Feb. 22, 1989 was supposed to be a triumphant evening for the four members of Metallica. It was the night the band was to become the first metal group to perform on a telecast of the Grammy Awards, and also the first time the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (the organization behind the Grammys) would present an award in the hard rock/metal category – one Metallica was thought to be a shoo-in to win.
The evening started great. Metallica took the stage and played a haunting version of “One,” their first charting single and an unrelenting tale of the ravages of war.
READ MORE: Metallica's "One" Was An Unlikely, Singular Sensation
The second highlight of the evening was supposed to come shortly after the performance, when the inaugural Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Vocal or Instrumental Award was to be handed out. Metallica was up against AC/DC (Blow Up Your Video), Iggy Pop (“Cold Metal”), Jane’s Addiction (Nothing’s Shocking) and, oddly enough, ‘70s progressive rock icons Jethro Tull, for their album Crest of a Knave.
Metallica was considered big favorites to take the trophy, a fact the band’s drummer Lars Ulrich readily acknowledged, albeit with a drop of skepticism.
“Some three weeks before the awards,” Ulrich told Classic Rock, “all those who are ‘in touch’ – the critics, the day-to-day involved people – assumed that Metallica would walk away with the award. It’s easy for the in-touch people to think that, but remember that most of the academy, who vote for the nominees, are in the age group of 40 to 60, and are very much less in tune with what goes on in the music scene.”
Though they were easily the least “metal” or even “hard rock” nominee in the bunch, Jethro Tull won, to the incredulous gasps, laughter and even boos from the audience in attendance at the award show.
Alice Cooper, who, along with ex-Runaways guitarist Lita Ford, presented the award for the category, couldn’t believe it himself.
“I looked around,” he recalled to WRIF. “I was looking for somebody to [ask], 'Did you hand me the wrong envelope?'...And they said, 'No.' And then I realized what it was. In that day and age, at that time, the people that were voting, the judges, Metallica was a brand new thing, metal was a brand new thing, and the only band they recognized was Jethro Tull. And even Jethro Tull went, 'What?'"
To add another comic layer to the situation, the members of Jethro Tull weren’t even in attendance, compelling Cooper to accept the award on their behalf.
“I said, 'I'm accepting this for [Jethro Tull],’” Cooper remembered, “‘but I think they're gonna probably send it back.'"
Backstage at the event, the initial shock had mellowed into something far funnier.
“It was the funniest thing that had happened all night,” Cooper told Classic Rock. “I said to the guys in Metallica, ‘You know, if you got a little heavier you could be up there with Jethro Tull.’”
Once the dust cleared on the whole endeavor, the members of Metallica took the whole thing well, considering they had lost an award ostensibly celebrating heavy music, to a prog rock group that was decidedly un-heavy.
“I think Metallica were actually very gentlemanly,” Jethro Tull singer and flutist Ian Anderson told St. Louis radio station KSHE. “At the time, they did say, when they did win the Grammy [the] next year … they took out a page in Billboard thanking the record company, their friends and family for supporting them, the dog – I mean, they thanked everybody, including Jethro Tull, for not releasing a new album that year. They had a sense of humor about it.”
The following year, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences split the hard rock/metal category into separate categories for each genre. Anderson comically bemoaned the fact that the organization failed to recognize one particular category he thought he and his band had a shot at.
“And sad to relate, even after all these years, there is still no category for best one-legged flute player,” he told Powerline. “Otherwise, I'd be winning it every year."
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