Alaska Life

Metallica in Anchorage: A very metal concert amid a satanic panic


Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

At first, there was just the expected wall of sound. Then fire rained down from above. People alternately screamed, ran, cheered or cursed the promoter. Except for the band itself retreating, it was a very metal concert. It was Metallica in Anchorage.

There has long been opposition from some Anchorage corners regarding the heavier side of rock music, including metal and punk. In the 1970s, West High, of all places, was the premier local destination for visiting performers, including the Grateful Dead, Gordon Lightfoot and Bee Gees. But from 1972 to 1974, the school board banned “hard rock concerts” due to a belief that they encouraged excessive drinking, smoking and narcotic use. Yet, the worst incident, a motorcycle gang-versus-police brawl, occurred after a Canned Heat concert. For those who do not remember them, Canned Heat was a blues rock band that only the most timid of onlookers would describe as “hard rock.” For comparison, Ozzy Osbourne played West High in 1982, only six months after he bit the head off a bat at a Des Moines, Iowa, show.

Sullivan Arena opened in 1983, finally providing Anchorage with at least a passable venue for larger concerts. The number of seats aside, the arena quickly earned its longstanding reputation for poor sound quality. However, they only scheduled heavy metal bands intermittently and in the face of public backlash.


Notably, city officials allowed a 1984 Scorpions show at Sullivan Arena but warned ticket buyers that the show might irreparably damage their hearing. City health educator Nancy Morgan explained, “It’s a concern that people have nationwide. We’re not telling people, ‘Don’t go.’ We’re just saying, ‘Be aware.’ ” Ear plugs were made available at the show for 50 cents each, though I doubt many sold.

Only the most prominent metal acts, like Ratt in 1986, were allowed to play at Sullivan Arena. When Judas Priest and Don Dokken played Anchorage together in 1991, they played at the Egan Center. And smaller, more punk acts found venues where they could, like the Suicidal Tendencies at Carpenters Hall in 1984.

Then there were the moral panics that included heavy metal among its targets. In particular, the 1980s and early 1990s were the heyday of the satanic panic, a baseless but widespread conspiracy theory that claimed a wave of occult crimes, from vandalism to murders, were secretly happening on a large scale across the country. Several innocent people were convicted for crimes that they not only did not commit but did not occur at all.

In one of the more sensational cases, Kelly Michaels of New Jersey was convicted of abusing children at the daycare where she worked. During the lengthy and repeated interrogations, investigators suggested and led the 3- and 4-year-old children into several impossible claims, including knife stabbings that left no scars and the eating of boiled babies. After five years in prison, Michaels won her release on appeal. The New Jersey Supreme Court stated, “the interviews of the children were highly improper and utilized coercive and unduly suggestive methods.” The charges were later dismissed.

Alaskans were not immune. In 1988, a Juneau schoolteacher declared that a baby had been ritually murdered in a city park. She also claimed knowledge of an Angoon mother who had sacrificed her two children for Satan. As several police departments noted, there were no missing babies nor even a scrap of proof to support her claims. The panic subsumed in the 1990s as the overwhelming lack of evidence slowly won over the courts and mass media, with the broader American populace following along at an even slower pace.

Still, many Alaskans during this time believed heavy metal was a gateway to Satanism. When Dio played Sullivan Arena in 1984, the Anchorage Times review included this purple, exaggerated passage: “At its worst, the evening was every parent’s worst rock concert nightmare: obscenely loud music, satanic lyrics, 12-year-old girls festooned with handcuffs and other accouterments of pubescent bondage ... not to mention a near-violent confrontation between stage crew and concertgoers.” Apart from the loud music, it is fair to wonder about the accuracy of details therein.

Alaska metal and punk fans had their own subversive opinions about the people susceptible to these panics. In the 1985 “Environmental Song” by the Anchorage punk band Clyng-Onz, they sang, “People out here all look the same, REI clothes are kinda plain.”

Such was the context when Metallica visited Anchorage for the first time in 1989. Younger Alaskans were thrilled. Reactions were mixed among older residents. An Anchorage teacher told the Daily News, “Heavy metal is pretty anger oriented. There is some real negativity in some of those people.” A parent of a teenager said, “I’m nervous about what might happen there. I’ve heard the legend of drugs and misbehavior (at rock concerts).”

Three years after their commercial breakthrough with their third album, “Master of Puppets,” the average Metallica show had become an exercise in logistics. For their Saturday, May 27, 1989, show at Sullivan Arena, the band air-freighted 30,000 pounds of equipment. This shipment included a 20-foot statue of Lady Justice holding her scales, as seen on the cover of their fourth album, 1988′s “… And Justice for All.” The band called her Doris. There were also 14 generators to power the light show.

