Metallica: Talkin' Thrash
Originally printed in Guitar World, December 2008
Metallica and a cast of their metal brethren deliver an oral history of the group’s first decade: from Kill ’Em All to the “Black Album.”
It was in Los Angeles almost 30 years ago that Lars Ulrich, a teenage tennis prodigy turned drummer, first jammed with James Hetfield, a guitarist and singer from the nearby SoCal neighborhood of Downey. At the time, a none-too-impressed Hetfield figured that first session to be their last. He was, of course, very wrong. As the backbone of Metallica, Hetfield and Ulrich have gone on to perform countless times for millions of fans around the world and to sell many millions of albums.
All of which would not have been possible without the major players who have passed through the band’s ranks over the years, among them guitarist Dave Mustaine, bassist Jason Newsted and, perhaps most crucial, the late, great bassist Cliff Burton. But no single musician has been beside Hetfield and Ulrich longer than lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, who joined Metallica prior to the recording of their 1983 debut, Kill ’Em All, and whose quick-fingered, melodic soloing is an indispensable element of the band’s sound to this day.
Currently rounded out by bassist Robert Trujillo, Metallica recently released their ninth studio effort, Death Magnetic. The album is being hailed as a return to the band’s thrash metal roots, which makes this an ideal moment to tell the story of those trailblazing early days.
In this exclusive oral history, Hetfield, Hammett and Ulrich, along with some friends and former band mates, look back on Metallica’s first decade, and recount the recording of their classic first five albums. Through the eyes of those who saw it, heard it, and helped to create the timeless music, Guitar World charts Metallica’s rise from L.A. thrash upstarts to reigning biggest heavy metal band in the world.
In the Beginning
In 1980, 16-year-old Lars Ulrich moves with his family from his native Denmark to Los Angeles. Inspired by Deep Purple and New Wave of British Heavy Metal acts like Diamond Head, Saxon and Motörhead, Ulrich puts down his tennis racket, picks up a pair of drumsticks and decides to form a band. Among the first people he meets after moving to L.A. is Brian Slagel, a Southern California teen who would go on to found the independent record label Metal Blade.
BRIAN SLAGEL Lars would always say, “I’m going to start a band one day,” and I’d be like, “Sure man, whatever.” He had this little drum set in the corner of his bedroom, but it wasn’t even set up. I’d always laugh when I saw it because it was just a big mess. But when I started putting together Metal Massacre [the Metal Blade compilation of local, unsigned metal bands] Lars came to me and said, “If I get a band together, can I be on the album?” Since he was a good friend I said, “Absolutely.”
In the summer of 1980, Ulrich places a classified ad in SoCal paper The Recycler: “Drummer looking for other musicians to jam with, Tygers of Pan Tang, Diamond Head, Iron Maiden.” Guitarist James Hetfield is among the respondents.
JAMES HETFIELD The first time Lars and I got together to jam, it just didn’t happen. There was no vibe. But he introduced me to a whole new world of heavy music. I had heard of Iron Maiden and Def Leppard but not too many of the other, more obscure English metal bands. I would spend days just going through his record collection, taping over my REO Speedwagon cassettes with bands like Angel Witch and Diamond Head and Motörhead. I was in heaven at his house.
SLAGEL When Lars heard about the Metal Massacre compilation I was putting together, the two of them recorded ‘Hit the Lights’ on a little Fostex cassette, and they had their friend, Lloyd Grant, who was a guitar teacher, come in and do the lead.
HETFIELD Lars came to me with the opportunity to be on a record, and that was pretty interesting. At that point in my life I wanted to play music. I didn’t want to work.
Ulrich steals the name Metallica from friend and radio DJ Ron Quintana, who had mentioned it as a possible title for a fanzine he was preparing to launch. Ulrich and Hetfield recruit bassist Ron McGovney, who had played with Hetfield previously in the band Leather Charm, and lead guitarist Dave Mustaine to fill out the band’s lineup.
DAVE MUSTAINE Before the [first] rehearsal, I went to Lars’ house, and he played me the tape of “Hit the Lights.” I said, “This song sucks. You need more guitar solos.” And Lars went, “Oh fuck, reeeeaaallly?” I convinced him that I should be in the band and went to rehearsal. I was tuning up when all the other guys went into another room. They weren’t talking to me, so I went in and said, “What the fuck? Am I in the band or not?” And they said, “You’ve got the gig.” It was as easy as that.
KERRY KING (Slayer guitarist) I remember seeing Dave play with Metallica at the Woodstock in Anaheim [California]. He was ripping these killer solos and riffs, and he was just glaring at the crowd—not even looking at his fingers. I was blown away.