The "Snake Pit" Tour October 1991 through July 1993
The principal issue was contact -- how to create more of it, between band and audience. Metallica's solution was the Snake Pit, an arrowhead-shaped stage with runways jutting deep into the crowd -- and a triangular hole in the center where, each night, between 150 and 200 fans stood literally inside the show, within easy high-flying distance of guitarist Kirk Hammett, drummer Lars Ulrich, bassist Jason Newsted and Metallica's leonine blond stage captain, singer-guitarist James Hetfield.
"Hetfield would always bitch about the fact that he wasn't close to the audience," says Metallica co-manager Peter Mensch, who came up with the Snake Pit idea. "So I said, 'The mountain can't come to Mohammed. Let's bring Mohammed to the mountain.'" So Metallica dragged the Snake Pit across America for nine months, then around much of the world and back to the U.S. as part of a two-year global assault that, near the end of the line in the spring of '93, was officially titled the Nowhere Else to Roam Tour. (There were some non-Pit dates along the way, including a stadium tour with Guns n' Roses in the summer of '92.)
The egalitarian beauty of the Snake Pit was that you didn't have to be a shameless ligger or music-biz hot dog to get in. Snake Pit passes were handed out every night to ticket-buying fans who heard and saw the Metallica concert experience from inside out: the hot lights, pyro effects and guitar changes; the close-up blur of fingers on guitar strings and the beads of sweat on the players. Pass holders had the option to come and go, but those who got in usually stayed put for two and a half hours, from the malevolent opening riff of "Enter Sandman" to the last encore, a balled-fist reading of Queen's "Stone Cold Crazy."
"The whole thing," Ulrich says of the Pit, "was fucking with the configuration of how you see a band live. Most rock bands were trying to outdo each other in theatrics. We felt the Justice tour was as far as we could take that." He is referring to the nightly climax of Metallica's 1988-89 ... And Justice for All tour, in which a blind female statue of Justice (nicknamed Doris by the band) collapsed in a heap -- a nod to the big-rubble finish of Pink Floyd's epic presentations of The Wall. "We wanted to go in a different direction: How can we take what we're used to seeing -- a band playing on a forty-by-sixty-foot stage at one end of the arena -- and take it somewhere else? And make it us?"
Mensch admits that he cribbed the basic concept for the Snake Pit from the New York Philharmonic: "When I was a kid, they used to have these Young People's Concerts [conducted by Leonard Bernstein]. And they used to put people onstage. I had gone once." His mother got last-minute tickets, he says, "and they put two rows of chairs behind the brass section."
Mensch had wanted to put audience members onstage, on the back end of the arrowhead behind Metallica -- an impractical notion because of fire laws and insurance risk. "But we had this huge space in the middle," he says. "We could stick them there."
Design and construction began while Metallica were still recording Metallica -- the megaplatinum so-called Black Album with the coiled-rattlesnake silhouette on the all-black cover (hence the Snake Pit, a name coined by tour manager Ian Jeffery, according to Mensch). Ulrich remembers taking a break from the sessions one evening to make initial measurements for the stage: "We went to the L.A. Sports Arena. We had a roll of gaffer tape and a tape measure. We fucked with configurations on the cement floor for about six hours."
After playing a series of European outdoor festivals on conventional stages, Metallica rehearsed with the Snake Pit for a couple of weeks in Evansville, Indiana, then debuted the contraption in Peoria, Illinois, on October 29th, 1991 -- with less than spectacular results. The Pit floor collapsed under the weight of the fans. "It wasn't welded well enough," Mensch confesses.
The next night, in Madison, Wisconsin, Ulrich was playing at one of his two drum sets -- one on each side of the arrow, on platforms that rose up from under the stage via trapdoors in the runways when, in the middle of "The Four Horsemen" the trapdoor opened. He and his kit descended from view. "In front of 20,000 people," Ulrich says, howling at the memory. "They couldn't get me back up. I ended up playing two or three songs under the stage."
For Ulrich, Hetfield, Hammett and Newsted, the Pit concerts embodied both the ferocious intimacy of the group's early club gigs and the lean muscularity of Metallica, a quantum jump from the distended, pretzel-riff tangle of Justice. "The music became more physical and less mental," Ulrich says. "Trying to say the same thing in a shorter amount of time became a battle cry to scale everything down."
Actually, in performance, the firm brutality of Metallica's "Sad but True" and "Of Wolf and Man" -- particularly in Newsted's bass and Hetfield's singing -- heightened the vintage head-spinning impact of Hammett's soloing and Ulrich's rhythmic subdivision in "Creeping Death" and "Battery." But, Ulrich insists, "the fun part was in getting closer to the people" -- a concept even extended to the "opening act," a twenty-minute film combining historical footage with a nightly simulcast from the band's dressing room.
And where is the Snake Pit now? "Some of it got scrapped, and some of it got remolded into other staging for Judas Priest or somebody," Ulrich says, cackling. "It's not like you sit there and think, 'OK, we can use this for the tenth anniversary of the Snake Pit.'"
In other words, you sold it for parts? "Pretty much. Scrap metal."