Metallica’s One & Johnny’s Got His Gun

Like many Metallica fans, I once waited with bated breath to see the world premiere of the band’s first video, One, on MTV.

I was probably about a minute into the clip when whatever fears I had vanished, and I realized the band made a very powerful video their first time out. 

The song was based on Johnny Got His Gun, the novel by Dalton Trumbo that was turned into a film in 1971. Fortunately, the video fused the movie, and the band performing in stark black and white, absolutely brilliantly.

As every self-respecting Metallica fan knows, before One the band was defiantly anti-video, and was doing just fine without MTV or radio play. 

Remember, Metallica was building a strong head of steam before the And Justice For All album, and would have been just fine if they continued their no video policy. Yet, they hedged their bets with One, and had an agreement with their label Elektra that if the clip was crap, it wouldn’t come out.

And until I read the book, I Want My MTV, I didn’t realize other artists also had the same right of refusal with video clips, including Bruce Springsteen. The book also told the sorry tale of what many consider the worst video of all time, Billy Squier’s Rock Me Tonight, which was so swishy, and awash in pink neon, many wondered if Squier was ready for Queer Eye For the Straight Guy. 

Maybe it was that disaster of that clip that made some artists gun shy, and Metallica knew their first time making a video they had to do it right.

As Lars Ulrich recalled in I Want My MTV, “We’d had conversations about videos for Fade to Black, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Master of Puppets. We were trying to keep the band mysterious, and we felt there was an underlying purity to the whole thing that would be compromised by making a video.”

But after talking with their managers, Cliff Burstein and Peter Mensch, they decided to finally try it with One. 

“We’d use the movie footage, and then intercut band performance – but without really showing our faces. If you watch that video, there are a lot of shoulders and arms. We were proud to have struck the right balance between our own feelings about video and the commercial demands. We didn’t think of it as a particularly accessible video.” (James Hetfield also refused to cover the words F*CK BON JOVI on his guitar, so the director, Bill Pope, had to shoot around this as well.)

The video for One cost $25,000, and it was sent to MTV uncut at over seven minutes. As Burnstein recalled, after playing it once at night, it was the second most request video the next day.

“After seeing what the One video did for them, Metallica were just as interested in making videos as everyone else was,” Burnstein added.