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Metallica's "Kill 'Em All" Changed the Heavy Metal Game in 1983

I've been an obsessed hard rock/heavy metal fan and collector since the early 1980s. If it's got a good guitar riff and attitude, I'm in.

Metallica 1983: (L-R) Kirk Hammett, Cliff Burton (R.I.P.), Lars Ulrich, James Hetfield

Metallica 1983: (L-R) Kirk Hammett, Cliff Burton (R.I.P.), Lars Ulrich, James Hetfield

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, is rapidly approaching its 40th (!) anniversary.

Where were you when you first heard Kill'Em All, the game-changing, genre-defining masterpiece, this ten-megaton nuclear device that jolted metal out of its mainstream doldrums and kick-started the Thrash craze that went on to rule the rest of the decade? Were you even alive in 1983? 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 and re-arranged my DNA. Sherman, set the Way-Bac Machine for early '80s in suburban New Jersey.

"Seek and Destroy"

Metal Memories

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 upper classmen 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'd discovered these strange bands or where they bought their records. Naturally, neither one would ever let a lowly freshman like myself 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 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), and 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.

"The Four Horsemen"

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 dudes 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 quickly became 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 thoughts, I was probably saying:

"Holy @#$%!!!"

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. There was a new sheriff in town!

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Then 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, and from there, the disease began to spread.

Seek and Destroy!!

The Rest of the Story

My brother and I pooled our allowance money to go halfsies on our own copy of Kill'Em All, and within days we'd learned every lyric and air-guitared to every precious riff dozens of times. Our conversion to the cause had been easy, but we quickly learned that being a Metallica fan was like joining an exclusive club. Most of 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 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. (Common complaints were "They're too fast," or "You can't understand what he's singing.") However, by the time follow-up album Ride the Lightning appeared in 1984, Metallica had apparently begun building up "buzz" and people became 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 Metallica, of course, but it was a cool feeling knowing that we had helped spread the word in a small way.

Classic Metal like this needs to be listened to on vinyl!

Classic Metal like this needs to be listened to on vinyl!


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 thrash 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 loud-n-fast, below-the-radar bands like Anthrax, Raven, Mercyful Fate, and Metal Church. I learned where 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 their t-shirts and patches, and basically became an all around, full time Metal Dork. Metal became my drug, and Kill'Em All was my gateway.

The first three (or four, depending on who you talk to) Metallica records are still pretty much universally worshiped to this day. However, cracks began to appear when 1991's self titled "Black Album" finally brought Metallica to the mainstream and turned them into bona fide Rock Stars.

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 that scruffy 13-year old, having a life-changing experience thanks to those deadly grooves. May Kill'Em All go forever platinum, and remember, Bang That Head That Doesn't Bang!

© 2012 Keith Abt


Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on September 26, 2018:

I'd have been 9 years old. I wouldn't have heard this stuff until several years later.

It was a really strange thing. When I got to high school the people who wore Metallica t-shirts were the people you would be scared to be around.

Strangely enough, a few years later, everyone had a Metallica t-shirt, and it seemed kind of lame. I think by that time, Slayer t-shirts marked the 'scary' crowd.


Sinan on July 01, 2018:

I am a huge fan of Metallica from Turkey. I was born in this very year 1983! when Kill'em All album released! And I met with that album in 1999! I was feeling like you felt when you heard that magical tunes in 1983! This is just one of the prove from millions of it that Metallica's sound is beyond the time... I mean how cool is that? Being a Metallica fan was not easy in my country! But all people who criticizes me because of I listening them became a Metallica fan more than me! and this is entertained me more than everyting :)

Ara Vahanian from LOS ANGELES on August 26, 2017:

What a thoughtful, analytical review! I was too young at this time to know what heavy metal even was. I didn't get into heavy metal until around 1993 but this debut by Metallica may still be their best work. I would disagree on the idea that they went downhill after the black album. EVERY Metallica album is at least good. St. Anger is really good too with that heavy, raw sound! Metallica may be the best American metal band ever, even better than Houston area band Helstar. If you like the old Metallica stuff, check out bands such as Kreator or Tankard.

