A few notable “hard rock” bands — Ratt, Queensryche, and Dokken — had debut releases this time thirty years ago. In terms of “popular” music, Madonna released her self titled debut, Born Again by Black Sabbath was released, Iron Maiden had released their monster classic “The Trooper” and “Maneater” by Hall and Oates was at the top of the charts along with Motley Crue who had just released their second offering Shout At The Devil. But, somewhere in the midst of all these softer releases, a young band from the California Bay area that’s members were no older than 21 traveled to New York to record their HEAVY debut album
That band was Metallica. That album was Kill Em’ All. That album turns thirty this week.
In terms of both substance and interpersonal relationships, the recording of their landmark debut album wasn’t clean. It had been barely a couple months since bassist Ron McGovney was kicked out in favor of Cliff Burton. And mere weeks before the sessionslead guitarist and co-songwriter Dave Mustaine was kicked out of the band for substance abuse and personality issues and replaced with Exodus guitarist Kirk Hammett. It had been a complicated road for founding members James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich this moment, and the bands mishmash of identities is reflected perfectly in the sound of the album. Four of the albums ten tracks had co-writing credits to Dave Mustaine and Kirk Hammett was still using Dave’s guitar leads. Parts of the album sound steeped in ‘80s British metal like the anthemic and badass “Seek & Destroy”, there was the type of rapid fire punk-metal energy the band had found from Motorhead on “Whiplash”(which Motorhead eventually covered). The lyrical content was fairly fantastical, but on “Whiplash” a still wet behind the ears Hetfield talked about the feeling of being at a metal concert and banging your head so hard you get…you know. Metallicawas as wide-eyed as can be. They were ambitious, unrefined and full of energy, and every bit of that ended up on their legendary debut.
In terms of my own history with Metallica I remember Kill Em’ All being the most accessible jumping off point. My first encounters with metal were whatever Judas Priest or party metal music videos were being re-run on VH1 Classic. Bands like Ratt and Dokken were accessible to me at a young age; they were essentially top 40 pop with guitar solos, and to a 12 year old kid, that made sense. As time went on I never got into Metallica, or proper ‘80s thrash, because from an outsider “millennial” looking in, Metallica weren’t a thrash band. Surely no band that was played on the typical modern rock station next to the likes of Godsmack could be any good.
Songs like “Enter Sandman” had been burned into my brain very uncomfortably, and after complaining ad naueseam about how terrible that song was my friend finally told me to shut up and listen to their infamous 1986 Master Of Puppets album. I tried. I couldn’t get through it. It seemed like too much at a time when albums like Get Rich Or Die Trying were in my regular rotation. The songs were too long, too many shifts, not catchy enough. My horizon wasn’t wide enough to “get it”. Then I remember sitting down with their debut and finally having a way to get into Metallica. The songs were rawer, simpler, and full of energy and attitude. From the opening moments of “Seek & Destroy” I felt like I had finally got it. After spending months with that record blasting in my room while consumed with teenage angst and air guitar competitions with myself as the only competitor, I was finally able to start the journey into their discography of arguably the world’s biggest metal band.
It feels good to sit with Kill Em’ All nowand just focus on the raw aggression splattered over its ten tracks. Before Metallica was one of the biggest bands in the world, before they sold millions of albums, released 3D IMAX films, made ten minute prog rock anthems about dead soldiers, committed musical suicide during pretty much all of the ‘90s, made their own festival and made “art-metal” records with Lou Reed, they were just a bunch of snot-nosed aggressive kids from California.