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Metallica's "Kill 'Em All" Was a Game Changer 30+ Years Ago
Once Upon A Metal Time...
Hard as it may be to believe, there actually was a time when Metallica did not exist. I should know, I was there. Even harder to believe: Metallica's debut album, the mighty Kill'Em All, will be celebrating its 35th (!!) anniversary in 2018. Where were you when you first heard this game changing, genre defining masterpiece, this ten-megaton nuclear device that jolted metal out of its mainstream doldrums and kick-started the Thrash Metal craze which went on to rule the '80s? Were you even born yet? I was (Yes, I'm that old!), and I still remember the fateful day that Kill'Em All first hit me like a brick upside the head, just like it was yesterday. Sherman, set the Way-Bac Machine for suburban New Jersey circa 1983....
I was 13 years old and just starting ninth grade when Kill'Em All began making waves in mid-1983. At the time I had been calling myself a "headbanger" or "metalhead" for about two years, but I had no idea that there even was such a thing as "underground metal." I was into most of the popular MTV-driven hard rock acts of the day like Def Leppard, the Scorpions, Judas Priest, Motley Crue, and Quiet Riot, but my eyes would soon be opened thanks to a couple of upperclassmen who were way hipper than the rest of us when it came to obnoxious music. I honestly forget their names after all these years but they were a couple of scary lookin' long-haired dudes who wore ratty denim vests over their leather jackets studded with patches and pins, sporting t-shirts of mysterious bands nobody had ever heard of before (Raven? Anvil? Slayer? Venom? Mercyful Fate?). They read strange looking photo-copied metal fanzines in class and proudly toted their obscure records around school in plain sight so everyone would see them and know just how gosh-darn metal they were. These guys protected their metal knowledge better than they guard the gold at Fort Knox -- they never told anyone where they discovered these strange bands or where they found their records, and naturally neither one would ever let lowly underclassmen like me borrow their albums -- oh no, these LPs were far too precious for that. However, they'd gladly dub you a copy of anything you wanted to check out as long as you gave them a blank cassette tape and a couple of bucks. That's how my buddy John first came into possession of a copy of KIll'Em All, the debut album by some no-name band from California called Metallica. John admitted that he'd had no idea what the band sounded like when he paid our local Metal Gurus for a tape of it, just that he'd "heard that they were good." The day after he took that tape home, however, John returned to school a totally different person. He was possessed with an evangelical heavy-metal fervor, grabbing me by the shoulders, shaking me and practically screaming "You have GOT to hear that band! They're awesome! They're like nothin' you have EVER heard before!" My friend's sudden fanaticism definitely piqued my curiosity about the band, though I admit that I was still so clueless about "the scene" at the time that I said something along the lines of, "Well geez, okay, if you say so. But dude, if they're not on MTV, how good can they really be?" It wasn't long before I found out for myself, as my pal quickly purchased his own copy of the Metallica LP (released on a tiny independent label from Southern New Jersey called MegaForce Records) and he was gracious enough to let me borrow it for a weekend. I didn't know it at the time, of course, but I was holding a piece of history in my hands.
"Seek and Destroy"
Just Press 'Play' ... or should that be 'Detonate?'
I didn't know quite what to expect as I carried Kill'Em All home on that fateful afternoon. The blood-red graphics on the album cover frightened me just a little, as did the back-cover photo of the band members, who resembled a pissed off, pimply-faced street gang. These guys looked like they could beat the crap out of any of the spandex-clad Hollywood bands that I was used to, without even breaking a sweat. I was filled with trepidation as I laid the needle into the groove for the LP's first spin, and before long I found myself totally pinned to my basement rec-room wall, entranced by the sounds of musical destruction that were emanating from my stereo. If memory serves, my reaction was something along the lines of:
From the ominous fade-in and blitzkrieg speed of album opener "Hit the Lights" to the hills and valleys of the epic "Four Horsemen," through the crushing bass solo "Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth)" and skull crushing "Whiplash" and "Phantom Lord," right up until the bullet-riddled fade-out of the closing "Metal Militia," I was utterly blown away by Kill'Em All. John was right, I had NEVER heard anything like this before. It was loud, fast, and skin-peelingly intense, and I knew immediately that not only had I discovered something new and dangerous, but that I had a new favorite band as well. When the needle finally lifted off at the end of side 2, suddenly Quiet Riot and Def Leppard didn't cut it anymore. ("Motley Who?") Now it was my turn to rush upstairs and call out to my brother, "Dude, you GOTTA hear this!" He was quickly assimilated after only one spin of the record. And so the disease began to spread...
"The Four Horsemen"
Seek and Destroy!!
The Rest of the Story...
My brother and I pooled our allowance money so we could go halfsies on our own copy of Kill'Em All, and within weeks we'd learned every lyric and air-guitared to every precious riff dozens of times. (Hell, I'm still doing it 30 years later!) We may have been easily converted to the cause, but my brother and I quickly learned that being a Metallica fan was like being a member of an exclusive club. The "mainstream" metal fans in my high school didn't know a thing about the band and for quite a while, it seemed like they didn't WANT to know about'em either. (Common complaints were "They play too fast," or "You can't understand what he's saying.") Despite our best efforts at talking Metallica up to our friends, we couldn't pay any of 'em to give this weird new band a try for almost a year. However, by the time the follow up album Ride the Lightning appeared on the racks in 1984, Metallica had apparently built up enough "buzz" that people were finally becoming curious. We dubbed tapes of Ride the Lightning for dozens of our friends, usually putting Kill'Em All on the flip side. Before long we started seeing more and more Metallica t-shirts as we roamed our high school halls and the Metallica machine was clearly beginning to gather some steam. Complete World Domination for the band would still quite a few years away, but it was a cool feeling knowing that we were helping to spread the word in a small way.
If you've read this far, then you know how things turned out for Metallica. For the rest of the 1980s, they owned metal, plain and simple. Not only was every new album from the band a shared experience that caused metalheads the world over to rejoice, but it provided a blueprint for nearly every up-and-coming band around the world to follow. More importantly, they prompted millions of teenybopper headbangers to look beyond the watered-down, radio-friendly crap that the major labels were trying to pass of as "metal." After Kill'Em All, I went on to discover albums by many other "below the radar" bands like Anthrax, Raven, Mercyful Fate, and Metal Church. I learned where all the cool record stores were that stocked such treasures, combed through metal magazines for even the slightest mention of these and other "underground" bands, sought out stores that sold their t-shirts and patches, and basically became an all around, full time Metal Dork. Metal became my lifetime drug, and Kill'Em All was my gateway.
The first three (or four, depending on who you talk to) Metallica records are still universally worshipped to this day, though the cracks in their armor began to appear around the time 1991's self titled "Black Album" finally brought them to the mainstream and caused massive division within their fanbase. Sadly, it's pretty much all been downhill since then, as the band have seemingly become a little too used to their positions as Enormo-Dome filling, stadium busting Rock Stars and consistent multi-million sellers. I know I probably sound like a cranky old man, but Metallica were more fun when they were "our little secret" and we didn't have to share them with anyone outside of the headbanger fraternity. I won't begrudge Metallica their success -- they definitely earned it -- but sometimes I yearn for those exciting early days. As irrelevant as the band may be to me nowadays, nothing will ever take away the rush I felt when I first heard Kill'Em All. To this day, whenever I hear "Whiplash" or "The Four Horsemen" I'm immediately transported back into the body of the scruffy 13-year old on the day that he had a life-changing experience thanks to those deadly grooves. May Kill'Em All go forever platinum, and Bang That Head That Doesn't Bang!