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Metallica: When They Ruled the World

Do you want heavy? ‘Tallica gives you heavy baby! These famous words were spoken by Metallica’s frontman James Hetfield before playing Sad but True in their Cunning Stunts concert documentary. For over 3 decades, Metallica has consistently ‘given the world heavy’. During this time, Metallica has been the metal band on the planet. The band has almost become bigger than the genre itself. Their albums sales rival the world’s biggest popstars and their concert tours are among the highest earning in the world. Almost everyone who listens to music, at least knows of Metallica. While the band is obviously loved by die-hard metal fans, it is also a hit among the casual listeners. Most people who just occasionally listen to heavy music, usually have Metallica on their playlist as well. From being the primogenitors of thrash metal, to the undisputed flag bearers of heavy metal, Metallica have had a wild and crazy ride. The band has suffered through personal tragedies, battled personal demons and still managed to stay strong and on top of the world. Their influence on music will never fade to black, so let’s forever trust in who they are, and nothing else matters. Let’s take a look at the most glorious phase incredible journey of the world’s biggest heavy metal band.

Metallica: Early Years and Demos

Metallica was formed in the year 1981 after drummer Lars Ulrich (born in Denmark) published an advertisement in The Recycler, a newspaper in Los Angeles. The advertisement said “Drummer looking for other metal musicians to jam with Tygers of Pan Tang, Diamond Head and Iron Maiden. The advertisement was answered by Leather Charm’s guitarist Hugh Tanner and a certain teenager named James Hetfield. Upon meeting with the two, Ulrich contacted Brian Slagel of Metal Blade Records to record a song for Metal Blade’s upcoming Metal Massacre compilation. Upon Slagel’s acceptance, Ulrich brought Hetfield on to sing and play rhythm guitar. Five months after the two officially met, Metallica was formed on October 28th, 1981.

Lars Ulrich (left) and James Hetfield (right) circa 1981

The band’s name came via the help of Ulrich’s friend Ron Quintana. He was brainstorming some names for his fanzine and had closed down on MetalMania and Metallica. Ulrich really loved Metallica and wanted to use it for his band. So he suggested Quintana to use the MetalMania name for his fanzine.

Soon after that, Ulrich published an advertisement for a lead guitarist and his call was answered by Dave Mustaine. Mustaine’s expensive equipment and highly technical guitar warm up exercises were enough to convince Hetfield and Ulrich to hire him.

Metallica recorded its first original song Hit the Lights in 1982. It featured Ulrich on drums and Hetfield on Rhythm guitar, bass guitar and vocals. The lead guitar solo was credited to Lloyd Grant. The song featured on Metal Blade’s Metal Massacre I compilation, which was released on June 14th, 1982. The song generated a lot of attention and was the highlight of the compilation.

Metal Massacre I, featuring Metallica’s Hit the Lights

Riding on the coattails of the success of Hit the Lights, Metallica played their first ever live show on March 14th, 1982 at Radio City, Anaheim, California. The lineup also featured newly hired bassist Ron McGovney.

After their first live show’s success, Metallica grew in popularity very quickly and opened for British heavy metal band Saxon during a show of their 1982 US tour. After that gig, Metallica recorded their first ever demo titled Power Metal.

Fantasy themed cover art for Power Metal

As a matter of fact, Hetfield used to refer to Metallica’s sound as ‘Power Metal’ until 1984. It wasn’t until the year 1984 when the term ‘thrash metal’ was coined. Kerrang! journalist Malcolm Dome was the first person to use that term while referring to the song Metal Thrashing Mad by Anthrax.

Some time later in 1982, Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield watched the band Trauma perform live at the famous Hollywood night club, Whisky a Go Go. They were blown away by the band’s bassist Cliff Burton. Upon hearing Burton play, Ulrich and Hetfield famously said to each other, ‘dude, is that a bass?’ They immediately offered Burton an invitation to join the band. Hetfield and Mustaine had grown weary of Metallica’s bassist Ron McGovney since ‘he didn’t contribute anything, he just followed’. Burton declined the offer at the onset but agreed to join the band if they relocated from the Glam Metal dominated Los Angeles to El Cerrito in San Francisco. Metallica performed live with Burton for the first time in March 1983 at The Stone.

Metallica’s 1983 lineup, (from left to right) James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Cliff Burton, Dave Mustaine

Metallica was now ready to hit the studio and record their debut album. However, Brian Slagel’s Metal Blade label didn’t have enough money to cover the cost. Famous concert promoter Johny ‘Z’ Zazula, who was a fan of Metallica since he had heard their No Life ’til Leather demo, stepped in. He tried to broker a record deal with some New York City based record labels but they showed no interest. Zazula, driven to record the album, borrowed money to cover the recording costs and signed Metallica to his own Megaforce Records.

