Johnny Got His Gun

Dalton Trumbo’s novel Johnny Got His Gun is familiar to metalheads as the source material for the Metallica song “One.” The novel was originally serialized in the Daily Worker, and published in book form just two days after Britain and France declared war on Germany to mark the beginning of World War II, but tells the story of a soldier in the First World War. It’s title is derived from a then-popular song, “Over There,” which in its hit recordings by Al Jolson, Enrico Caruso and others may have been one of the best-selling tunes of its time.

Johnny in Trumbo’s story is actually Joe Bonham, who loses loses his arms and legs and much of his face in an artillery explosion. He comes to realize he is trapped inside of his body, unable to end his life because he cannot stop his breathing through a tracheotomy. Using morse code, he expresses his desire to be shown to others throughout the country so they can witness firsthand the horrors of war, but is devastated to realize this will not happen.

The video for “One” provided an enormous commercial break-through for Metallica and propelled the album, …And Justice For All, to be their best-selling yet although it was less enthusiastically welcomed by fans and critics. The video used footage from the 1971 film adaptation of Trumbo’s novel, for which the band purchased the rights rather than paying royalty fees. Through regular rotation on MTV the video exposed Metallica to their largest audience yet.

The song’s anti-war sentiment sat well with others on the album, which make reference to environmental destruction and economic discrimination. “One” also displayed the group’s innovative approach to arrangement and featured a highly praised guitar solo by Kirk Hammett, but fans were disappointed by the thin production of …And Justice for All, in particular the lack of bass. There was a lot of drama involved in the recording and mixing of the album. Producer Flemming Rasmussen talked about it in Rolling Stone around this time last year.

“Jason is one hell of a bass player,” the producer says. “I’m probably one of the only people in the world, including Jason and Toby Wright, the assistant engineer, who heard the bass tracks on …And Justice for All, and they are fucking brilliant.”

Rasmussen went on to say he still doesn’t know why the tracks were “nixed in the mix,” as the mixing duo Steve Thompson and Michael Barbiero had been attached to the project prior to his arrival. “It’s not on them, that’s for sure,” the producer says. “It was Lars [Ulrich] and James [Hetfield] who said to turn the bass down. I know that for a fact because I asked them.”

Interestingly, Rasmussen, who produced three Metallica albums in all, once wrote a song based on Dalton Trumbo’s novel as well. At the time he began working with Metallica, he was likely best known for his work behind the mixing board, rather than the folksy rock album he released for Reprise in 1971. It was his work as an engineer on Rainbow’s album Difficult to Cure, ten years later, which caught the ears of Metallica as they set out to record Ride the Lightning.

“Johnny Got His Gun” opens the second side of Rasmussen’s self-titled album, an album focused on hippy themes (other titles include “A Song for the Children” and “The Whole World is Crying”). The record was released the same year as the film adaptation.

Johnny Got His Gun had previously been adapted for radio by NBC with James Cagney in the lead, but we haven’t figured out if Radiola, the 70s label which reissued classic programs on LP, had pressed that production.

Flemming Rasmussen remains a respected recording engineer in Denmark. The Sweet Silence Studios where Rainbow, Metallica and many other bands recorded were demolished in 2009. After a short time working elsewhere, Rasmussen reopened it as Sweet Silence North in a town outside of Copenhagen. His official website is here. His self-titled album on Reprise Records remains out of print.


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