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For the last three decades Metallica have remained one of the most influentual, iconic and best-selling bands in heavy metal history. Emerging from the Los Angeles music scene in the early 1980s as the leading force behind the Californian thrash metal scene they soon attracted attention following the release of their debut album Kill ‘Em All in the summer of 1983 and over the course of the next few years rivalled Iron Maiden for the title of biggest rock group in the world.
But it would be their eponymous 1991 record, more commonly known as the Black Album, that would transform Metallica into superstars. Embraced by MTV and alienating many of the fans that had followed them since their humble beginnings it remains a milestone in the band’s history and has resulted in every one of their ten studio albums being certified Platinum in the United States. In 2010 they headlined the Big Four, a concert broadcast live in cinemas around the world that featured Metallica performing alongside fellow thrash icons Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax, an event that would make heavy metal history.
Over the past two decades, following the media frenzy that was the Napster trial, Metallica have enjoyed something or a resurgence, first with their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009. In 2014 there was an outcry when the band were announced for the legendary Glastonbury festival, only to prove the naysayers wrong with a thundering headlining performance. Most recently, their latest album Hardwired…to Self-Destruct beat such artists as Bruno Mars to the top of the Billboard album chart, with the New York Times reporting that it had enjoyed the third-biggest opening week of the year.
It seems a lifetime ago since they were part of the underground, with the Metallica brand now cemented in popular culture and even Hollywood stars such as Ryan Gosling sporting band t-shirts in public. But it all started in a garage in the suburbs of Los Angeles when four devoted fans of the British New Wave of Heavy Metal came together to form a band and, subsequently, changed metal history. ‘When it comes to us defining the last twenty years of hard rock I usually kind of shy out of that,’ drummer and founder Lars Ulrich admitted to Guitar Center. ‘I guess we were blessed when we started playing, to have something that was kind of unique and different.’
Ulrich and his family had moved from their home in Denmark to the United States at the age of sixteen, planting their roots in Newport Beach, Los Angeles. His father Torben was a talented tennis player and Ulrich had every intention of following in his footsteps but his discovery of heavy metal had come in 1973 when he attended his first concert, Deep Purple, and would later become obsessed with their acclaimed album Fireball. He began playing drums four years later and following the discovery of Iron Maiden, Diamond Head and many of their British peers Ulrich finally decided that music was where his future lay.
‘The first time James Hetfield met Lars Ulrich he had him pegged. ‘Rich kid,’ he said to himself. You know the type: got everything; an only child who didn’t know the meaning of the world ‘no.’ And so he was,’ claimed biographer Mick Wall in his book Enter Night. Hetfield and Ulrich first crossed paths when the latter placed an ad in the local classifieds newspaper the Recycler, a popular source for contacts among musicians of the Los Angeles scene. While a student at the Brea Olinda High School in Orange County, Hetfield and two of his classmates, Hugh Tanner and Jim Mulligan, formed a group called Phantom Lord, with Hetfield singing, Tanner on guitar and Mulligan behind the drum kit.
With the addition of bassist Ron McGovney they renamed themselves Leather Charm and, along with an arsenal of covers from British metal bands, Tanner and Hetfield wrote their first real song Hit the Lights. After only a few local shows at parties Mulligan decided to quit and the band soon fell apart. Responding to Ulrich’s ad in the Recycler, Tanner decided to drag along Hetfield to his audition, bringing their song with them. But the meeting proved to be something of a disaster for all involved and each went their separate ways with little hope that anything would evolve from the audition.
When Ulrich expressed interest in forming a band Hetfield approached a less-than-enthusiastic McGovney, who felt that their new drummer friend lacked talent. But Hetfield too, at the age of just seventeen, had yet to develop a strong singing voice and lacked the charisma that was expected of a rock star. He was also conflicted about whether or not he would play guitar, something that many frontman of the era, from Iron Maiden‘s Bruce Dickinson to Judas Priest‘s Rob Halford, left to their bandmates.
One connection that Ulrich had made during his time in California was Brian Slagel, a friend from his neighbourhood who had gained minor recognition for his fanzine New Heavy Metal Revue. Slagel had been gathering together local acts for a compilation called Metal Massacre and Ulrich exploited this opportunity by requesting a space for his own group. At this point, however, he had no group and no songs but this would prove to be only a minor inconvenience.
