METALLICA is a mega-band of heavy metal from 80s and 90s, whose name became a face of heavy metal for many fans and musicians. There are only few bands in the history of rock that reached such height as Metallica, and I doubt that today someone else has such fame and popularity as them. In short fifteen years this band turned from a bunch of basement amateurs into a national sensation. Most importantly Metallica never compromised their music for anyone in show business. Their music always was their self-expression, their faith. In this story, I will try to tell how Metallica began.
Metallica’s beginning as many other things in this world owes to someone being at the right place in the right time. I’m talking about one of the founders of future legend – its drummer, Lars Ulrich, who was born in faraway Denmark. This fact is interesting, because only two famous performers of heavy metal were ever born in Denmark: King Diamond and Ulrich himself. Lars was born in a suburb of Copenhagen on December 26, 1963 in family of famous at that time tennis player, Torben Ulrich. Due to this, problem of Lars’s profession was solved at early age. At the beginning little Lars constantly traveled all around the world with his dad to different championships and tournaments, and later took up tennis himself. By the time Lars was ten, he was in the top ten of Danish junior league, and would only keep advancing. Both Lars and his father were thinking that his future was set as a tennis star. However, that soon changed. In February of 1973 young Lars accidentally wound up at a concert of Deep Purple. He was taken there by his father’s friend – old hippie and fan of hard rock. Lars himself had little interest in that kind of music. What he saw, however, turned his world upside down. A week later, Lars brought home his first vinyl disc – album Deep Purple ‘71’ ‘Fireball’. Lars also got into Sweet, Uriah Heep, Slade, Thin Lizzy, and Black Sabbath – all the British rock-elite. Black Sabbath’s concert in 75 inspired other people too, so Copenhagen at the time had plenty of teenagers jumping with some heavy music and trying make guitarists of themselves. Lars, on the other hand, chose a very different instrument for himself – the drums. More and more often you could see him spending time with two sticks and a bunch of boxes instead of his tennis racket. Lars finally got real drums for his 13th birthday after bugging his grandmother for several months. One time going around his favorite of music stores, Lars found out “New Wave of British Heavy Metal” or “NWOBHM” that changed his life again. In fall of 79 Lars finally met a real, live rocker – drummer of Motorhead, Phil Taylor. Lars’s parents at the same time were trying to find a way to deal with their son’s growing music obsession. They decided on moving to America, where they were sure, it would be easier for Lars to concentrate on sport and continue his promising career in that field, because of all the different tennis tournaments going on in there. So in the middle of 1980 the whole family moved across the ocean to California. Their new home became a place called New-Port Beach, several miles to the south of Los-Angeles. Lars’s parents sold his drums in Denmark before the move and made him start on tennis again. That didn’t work, however. Two months after the move, Lars got himself his own drums, and this time there was nothing his parents could do to keep him away from them. Lars had a problem with America, though: nobody even heard about the music he was so crazy about. There was nothing heavier than Van Halen on the west coast at that time. It is easy to understand how lonely Lars was in his passions. Everyone considered him completely crazy and hopelessly focused on his drums and foreign heavy metal. In the beginning of 1981, however, Lars got lucky – he finally met a common thinker, a guy named Jeff Warner, who played the guitar and also liked British rock. Right after they met, both agreed to devote all their free time to heavy metal. In the end of February they met Lloyd Grant, a skilled black guitarist, who was ten years older than Lars and Jeff. Even though it didn’t cause any trouble, after several weeks of training together, the three broke up. Lars and Lloyd had some purely communication problems, and Jeff, disappointed by what happened, left too.
Now back to 63, when on August 3, James Allan Hetfield was born in Los-Angeles’s suburb, Norwalk. Unlike Lars, James Hetfield started taking on music at very early age – his father Virgil made him take fortepiano lessons. All those lessons made Beethoven, Mozart, and all other classics, Hetfield’s “enemies”. With that set of mind, James didn’t really try with the piano and interest himself with theory part; he just banged the keys to make some noise. Interestingly enough, James’s older brother considered him to be skilled enough and accepted him into his own band The Bitter End, where he himself played the drums. Gradually James got into heavy metal as much as Lars did.
