The History of Thrash Metal

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On June 28, 1991, three of the biggest bands in thrash metal - Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth - headlined a sold-out show at New York City's Madison Square Garden. The gig was one stop on a tour that, fittingly, was billed as the Clash of the Titans. Just as appropriate was the venue for that night's show, the self-proclaimed "World's Most Famous Arena." Cheered on by thousands of screaming fans, the bands delivered a bold statement: Thrash music notoriously nonconformist, ferociously passionate and unbelievably heavy-was no longer an underdog. It wasn't even a contender. It was the undisputed king of the heavy metal heap.

"We were sitting in a dressing room in Cincinnati after a gig earlier that year;' recalls Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian, "and our tour manager carne in and told us we had gotten an offer to go out on the road with Slayer and Megadeth. I was fucking pumped, because I knew it was going to be a pretty awesome thing."

It was, in fact, a very awesome thing. After all, Anthrax, Slayer and Megadeth had been responsible for creating some of the previous decade's most extreme and uncompromising music. Together with Metallica they had been christened the "Big Four" and were among the originators of the style that came to be known as thrash, which took the thundering force of traditional heavy metal, injected it with punk's sneering aggression and delivered the whole thing with a relentless, insistent groove. Although the thrash tag is rarely used today, the music and its attitude have inspired a new generation of musicians, and its signifying characteristics-rapid-fire, heavily palm-muted guitar riffs, pounding double-bass drumming, and vocals that shunned histrionics in favor of a gruff, street level delivery live on in the sound of countless current metal acts.

"We were playing brutal, real metal music, and the Clash tour showed that we could be successful on our own terms by doing our own thing," says Ian. "So that was important. Back then, it always drove us crazy when people lumped us together with guys like Ratt and Motley Criie. I don't know what they were, but they certainly weren't metal. We were metal."

In 1991, the fans agreed with Ian wholeheartedly. Thrash had become the music of choice for those fed up with the slick, image-obsessed acts that had dominated heavy metal throughout much of the Eighties. The Clash of the Titans tour was a resounding affirmation of that fact.

And yet, little more than a decade earlier, thrash metal didn't exist. In fact, at the beginning of the Eighties, heavy music as a whole was in dire straits. For one thing, many of the genre's leading bands were suffering a massive hangover from the high times and hard living of the previous decade: Black Sabbath were struggling to reinvent themselves with new singer Ronnie James Dio; Ozzy Osbourne, Sabbath's former frontman, was engulfed in a haze of drugs and alcohol; Led Zeppelin were permanently grounded following the death of drummer John Bonham; Kiss had split with original guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss; and Deep Purple, after numerous lineup changes, had finally called it quits. At the same time, up-and-coming bands like Britain's Judas Priest and Germany's Scorpions had yet to make a considerable dent in the American market.

As a result, metal's bombastic sound and rebellious soul were co-opted by anodyne arena rockers that included Journey and Foreigner, who smoothed out the music's rough edges, gave it a spit-shine and fed it, defanged and declawed, to the mainstream masses. So it wasn't just his teenage flair for melodrama that led future Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich to describe the life of an American metal fan circa 1980 as a "lonely existence." When the 15-year-old and his family relocated that year from his native Denmark to Newport Beach, California, Ulrich found that virtually no one in his new home had yet heard of Iron Maiden and Diamond Head, two of his favorite bands, or for that matter any of the other acts who were part of a burgeoning U.K. scene known as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.

Musically, the bands that were lumped together under the NWOBHM banner varied greatly in sound; the majestic, epic arrangements and twin-guitar harmonies of Iron Maiden couldn't have been more distant from the bone-dry Neanderthal grunt of Motorhead, while the primitive lo-fi screech and comical satanic posturing of Venom had little to do with the hooky pop-rock luster and youthful good looks of Def Leppard.

Despite their different approaches, these and other NWOBHM bands like Raven, Saxon and Angel Witch were, together, overhauling heavy metal for the new decade. They did it by taking the power and heft of forebears like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple and fusing it with the speed and ferocity of punk rock.

That formula would prove elemental to thrash metal as well: American bands adopted the Brit's aggressive-looking wardrobes -- dominated by denim and leather, and accented by black T-shirts and bullet belts -- and their do-it-yourself method of promoting the music through independent record labels and makeshift fanzines, effectively bypassing traditional mainstream media outlets.

While a few of the leading NWOBHM bands were enjoying success, American fans of the music were still few and far between. So when Brian Slagel -- a Southern California teenager who would eventually found a heavy metal fanzine and independent record label that were among America's first -- spotted Ulrich at a concert in the summer of 1980 wearing a Saxon European tour shirt, it was reason enough for the two to become fast friends.

