Metallica's "Kill 'Em All" Changed the Heavy Metal Game 35 Years Ago
Once Upon a Metal Time
It's hard to believe that there actually was a time when Metallica did not exist. Even harder to believe: Metallica's debut album, the mighty Kill'Em All, will celebrate 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 that 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. Sherman, set the Way-Bac Machine for early '80s in suburban New Jersey.
I was 13 years old and in ninth grade when Kill'Em All began making waves in mid-to late 1983. At the time I was into most of the popular MTV-driven hard rock acts of the day (Def Leppard, the Scorpions, Judas Priest, Motley Crue, Quiet Riot, etc.) and had been calling myself a "headbanger" or "metalhead" for about two years, but I had no idea that there was such a thing as an "underground metal" scene.
My eyes would soon be opened thanks to a couple of upperclassmen who were way hipper than most when it came to obnoxious music. I have honestly forgotten their names after all these years, but they were a couple of scary lookin' long-haired dudes in T-shirts and ratty denim vests, studded with patches and pins with the names of mysterious bands nobody had ever heard of before. (Raven? Anvil? Slayer? Venom? Mercyful Fate?) They read strange-looking photo-copied 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 how they discovered these strange bands or where they bought their records. Naturally, neither one would ever let a lowly freshman like me borrow any of 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 would later admit that he'd had no idea what the band sounded like when he paid our local Metal Gurus for a tape, just that he'd "heard that they were good." John returned to school the next day possessed with an evangelical heavy-metal fervor, shaking me and practically screaming, "You have GOT to hear that Metallica album! It's awesome! They're like nothin' you have EVER heard before!"
His sudden fanaticism definitely piqued my curiosity, but I was still so clueless about "the scene" at the time that I probably thought, "Well, okay, but if they're not on MTV, how good can they really be?"
It wouldn't be 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). 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. These guys looked like a pissed off, pimply-faced street gang who could easily beat the crap out of the spandex-clad Hollywood combos I was familiar with. I was filled with trepidation as I laid the needle into the groove for the LP's first spin but soon I found myself entranced by the sounds of musical destruction that emanated from my stereo. I cranked it until I was practically pinned to my basement rec-room wall by the sheer volume, and though I don't remember my exact reaction, it was probably 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 completely, utterly, totally blown away.
John was right, I had NEVER heard anything like this album before. It was loud, fast, and skin-peelingly intense. I knew instantly that not only was this something new and dangerous, but that I had found my new favorite band. Suddenly Quiet Riot and Def Leppard didn't cut it anymore. Now it was my turn to rush upstairs and call out to my brother, "Dude, you GOTTA hear this record!" He was quickly assimilated after only one spin, and the disease began to spread.
"The Four Horsemen"
Seek and Destroy!!
Thrash Metal 101. If you don't own this record you can not legally call yourself a metal head.
The Rest of the Story
My brother and I pooled our allowance money and went halfsies on a copy of Kill'Em All, and within days we'd learned every lyric and air-guitared to every precious riff dozens of times. We may have been easily converted to the cause, but we quickly learned that being a Metallica fan was like joining an exclusive club. The "mainstream" metal fans in my high school didn't know a thing about them, and oddly, it seemed like they didn't want to know about them em either.
Despite our best efforts at talking Metallica up to our friends, we couldn't pay any of them to give this weird new band a try for almost a year. (Common complaints were "They play too fast," or "You can't understand what he's singing.") However, by the time the follow-up album Ride the Lightning appeared on the racks in 1984, Metallica had apparently begun building up "buzz" and people were curious. We dubbed tapes of Ride the Lightning for dozens of our classmates, usually putting Kill'Em All on the flip side. Before long, we saw more and more kids in Metallica T-shirts in our high school halls as the metal machine gathered steam. Total World Domination was still quite a few years away for them, of course, but it was a cool feeling knowing that we had helped spread the word in a small way.
If you've read this far, obviously 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 a shared experience that caused metalheads to rejoice around the world, they provided a blueprint for nearly every up-and-coming underground band 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 off as "metal."
After Kill'Em All, I went on to discover albums by many other "under 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 worshiped to this day, though cracks in the armor began to appear when 1991's self titled "Black Album" brought them to the mainstream, turned them into bonafide Rock Stars, and caused massive division within their fanbase. I know I probably sound like a cranky old man, but Metallica was more fun when they were "our little secret" and we didn't have to share them with anyone outside of the headbanger fraternity. I certainly won't begrudge Metallica their success—Lord knows they earned it!—but sometimes I yearn for those exciting early days.
They may be mostly irrelevant to me nowadays, but nothing will ever take away the memory of the adrenaline rush I felt when I first heard Kill'Em All. To this day, whenever I play "Whiplash" or "The Four Horsemen" I'm immediately transported back into a 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!
© 2012 Keith Abt