Ulrich reached out to Hetfield, whom he had felt a connection with after several jamming sessions and the two began to brainstorm over what approach to take. Hit the Lights, the song that Hetfield had performed with Leather Charm, would be the track chosen for the Metal Massacre album, with Ulrich on drums and Hetfield performing both guitar and bass. The recording of Hit the Lights was due to be submitted to Slagel but Hetfield felt that there was an element missing and so turned to a Jamaican-born guitarist called Lloyd Grant to provided a solo at the end of the song. ‘We did it in my living room,’ Grant told MusicLegends.ca. ‘Those guys came down with their recorder and said, ‘You’ve got to put this track on right now.’ And I put a track on in my living room, with a really small amp…I used that to play on Hit the Lights.’
The demo recording, which Slagel would agree to include on his compilation, would finally provide Ulrich and Hetfield with a recording that they could present to potential musicians and managers. Hetfield tried to convince McGovney to join his band and so, reluctantly, he finally agreed. It would be through a conversation with his friend Ron Quintana, who suggested titles for his proposed music magazine, that Ulrich would finally settle on the name for his new band: Metallica.
They were still without a lead guitarist, however and so Ulrich once again returned to the pages of the Recycler in the hope of finding a suitable candidate. While both Ulrich and Hetfield were turning eighteen, the man who would respond to their ad was twenty-year-old Dave Mustaine. Having performed briefly with a local group called Panic Mustaine had been desperate to find a group of likeminded musicians who shared his love of heavy metal and drinking. Agreeing to an audition Mustaine arrived at McGovney’s home a few days later with his guitar.
‘Lars introduced me to everyone as I unloaded gear from my car and brought it into the garage. While I set up everyone else went into another room,’ explained Mustaine in his memoirs. ‘Finally, after maybe a half hour or so, I put down my guitar and opened the door into the house. The entire group was sitting there together, drinking and getting high, watching television.’ Regardless of the rather underwhelming reception he had received Mustaine was invited to join and Metallica were finally ready to move forward as a band.
Despite Mustaine now onboard Slagel released Metal Massacre sometime later with Grant’s contribution to Hit the Lights still intact. On 14 March 1982 Metallica made their live debut at Radio City in Anaheim. Opening with Hit the Lights, the set-list included four songs by Diamond Head, among them Am I Evil? a track that would resurface several times throughout their career. The only other song of the nine performed that was an original composition was Jump in the Fire, which Mustaine had written, only to later be rewritten by Hetfield and Ulrich for the band’s debut album.
Metallica had yet to define themselves as a live act. While Mustaine felt comfortable in the spotlight, both Hetfield and McGovney became somewhat withdrawn onstage, despite the majority of the crowd being made up of friends. It wouldn’t be long before the band managed to land a break when they were chosen as the support act for British heavy metal legends Saxon at the Whisky a Go Go on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. The venue had already played hosts to the likes of Alice Cooper and The Doors, so for such an inexperienced young band to walk onto the same stage as such distinguished artists was no mean feat.
The band’s repertoire slowly began to grow, with Mustaine introducing a second song The Mechanix and Hetfield offered his own contribution Motorbreath. While Hetfield was still considering playing guitar a new member was added to the group. Brad Parker, who wished to perform under the stage name Damian C. Phillips, would survive for only one show before having the honour of being the first musician to be fired from Metallica. Throughout the remainder of 1982 the band recorded a succession of demo tapes that allowed them to define their sound with tried and tested material that included Hit the Lights and Motorbreath. By this point Mustaine had become something of a thorn in the side for the rest of the group; his talents were undeniable but his drinking and pot smoking were hard to tolerate and had caused friction within the ranks.
One incident would come to a head when Mustaine arrived at the home shared by with and McGovney with his two pit bulls. ‘Dave let the dogs loose and they were jumping all over my car scratching the shit out of it. I had a rebuilt ’72 Pontiac LeMans. And James came out and said, ‘Hey Dave, get those fuckin’ dogs off of Ron’s car!.’ And Dave said, ‘What the fuck did you say? Don’t you talk that way about my dogs!’ McGovney explained years later in an interview with Shockwaves. ‘Then they started fighting and it spilled into the house and when I came out of the shower I see Dave punch James right across the mouth and he flies across the room, so I jumped on Dave’s back and he flipped me over onto the coffee table.’
McGovney continued, ‘And then James gets up and yells to Dave, ‘You’re out of the fuckin’ band! Get the fuck out of here!.’ So Dave loaded all his shit up and left all pissed off. The next day he comes back crying, pleading, ‘Please let me back in the band.” Regarding the incident Mustaine added, ‘The dismissal lasted roughly twenty-four hours. I returned for rehearsal the next day, apologised to everyone and was welcomed back into the fold. Everything was fine. Except it wasn’t. Ron and I grew increasingly annoyed with each other.’
