St. Patrick’s Day 1987.
I was just a 15-year old kid carrying on with friends at a house party—probably nursing a few illicit beers before venturing downtown on public transit to catch the annual parade—when something on the stereo commanded my attention.
“Who is that?” I asked no one in particular.
It was a poignant, melodic guitar strain, and one that had arrived rather unexpectedly following three minutes of grinding, up-tempo heavy metal. My ear tuned in, and within moments the gorgeous lead was doubled—harmonized, actually—by a second guitarist over a lovely, lilting rhythm bolstered by deep, resonant bass and violin-like volume swells.
“That’s Metallica,” an acquaintance informed me. “My brother loves them.”
The album in question was Master of Puppets, and the song gracing the speakers was its drug-referencing title cut. We just happened to be listening to the now-classic song’s instrumental segue, which of course was preceded by another couple minutes’ worth of decibel-raising, cranium-crushing riffs. I’d learn soon enough that Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield were the parties responsible for the uncharacteristically symphonic six-string interplay.
“That’s Metallica?” I was incredulous. “Wow.”
Metallica’s been part of my life ever since, sometimes drifting on the periphery of my music-consumption habits—but always there. And if Master of Puppets was my star gate to a whole new world of hard rock, it was a song from the band’s previous album (cassette, at the time) that won my perpetual adoration: Sometime in early ’87 my best friend Tom learned the pretty acoustic guitar part which opens “Fade to Black” from his eccentric guitar instructor, Lee (whose fly was always down). Tom, in turn, demonstrated the chord changes and subtle finger movements for me.
Now we were both Metallica fans and aspiring musicians.
I’ve seen the band live in concert over a dozen times since and bought up all the albums—from …And Justice for All through Death Magnetic—while attending high school and college (and on), and even gave the mid-‘90s misfires Load and Reload more chances than they probably deserved. Like Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai before them, Hetfield and Hammett became heroes and remote musical mentors whose sporadic sonic dispatches informed my worldview as profoundly as any competing external stimuli—musical, cinematic, literary, or otherwise.
Tom and I snapped up trade publications like Guitar World and Guitar for the Practicing Musician, forcing our hands into the uncomfortable shapes suggested by the magazine tablature. I hitched a ride with a summer school classmate to catch Metallica at The Monsters of Rock at The Akron Rubber Bowl on my birthday and was treated to live versions not-yet released songs like “Harvester of Sorrow.” I was one of thousands of sweaty youngsters packed shoulder-to-shoulder on the field that hot day, head-banging while ground staff sprayed us down with hoses. Little did I know fate would thrust me within arm’s reach of both Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich some twenty years later at House of Blues Cleveland, where the band celebrated its induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with a few friends and industry insiders. I was an employee, not an invitee, so played it cool. It was their day; I decided not to hassle them for autographs or a quick photo opp. I didn’t even mutter a solitary “thanks” or “congratulations” in passing.
The 2009 induction—which coincided with Metallica’s pseudo-return to form on Death Magnetic—became the first link in a chain of events sparking renewed interest in the band and its chaotic-but-colorful past. Merchandisers took advantage of the foursome’s long-overdue uptick in popularity, stocking store shelves with unauthorized biographies, photo memorabilia, and Pushead-imprinted T-shirts.
I’ve read most of the Metallica literature out there, but no single tome captures the essence of the defiant band’s DIY story as compellingly as Birth School Metallica Death. And this is just the first act; a second volume covering the latter half of the quartet’s career is due next fall.
Now available from Da Capo, the painstakingly researched 360-page book cobbles together the minutiae surrounding Metallica’s unlikely ascent and ultimate world domination, from little-known bits about Hetfield’s and Ulrich’s childhoods and early demo tapes to the recruitment of bassist Jason Newsted and release of Metallica’s eponymous, chart-topping “black album.” Those who’ve been following the band since the Reagan era won’t find many surprises but will delight in the authors’ fastidiousness regarding all things fist-pumping, while casual fans and newcomers will find their eyes (and perhaps ears) widened to the bigger, more interesting Metallica universe beyond Billboard hits “Enter Sandman” and “Nothing Else Matters.”