"The day after that show, Lars came over to my house and we just talked about the scene in Britain," remembers Slagel. "At that time, nobody in America knew who any of those bands were because it was really difficult to get any information about anything that was going on over there. But since Lars had just moved from Denmark, he had been closer to it and had a lot of stuff that I didn't have."

Together, the two spent their days scouring local music sto res for obscure British metal records and exchanging demos and live bootlegs in the tapetrading underground, a network of people from all over the world who communicated through ads in the classified sections of magazines like Goldmine and Music Trader. Slagel also used his job at Oz Records, in Woodland Hills, to import albums from NWOBHM bands. The few locals who were into the music eventually wound up doing their shopping at Oz, and a small community of fans began to coalesce.

At the same time, the Los Angeles metal scene was going through a period of revitalization. Fueled by the breakout success of party-metallers Van Halen, a new crop of more aggressive acts like Motley Crne and Ratt (both of whom were darker and heavier in their infancy than when they achieved mainstream success) began sprouting up. Slagel started booking shows for many of these bands at local clubs and created a rudimentary newsletter called The New Heavy Metal Revue to document the emerging scene. In 1982, Slagel, inspired by a compilation album of NWOBHM bands called Metal for Muthas, decided to put together an American version, Metal Massacre, that featured local Sunset Strip metal acts like Ratt and Bitch. He gave the last slot on the record to his young Danish friend.

"Lars would always say, 'I'm gonna start a band one day,' and I'd be like, 'Sure man, whatever,'" says Slagel. "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 compiling Metal Massacre, 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.' "

Ulrich contacted an 18-year-old guitarist from Downey, California, named James Hetfield, whose metal band, Leather Charm, he had auditioned for unsuccessfully. Hetfield had been unimpressed with the novice drurrmier's skills, but the news that Ulrich had the opportunity to release a song on an actual vinyl album instantly made him a more attractive bandmate. The two got together at Ulrich 's house and, using a cheap four track machine, reworked and recorded an old Leather Charm composition called " Hit the Lights." Ulrich played drums, Hetfield handled guitar, bass and vocals, and a local Jamaican guitarist named Lloyd Grant was brought in to play the solo. Credited to "Mettallica" on Metal Massacre's first pressing, this early version of "Hit the Lights" gallops along at breakneck speed, punctuated by lurching tempo changes. It may very well be the first American thrash metal song. At the very least, its racing guitar riffs and frantic drumming laid the blueprint for the sound that would soon take over the world.

As Metal Massacre made its way through the underground scene in the summer of 1982, other thrashminded bands-Slayer in Southern California, Anthrax in New York and Exodus in San Francisco-were sprouting up across the country, completely independent of one another. Like Metallica, each band was made up of teenagers fueled by a desire to take the heavy metal music that they loved and build on it to create something that was completely new and entirely their own.

"People ask me all the tim e how our sound came about," says guitarist Gary Holt, who joined Exodus in 1983 after seeing the band perform in his high school music room. " In my case, the answer is that I didn't know any better. I was just this kid sitting in his bedroom trying to write the fastest, craziest shit I could."

Few bands played faster or looked crazier than Huntington Beach's Slayer, whose corrosive, buzz-saw guitar riffs and coarse, shouted vocals reflected the influence of hard core punk acts like the Adolescents, Minor Threat and G.B.H. as much as they did the inspiration of Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Venom. In addition, the band initially wore thick black eye makeup and spiked armbands and collars. The overall effect was far from subtle.

"People hated us at the beginning because they just didn't know what to make of what we were doing," says guitarist Kerry King. "We'd go into a club and blow the roof off the place."

As a result, few Los Angeles-area venues were willing to book the band. So while Metallica tried their hand, for the most part unsuccessfully, at Hollywood clubs like the Troubadour and the Whiskey, Slayer went a different route. "We stayed away from the Sunset Strip because that's where you had all the bullshit glam acts," says King. " Instead, we mostly played around Orange County, at places like Woodstock and Radio City."

The East Coast bands faced similar problems. "In '81 and '82 there was absolutely nothing going on," says Scott Ian. "Unless you were Twisted Sister, the clubs wouldn't book any groups doing original material. They only wanted cover bands, and even then , they didn't want the type of covers Anthrax were playing-stuff like Priest, Motorhead and the Ramones."

Stay tuned for Part 4!

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Richard Bienstock

Rich is the co-author of the best-selling Nöthin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion. He is also a recording and performing musician, and a former editor of Guitar World magazine and executive editor of Guitar Aficionado magazine. He has authored several additional books, among them Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the companion to the documentary of the same name.