Rana Pecarski on June 19, 2015:

I was 18 in 1983 and yeah, I was also listening to Def Leppard, Motley Crue, same MTV stuff you mentioned. I really didn't, I guess, appreciate Metallica until years later.

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on April 10, 2015:

Hi NonCopyBook -- I do own all the post-"Black" album CDs but aside from an occasional spin most of them don't get much play around my house. I will admit that I liked "Death Magnetic" more than expected but even that wasn't quite enough to put them back in my permanent rotation...but those first four records (four and a half if you count the "$5.98 EP") are still solid gold in my book. Thanx for stopping by.

Nicholas Daly from NSW Australia on April 09, 2015:

Love this album.. I see you're not listening much post Black album either, love those first five albums- hard to say whether "Master of Puppets" or "And Justice for All" is the best in my view (given I'm a bit iffy on "Escape" and "Trapped Under Ice" on "Ride the Lightning," as catchy as they might be & a great album...). This may lead to revisiting "Kill 'Em All" over the weekend....

Snakesmum on October 06, 2014:

I've got quite a few non-commercial Metallica vinyls stashed in my wardrobe, as well as most of their recordings except the most recent one.

One of my favourite tracks is "Call of Ktulu".

Kathleen Cochran from Atlanta, Georgia on August 31, 2014:

I'm sharing this with my son who is so devoted to Metallica his groom's cake was their logo and he and his bride walked in and out of their wedding ceremony to Metallica songs. I'm sure he'll agree with every word you've written here. Fade to Black . . . .

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on July 25, 2013:

Hi Joe - it was a game changer, that's for sure!

Joe Cogan on July 25, 2013:

Hard to believe that KEA is 30 years old! Their first four albums still rank as some of the greatest and most influential metal ever recorded. A pity that their commercial breakthrough came at the cost of turning them into the proverbial "watered-down, radio-friendly crap" that they initially came to seek and destroy...

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on July 25, 2013:

Indeed, Freedom.... when that first album came out, most people couldn't make heads or tails of it!!

FreedomMetal from Somewhere In Time on July 25, 2013:

Who would have even guessed that Metallica would end up being one of the biggest bands in the world, headlining not just arenas, but huge festivals and their own stadium gigs 30 years later?

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on April 22, 2013:

Yeah, Death Magnetic was quite good...their best in a very long while... saw'em on that tour and they can still kick ass live. I may not be as diehard a fan as I once was but it was still nice to see 'em again after so many years.

newenglandsun on April 22, 2013:

Joe Baca, the song that got me into Mercyful Fate was Emperor's cover of "Gypsy".

"They say you know the secret, secret of


So gaze into your crystal and tell me all

You see

Gypsy woman let me know"

newenglandsun on April 22, 2013:

Lol. Most "trve" metalheads I've found on the internet usually like Metallica up until the Black Album so I am definitely not surprised at this. Although Death Magnetic was actually really good IMHO.

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on April 22, 2013:

I may have gotten burnt out on Metallica long ago, but their first couple of records still get spins from me. I'm good up till the Black Album, then they started getting a little too slick for me.

newenglandsun on April 22, 2013:

Fade to Black was such an awesome song. Some of the different covers of it are by Sonata Arctica, Disturbed, and Apocalyptica.

I like Iron Maiden, Helloween, and Judas Priest more than Metallica though. Iron Maiden was very influential.

Lissette from Central Florida on April 22, 2013:

Ride the Lightning I think was my favorite!

newenglandsun on April 22, 2013:

I liked their albums ...and Justice for All as well as Ride the Lightning. I actually didn't care much for this album of theirs.

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on April 21, 2013:

Thanx Moms-Secret... it's amazing to think that such a huge band got its start 30 years ago with this album. Humble beginnings indeed!!

Lissette from Central Florida on April 20, 2013:

This is my all time favorite band! I would even call them legendary in that some of their songs remained at top of their game/genre for such a long time and are still played often on the radio.

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on April 12, 2013:

Same here, R.B. - like I said, after one spin of Kill'Em All, suddenly Quiet Riot and Def Leppard weren't cutting it with me anymore!!

Reality Bytes from Freeman On The Land United States of America. on April 12, 2013:

I was in high school when Kill Em All was released. It blew my mind. Especially compared to the mainstream garbage that was getting airplay at the time.

