Metallica vs. Jethro Tull: Unpacking the 1989 Grammy Shocker

The 1989 Grammy Awards sparked a controversy still talked about decades later, when Jethro Tull, a band more commonly associated with progressive rock, beat out Metallica to claim the award for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance.

2-22-89 Jethro Tull wins Best Hard Rock/Metal award

Setting the Stage for an Unexpected Win

In the annals of Grammy history, few events have ignited as much controversy and conversation as the inaugural Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Vocal or Instrumental award in 1989. The 31st Grammy Awards, known for celebrating artistic achievements and technical proficiency in the recording industry, was to present this award for the first time, setting the stage for a memorable, albeit contentious, moment.

The contenders for this newly minted category were an eclectic mix of hard rock and metal artists, spanning different styles and generations. Nominees included rock legends AC/DC, punk icon Iggy Pop, alternative rock pioneers Jane’s Addiction, and most notably, thrash metal juggernauts Metallica, with their critically acclaimed album “…And Justice for All”. However, it was British rock group Jethro Tull, an act more synonymous with progressive and folk rock than heavy metal, that unexpectedly rounded out the nominee list.

Formed in 1967, Jethro Tull was known for incorporating elements of classical, folk, jazz, and art rock into their music, led by the distinctive voice and flute playing of frontman Ian Anderson. Their nomination for the Grammy was as unexpected as it was puzzling, especially for their album “Crest of a Knave”, which seemed to exist in a separate sonic universe from their fellow nominees.

Unsurprisingly, Jethro Tull’s record label, Chrysalis Records, didn’t consider them a serious contender for the award. In fact, they weren’t even expecting the award to be presented live on the show. This lack of confidence was mirrored by the band itself, who opted not to attend the ceremony, believing they had little chance of winning against their heavy-hitting co-nominees. Little did they know, they were about to become part of one of the most talked-about moments in Grammy history.

The Unforeseen Triumph and the Ensuing Chaos

While the air in the Shrine Auditorium brimmed with anticipation, the award for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Vocal or Instrumental was about to be announced. The prevailing sentiment was that Metallica, with their innovative blend of intricate composition and raw aggression, would claim the inaugural award. They were, after all, the embodiment of the metal genre in the eyes of both fans and critics.

As shockwaves of disbelief swept across the auditorium, Alice Cooper, the award presenter, read the unexpected name – Jethro Tull.

However, the envelope opened to reveal a different reality. As shockwaves of disbelief swept across the auditorium, Alice Cooper, the award presenter, read the unexpected name – Jethro Tull. There was a pause, then laughter, with many assuming it to be a humorous misstep. But as the reality sunk in, the laughter gave way to a wave of boos. Metallica, poised to take the stage, were left dumbfounded, sharing in the collective astonishment that filled the room.

Back in England, Jethro Tull, oblivious to the uproar, would only find out about their victory later. Their absence at the ceremony became another talking point, further fueling the narrative of the unlikely win. Ian Anderson later quipped that they might have been nominated because they were “five nice men who had never won a Grammy before”.

Yet, beneath the controversy, this surprising result was a pivotal moment that would shape the future of the Grammy Awards, highlighting the need for a deeper understanding of the hard rock and metal genres.

The Aftermath and Legacy of a Notorious Award Ceremony

In the wake of Jethro Tull’s unexpected Grammy win, the music world was left in a state of disbelief and disarray. The controversial decision was not just a slight to Metallica but was perceived as a significant misstep demonstrating the Grammy Awards’ disconnect from the metal genre.

However, this controversy didn’t just cause waves in the moment; it rippled into the future of the Grammy Awards as well. The ensuing backlash led to a prompt overhaul of the awards’ categorization, driving a clear divide between the hard rock and metal genres. The following year, separate awards for Best Hard Rock Performance and Best Metal Performance were established. This not only recognized the unique traits and characteristics of both genres but also sought to rectify the previous year’s misstep.

The changes made were well-received, and the first award for Best Metal Performance fittingly went to Metallica in 1990, symbolically righting the perceived wrong of the previous year. In a cheeky nod to the infamous incident, Lars Ulrich, Metallica’s drummer, thanked Jethro Tull during his acceptance speech for not releasing an album that year.

The 1989 incident is now often cited as a stark example of the Grammy Awards’ initial lack of understanding of rock and metal music. In fact, it was named the biggest upset in Grammy history by Entertainment Weekly. Yet, through this controversy, the Grammy Awards were propelled towards a more accurate and nuanced representation of the diverse spectrum of music genres.