Jason Newsted was born in 1963 in Battle Creek, Michigan, and learned bass after becoming a fan of Gene Simmons of Kiss. After high school, he moved to Phoenix, Arizona and formed a thrash metal band called Paradox, then Dogz, and then Flotsam And Jetsam.
This band became a cult success thanks to its ferocious 1986 debut album, Doomsday For The Deceiver, but Newsted gained worldwide recognition when he joined Metallica the same year, replacing that band’s late bassist Cliff Burton, who had lost his life in a coach crash in Sweden.
Newsted’s 15-year stint with Metallica, now the biggest heavy metal band in the world, was commercially successful but also creatively inconsistent. While his bass playing was always exemplary, delivered on a range of basses including his beloved Sadowskys, he was inaudible on the 1988 album ...And Justice For All, while other, less assured records such as Load (1996) and Reload (’97) divided the fanbase.
Still, 1991’s self-titled LP – the ‘Black Album’ – was a massive success, selling over 30 million copies worldwide, and Newsted’s post-Metallica albums with cult Canadians Voivod and as a solo artist were acclaimed. Now a fine artist as much as a musician, he lives in what appears to be happy semi-retirement.
Must-have album – Metallica (Metallica, 1991)
Like Back In Black or Hotel California, Metallica’s so-called ‘Black Album’ is just too big to be ignored, although whether it’s their best work or not is endlessly debated. The simple truth is that it’s a rather good, well-crafted heavy rock record rather than a metal album.
It sounds clean, cared-for, and thought-out: Radio and TV loved it, fans worshipped it, even non-metal fans turned towards it, thanks to its chunky sound. It also came as a relief to fans of Newsted: He had, drummer Lars Ulrich explained, been slightly cheated on the practically bass-free 1988 album, ...And Justice For All.
“With Jason,” said Ulrich, “I guess we misfired on Justice, but this time around I didn’t want to make the same mistake again, so very early on we steered the bass more towards the drum kit and away from the guitar a little.”
He added: “I guess the bass guitar has always been this weird instrument in the band: it’s always been overlooked because [Cliff] was always off on Planet 9. I mean, there were always times when me and James [Hetfield, frontman] would try and get Cliff to adapt his bass playing, but Cliff was Cliff, and he just did it in his own way and that was that.”
Worthy contender: ...And Justice For All (Metallica, 1988)
Few negative points are ever made about the music or lyrics of ...And Justice For All, but one enduring point that fans still make today, 32 years after it was released, is that its mix sounds very strange.
As its producer – but not mixer – Flemming Rasmussen once said: “The sound was totally dry, totally in-your-face, and no reverb. Thin and hard and loud. It’s unbelievably dry.” To put it bluntly, it’s ice-cold, with the guitars and kick drums providing a powerful mid-tempo tapestry, but there’s no bass, other than the occasional audible plectrum click.
This was all the more surprising given that Newsted’s 1987 debut with Metallica, the Garage Days EP, had featured a full bass presence.
Why this happened has become clearer over time. Newsted once explained of his bosses Hetfield and Ulrich: “They had kind of an attitude about the bass – it’s not Cliff, and yadda yadda – and they go in and tell the [mixers], get the bass just where you can hear it, and then take it down a half a DB. Then turn all of the frequency up on the guitars, and all that stuff. And then try to make the bass drum to fill in all the space, so it can be all percussive and all that kind of thing. And that is why it is.”
Cool grooves: Doomsday For The Deceiver (Flotsam and Jetsam, 1986)
Flotsam And Jetsam were the classic '80s thrash-metal underachievers, unleashing their astounding debut album Doomsday For The Deceiver in 1986. At least, it can reasonably be described as ‘astounding’ within the confines of the thrash genre, with the songs performed at ridiculous speeds, suffering a comparatively lo-fi production, and a ‘very metal’ image.
If you’re not into the music or the visuals, you’ll probably think it’s all a bit silly, which is absolutely fine. If not, though, you’ll love this adrenalized music, fuelled by Newsted’s lightning-speed bass parts and addressing classic metal lyrical tropes such as warfare, the devil, societal decay and so on.
The album was famously so popular at the now-defunct Kerrang! magazine that the reviewer awarded it six out of a maximum five points, a move which guaranteed it instant success but which also became something of a millstone around its metaphorical neck.
Later F&J albums were more polished and less snotty, favoring musicianship over attitude, but they didn’t come close to matching the swivel-eyed madness of Doomsday. Flotsam And Jetsam continue to perform today, although they’ve never outgrown the stigma of being a famous musician’s old band.
Wild card: Voivod (Voivod, 2013)
It’s taken some years for all the reasons why Newsted quit Metallica in 2001 to emerge, but essentially it boils down to James Hetfield, then in the grip of a serious booze addiction, being too much of a control freak to allow his bassist to work on side projects such as this one.
In fairness, Hetfield has since admitted to this failing, and Newsted has enjoyed a varied and energetic career since leaving the big band.
Alongside his membership of these fantastic Canadian prog-metallers, Newsted has powered through a series of more or less short-lived projects such as the pop-rock band Echobrain; a band with Strapping Young Lad’s Devin Townsend and Exodus’ Tom Hunting called IR8; another collaboration with Hunting, Sepultura’s Andreas Kisser and Machine Head’s Rob Flynn entitled Quarteto Da Pingo – and many, many other groups.
Some of these never progressed beyond the ‘ideas and jamming’ stage; others yielded up some excellent music, such as this self-titled album from 2003. Newsted jammed with Metallica when they entered the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2009, and his relationship with his old band seems to be good; there’s a lesson there for all of us.
Avoid at all costs: Reload (Metallica, 1997)
This dull album has one decent song on it, Fuel, which starts the record: a powerful, staccato statement of intent with a neatly-executed gasoline/blood metaphor, and admirable in its economy and precision. It’s mostly downhill from there.
The Unforgiven II is well-constructed, at least, but Slither is just terrible, turgid rock. Where The Wild Things Are is seven minutes of moderately interesting, dark chords, but it inevitably outstays its welcome. Attitude is a kind of sub-Kiss, sub-Aerosmith, sub-everything attempt at horrible FM rock, and Fixxxer is the pointlessly long album closer, all undefined riffs strung together with far too much wah pedal.
Still, Newsted’s bass playing is as solid as ever – inventive when he is allowed to be, and mixed reasonably high. None of this is his fault by any means, but it is depressing to see Metallica – once, and arguably now – standard-bearers for an entire generation of metal kids, fall so deeply into a swamp of tediousness.
No wonder he left to do his own thing, leaving Metallica just before they recorded the worst metal album of all time, 2003’s St. Anger. Fortunately, they recovered from all this mediocrity and got good again.