Metallica's "Enter Sandman" is one of the most instantly recognizable and universally beloved metal songs of all time, from its bluesy main riff to its menacing lyrics to its iconic music video. The opening cut on the band's polarizing but ultimately massively successful self-titled LP — better known as "The Black Album" — it also served as the lead single off the record, released two weeks ahead of the watershed full-length on July 30th, 1991. Here are five little-known and surprising facts about the enduring anthem.
1. The "Enter Sandman" riff was written by Kirk Hammett — with an assist from Lars Ulrich
Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett wrote the main riff to "Enter Sandman" at two or three in the morning, he told 98.5 The Sports Hub's radio show "Toucher & Rich" in September 2017. "I had just been listening to Louder Than Love, the [second] Soundgarden album," he revealed. "I was inspired, I picked up my guitar, and out came that riff." But Hammett's original riff was only two bars in length; it was drummer Lars Ulrich, who, upon hearing the lick, suggested that the first bar be played three times, a switch-up that made all the difference. In the end, "Enter Sandman" has just two riffs in it, something that the group's frontman James Hetfield found "pretty amazing," looking back at the song in 2007, especially in comparison to the long, intricate compositions on "Black Album" predecessor …And Justice For All.
2. "Enter Sandman" was the first song written for the "Black Album," but the last one to get finished lyrics
"'Enter Sandman' was the first thing we came up with when we sat down for the songwriting process in July 1990," Ulrich told Uncut magazine in 2007. "The 10-minute, fucking progressive, 12-tempo-changes side of Metallica had run its course after …And Justice For All. We wanted to streamline and simplify things. We wrote the song in a day or two. All the bits of 'Enter Sandman' are derived from the main riff. But what's interesting is," he added, "it was the last song James wrote lyrics to."
3. This was because James Hetfield's original lyrics were about crib death — until Ulrich and producer Bob Rock intervened
In the spring of 1991, Hetfield brought the band his lyrics for "Enter Sandman" and, of all topics, it was about crib death — "y'know, baby suddenly dies, the sandman killed it," the Metallica frontman described it in 2007 — and it's destructive effect on the family unit. Indeed, the line "Off to never never land" was originally "Disrupt the perfect family," according to Ulrich. At the time, Metallica abided by the rule that "nobody could comment on anybody else's stuff," Rock recalled, but the producer and drummer both had to draw the line here, especially with such a potentially big song on the line.
"It was very uncomfortable as we'd always prided ourselves in keeping our noses out of telling each other what to play individually," Ulrich said, looking back. "But James took it rather well, and a couple of weeks later came in with new lyrics."
Hetfield recalled the conversation going a little less smoothly to Guitar World in 2008. "I can remember when I wrote the lyrics to 'Enter Sandman,' Bob Rock and Lars came to me and said, 'These aren't as good as they could be.'" he said. "And that pissed me off so much. I was like, 'Fuck you! I'm the writer here!' That was the first challenge from someone else, and it made me work harder." Inspired by the feedback, Hetfield reworked the song into something much less literal and, in the end as a result, more meaningful. "I wanted more of the mental thing where this kid gets manipulated by what adults say," he explained. "And you know when you wake up with that shit in your eye? That's supposedly been put in there by the sandman to make you dream. So the guy in the song tells this little kid that and he kinda freaks. He can't sleep after that and it works the opposite way. Instead of a soothing thing, the table's turned."
4. The guitar solo on "Enter Sandman" was inspired, in part, by a sample on an Ice-T album
"I think the time has come to reveal where I actually got the guitar lick before the breakdown in 'Enter Sandman,' Hammett told Guitar World. "It's from 'Magic Man,' by Heart, but I didn't get it from Heart's version. I got it from a cut off Ice-T's Power album, where he sampled it. I heard that and thought, I have to snake this!"
5. "Enter Sandman" was not originally going to be the lead single from the album
Initially, "Holier Than Thou" was set to be the opening track and lead single from the "Black Album," with Rock advocating strongly for it. Ulrich was the lone holdout and, after some heated discussion, eventually won out — to everyone's benefit. "I felt it was a great intro to our headspace of 1990 and '91," Ulrich explained to Uncut. "In terms of sales, it started the project off rather well. We still refer to it as the song that keeps the pool heated at a comfortable 88 degrees, and we love it for that." Indeed, with "Enter Sandman" leading the way, the "Black Album" debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts in the U.S. and nine other countries, and has since sold roughly a gazillion units.