John Bush: The vocalist that nearly replaced James Hetfield in Metallica

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There would be no Metallica without James Hetfield. It’s like imagining the story of Nirvana without Kurt Cobain or The Rolling Stones with no Mick Jagger. In many ways, Hetfield is the group’s most recognisable signifier. Without his gruff, slightly comedic delivery, you could say goodbye to the likes of ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’, ‘One’ and, of course, ‘Enter Sandman’, perhaps his definitive vocal performance.

It isn’t just Hetfield’s gravelly pipes that make him so central to Metallica. He’s also their primary songwriter and a rhythm guitarist of the finest order, meaning that without his artistic breadth, many of their most famous and influential songs wouldn’t have come to fruition, from their early thrash days to their more radio-friendly sound instituted with 1991’s The Black Album.

It’s nearly impossible to imagine Metallica fronted by anyone other than the assertive Hetfield, but there was a time when the group wanted another to sing. This position emerged from the young Hetfield doubting his singing abilities in his formative years and his broader desire to concentrate on guitar playing. It even led to him asking Armored Saint vocalist John Bush—who later played with fellow thrash pioneers Anthrax from 1992 to 2005—to join as vocalist.

Armored Saint was formed in Los Angeles in 1982 by a gang of school friends, which included Bush as frontman. They quickly made waves on the local circuit, with their vocalist noted for his skill. In 1983, following the release of Metallica’s debut, Kill ‘Em All, Bush was invited by the band’s drummer Lars Ulrich to audition, as Hetfield questioned his vocal abilities. He was the only singer they could imagine joining them, but he rejected the offer to stay in the band with his best friends.

When appearing on Waste Some Time With Jason Green in 2021, Bush opened up about being asked to join Metallica. He maintained that he’s always “super flattered” about the invitation, but it just wasn’t his destiny. He said: “There’s no other singer that should have been the singer of Metallica other than James Hetfield”.

Casting his mind back to that exciting time, Bush was prompt to note that Metallica weren’t the global superstars they are today. In the scene then, “Metallica was nobody. Armored Saint was hot, you have to remember that”, he told the host. At the time, his band were attracting a lot of industry interest, too, so he could see no reason to leave, particularly given that, before all else, he was working with his closest friends towards a collective dream. Simply put, no one could have predicted how things would turn out for either outfit.

Bush added: “Sometime after Kill ‘Em All had come out, I heard the same thing again, but I never understood that because James was singing great then, and he was doing a great job. I understood the lack of confidence back in ’82, but not for Ride The Lightning. James owns that record.”

In the years since, Metallica themselves have discussed the time they invited Bush to join and have shared his sentiment. Ulrich has been particularly frank about it, openly noting how central Hetfield’s growl is to their operation and how he’s glad things stayed the same on this front. Additionally, if Bush had joined, he likely wouldn’t have had such an immense career with Anthrax, a span which produced tracks such as the infectious ‘Only’.

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