By Steve Newton
In advance of the show I did my first-ever Metallica interview, with 21-year-old Lars Ulrich. It’s kinda funny, looking over this crusty article, because–although I’ve grown to love Metallica–I was not a big fan of its early, thrashier material.
I think it might have been too heavy for me.
In fact, I come off as a bit of a dweeb reporter, pointing fingers at the band’s preoccupation with death and violence. I probly should have taken a chill pill.
Anyway, it’s all ancient heavy-metal history now.
Here’s the story that ran in Vancouver’s Georgia Straight newspaper under the no-frills headline: Metallica Thrash Metal.
Metallica are the type of band that puts the “heavy” in heavy metal. Actually, drummer Lars Ulrich–who called the Straight from L.A. last week–prefers to call his band’s music “speed metal” or “thrash metal”. Their sound crew are known as “The Sonic Decapitation Team”, and local metal fans will have the opportunity to lose their heads when Metallica play the New York Theatre this Monday (March 18), with local act Kradle.
Metallica were first formed in 1980 after Ulrich moved to the L.A. suburb of Norwalk from his native Denmark. He met up with rhythm guitarist/vocalist James Hetfield, recruited a lead guitarist and bassist (no longer in the band) and the group began playing their “very European-sounding” hard rock at L.A. clubs like the Whiskey A Go Go, Roxy, and Troubadour.
“It was strange in L.A. in the beginning,” Ulrich says, “because we just went out and did it our way. In the beginning we were very sort of obnoxious–I’m not saying we aren’t any more (laughs)–but we just went out and did it. This was at the time, two or three years ago, when bands like Ratt and Motley Crue were playing the clubs in L.A.
“So here were all these bands with their nice hair cuts and their good looks and their eyeliner makeup, and out came we–with our Motorhead t-shirts and our obnoxiousness, and we just played fast, energetic speed metal for an hour.
“And I don’t think that the people in L.A. could really understand what we were doing back then. So we started looking for another market, which turned out to be San Francisco. Up there we found a really good reaction and a sort of underground following.”
After moving their base to San Francisco in January of ’83, Metallica made a demo tape called No Life ‘Till Leather that went to Number One on the “Heavy Metal Top 10” of Frisco’s Metal Mania fanzine. The tape also found wide circulation throughout the world via the “Underground Metal Exchange”.
“Not too many people know about this that aren’t in the underground,” explains Lars, “but there’s a huge society where a lot of people send tapes around and rate them and have little magazines and all that. And I knew a few people to send the tape to, and each of them would copy it and send it to five more people and so on. And that’s how we really got our name around in the beginning. When we first released it it was about the only thing from America that sounded like it did.”
No Life ‘Till Leather, as well as the inclusion of one of Metallica’s songs on the first Metal Massacre LP, gave the band a real popularity push, but it wasn’t until they moved to the East coast and recorded their first album, Kill ‘Em All, that the ball really started to roll. Since then the group have released a second album, Ride the Lightning, and signed an 8-album deal with Elektra Records in the U.S. (They’re on Banzai, distributed by Polygram, in Canada).
The album cover art for Kill ‘Em All showed a sledgehammer lying in a puddle of blood. And the Ride the Lightning cover depicts white lightning surging into an electric chair. According to Ulrich, the band’s preoccupation with violence has a different focus on the more recent record.
“On the first album most of the stuff is either about rock and roll, or banging your head against the stage, or death and destruction in the sort of ‘We’re gonna come kill you and your family’ type way. Whereas the lyrics on Ride the Lightning are a lot more about death in the ‘I’ form–what different people feel or think at the time of death, during death, after death, or whatever. Whether it be from the electric chair, as in ‘Ride the Lightning’, or from suicide, as in ‘Fade to Black’, or from nuclear war, as in ‘Fight Fire With Fire’.
“Some of those feelings really are a lot closer to home, for us anyway, than most people would think. And we’re not afraid to write about what we feel. We’re not so scared that we have to write about heavy metal women instead.”
The Osmond brothers these guys aren’t. But don’t they find it depressing to be engrossed in a music that relies so heavily on negative images?
“Depressing? Negative? Well I don’t know. I don’t think you could start putting lyrics about red roses and flowers and how beautiful everything is into the sort of music that we play. I mean, stuff like ‘Today I went out in my garden and picked up a rose and give it to my girlfriend’ might not work that well.”
Horror and nastiness have always been good fodder for hard rock/heavy metal. Remember how Alice Cooper rose to fame singing about dead babies and loving the dead? But there are extremes. And what about the effect that their lyrics might have on some of the more impressionable among the 300,000 or so fans who have already purchased Ride the Lightning? Would they ever become so enthralled that they might want to experience it themselves?
“It’s difficult,” Ulrich says, “but, you know, what we’re doing, we’re doing for ourselves. It’s an old cliche when people say ‘Give the people what they want’. To us that’s bullshit. Cause we’re not doing this for anybody else. We write about what we want to write about, and we don’t wonder whether some kids are gonna take it seriously or not.
“And the main thing is that we’re not trying to put our statements down anybody else’s throats, or telling people ‘This is the way you have to feel about electric chairs’ or ‘This is the way you have to feel about nuclear war.’ We just do it, and people can interpret it the way they want to.”