Story of the third member of future band Metallica, story of Ron McGownie, can be summed up in only one saying: “Tell me who your friends are, and I’ll tell you who you are.” Ron was growing a perfect boy, until he met with Hetfield. Ron didn’t share James’s music passions, but in time James infected him with them, and Ron decided to start playing the guitar, too.
James started two bands one after another: Obsession, and Syrinx, but neither lasted that long. In 1980 James’s mother died and he moved to Brie with his brother. There he met with guy named Hue Tanner and formed a band called Phantom Lord. The band wasn’t really one, it was James and Hue sitting and playing together. They didn’t have a bass player, so James offered Ron that place. Ron wasn’t a bass player, he didn’t even have a bass guitar, but James didn’t care, he decided to teach Ron and he did. Phantom Lord, however, wasn’t doing all that good: Hue Tanner, as good as he was as a guitarist, finally decided to go into music management. Couple of days after Hue left, James brought a drummer named Jim Mulligan, who was his former classmate, and a new guitarist, Troy James – Hetfield still wanted to be only a vocalist. After all these changes a new band was formed – Leather Charm. This band, however, played a very different kind of music from what Hetfield played before: Leather Charm played the real glam-rock. For the first time they wrote three of their own songs: “Hit The Lights’, “Handsome Ransom” and “Let’s Go Rock’n’Roll”. First one was included in Metallica debut album and the other two later made one song – “No Remorse”. Leather Charm itself, didn’t last long either: they didn’t play any concerts and Mulligan wanted to played more progressive music. Nevertheless, Leather Charm because an ugly prototype of future Metallica.
But without Lars Ulrich, METALLICA wasn’t destined to be. This way we come to a moment when James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich finally meet each other. When Leather Charm broke up, James placed an ad in California newspaper “The Recycler” – something like looking for musicians in a band. But here’s the tricky part: such ads were so rare that in section “Heavy-metal” of “The Recycler” there were only two names: James Hetfield and… Lars Ulrich! So it was impossible for them not to call each other. It’s also very interesting, it turned out that James and Lars already met and even played together. When it was only James and Hue, Hue brought Lars to one of their rehearsals, and they all played a little together. That time, however, both James and Ron (it happened in his house, but he didn’t play yet) thought Lars was the worst drummer on earth. Lars couldn’t hold the rhythm, and was awful compared to Mulligan. Fate, however, had other opinion, so this time was different. After meeting with James, Lars dragged James to his house where he played his vinyl discs to James the whole day constantly adding some needed and unneeded comments, and also stories about various European concerts and parties with Diamond Head and Motorhead. Hetfield instantly fell in love with all those British bands, but he was too shocked by information overload, moreover as he never even NWOBHM before. “At that time I was listening to Black Sabbath, Judas Priest – bands also British, but I never had any idea about any underground!” His impression of Lars, however, was much different from impression he got from Lars’ music collection. It’s even rumored that James said to Lars that he stinks and suggested using soap. On the other hand, James was downright impressed by how rich Lars’s family was and all the excellent music equipment Lars had. At the same time Lars was pulled in by James’s experience in collective work and all his ideas and suggestions for rehearsals, renting their own place to play, and all the other stuff necessary for a band to exist. “Of course, I wanted all this”, Lars says, “but James just stumbled me with all his ideas. To say the truth, I just wanted someone to play my favorite songs with, instead of simply sitting alone and mindlessly pounding the drums.” Nevertheless, the same evening, thanks to James Hetfield’s determination the legendary METALLICA was conceived. Of course it took them much more than one time to get something done. When it came to first rehearsals, Hetfield called Lars an incapable Dutch midget, and left banging the door. To tell the truth though, Lars wasn’t really wasn’t that good at the time, and had to play the cheapest “Woolworsth” set of drums that cost him seven bucks. Over a period of time, however, Lars and James got over their animosity and became good friends.
