25 Years After the Montreal Riots: The Very Different Paths Taken by Metallica and Guns N’ Roses
In the summer of 1992, Guns N’ Roses and Metallica were two of the biggest rock bands on the planet — but instead of a riff-fueled triumph of ear-splitting sonic destruction, their co-headlining tour imploded in a haze of overindulgence, exhaustion and all-around bad luck. Incredibly, a quarter century later, both groups remain among rock’s biggest names — although they’ve taken very different paths along the way.
While many moments from that 1992 tour went off without a hitch, it’ll probably always be best remembered as the run of dates that went completely off the rails on Aug. 8, when the groups took the stage at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. By the end of the night, Metallica frontman James Hetfield was in the hospital — and the venue was in ruins after a riot that erupted after GNR ended their set early.
Hetfield’s injury was the result of a freak accident that occurred when a pyrotechnics effect went off where he was standing, and although it was horrific — he later described it as “pain I’ve never felt in my whole life and it won’t go away” — it was beyond the band’s control and it definitely could have been far worse. Guns N’ Roses, on the other hand, were already in the midst of what guitarist Slash described as a “typhoon of chaos” that would ultimately contribute to their lineup’s near-total collapse just a few years later.
That particular night found singer Axl Rose battling vocal issues, which combined with allegedly subpar sound at the venue to create what he viewed as an untenable situation. Determined to protect his instrument — and admittedly annoyed — Rose and the rest of the band decided to cut their set short.
“We had just stopped the tour because I had throat problems. Came back, and I realized, ‘I’m gonna hurt myself,’” Rose recalled. “I told Slash, ‘Two more songs, if we can’t get it fixed, I gotta go.’ We did more than two more songs, and finally I was just, like, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ I looked over and Gilby was like, ‘Dude, I can’t hear. And Duff [McKagan] was like, ‘I can’t hear either.’ We had a little huddle, and we were like, ‘We’re outta here.'”
The resultant destruction only added to GNR’s reputation as an erratic live act prone to prompting riots, and although the tour continued largely without incident and ultimately proved profitable for Metallica, it was barely a break-even proposition for their tourmates, who struggled with swollen expenses as they teetered toward a long period of lineup departures and long gaps between releases. For years, it looked like that 1992 tour would go down as a sobering snapshot of two acts headed in very different directions.
In fact, although the air of instability surrounding Guns N’ Roses gave them an added edge in the beginning, it had already started taking a toll by the early ’90s. Drummer Steven Adler was already out of the lineup by the time they started touring with Metallica, as was guitarist Izzy Stradlin. But those departures were just the start of a storm of change that seemed to follow the group for years — it wasn’t long before Slash and McKagan made their own exits, spurring a period in which Rose led a rapidly rotating corps of briefly tenured bandmates through a period of relatively little public activity.
Metallica, like many rock bands in their peer group, went through changes of their own in the ’90s, but they were driven more by evolutions in taste and style than personnel problems. The group’s next full-length effort, 1996’s Load, marked a new willingness to tinker with an expand their trademark thrash sound — not to mention new looks for the members. While GNR seemed to suffer from Rose’s overweening ambition, toiling for years on the long-delayed Chinese Democracy LP, Metallica continued to release records regularly, both honoring their roots (Garage, Inc.) and eagerly subverting expectations (the live orchestral S&M LP). Late in the decade, they even took a legal stand against file-sharing fans by going after the Napster service. In contrast, GNR only managed to eke out the 1993 Spaghetti Incident? covers collection before drifting into a seemingly endless hiatus.
Metallica weren’t immune to internal conflict — they were just arguably better at sticking together while they struggled through it. Brutally tested by the tragic death of bassist Cliff Burton, they were much more of a time-tested unit than their tourmates during the GNR dates, but it wasn’t like being in the band was all sunshine and roses — perhaps particularly for bassist Jason Newsted, who stepped in after Burton’s death and endured cruel hazing for years. Newsted’s 2001 departure triggered a period of intense self-reflection for his former bandmates, later captured in the Some Kind of Monster documentary.
“Man, I learned a lot about what I don’t like about me,” Hetfield later reflected. “Which was good — it was a good mirror. And I think everyone involved in that movie pretty much felt the same way about themselves.”
Metallica’s maturation was far more public than anything that might have been going on with Guns N’ Roses, but things definitely changed over time for GNR. After years of toiling over the tapes, Rose finally released the Chinese Democracy LP in 2008 — nearly a decade after mounting the first in a series of tours with his new-look lineup. And while the long-awaited album couldn’t possibly live up to all those years of pent-up expectations, it also served as something of a case study in the value of going away long enough to make your audience miss you; in contrast, as Metallica learned through the varied reactions to records like 2003’s St. Anger and their 2011 Lou Reed collaboration Lulu, an active band’s relationship with its fan base can go through some fairly violent ups and downs.
After enough time apart, Guns N’ Roses’ classic roster even managed to find its way (mostly) back together. Just a few years after Rose infamously refused to join his former bandmates for GNR’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Slash and McKagan made their way back to the lineup for the Not in This Lifetime Tour, which has raked in impressive grosses while earning nearly unanimous critical praise and reclaiming dark chapters from the group’s past — and potentially sparked a desire to write new material. Rose even managed to work in a temporary side gig as the fill-in singer for AC/DC.
In more recent years, Metallica have settled into their own groove, moving on with bassist Robert Trujillo to continue forging a path that boasts some of the biggest rock records of recent years — including 2016’s Hardwired … to Self-Destruct, which topped the charts upon its debut and preceded the top-grossing WorldWired tour.
Metallica and Guns N’ Roses have both been through a lot since that night in Montreal, in other words — but while the rock landscape has shifted considerably in the quarter of a century since, they each remain among the genre’s top acts while enjoying more stability and apparent harmony than arguably ever before. Call it a true trial by fire — and give credit to both bands for their hard-fought longevity.
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