In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we take a look at Metallica‘s incredibly influential debut album, 1983’s ‘Kill ‘Em All.
Sometimes, it takes the rest of the world a while to catch up with what a handful of people know. Over the weekend, Metallica played a “secret” gig at the historic Spreckels Theatre in downtown San Diego, which seats about 1500. It was the hottest event of Comic-Con, an event that attracted well over 100,000 attendees to catch glimpses of the most anticipated sci-fi films and TV series. Among the super heroes and TV series and book adaptations was Metallica’s 3D IMAX flick, Through The Never.
But back in 1983, Comic-Con was just an event catering to mostly comic book fans, decades away from Hollywood treating it like a sci-fi Sundance. The idea that Metallica would play places several times larger than the Spreckels Theatre seemed like a pipe dream.
Metallica has been such a huge band for so long, it’s hard to remember how unlikely their success actually was, and how underground they were when they started. You have to go back. Way back: before their feature film, before they started their own festival, before their Lou Reed collaboration (can we just forget about that one, actually?), before their edition of Guitar Hero, before their Napster battle, before their tell-all documentary.
In 1983, the face of hard rock was Def Leppard; their Pyromania album dominated the charts and MTV. They were a New Wave Of British Heavy Metal band, but with the help of producer Robert “Mutt” Lange, they became a polished rock band who didn’t sound out of place on the radio next to the Police, Michael Jackson and Duran Duran. A much glammier strain of hard rock was piquing interests of radio programmers and magazine editors: Quiet Riot’s Metal Health hit #1, Mötley Crüe’s Shout At The Devil and Ratt’s debut EP had just come out, and Van Halen were in-between Diver Down and 1984. Those bands were based in L.A., and L.A. was what was happening.
But heavy metal has always been outsider music, and with the possible exception of Shout At The Devil, none of the above albums had much of an air of danger. A 382 miles north of L.A. in San Francisco, there was Metallica. They were not pretty. They did not sing ballads. Actually, frontman James Hetfield barely sung at all: he yelled and growled. Metallica weren’t influenced by KISS or Slade; they preferred Venom and Mercyful Fate, and, above all, Motörhead. And along with bands like Anthrax, Exodus, Slayer, and Megadeth (led by exiled Metallica guitarist Dave Mustaine), they created a new counterculture within heavy metal. As drummer Lars Ulrich told authors Jon Wiederhorn and Katherine Turman in their excellent oral history of metal, Louder Than Hell, “In ’83, ’84, ’85 the music scene in America was still dominated by the major labels. We were the big f*** you alternative to Loverboy and Journey and REO Speedwagon. At that time, we were pretty f***ing vocal about it, too. We made sure that everybody understood that we were the anti-Motley Crue.”
For guys who didn’t want to dress like girls, sing like girls, or sing to girls (maybe because girls weren’t interested), this was their band. Today, “Enter Sandman” is played at sporting events. If you knew who Metallica was in 1983, you were probably an outcast. The music was fast, loud, and brutal.
Jonny Zazula, along with his wife, Marsha, signed them to their first label deal, although he actually had to start his own label to do so. Owner of a record store in a flea market, he formed Megaforce Records to put out their debut LP, Kill ‘Em All. He tells Radio.com “Metallica blew me away the second I heard them. The power of the guitarists’ counter rhythms with the very unique bass and drumming made their music sound to me as America’s answer to the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, which was starting to catch on at the store and in other areas of the country. Within hours I found a phone number to reach them and I was on a pay phone in the flea market lobby.”
These days, “Seek And Destroy” is a staple of Metallica’s stadium-packing concerts, as is “Whiplash” and “The Four Horsemen.” But back then, it sounded like it was from another planet, especially to music industry gatekeepers. Clearly Zazula knew that Metallica had something special. “I knew that this album was going to make some impact, but not to the extent that it has. However I used to tell everyone (with a very serious facial expression) that Metallica would be the next Led Zeppelin.”
Over the weekend at Comic-Con, press outlets tried their best to use their clout to get into the Spreckels Theatre concert. Such a scenario would have been hard to imagine in 1983; other than a few fanzines, Metallica were not a hot property as far as the media was concerned. “The music would suffer (commercially),” Zazula says. “There was no TV or radio exposure to break a thrash metal band. Touring and word of mouth was all there was and we chose those avenues to get Metallica the exposure to get a nice fire burning.”
The band didn’t always make things easy on themselves: they originally wanted to title their debut “Metal Up Your A**” (the planned cover was a toilet with a sword coming out of it). Maestro bassist Cliff Burton came up with the new name. As Zazula recalls, “The name of the album was changed due to the negative response we received from our record distributors. We jointly decided to change the name. When Cliff Burton yelled out ‘F***in’ kill them all!’ the name was no longer an issue.”
The band jumped from clubs to theaters to arenas with each subsequent album, until their 1991 “Black Album” made them undeniable superstars. In the years since, they’ve headlined huge venues all across the planet, won Grammys, and are one of the few metal bands in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Was Zazula right about the Zeppelin comparison? You can make an argument, but the fact is, Metallica have been headlining the arenas that Zep played for twice as long as Page & Co. were a band.
In June, Metallica played Kill ‘Em All, in full, at their second annual Orion Music + More Festival. They were scheduled to headline the main stage on the second day of the two-day event, but on day one, they showed up on one of the smaller stages under the name “Dehaan” (Dave Dehaan is the lead actor in Through The Never), blasting through the album in a 55 minute set. During “Whiplash,” James Hetfield screamed the lyrics, “We’ll never stop, we’ll never quit, ’cause we’re Metallica!” That salvo may have been pure bluster when he scribbled it in a notebook 30 years ago, but this was the same band who penned “The Four Horsemen.” They weren’t just writing songs, they were writing prophecies of the future of metal, and the future of Metallica.