Their not so big start came with help of one of Lars’s friends working in publishing of “New Heavy Metal Review”, Brian Slegel. At that time, in 1981, there were more and more heavy metal bands appearing in Los-Angeles, and Brian decided to put best of them on one disc. To put this idea to life Slegel created his own company – “Metal Blade”, and started calling all his familiar local bands for this compilation, which was going to be called “Metal Massacre”. Brian already got a yes for a song for Bitch, Steeler and Ratt, when he got a call from Lars Ulrich who asked if Slegel could include a song from Lars’s band if he was able to put one together. Brian said that he would be happy to do it, by that giving a start to METALLICA! Slegel may overestimate his contribution into creation of this mega band, but METALLICA really got their first song out with “Metal Massacre”. After talking on the phone with Slegel, Ulrich hurriedly found James Hetfield, and told him that they had a chance to be featured on a vinyl if they came up with a whole band real fast. Hetfield agreed, as he figured there was nothing to lose. This way a distant likelihood of a band was quickly compiled. After that, they still had a task of writing the song itself. This, however, took them even less time than compiling a band. Their “Hit The Lights” was piece of James’s old Leather Charm song, with Lars adding something of his own to it. Due to fact that their likelihood of the band had an awful shortage of players, Lars and James had to record drums, bass, guitar and vocal on a primitive four-track “TEAC” all by themselves. After that they got a soloist named Lloyd Grant who was already mentioned in the story through the same “Recycler”. Even though the quality of their final recording had a vast room for improvement, Brian Slegel was happy with “Hit The Lights” and even declared it the best song he got for his compilation. Such turn of events made musicians themselves much more than happy, and James even changed his opinion about Lars’s skills and decided the continue their joint playing. Moreover, Lars finally got a new set of drums and they sounded nothing like the old set did.
Now the story finally comes to the name “METALLICA”. After recording “Hit The Lights”, Lars and James needed a name under which to present themselves to the world. Back in those days, long and inflated names like today, were not in fashion, so it was quite a task picking a good name. James and Lars have gone over a whole bunch of different names like Grinder, Blitzer, Red Vette, Helldriver, and even Thunderf**k. They both really liked the name Thunderf**k and even came up with a logo for it, but censorship is censorship and they didn’t want to take their chances with this name, so they had to keep on thinking. They finally got help with this from another Lars’s friend Ron Quintann. Ron often visited Lars, and one fall evening of 1981, he came to Ulrich glowing from happiness and told Lars, that his lifelong dream — creating his own heavy-metal newspaper – is about to turn to reality, and that all he needed was a name for his paper! It turned out that Ron already had two choices, and he couldn’t decide to pick either “Metallica” or “Metal Mania”. Trying to hide his excitement, Lars blurted out that “Metal Mania” was way better. This famous theft happened on October 27, 1981, giving the world METALLICA. Almost the next day, James created a logo for the name: the one with arrows, which you can see on any Metallica merchandise today. Passing the name and the logo to Brian Slegel, Lars and James started on the actual problems: getting a bassist and a second guitarist. Bassist was found very fast – this empty place was given to good old Ron McGownie. Even though neither Lars not James ever took Ron as a real musician, they had to compile the band the sooner the better – that was the main condition for participating in the project of Brian Slegel. Finding the second guitarist took a while longer. The fact that Lloyd Grant is not going to stay in Metallica longer than it took to record “Hit The Lights” was apparent to everyone: Lars and James didn’t consider him fit for the rhythm guitar. After trying out a couple dozens different guitarists, they had to turn to their old tested method – the newspaper ad. It worked this time too, getting Metallica – Dave Mustane. For Dave playing the guitar was the only escape in his awful childhood, so he was good enough for Metallica, and after one rehearsal Dave did with them, he became their member. First thing, Dave called their “Hit The Lights” and the band rerecorded all the solos in it. In fact the new version did turn out much better.
At this time, the kind of music METALLICA played, not only nobody else in America played, but nobody even heard it! It was really something new, and unheard of before. This can be explained be the absence of Metallica concerts, which in turn can be explained by Metallica not being fully compiled (James Hetfield, was still torn between vocals and guitar, and refused to do both).
Finally, the historic even – first, the very first concert of Metallica – happened in the club called “Radio City” in Anaheim, on March 14, 1982. For Metallica it was a completely new feeling new atmosphere – the world of live music, unity of performers and listeners, where the boundaries between the two disappear. However, in those years only a few people took interest in Metallica’s music, and the masses were crazy about the Glam-rock. Despite all that, guys’ popularity somehow kept growing and even Europe heard of Metallica!