Metallica: Kill ‘Em All and Ride the Lightning

Metallica hired producer Paul Curcio and travelled to Rochester, New York to record their debut album entitled Metal Up Your Ass.

Cover art for Metal Up Your Ass

However, the distributors of the record label refused to release an album with the aforementioned title. Hence a new title and cover art were chosen. Metallica’s debut album was going to be called Kill ‘Em All.

Cover art for Metallica’s debut album, Kill ‘Em All

However, before Metallica could begin recording their debut, they fired lead guitarist Dave Mustaine because of his violent behaviour stemming from drug and alcohol abuse. Mustaine was fired on April 11th, 1983. Metallica replaced him with Exodus guitarist Kirk Hammett. Mustaine went on to form Megadeth, one of the biggest metal bands of all time. Hammett’s debut performance with Metallica was on April 16th, 1983 at The Showplace in Dover, New Jersey. Metallica performed with Anthrax on the night.

Metallica with Kirk Hammett (second from left), circa 1983

Mustaine expressed a lot of dislike towards Hammett’s guitar playing and accused him of copying his work. In an interview with Metal Forces magazine in 1985, Mustaine said: It’s real funny how Kirk Hammett ripped off every lead break I’d played on that No Life ’til Leather tape and got voted No. Guitarist in your magazine’.

The album was released on July 25th, 1983. It was recorded between May 10th and 27th. While the American release was under the Megaforce label, the European release was on the Music for Nations label. The album peaked at number 155 on the Billboard 200 chart in 1986. It is widely considered as one of the greatest debut albums of all time. It played a seminal role in the birth and popularization of thrash metal. Steve Huey of allmusic.com wrote this in his review:

The true birth of thrash. On Kill ‘Em All, Metallica fuses the intricate riffing of New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Diamond Head with the velocity of Motörhead and hardcore punk. James Hetfield’s highly technical rhythm guitar style drives most of the album, setting new standards of power, precision, and stamina. But really, the rest of the band is just as dexterous, playing with tightly controlled fury even at the most ridiculously fast tempos. There are already several extended, multi-sectioned compositions foreshadowing the band’s later progressive epics, though these are driven by adrenaline, not texture. A few tributes to heavy metal itself are a bit dated lyrically; like Diamond Head, the band’s biggest influence, Kill ‘Em All’s most effective tone is one of supernatural malevolence — as pure sound, the record is already straight from the pits of hell. Ex-member Dave Mustaine co-wrote four of the original ten tracks, but the material all sounds of a piece. And actually, anyone who worked backward through the band’s catalog might not fully appreciate the impact of Kill ‘Em All when it first appeared — unlike later releases, there simply isn’t much musical variation (apart from a lyrical bass solo from Cliff Burton). The band’s musical ambition also grew rapidly, so today, Kill ‘Em All sounds more like the foundation for greater things to come. But that doesn’t take anything away from how fresh it sounded upon first release, and time hasn’t dulled the giddy rush of excitement in these performances. Frightening, awe-inspiring, and absolutely relentless, Kill ‘Em All is pure destructive power, executed with jaw-dropping levels of scientific precision.

To record their sophomore album, Ride the Lightning, Metallica went to Sweet Silence Studios in Copenhagen, Denmark. The staggering album was released on July 27th, 1984. Produced by Metallica and Fleming Rasmussen, the album peaked at #100 on the Billboard charts. Two months after the album’s release, Metallica were signed by Elektra Records after A&R director from the major label saw Metallica perform live in 1984.

Cover art for Ride the Lightning

The album went on to be certified six times platinum and is considered one of the most important releases in heavy metal history. It featured classics such as Creeping Death, Fight Fire with Fire and Metallica’s twisted and melancholy take on the power ballad, Fade to Black. Steve Huey of allmusic.com wrote:

Kill ‘Em All may have revitalized heavy metal’s underground, but Ride the Lightning was even more stunning, exhibiting staggering musical growth and boldly charting new directions that would affect heavy metal for years to come. Incredibly ambitious for a one-year-later sophomore effort, Ride the Lightning finds Metallica aggressively expanding their compositional technique and range of expression. Every track tries something new, and every musical experiment succeeds mightily. The lyrics push into new territory as well — more personal, more socially conscious, less metal posturing. But the true heart of Ride the Lightning lies in its rich musical imagination. There are extended, progressive epics; tight, concise groove-rockers; thrashers that blow anything on Kill ‘Em All out of the water, both in their urgency and the barest hints of melody that have been added to the choruses. Some innovations are flourishes that add important bits of color, like the lilting, pseudo-classical intro to the furious “Fight Fire with Fire,” or the harmonized leads that pop up on several tracks. Others are major reinventions of Metallica’s sound, like the nine-minute, album-closing instrumental “The Call of Ktulu,” or the haunting suicide lament “Fade to Black.” The latter is an all-time metal classic; it begins as an acoustic-driven, minor-key ballad, then gets slashed open by electric guitars playing a wordless chorus, and ends in a wrenching guitar solo over a thrashy yet lyrical rhythm figure. Basically, in a nutshell, Metallica sounded like they could do anything. Heavy metal hadn’t seen this kind of ambition since Judas Priest’s late-’70s classics, and Ride the Lightning effectively rewrote the rule book for a generation of thrashers. If Kill ‘Em All was the manifesto, Ride the Lightning was the revolution itself.

