The vocalist that nearly replaced James Hetfield in Metallica

James Hetfield

Without James Hetfield, Metallica would not exist. It’s similar to trying to imagine the history of The Rolling Stones without Mick Jagger or Nirvana without Kurt Cobain. Hetfield is arguably the most recognisable member of the group. You could say goodbye to songs like “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “One,” and, of course, “Enter Sandman,” which is arguably his best vocal performance, without his rough, slightly humorous delivery.

Hetfield is more important to Metallica than just his gritty voice. He is their principal songwriter and rhythm guitarist of the highest calibre, which means that many of their most well-known and significant songs—from their early thrash days to the more radio-friendly sound introduced with 1991’s The Black Album—wouldn’t have been possible without his creative breadth.

Although it’s almost hard to picture Metallica led by someone other than the confident Hetfield, the band did once consider having a different vocalist. This stance resulted from Hetfield’s early self-doubt about his singing abilities and his overall wish to focus on guitar playing. It even led him to invite vocalist John Bush of Armoured Saint to join as a singer. Bush would go on to play with fellow thrash pioneers Anthrax from 1992 to 2005.

In 1982, a group of school friends from Los Angeles formed Armoured Saint, with Bush serving as the band’s frontman. Their vocalist was well-known for his skill, and they gained rapid popularity on the local circuit. After Metallica’s first album, Kill ‘Em All, came out in 1983, Bush received an audition invitation from drummer Lars Ulrich. James Hetfield wasn’t sure about his voice. Although he was the only singer they could think of joining them, he turned down the chance to continue playing in the band with his closest friends.

In 2021, during an appearance on Waste Some Time With Jason Green, Bush disclosed that he had received an invitation to join Metallica. He insisted that although he is always “extremely flattered” by the invitation, it was not meant to be. “James Hetfield is the only vocalist who deserves to have led Metallica,” he declared.

Thinking back on that thrilling period, Bush quickly observed that Metallica wasn’t the worldwide phenomenon they are now. Back then, Metallica was a nobody in the scene. He informed the host, “You have to keep in mind that Armoured Saint was hot.” He saw no reason to leave at the time, especially since his band was gaining a lot of attention from the industry. And he was collaborating with his closest friends to realize a shared dream. Simply put, nobody could have predicted the outcome for either outfit.

Bush said, “I heard the same thing again sometime after Kill ‘Em All came out, but I never understood that because James was singing great then and he was doing a great job.” I could appreciate the lack of self-assurance in ’82, but not with Ride The Lightning. James is the record owner.

Since then, Metallica has talked about the occasion when they invited Bush to perform and has expressed sympathy for him. Ulrich has been very forthright about it. He openly expresses his gratitude that things have remained unchanged on this front. He acknowledges the importance of Hetfield’s growl to their operation. Furthermore, Bush would not have had such a successful career with Anthrax, which included hits like the catchy “Only,” if he had joined.

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