After some touring, Metallica set (which consisted of only “Hit The Lights” at the time) finally had three more songs added to it: “The Mechanix”, “Jump In The Fire”, and Hetfield’s “Motorbreath”. In April of 82 these three plus “Hit The Lights” were recorded on tape in McGownie’s garage. Later this tape became a basis for all the business deals. Lars Ulrich and a guy named Patrick Scott, started on distribution of these tapes, by passing out free copies with card that said Metallica and their phone number to almost anyone they saw.
At the same time, the band was continuously searching for a rhythm guitarist. They found an extremely weird guy named Brad Parker, but after one concert with him, they had to kick Brad out, and James Hetfield finally realized that he would have to carry the burden, of playing the rhythm guitar.
In 1982 the “Metal Massacre” finally came out. Even though its cover had countless typos and the band’s name was spelled “Mettallica”, it became their first official disc, and planted the seeds where Metallica’s later fame would be partly rooted.
Things really to started to pick up the pace for Metallica when of their concert recordings wound up in the hands of Kenny Kane, owner and manager of independent company “High Velocity”. Having found Metallica’s work very innovative, Kane contacted the band and offered Metallica to release a whole EP, promising to cover all the recording costs. Sure enough, the band agreed, but later it turned out that the concert tape Kane heard had only the cover songs, not the Metallica originals, so Kane refused to put out the Metallica vinyl. However, the band still got their paid studio where they recorded “No Life ‘Till Leather” – their new demo tape, which was spread the same way as the first one.
On September 18 in San Francisco, Metallica appeared at the presentation of “Metal Massacre” organized by Brian Slegel himself. The band wound up there pure accidentally after Cirith Ungol (one of Slegel’s picks) couldn’t make it. The interesting thing was that all the fans that came to that concert had “No Life ‘Till Leather” and jointly sang the words of almost all the Metallica songs. This was the first time Metallica met with its real fans.
Metallica continued playing in San Francisco, gaining more and popularity until November 28, when the band finally headlined their own show! That show was also where and when Metallica met Kirk Hammett, who then played in Exodus – a band who was warming the crowd up at the show.
At the same time, there were and more problems with Ron McGownie in the middle of Metallica itself. Ron was getting more and more distant from other band members, even during their friendly parties. As things were getting worse, Brian Slegel invited Lars and James to visit concert of the band called Trauma. There, both were completely captivated by Trauma’s bassist – Cliff Burton. Cliff didn’t have any desire to leave Trauma, but after the concert and months after that Lars and James were literally stalking Burton, trying to get him into Metallica. Ron McGownie accidentally found out about all this, and in December he officially left Metallica. Several weeks after that whole Metallica moved to San Francisco, and Cliff Burton finally agreed to play with them.
When 1983 started, growing financial problems stopped Metallica’s growth, until they a very influential west coast guy named Johnny Z. Johnny Z. managed his own store called “Rock-n-roll Heaven” where you could find anything connected with heavy metal. Same Johnny Z. also organized rock concerts in New York and New Jersey from time to time. Johnny convinced Metallica to go New York where he housed all four guys for three months!
Gradually Dave Mustane and his heavy drinking started to distance him from the band as Ron got distanced before that. Moreover, other members of Metallica got an Exodus tape and just as they did with Cliff, they got determined that they have got to have Kirk Hammett instead of Dave. In April of 83 they shamelessly booted Dave, and instantly Kirk Hammett became the newest member of the band. Still Metallica kept playing at the same clubs introducing their new member to the public. The fun ended when Johnny Z. kicked them all out of his house for drinking two bottles of champagne that were his family’s treasure. For several weeks Metallica had to live in the abandoned warehouse.
In the beginning of May, however, the band got news from Johnny that even though he kicked them out of this house, he kept his word, and rented a recording studio “Music America” for two weeks. May 10, 1983 Metallica first came into that studio. Their material was ready and dozens if not even hundreds of times rehearsed. Finally, Metallica got its wish and they could release their own disc!!!
Censorship didn’t allow the original name of the disc – “Metal Up Your A**”, with a logo of a hand with a sword coming out of a toilet. Metallica had to settle on “Kill ‘Em All” that basically expressed their feelings toward the censors.
This album sold thousands of copies and made finally made Metallica a success, but that’s already another story...
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Crocker, Chris Metallica: the frayed ends of metal New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993
Metallica in person. Port Chester, NY: Cherry Lane Music, 1990