Tag-team writers Ian Winwood (Rolling Stone, The Guardian) and Paul Brannigan (Kerrang, Mojo, Q) have the journalistic expertise needed to sort fact from fiction yet evince passion and storytelling panache when embellishing upon key events that might’ve seemed mundane at the time. Both residents of London, the crafty columnists occasionally let slip English euphemisms like “he went to hospital” rather than “he went to the hospital,” but that’s neither here nor there: Winwood and Brannigan avail themselves intelligent, articulate, and emotionally invested enough in their subject to render as entertaining an engaging a chronology as any critical American review (collaboration or otherwise) of notable Brit acts like The Beatles or Rolling Stones.
Readers are introduced to pimply Downey, California teenager James Hetfield, who develops rhythm on his brother’s drum kit, nurses a grudge after his father abandons the family, and resents his ailing mother’s devotion to a religion prohibiting medical intervention. We travel from Copenhagen to Tampa with aspiring tennis student Lars Ulrich, an ebullient, hyperactive youth who quits the elitist sport to slum in L.A.’s music scene, where the Dane hooks up with fellow vinyl enthusiast (and future Metal Blade impresario) Brian Slagel. We watch the puzzle pieces interlock as Hetfield takes up guitar and responds to Ulrich’s Recycler ad calling for like-minded musicians to jam with, and breathe a sigh of relief when the boys submit an eleventh-hour demo tape for inclusion on Slagel’s first Metal Massacre compilation showcasing local upstarts.
History has all but forgotten bassist Ron McGovney and lead guitarist Lloyd Grant (who performed the solo on the “Hit the Lights” demo), but Winwood and Brannigan thrust the ex-Metallicats back into the spotlight to glean their respective roles in the fairy tale. We even get a glimpse at a short-lived five-man version of Metallica when Brad Parker (aka Damian Phillips) joins Hetfield and co. to deflect attention away from the still-shy singer. We wince as hotshot Panic guitarist Dave Mustaine signs on—only to muddy the band chemistry with his incessant drinking and drug-dealing—but thrill when the guys tap nimble Trauma bassist Cliff Burton as their new anchorman. Burton's liberal parents hold him to a four-year plan, agreeing to support his art so long as he works at it. Accordingly, Cliff conditions his membership in Metallica on their willingness to relocate to San Francisco.
The group is afforded an opportunity to track a full-length demo with producer Kenny Kane, who relinquishes the masters to Ulrich. Dubbing hundreds of copies of Metallica’s “No Life ‘til Leather” promo on cheapo cassettes, the ambitious drummer posts tapes to writers, disc jockeys, and audiophiles around the world, creating a groundswell of interest in the San Francisco act.
The authors plop us in back of a rented U-Haul for a 1,500 mile trek to New Jersey, where the guys take up residence in the home of future Megaforce Records ace Johnny “Z” Zazula, who takes a second mortgage out on his abode to support the nascent group and their pals in Anthrax. We peek into studio sessions for Metallica’s debut full-length, Kill ‘em All, get the skinny on songs like “Whiplash,” “Metal Militia,” and “The Four Horsemen,” and listen in as producers Paul Curcio and Chris Bubacz critique their work. Then we’re whisked overseas as Zazula flexes his muscle to secure distribution rights for the band through Music for Nations.
Middle chapters track the band’s first European tours, California homecoming, and unceremonious ejection of the pugnacious Mustaine (who almost immediately forms Megadeth). With former Exodus axe man Kirk Hammett in tow, Metallica ventures to Ulrich’s native Denmark in 1984—and again in 1986—to record a pair of epic albums with Flemming Rasmussen at Sweet Silence Studios. Featuring the brilliant “Fade to Black,” crushing “Fight Fire With Fire,” and apocryphal “Creeping Death,” Ride the Lightning secures the band a deal with Electra and tour support slots with some of the very bands they idolized.
