, despite the repeat assault from a life-size inflatable, I was moments away from seeing Metallica – and my life changing for ever.
The metal masters were descending on Donington for the first time in eight years as part of a once-in-a-lifetime tour on which they played their groundbreaking self-titled record (AKA The Black Album) in full. After the band had spent much of the 80s ruling the underbelly of extreme music, the 1991 opus heralded their breakthrough. It soared to No 1 in eight countries, spawned the omnipotent hit Enter Sandman and affirmed its creators as the biggest heavy act ever.
I had never listened to The Black Album before. I had never listened to Metallica before. The closest I had come was in 2004, hearing my mum’s CD of piano-pop songwriter Lucie Silvas covering Nothing Else Matters. When those four horsemen took the stage and blitzed into declarative anthem Hit the Lights, my 15-year-old brain imploded.
Although I had been getting into hard rock, it was mostly the radio-friendly outpourings of Disturbed, Three Days Grace and the like. Metallica were invigorating on a brand new level. Hearing James Hetfield bark, “We’re gonna kick some ass tonight!” over a lightning-fast thrash-metal riff wiped the floor with Disturbed’s David Draiman singing: “Oh-wah-ah-ah-ah.” Kirk Hammett’s sustained, rapid-fire soloing made me finally understand what people meant when they called a guitar part “face-melting”.
It’s hard to remember whether the epiphany arrived then, or if it came when they jumped directly from Hit the Lights into Master of Puppets. Their magnum opus lasts eight minutes, but back then I assumed they had barrelled through three different songs until I heard that iconic refrain come back around at the end. The impact was as powerful as the first time I’d heard it seven minutes earlier. They weren’t just intense, but catchy.
I was hooked – to the point where I can divide my life into the eras before and after Download 2012. Before, it sucked. I was born with clubfoot, meaning I had spent much of my early childhood in and out of hospital. I experienced abuse and went to a secondary school where the only people more immature and exhausting than my classmates were the teachers. That upbringing left me with next-to-nonexistent self-esteem and chronic anxiety. There was little I wouldn’t worry about, from fearfully anticipating further abuse to convincing myself that any minor blemish on my body was a sign I had cancer. Even when I wasn’t physically in a dark place, my mind would create one.
At Donington, I was immersed not only in Metallica’s precision and muscularity, but also an overwhelming sense of community. When Hetfield growled, “Master! Master!” it wasn’t just me that screamed it right back – 110,000 others doing the exact same thing. There was a feeling of belonging and, moreover, a reassuring permanence: Metallica had been making people feel this way for 30-plus years.
I immediately became a part of the heavy metal cult with Metallica at the forefront, and their escapist live shows, anti-establishment rebelliousness and communal rallying cries were a rare source of confidence.
It wouldn’t be true to say that I discovered Metallica and my life instantly turned around. Overcoming anxiety, trauma and my unhealthily low self-worth took years, but I owe thanks to that mighty band for offering me the first true glimmer of inspiration.
Years later, years happier, heavy metal remains a giant part of my life. I’ve even forged a career writing about it. And, when it’s done well – by Metallica, Gojira, Cult of Luna or any of the others in my pantheon of favourites – I get the same shiver down my spine that I felt that night in Donington.