Tickets were $22.50 plus fees, or about $54 today after accounting for inflation. Local metal band Hyperthermia opened. With a reported attendance of slightly more than 5,000 ticket buyers, the show was well shy of a sellout, continuing a 1980s trend of Anchorage residents consistently demanding high-end entertainment but inconsistently showing up for the same.

As they have for decades, Metallica opened with their cover of Ennio Morricone’s “The Ecstasy of Gold,” originally conceived for the score of the 1966 Western, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” The first half of the show was a standard Metallica show. The lights strobed, and the air itself pulsed as the band played. The energy was raw. Those closest to the stage begged for abuse from lead vocalist James Hetfield who obliged, spitting on those in reach. A few tossed objects at him in response, which in turn inspired him to spit some more.


Then, about 20 feet above the stage, a speaker caught fire. Small at first, the blaze grew into a basketball-sized glow. Embers dropped, and the acrid smell of smoke began to fill the arena. Below the speaker, guitarist Kirk Hammett nudged Hetfield and gestured toward the fire. The band quit abruptly and fled offstage. The lights came on, and a technician clambered up a ladder to spray the speaker with a fire extinguisher. The crowd watched and cheered as the flames disappeared and then reignited.

By now, the concert was fully paused as the speaker was lowered to the ground, hosed off and replaced. An unidentified English promoter spent the time cursing at the crowd to give the crew room to work, to move back from the stage. The Anchorage crowd, hard as this is to believe, cursed back at him. This, of course, could not stand, so the promoter continued to light into the crowd with some creative epithets.

Enraged by the delay, the profane promoter, and the looming possibility of a canceled show, the crowd teetered on the edges of becoming a mob. They lunged at the barricade between them and the stage. Some fans were pushed over the barriers as the throng pressed into the guardrails. Others tried to climb over to avoid being trampled or crushed against the railing. Fans behind pulled at their legs and yanked off shoes. Security personnel and paramedics retrieved those needing assistance and carried them to a triage area behind the stage.

Amidst the panic, Shawn Donovan lost consciousness while trying to escape the churning mass. She told the Daily News, “Everybody was pushing. I couldn’t breathe. I was the only girl there. There were a lot of men around who wouldn’t move out of the way.” The uncontrollable, near-violent crowd reminded her of rowdy soccer mobs in England. “That’s what it felt like. It was scary, really scary.”

Forty-five minutes later, Metallica returned, somewhat shakier than when they left, to complete their set. Security relocated spectators in the higher seats closer in so as to avoid the lingering smoke that had risen toward the roof. The band played for another hour, with an extended encore that included an abbreviated cover of “La Bamba” and the systematic destruction of Doris, the Lady Justice statue.


Metallica returned to Anchorage and Sullivan Arena in 1992. Tickets were a little more expensive, but the show was thankfully more routine. In fact, thanks to Metallica’s liberal policy towards recordings, you can watch — an admittedly rough — video of the concert on YouTube. The band allowed a section exclusively for tapers, set up behind the soundboard.

A planned return in 1997 was canceled, but Metallica made good and played the Sullivan one more time on September 21, 1998. As Metallica continues to be one of the most popular touring bands in the world, it is unlikely that they will return to Anchorage. Still, there are the memories and scratchy videos to prove it happened, not once but three times.

• • •

Key sources:

Brendler, Beau. “Metallica ‘Sizzles,’ Promoter Rantings Fizzle.” Anchorage Times, May 29, 1989, B-3.

Hawkins, Ernie, and Jason Berkowitz. “Local Teens, Adults Discuss Metallica’s Lyrics, Style.” Anchorage Daily News, E-1, E-4.

Johnson, Wayne. “Dio Bombards Anchorage with Heavy Metal Madness.” Anchorage Times, December 6, 1984, B-4.

“Juneau Teacher Alleges Satanic Sacrifices.” Anchorage Times, November 3, 1988, B-1.

“Metallica Fans Invited to Tape Anchorage Concert.” Anchorage Times, May 8, 1992, F6.

“Metallica Gear Promises Heavy Light-Extravaganza.” Anchorage Times, May 27, 1989, B-6.

Perala, Andrew. “Rowdy Crowd Gets Pushy, Cheers Fire.” Anchorage Daily News, May 28, 1989, B-1, B-3.

Richardson, James T., Jenny Reichert, and Valerie Lykes. Satanism in America: An Update. Social Compass 56, no. 4 (2009): 552-563.

“School Board Action: Rock Concerts Banned.” Anchorage Daily News, November 30, 1972, 2.

“‘Scorpions’ May Harm Ears.” Anchorage Daily News, August 11, 1984, A-1.

David Reamer

David Reamer is a historian who writes about Anchorage. His peer-reviewed articles include topics as diverse as baseball, housing discrimination, Alaska Jewish history and the English gin craze. He’s a UAA graduate and nerd for research who loves helping people with history questions. He also posts daily Alaska history on Twitter @ANC_Historian.