But it’s the third outing, Master of Puppets, which turns the metal world on its ear, bringing Hetfield’s huge-sounding locomotive rhythm guitar prowess and Hammett’s fluid fret board skills to larger audiences around the globe. The chugging, unrelenting onslaught of “Battery,” “Disposable Heroes,” “Leper Messiah,” and “Damage, Inc.” finds even the tempo-challenged Ulrich (whose difficulty keeping time early on is noted) developing into a competent percussionist—despite the lack of radio time, MTV videos, and peripheral media support—wins the band a coveted slot on tour with Ozzy Osbourne.
But tragedy strikes when Burton is killed in a freak bus accident in Sweden. Drawing cards for sleeping arrangements, the bassist pulls an ace of spades and selects Hammett’s bunk—and is ejected when the vehicle suddenly veers off-road. Chaos ensues as the underwear-clad Hetfield and Ulrich scour the road for the alleged black ice that caused the driver to swerve, and clouds darken the months following Cliff’s funeral as the band hosts auditions for a suitable replacement. Settling on Flotsam and Jetsam four-stringer Jason Newsted, Metallica channel their grief into the creation of the budget-priced covers EP Garage Days Re-Revisited. The self-produced stopgap release celebrates the band’s love for New Wave of British Heavy Metal pioneers like Diamond Head and Killing joke and American punk progenitors The Misfits while providing Hetfield and Ulrich a forum in which to acclimate / haze Newsted while licking their wounds.
Zazula is given his walking papers when the band signs with Cliff Burnstein and his high-powered management team at Q Prime. Collaborating once more with Rasmussen in 1988, the band experiments with oddball time signatures and dry guitar sounds on …And Justice for All, whose opening track (“Blackened”) nets Newsted a rare writing credit and whose closer (“Dyer’s Eve”) has Hetfield lash out anew at his close-minded parents. Running times are elongated, power chords are rendered boisterous but brittle, and Burton is saluted on one of the disc’s two nine-minute epics. Diehards debate the band’s shift from Motorhead-inspired thrash to progressive metal and ponder the album’s lack of bass frequencies—but scores of new devotees swoon over antiwar anthem “One” and its ferocious video (the band’s first).
The authors stress Metallica’s need to evolve after a three up-tempo albums and whirlwind global tours, scrutinizing the strategy behind their choice of Bon Jovi producer Bob Rock for the next record. Still hogging a majority of the decision-making, Hetfield and Ulrich opt to slow down and exploit the groove rather than perpetuate the breakneck speed-metal trend they’d helped architect seven years earlier. The resulting eponymous “Black Album” boasts shorter tunes (“Through the Never”), loping rhythms (“Sad But True”), bludgeoning riffs (“Of Wolf and Man”)—and two unapologetic ballads in “Nothing Else Matters” and “The Unforgiven.” Embracing MTV and radio in a bid for world domination, Metallica goes mainstream with “Enter Sandman” and start packing soccer stadiums with high school jocks (and their girlfriends) along with their expanded legion of old school denim-and-leather disciples.
What truly distinguishes Birth School Metallica Death from other band theses is the authors’ ability to bring fans inside the action with their finesse at exposition and point-of-view; readers will feel like firsthand observers (participants, even) rather than detached spectators whose angle on the unfolding heavy metal history is obfuscated by time and space. Leafing through the beer-soaked pages of hell-raising and musical mayhem, one gets the impression he’s running with the pack—that he was in the gang all along, and not just another voyeur who bought a peek-a-boo ticket to someone else’s rock and roll fantasy. Brannigan and Winwood emphasize Metallica’s uncompromising attitude and DIY work ethos, bolstering the argument that the band earned its fortune and glory one day (and one fan) at a time with its flyer posting, tape trading, and gung-ho gigging in grimy bars whose audiences numbered from 6 to 600. Credence is given to the idea that—unlike other musicians who insist their fame was predestined—Ulrich really did have vision, and that the drummer’s laser focus ensured his band would eventually realize the dream.