From the very beginning McGovney had seemed somewhat out-of-place in Metallica, having initially joined as a favour to Hetfield. But as time had moved on and the band gained further attention on the local scene it became clear that it was only a matter of time before they would need to find a new bassist. It would be Slagel, who had remained close to Ulrich, who would suggest the ideal replacement. Born in 1962, Cliff Burton managed to bridge the gap between the teenage Hetfield and Ulrich and the twenty-year-old Mustaine. Having gained experience on the live circuit in San Francisco as a member of Trauma, Slagel had decided to include the band on his second Metal Massacre compilation and felt that he would be more suited to Metallica than McGovney.
Burton’s introduction to music came at the age of six when he began piano lessons, showing a natural talent for reading music. Eight years later he joined EZ Street, a band which would include future Faith No More guitarist Jim Martin. Shortly before joining Trauma Burton would team up once again with Martin for the short-lived Agents of Misfortune. ‘We could do any song and twist it up horribly. I think if there were an opportunity to collaborate we would write something new,’ said Martin in a fan Q&A session for MusicRadar. ‘Put Dave (Donato – Agents of Misfortune) in there on the drum kit and create something Cliff’s mother would call ‘Fucked Up Weirdos.”
Burton was not as open-minded about joining Metallica as the band had hoped. With them based in Los Angeles and Burton in San Francisco, leaving Trauma for such uncertainty seemed to be a risk he unwilling to take. But after almost four months of convincing he finally agreed, in part due to feeling distant from his own group. Ulrich, Hetfield and Mustaine would be required to relocate to San Francisco in order for Burton to participate with the band and so in the last week of 1982 travelled from their base in Los Angeles to El Cerrito, where they had managed to secure lodging from a friend.
‘San Francisco, with its thriving club scene and vigorous metal fans, proved to be a warm and welcoming place for Metallica,’ said Mustaine. ‘We played our first show with Cliff on 5 March at the Stone. On 19 March we played for a second time at the same club. In between we recorded another demo and watched our popularity soar. It seemed as though we had taken over the city in a matter of just a few short weeks.’ The recording of Burton’s first demo with Metallica took place on 16 March and would feature two tracks: No Remorse, which had been included on the live demo Live Metal Up Your Ass, the last recording to feature McGovney and a new song called Whiplash.
‘It was pretty obvious straight away that it was a good thing to do so we did it!’ Burton told German magazine Rock Hard. The chemistry with their new member fuelled a fire under Metallica and with San Francisco offering them a fresh start the band quickly gained momentum. But Mustaine’s unpredictable behaviour and constant alcohol or drug consumption was still an ongoing issue and was one that would need to be addressed if they were to survive. The friend whose home Metallica had taken up residency at during their stay in San Francisco was Mark Whitaker, the manager of another popular California group called Exodus and it would be Whitaker who would suggest the band’s guitarist Kirk Hammett as a potential replacement for Mustaine. Hammett was sent their latest demo and instructions to travel to New York for an audition.
‘I was familiar with their music before I joined the band,’ Hammett told MusicRadar in 2008. ‘Exodus played with Metallica quite a bit so I knew the songs. I had the No Life ’til Leather demo and listened to it quite a bit. It was what everyone in the San Francisco underground metal scene was listening to in 1982…The more I got to know James the more I thought he’s just a really cool guy, really clever. We had similar upbringings and he was a great guitar player who’s into a lot of the same things as I was, musically. It was fun hanging out with him.’
Around this time the news of Metallica had reached the ears of Jon Zazula, the founder of the independent label Megaforce Records and owner of a store called Rock ‘n’ Roll Heaven. Impressed with what he heard Zazula, also known in the industry as Jonny Z, had invited the band to New York to discuss their future. ‘The demo was handed to me by a good customer at the record store (we were still in a flea market in those days). It was funny because we tried not to listen to demos at the store,’ Zazula explained to For Whom Metallica Tolls.
‘When the guys came to my house for the very first time it was quite an experience,’ he continued. ‘The U-Haul truck parked in front of the house and I was told that it cost every cent I had sent and now the band had arrived at my door step without a dime and with no place to stay other than my house…Dave was the first to show signs of the evils of alcohol; he got sick all over everything. I took the guys over to the record store to hang out for the rest of the night, they had a good time, finished all my booze while Dave was outside the flea market throwing up all over everything and everybody.’
