Metallica’s Early Years: From Underground Thrashers To Heavy Metal Stars

Metallica’s Early Years: From Underground Thrashers To Heavy Metal Stars

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Nearly 36 years ago, drummer Lars Ulrich kick-started Metallica’s career with a local classified ad.

“Drummer looking for other metal musicians to jam with Tygers of Pan Tang, Diamond Head and Iron Maiden,” read the ad in Los Angeles’ newspaper The Recycler.

Vocalist/guitarist James Hetfield fortuitously responded and the duo (along with guitarist Kirk Hammett) has gone on to helm one of the most stylistically and commercially successful heavy metal groups of all-time.

From the raw, powerful punk-infused Kill ‘Em All and the heavy metal masterpiece Master of Puppets to their 1991 self-titled commercial blockbuster, Metallica have made some of the most iconic records of the last four decades while paving the way for an entire genre.

Ahead of their massive 25-date North American tour this summer, we dove into Metallica’s early years — from their first song through the height of their contentious evolution with 1997’s Reload — to reminisce over the beginnings of a global phenomenon.

(1981 – 1983)

Independent, punk-tinged thrash metal beginnings


It all started with thrash anthem “Hit The Lights,” the first song James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich wrote together. Initially recorded for the Metal Massacre I compilation in 1982, Hetfield’s quintessential roar blares over powerful technical rhythm guitar and Ulrich’s chugging, explosive drums.

“Hit The Lights” led off Metallica’s 1983 debut record Kill ‘Em All, which is widely regarded as bringing about the birth of thrash metal. Clocking in at just over 51 minutes, the ten-track LP also features early classics “Seek & Destroy” and the über-speedy headbanger “Whiplash.”

Yet Kill ‘Em All didn’t receive widespread acclaim until much later: as Metallica was a rising underground band in the San Francisco scene at the time, the record was largely only heard by hardcore metal heads.  “When I think of Kill ‘Em All, I think of it being very visceral,” said lead guitarist Hammett in a retrospective interview with Loudwire.“We weren’t second guessing ourselves because we didn’t have time to do that.”

Metallica’s first major tour called “Kill ‘Em All For One” came shortly after.

Beginning in New Brunswick, New Jersey on July 27, 1983, the band — Hetfield, Ulrich, Hammett and bassist Cliff Burton — traversed the country opening for British heavy metal group Raven during that summer.

(1984 – 1986)

Finding their seminal heavy metal core

Ride The Lightning, the follow-up to Kill ‘Em All, was released just a year later in 1984. While staying true to their thrash metal sound, Ride The Lightning expanded into ballads and prog rock territory on classic cuts like “For Whom The Bell Tolls” and “Fade To Black.”

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“You know, ‘Fade to Black’ was one of those pivotal songs for us where you had the hardcore fan that said, ‘Screw you, you sold out, you did a ballad.’

“That was their simplistic thinking,” said Hetfield in Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal (via Loudwire). “Then you had the other people that said, ‘Wow no one had ever spoken to me like that in a song and I totally relate to that and it’s helped me.’”

After their first major European tour in late ’84 and a co-headlining U.S. tour in early ‘85, Metallica returned to Europe to perform in front of 80,000 fans — their largest show yet — at England’s Monsters of Rock festival in August of ’85.


“If you came here to see spandex and eye makeup, and the words ‘rock & roll, baby’ in every song, this ain’t the band,” Hetfield famously said to the audience at the time (via Rolling Stone). “We came here to bash some f****** heads.”

The next month, Metallica began recording their hugely influential magnum opus Master of Puppets. With eight tracks of pummeling, masterful metal, there simply isn’t a weak spot on the record.

In addition to the anthemic title track about drug addiction, it also features the forceful thrasher “Battery” and the harmonic power ballad “Welcome Home (Sanitarium).”

As their major label debut, Master of Puppets brought Metallica to a much, much wider audience: it sold 300,000 copies in its first three weeks and earned the band its first gold certification by November 1986.