Metallica started performing in front of significantly larger audiences while touring for this album. It played to a massive crowd of 70,000 people during the Monsters of Rock festival at Donnington Park, England. Metallica were on their way to becomi the biggest band in the world.

Metallica: Master of Puppets and tragedy

Metallica recorded their third album, Master of Puppets at Sweet Silence Studios as well. It was their major label debut and Elektra records pooled in its massive resources for the album’s promotion. After being released on March 3rd, 1986, the album peaked at #29 on the Billboard charts, spending 72 weeks on it.

Cover art for Master of Puppets

The album is widely considered to be the absolute peak of Metallica’s career. Featuring the monster title track, Battery, Welcome Home (Sanitarium), Disposable Heroes and Orion, this album is an all out aural assault with not a single weak moment in its run time. Steve Huey of allmusic.com wrote:

Even though Master of Puppets didn’t take as gigantic a leap forward as Ride the Lightning, it was the band’s greatest achievement, hailed as a masterpiece by critics far outside heavy metal’s core audience. It was also a substantial hit, reaching the Top 30 and selling three million copies despite absolutely nonexistent airplay. Instead of a radical reinvention, Master of Puppets is a refinement of past innovations. In fact, it’s possible to compare Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets song for song and note striking similarities between corresponding track positions on each record (although Lightning’s closing instrumental has been bumped up to next-to-last in Master’s running order). That hint of conservatism is really the only conceivable flaw here. Though it isn’t as startling as Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets feels more unified, both thematically and musically. Everything about it feels blown up to epic proportions (indeed, the songs are much longer on average), and the band feels more in control of its direction. You’d never know it by the lyrics, though — in one way or another, nearly every song on Master of Puppets deals with the fear of powerlessness. Sometimes they’re about hypocritical authority (military and religious leaders), sometimes primal, uncontrollable human urges (drugs, insanity, rage), and, in true H.P. Lovecraft fashion, sometimes monsters. Yet by bookending the album with two slices of thrash mayhem (“Battery” and “Damage, Inc.”), the band reigns triumphant through sheer force — of sound, of will, of malice. The arrangements are thick and muscular, and the material varies enough in texture and tempo to hold interest through all its twists and turns. Some critics have called Master of Puppets the best heavy metal album ever recorded; if it isn’t, it certainly comes close. [In 2017 the band released a massive expanded edition of the album with a variety of physical package options, the most ambitious of which was an exhaustive box set that included a hardcover book, outtakes and previously unreleased interviews, three LPs, ten CDs, a cassette, two DVDs, a lithograph, a folder with handwritten lyrics, and a set of six buttons.]

Metallica supported Ozzy Osbourne on their promotional tour for this album. James Hetfield broke his wrist while skateboarding and guitar technician John Marshall filled in for him on rhythm guitar as Hetfield only performed the vocals live during the US section of the promotional tour.

Hetfield’s broken wrist was nothing compared to what was about to happen. On September 27th, 1986, while touring Sweden, tragedy struck the band. Around the time of sunrise, their tour bus driver lost control of the bus near Dörarp, Sweden. The bus skidded off the road and tumbled multiple times before coming to a halt. All the band members sustained minor injuries, except bassist Cliff Burton. He was thrown out of the bus window and the bus fell over him, killing him on the spot. Hetfield recalled the harrowing scene of the accident: “I saw the bus lying right on him. I saw his legs sticking out. I freaked. The bus driver, I recall, was trying to yank the blanket out from under him to use for other people. I just went, ‘Don’t fucking do that!’ I already wanted to kill the [bus driver]. I don’t know if he was drunk or if he hit some ice. All I knew was, he was driving and Cliff wasn’t alive anymore.”

Metallica with Jason Newstead (extreme right), circa 1988

Initially, the band were unsure about their future but they decided to soldier on and auditioned for a new bassist. After auditioning over 40 bassists, Metallica selected Jason Newstead from the thrash metal band Flotsam and Jetsam. Metallica finished its tour with Newstead on bass and he brought incredible intensity to the live performances.

Metallica: ..And Justice for All and Metallica

Metallica released their fourth studio album and its first since the demise of Cliff Burton, ..And Justice for All on August 25th, 1988. This album was recorded at the One on One Recording Studio in Los Angeles. This album featured Metallica’s most technically complex songs but it was marred by its infamously dry and sterile final mix.

