“Enter Sandman” is a song by American heavy metal band Metallica. It was released as the first single from their self-titled fifth album, Metallica in 1991. The music was written by Kirk Hammett, James Hetfield, and Lars Ulrich. Vocalist and rhythm guitarist Hetfield wrote the lyrics, which deal with the concept of a child’s nightmares.
The single achieved platinum certification for more than 1,000,000 copies shipped in the United States, spurring sales of over 30 million copies for Metallica and propelling Metallica to worldwide popularity. Acclaimed by critics, the song is featured in all of Metallica’s live albums and DVDs released after 1991 and has been played live at award ceremonies and benefit concerts.
“Enter Sandman” was the first song Metallica had written for their 1991 eponymous album, Metallica. Metallica’s songwriting at that time was done mainly by rhythm guitarist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich after they gathered tapes of song ideas and concepts from the other members of the band, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, and bassist Jason Newsted. Ulrich’s house in Berkeley, California was used for this purpose. “Enter Sandman” evolved from a guitar riff that Hammett wrote. Originally, the riff was two bars in length, but Ulrich suggested the first bar be played three times. The instrumental parts of the song were quickly finished, but Hetfield did not come up with vocal melodies and lyrics for a long time. The song was among the album’s last to have lyrics, and the lyrics featured in the song are not the original; Hetfield felt that “Enter Sandman” sounded “catchy and kind of commercial” and so to counterbalance the sound, he wrote lyrics about “destroy[ing] the perfect family; a huge horrible secret in a family” that included references to crib death. For the first time in Metallica’s history, however, Ulrich and producer Bob Rock told Hetfield that they felt he could write better lyrics. Nevertheless, according to Ulrich, the song was the “foundation, the guide to the whole record” even before it had lyrics.
An instrumental demo was recorded on August 13, 1990. The album Metallica was mostly recorded in Los Angeles at One on One Studios, between October 6, 1990, and June 16, 1991, although Ulrich, Hetfield, and Rock also recorded for a week in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada between April and May 1991. As the first to be produced by Bob Rock, it was recorded differently than previous Metallica albums; Rock suggested that the band members record in the studio while playing together, rather than separately.
“Enter Sandman” had what Hetfield described as a “wall of guitars”— three rhythm guitar tracks of the same riff played by himself to create a “wall of sound”. According to engineer Randy Staub, close to 50 takes of the drums were recorded because Ulrich did not record the song in its entirety, but rather recorded each section of the song separately. Because it was difficult to get in one take the “intensity” that the band wanted, numerous takes were selected and edited together. Staub mentioned that the producing team spent much time in getting the best sound from each part of the room and used several combinations of 40 to 50 microphones in recording the drums and guitars to simulate the sound of a live concert. The bass guitar sound also gained importance with Rock; as Newsted states, Metallica’s sound was previously “very guitar-oriented” and that “when he [Rock] came into the picture, bass frequencies also came into the picture.” As the first single, “Enter Sandman” was also the first song to be mixed, a task that took roughly ten days because the band and Bob Rock had to create the sound for the entire album while mixing the song.
“Enter Sandman” was acclaimed by critics. Chris True of Allmusic declared it “one of Metallica’s best moments” and a “burst of stadium level metal that, once away from the buildup intro, never lets up”. According to him, the song’s breakdown “brilliantly utilizes that ‘Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep’ bedtime prayer in such a way as to add to the scary movie aspect of the song”. Steve Huey, in Allmusic review of Metallica, described it as one of the album’s best songs, with “crushing, stripped-down grooves”. Robert Palmer of Rolling Stone described “Enter Sandman” as “possibly the first metal lullaby” and wrote that the song “tell[s] the tale” of the album’s “detail and dynamic, […] song structures and impact of individual tracks”. Sid Smith from the BBC called the song “psycho-dramatic” and noted that the “terse motifs served notice that things were changing” with Metallica’s new album. Blender magazine’s Tim Grierson says that the lyrics “juxtapose childhood bedtime rituals and nightmarish imagery” and praises the “thick bottom end and propulsive riff”.
“Enter Sandman” has received many accolades. Rolling Stone magazine listed it as the 408th song on their “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list, and VH1 placed it 22nd in their list of the “40 Greatest Metal Songs of All Time”, 18th in their list of the “100 Greatest Songs of the ’90s” and 88th in their 2003 list of “The 100 Greatest Songs from the Past 25 Years”. Blender magazine included the song in their “The Greatest Songs Ever!” series of articles and placed it 65th on their list of “The 500 Greatest Songs Since You Were Born”. Q magazine listed it 81st in their list of “The 100 Songs That Changed The World” and 55th in their list of “The 1001 Best Songs Ever”. Total Guitar magazine readers chose the song’s riff as the fifth greatest ever, while Kerrang! places it fourth on their list of the “100 Greatest Singles of All Time”. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame includes it in their list of the “500 Songs That Shaped Rock”. It was also featured in Triple J’s “Hottest 100 of All Time”. In 2009, it was named the 5th greatest hard rock song of all time by VH1. In 2010, “Enter Sandman” was included in Kerrang‘s Top 100, as decided by fans.
Since the song’s release, there have been claims that the main riff was taken from the song “Tapping into the Emotional Void” by Excel. “Tapping into the Emotional Void” was released originally on their 1989 album The Joke’s on You. In 2003, it was reported that Excel members were considering legal action against Metallica due to the similarities between the songs.