(1986 – 1990)

A painful loss and refocus

Just months after Master of Puppets’ release, though, a harrowing tragedy altered Metallica forever. After their first U.S. arena tour supporting Ozzy Osbourne — a clashing match, with Osbourne resenting the openers for playing double encores — Metallica began the European leg of the Damage, Inc. tour in September.

After a performance in Stockholm, the band’s bus hit a patch of ice, launched Cliff Burton through a window and killed him immediately.

We miss you, Cliff! Photo by @rosshalfin

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“[Cliff] reveled in being unique and autonomous, and that’s obviously one of the bigger messages of Metallica,” Ulrich said to Rolling Stone. “There was nobody like that guy.”

Burton’s death definitely put a damper on the band, but Metallica soldiered on with their new bassist Jason Newsted. They released …And Justice For All in 1988, featuring long songs, complicated compositions and more political themes.

Another critically-acclaimed and commercially successful effort, …And Justice For All also earned Metallica its first Grammy win for the melodic, intense single “One.”

(1991 – 1995)

Honing in on their commercial sound

Metallica’s 1991 self-titled record (often known as The Black Album) picked off where “One” left off.

Working with rock producer Bob Rock (Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, Mötley Crüe), the band traded in their trademark thrash metal for more accessible hard rock. While alienating some hardcore fans, it undoubtedly worked out well commercially: Metallica, featuring iconic rock singles “Enter Sandman” and “Nothing Else Matters,” is one of the best-selling albums of all-time.

In support of Metallica, Hetfield, Ulrich, Hammett and Newstead hit the road for the massive 14-month long Wherever We May Roam Tour: more than 200 live dates from the U.S. and Europe to Japan.

Later on in 1992, they embarked on a lavish yet seemingly cursed co-headlining stadium tour with Guns N’ Roses. Most unfortunately, Hetfield suffered major burns after accidentally stepping on a pyrotechnics flame in Montreal. Accidents aside, it was also the tour of extravagant after-parties.

“Man, it was the excess tour,” remembered Hetfield in an interview with Guitar World. “’Hey, you going to the after party?’ Axl spent tens of thousands of dollars on those parties. There were hot tubs backstage. It was very extravagant, which was so un-me. I’d go back and drink their beer and shoot pool; that’s what I’d do.”

(1996 – 1997)

A controversial transformation

Five years after The Black Album, Metallica returned with a poppier sound and short haircuts on Load. Hetfield, Ulrich and co. experimented with bluesy swagger on tracks like “Bleeding Me” and “2 X 4.”

And rock ballad “Hero Of The Day” strays about as far away from the typical Metallica sound as possible. It notched them their second #1 record (Metallica was their first) but had a notably tepid reception.

Looking back, James Hetfield was particularly hesitant about the shift in their music and image. “Lars and Kirk drove on those records. The whole ‘We need to reinvent ourselves’ topic was up,’” he said to Classic Rock magazine in 2009. “Why do we need to reinvent ourselves? A lot of the fans got turned off quite a bit by the music, but mostly, I think, by the image.”

Despite this, Reload — released just a year after Load — continued to diversify their sound and secured them a third consecutive chart-topper.

Written in part during the Load recording sessions, Reload brings Southern rock influences into Metallica’s style on cuts like “The Memory Remains” and “Where The Wild Things Are.” “Fuel,” with its punchy guitars and hard rock sensibilities, is a highlight. Reload definitely didn’t have the timeless urgency of Kill ‘Em All or Master Of Puppets, but it was a worthy endeavor nonetheless.

In band years, 16 years is a lifetime. That’s certainly true for Metallica, who progressed from unhinged thrash risers to heavy metal heroes in search of a new creative direction. They may have had some creative pitfalls and unfortunate incidents, but there’s no doubt that their powerful, intense yet melodic style of heavy metal will stand the test of time.

Be sure to catch Metallica on Tour 2018-19.