Cover art for ..And Justice For All

This album also featured Metallica’s first ever music video for the song One. The band also won its first ever Grammy for that song in the year 1990. The album sold very well also, selling over eight million copies in the USA alone and peaking at number six on the Billboard charts. Steve Huey of allmusic.com wrote:

The most immediately noticeable aspect of …And Justice for All isn’t Metallica’s still-growing compositional sophistication or the apocalyptic lyrical portrait of a society in decay. It’s the weird, bone-dry production. The guitars buzz thinly, the drums click more than pound, and Jason Newsted’s bass is nearly inaudible. It’s a shame that the cold, flat sound obscures some of the sonic details, because …And Justice for All is Metallica’s most complex, ambitious work; every song is an expanded suite, with only two of the nine tracks clocking in at under six minutes. It takes a while to sink in, but given time, …And Justice for All reveals some of Metallica’s best material. It also reveals the band’s determination to pull out all the compositional stops, throwing in extra sections, odd-numbered time signatures, and dense webs of guitar arpeggios and harmonized leads. At times, it seems like they’re doing it simply because they can; parts of the album lack direction and probably should have been trimmed for momentum’s sake. Pacing-wise, the album again loosely follows the blueprint of Ride the Lightning, though not as closely as Master of Puppets. This time around, the fourth song — once again a ballad with a thrashy chorus and outro — gave the band one of the unlikeliest Top 40 singles in history; “One” was an instant metal classic, based on Dalton Trumbo’s antiwar novel Johnny Got His Gun and climaxing with a pulverizing machine-gun imitation. As a whole, opinions on …And Justice for All remain somewhat divided: some think it’s a slightly flawed masterpiece and the pinnacle of Metallica’s progressive years; others see it as bloated and overambitious. Either interpretation can be readily supported, but the band had clearly taken this direction as far as it could. The difficulty of reproducing these songs in concert eventually convinced Metallica that it was time for an overhaul.

After reaching its technical limits in ..And Justice for All, Metallica decided to simplify sound and hired producer Bob Rock for the job. Metallica had been really impressed by the work he had done with Mötley Crüe’s Dr. Feelgood album. For their fifth studio album, which was simply titled Metallica, the band wanted the big, booming sound from Bob Rock’s previous works.

Cover art for Metallica

The band recorded the album at the One on One Recording studio. It cost $1 million to make and the process ended three marriages. However, Metallica or The Black Album became Metallica’s largest selling album till date and made them the biggest heavy metal band in the world. Upon its release on August 12th, 1991, the album debuted at #1 in 10 countries. It became the first Metallica album to reach the top of the Billboard charts. The album sold around 600,000 copies within the first week of its release in the USA. It stayed on top of the Billboard charts for four straight weeks. The album has sold over 16 million copies, making it the 25th best selling album of all time. It is also the highest selling album of the Soundscan era. Worldwide, Metallica has sold over 31 million copies. However, in the eyes of many old school fans, this was also the album in which Metallica ‘sold out’. Allmusic.com’s Steve Huey wrote:

After the muddled production and ultracomplicated song structures of …And Justice for All, Metallica decided that they had taken the progressive elements of their music as far as they could and that a simplification and streamlining of their sound was in order. While the assessment made sense from a musical standpoint, it also presented an opportunity to commercialize their music, and Metallica accomplishes both goals. The best songs are more melodic and immediate, the crushing, stripped-down grooves of “Enter Sandman,” “Sad but True,” and “Wherever I May Roam” sticking to traditional structures and using the same main riffs throughout; the crisp, professional production by Bob Rock adds to their accessibility. “The Unforgiven” and “Nothing Else Matters” avoid the slash-and-burn guitar riffs that had always punctuated the band’s ballads; the latter is a full-fledged love song complete with string section, which works much better than might be imagined. The song- and riff-writing slips here and there, a rare occurrence for Metallica, which some longtime fans interpreted as filler next to a batch of singles calculated for commercial success. The objections were often more to the idea that Metallica was doing anything explicitly commercial, but millions more disagreed. In fact, the band’s popularity exploded so much that most of their back catalog found mainstream acceptance in its own right, while other progressively inclined speed metal bands copied the move toward simplification. In retrospect, Metallica is a good, but not quite great, album, one whose best moments deservedly captured the heavy metal crown, but whose approach also foreshadowed a creative decline.

While promoting the album, Metallica performed in the Monsters of Rock festival in Moscow in front of a massive crowd of 1.6 million people. With their immense success, Metallica took heavy metal into the 90s and . Though a steep drop in quality followed the release of Metallica. However, the more accessible sound of Metallica’s later albums won the band even more fans. That’s a part of Metallica’s career that we will discuss some other day. For now, let’s just hit the lights and jump in the fire!

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