The tension between Mustaine and Metallica culminated on 11 April 1983. ‘When I awoke on Monday morning they were standing above me, all four of them, grim resignation etched on their faces. My bags were packed behind them, packed and ready to go,’ said Mustaine on how he was fired from the band by Hetfield, Ulrich, Burton and Whitaker. ‘James and Cliff were inherently meek and non-confrontational so their role was mainly supportive. It was Lars and Mark who took the lead.’ Mustaine was handed a bus ticket and dropped off at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, no money or band to his name and facing the grim realisation of a four-day bus ride back to California. While in his present state he was not thinking clearly, as the smoke cleared Mustaine came to discover that being fired from Metallica gave him the opportunity to regain what he had always wanted: complete control. Before long he had joined forces with bassist David Ellefson, a recent arrival to Los Angeles.
‘He had a case of beer up on his shoulder as he was walking and he told us stories about some band he’d been in called Metallica, which none of us had ever heard of, but he was a good storyteller and we were wide-eyed with wonder,’ described Ellefson on his first meeting with Mustaine. ‘Although his tone was angry and resentful when he mentioned Metallica you could tell he was proud of his achievements with them that he had been around the block a time or two in show business.’ Together, Mustaine and Ellefson would form a new band called Megadeth and over the course of the next few years would become Metallica‘s rivals in the press.
Meanwhile, Zazula was convinced that he had in his midst the next big band and so focused all his attention on helping to launch Metallica‘s career. He approached New York producer Paul Curcio to record at his Music America Studios in Rochester at a proposed cost of $8,000 and so the band began to aggressively run through their material in anticipation for their upcoming sessions. Hetfield, Ulrich, Burton and Hammett made their way into the studio on 10 May, almost a month to the day after the firing of Mustaine.
Due to their tight live performances the songs had been honed and practiced to perfection which would be a blessing in disguise for what was to be less than three weeks in the studio. Perhaps it was inevitable and appropriate that the album would open with Hit the Lights, the song that Hetfield had brought over from his last band and Ulrich had played a recording of to Mustaine on their first meeting. Six of the tracks had already been recorded on earlier demo tapes, while three of the four remaining songs were included on Live Metal Up Your Ass.
The only cut that had not been featured on any of the band’s tapes was (Anesthesia) – Pulling Teeth, a four-minute instrumental performed by Burton. This would set a tradition throughout the rest of the 1980s, in which each Metallica album would include an instrumental track. According to author Joel McIver in his book Justice for All Anesthesia ‘has been assessed many times by bass experts and remains a startling fusion of classical triads (groups of three notes), an almost progressive, wag-pedal-infused section and a blast of pure distortion accompanied by Lars’ fundamental drum pattern.’
One of the songs included, The Four Horsemen, was in fact a reworking of Mustaine’s The Mechanix, which Hetfield and Ulrich had rewritten. ‘Imagine my shock when Metallica‘s debut album Kill ‘Em All was released in the summer of 1983 and four of my songs were included,’ said Mustaine. ‘The same four songs that had been included on the No Life ’til Leather demo. The writing credits were altered, I assume, to reflect changes made in the songs during the recording process. James or Lars (or both) took a share of the credit for all four songs. On each, my name was placed last so that songwriting credit for Jump in the Fire, for example, reads as follows: Hetfield/Ulrich/Mustaine.’
The recording sessions for the album would end on 27 May, a mere seventeen days after they had first commerced work, but the overall budget by the time the mixing was complete was almost twice as much as expected, which would cause serious financial issues for Zazula. The band may have known their material inside and out but they had never set foot in a professional studio before and so felt a little out of their depths. Thus, the sessions would at times be a little hectic and stressful for all involved. ‘The way we did it was just like, we go in there, do it, knock it out, next,’ admitted Hammett to Loudwire. ‘There wasn’t a lot of time to second guess anything. It was all just about going for it…In retrospect, I think that was probably a savior for us because if we did have more time to work on that album it wouldn’t have sounded the way it does. When I think of Kill ‘Em All, I think of it being very visceral.’
Released through Zazula’s Megaforce Records on 25 July Kill ‘Em All was not an instant seller, perhaps due to the restricted marketing of an independent label and the fact that in the early 1980s there was no such thing as thrash metal. Few publications at the time of its release took the time to review Kill ‘Em All but by the end of the year the album would start to develop a cult following. December saw the release of another landmark album, Show No Mercy, the debut from Slayer, whom Slagel selected for his recently formed independent label Metal Blade Records. Both Kill ‘Em All and Show No Mercy would help to usher in a new style of music what would soon become known as thrash metal. ‘I listened to these song with a blend of wonder and indignation,’ admitted Mustaine. ‘The day after I was dismissed from Metallica Kirk Hammett was in New York, taking my place at the Music Building, auditioning for my role in the band and mimicking the blistering lead guitar solos I had created, solos that stand today as the genesis of thrash metal.’