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OpEd

Heavy Metal What Ifs: How Some Big Bands Could've Been Much Different

Photo of Metallica

Band Photo: Metallica (?)

"What If?"

As a geek growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was little greater joy than in paging through comics in a spinner-stand at my local grocery store. Sure, there were the usual Supermans, Batmans, Spider-Mans, Archies and Hulks, but every now and then, if I was really lucky, a copy of Marvel's "What If?" would be waiting for me.

"What If?" was a fun little book that basically took apart notable events in Marvel Comics history and imagined what would have happened had they gone a little differently. Hence, Gwen Stacy survives getting thrown off the George Washington Bridge by the Green Goblin, Captain America's kid sidekick Bucky survives World War II (at a time when "only Bucky and Uncle Ben stay dead"), and so on.

Lately, after reading books such as Jesse Fink's AC/DC biography, "The Youngs" and Dave Mustaine's autobiography, "Mustaine," I've been thinking about some times in metal history when things could've turned out much differently.

For example, everyone knows the story of how ex-Geordie frontman Brian Johnson came to replace one of rock's most renowned frontmen in AC/DC. What a lot of people don't know is that Johnson auditioned to replace another famous rock frontman -- Ronnie James Dio -- in Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow.

Following Dio's acrimonious departure, which owed to Blackmore's wish to take the band in a more commercial direction, Johnson was among those who auditioned for the lead vocalist slot that was ultimately filled by Graham Bonnet. Obviously, things would've been much different for AC/DC had Johnson been otherwise occupied in 1980. More intriguing to me, however, was what Rainbow might've sounded like with someone whose style is much different from the more polished sounds of both Dio and Bonnet. Then again, the fact that Blackmore apparently wanted to hire ex-Deep Purple bandmate Ian Gillan would seem to indicate that he was interested in making a big change.

This clip of Johnson performing "Since You Been Gone," which appeared on "Down To Earth," the Rainbow album following his unsuccessful audition for the band, gives some inkling of what it might have been like had things turned out differently.

Of course, Dio's post-Rainbow journey could've turned out much differently had Ozzy Osbourne's first replacement in Black Sabbath not been so remarkably short-lived. For a brief period between 1976's "Technical Ecstacy" and 1978's "Never Say Die," Ozzy left the band and was replaced by ex-Savoy Brown singer Dave Walker. This clip of an early version of "Junior's Eyes" lets us know what a Walker-fronted Sabbath would've sounded like ...

One band that has more than its share of "what if" moments is obviously the biggest band in the genre: Metallica. A recent "what if" scenario is the rumor that Kirk Hammett, James Hetfield and Cliff Burton were possibly ganging up with the intention of firing Lars Ulrich from the band, prior to Burton's death in 1986. The story takes up a few pages in Paul Branigan and Ian Winwood's bio "Birth, School, Metallica, Death, Volume 1." Recently, Anthrax's Scott Ian also discussed this possibility.

What would have happened had Metallica let Ulrich, who, by all accounts is the band's chief arranger, go? This clip, in which Hammett and Ulrich discuss the evolution of the "Enter Sandman" riff gives some idea of how differently at least one Metallica tune would've sounded without Ulrich's input.

Another of the huge "what ifs" in Metallica's history involves the band's original lead guitarist, Dave Mustaine. What if the band hadn't sent him packing on a bus from New York to California? What would the band have sounded like with Mustaine keeping the lead guitar slot? This one is a little easier to answer, as there are plenty of recordings of the band with Mustaine, including the famed "No Life Til Leather" demo.

Here's a fun clip of Mustaine playing with the band in 2011 that gives some idea of what might have been.

Nonetheless, both Mustaine himself and Branigan and Winwood argue that the band probably wouldn't have made it as far as it did with Dave on lead guitar. Substance issues aside, Mustaine says that he and Ulrich both had too forceful personalities to be in the same band for very long. Additionally, Branigan and Winwood point out that in the band's early days, it was Mustaine who would talk to the crowd, with the naturally more reserved Hetfield less dynamic of a frontman as a result.

Of course, there was also the possibility that Metallica could've been fronted by someone else, with Hetfield concentrating solely on rhythm guitar. The band famously went after Armored Saint singer John Bush (who eventually would join fellow thrashers Anthrax for a while). It's thanks to that stint in Anthrax that we get an inkling of what Bush might've sounded like as Metallica's frontman ...

Of course, there are plenty of other "what ifs" out there, ranging from the possibility of either Jeff Loomis or Dimebag Darrell playing in Megadeth to Robert Plant getting sacked out of Led Zeppelin after the band's first tour.

Imagine the possibilities ...

EdgeoftheWorld's avatar

Todd Wels is a professional journalist living in Grants Pass, OR.

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