Another band that knocked me over was Slipknot.

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on December 31, 2012:

Cool, man. Great list of classic albums there too, all of which were instrumental in my metal evolution as well. Thanks for stoppin' by!

Joe Baca on December 30, 2012:

When I first put on Kill 'Em All and when Hit The Lights faded in, I was like yeeeeeaaAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!!!!! It was raw, dirty, fast and (more importantly at that time) LOUD.

The only thing other music that I heard that was like that was Fast As A Shark from Restless and Wild (that I dubbed from my library around that same time period..........probably just slightly before).

I was lucky enough to know someone who wanted these albums transferred to cassette:

Armored Saint - EP

Metallica - Kill 'Em All

Raven - Break The Chain 12"

Mercyful Fate - Melissa

So, it was either late '83 or early '84 which would make me either 14 or 15.

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on July 19, 2012:

Thanx, wmg - now I feel old! Haha. But seriously, it doesn't matter when you came on board, if Metallica inspired or moved you in any way, no matter how old you are, then it's all good. Thanx for stopping by.

wmgmetalchris from Kent State University on July 19, 2012:

sorry, new phone. I wasn't born until 84 but when I heard Kill 'em all for the first time, I knew I had to learn to play every song! Good page.

wmgmetalchris from Kent State University on July 19, 2012:

I came into metallica way late. I wasn't even born4 until 8

Bruce Chamoff from New York on June 19, 2012:

Georgie Lowery said, "you did an amazing job letting us in to your thirteen year old world for a minute."

Hey FFC, does George mean you are 13 or George, were you 13 when he first heard Metalica? LOL

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on June 19, 2012:

Thanks, all.

Skyler DeCristoforo from Olympia, WA on June 19, 2012:

A great ground breaking album by Metallica. This album had some iconic thrash metal songs; Seek & Destroy , Metal Militia etc. Classic sound from an amazing band.

Georgie Lowery from North Florida on June 19, 2012:

I didn't hear Metallica for the first time until Master of Puppets. A local radio station played metal every Thursday night late, and Leper Messiah came on just once, but it was enough. It is amazing how four goofy looking guys (Kirk looks like he's 12 in that picture!) can manage to set something in motion that is still being played out thirty years later.

Your Hub is awesome. I love seeing how music affects people, and you did an amazing job letting us in to your thirteen year old world for a minute. Thank you!

Steve Orion from Tampa, Florida on June 19, 2012:

Certainly an influential band and album, and a great story you have to go with it! I think their later albums surpassed the quality of Kill 'Em All by quite a bit, but the album was still ground-breaking for its time!

Rated up and awesome! Another interesting metal Hub from FatFreddysCat, keep them coming and keep banging your head!

FreedomMetal from Somewhere In Time on June 19, 2012:

Great album!!!!! Metallica was my "Gateway Drug" as well to world of underground metal! Ride The Lightning was my first Metallica album (a cassette dub, sadly the last minute of Call Of Ktulu didn't fit on it) followed quickly by Kill Em All. My listening rotation quickly went from Quiet Riot, Def Leppard, Twisted Sister, Ratt to Metallica, Slayer, Mercyful Fate, Anthrax, Exodus. Great memories!

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on June 18, 2012:

Right on! Cliff Burton was The Man. In my book, he (and Steve Harris of Iron Maiden) raised bass playing in metal to an entirely new level. It boggles the mind to think of what his playing might have sounded like today if he'd lived. (SIGH)

Bruce Chamoff from New York on June 18, 2012:

Yeah, Kill Em All was cool, but so was Ride The Lightning and Master Of Puppets. I did not like And Justice For All too much, but when I listen to Whiplash off of Kill Them All, I know Cliff Burton was one of metal's best bassists!

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on June 18, 2012:

I agree, Cryptid. I sorta ignored the bulk of their post-Black Album work (I own the CDs, but rarely listen to 'em) but I cannot deny the impact that the first album (and the three that followed it) had on my life.

cryptid from USA on June 18, 2012:

Kill 'em All was the album that changed everything. Definitely not my favorite Metallica album, but historically it is certainly the most important. Looking at what Metallica has done over the past 20 years, it's hard to believe they are the same band.

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