Metallica's "Kill 'Em All" Changed the Heavy Metal Game 35 Years Ago

Updated on November 22, 2017
FatFreddysCat profile image

I've been an obsessed hard rock/heavy metal fan and CD 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 | Source

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:

"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. 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!!

Kill Em All
Kill Em All

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.

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


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!

Questions & Answers

    © 2012 Keith Abt


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      • CELEBSFAN78 profile image

        Ara Vahanian 9 months ago from LOS ANGELES

        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 profile image

        Rana Pecarski 2 years ago from Texas

        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.

      • FatFreddysCat profile image

        Keith Abt 3 years ago from The Garden State

        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.

      • NonCopyBook profile image

        Nicholas Daly 3 years ago from NSW Australia

        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....

      • profile image

        Snakesmum 3 years ago

        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 profile image

        Kathleen Cochran 3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

        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 . . . .

      • FatFreddysCat profile image

        Keith Abt 4 years ago from The Garden State

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

      • profile image

        Joe Cogan 4 years ago

        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...

      • FatFreddysCat profile image

        Keith Abt 4 years ago from The Garden State

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

      • FreedomMetal profile image

        FreedomMetal 4 years ago from Somewhere In Time

        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?

      • FatFreddysCat profile image

        Keith Abt 5 years ago from The Garden State

        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.

      • profile image

        newenglandsun 5 years ago

        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"

      • profile image

        newenglandsun 5 years ago

        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.

      • FatFreddysCat profile image

        Keith Abt 5 years ago from The Garden State

        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.

      • profile image

        newenglandsun 5 years ago

        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.

      • Moms-Secret profile image

        Lissette 5 years ago from Central Florida

        Ride the Lightning I think was my favorite!

      • profile image

        newenglandsun 5 years ago

        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.

      • FatFreddysCat profile image

        Keith Abt 5 years ago from The Garden State

        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!!

      • Moms-Secret profile image

        Lissette 5 years ago from Central Florida

        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.

      • FatFreddysCat profile image

        Keith Abt 5 years ago from The Garden State

        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 profile image

        Reality Bytes 5 years ago from Freeman On The Land United States of America.

        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.

      • FatFreddysCat profile image

        Keith Abt 5 years ago from The Garden State

        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 profile image

        Joe Baca 5 years ago

        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.

      • FatFreddysCat profile image

        Keith Abt 5 years ago from The Garden State

        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 profile image

        wmgmetalchris 5 years ago from Kent State University

        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 profile image

        wmgmetalchris 5 years ago from Kent State University

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

      • hotwebideas profile image

        Bruce Chamoff 5 years ago from New York

        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

      • FatFreddysCat profile image

        Keith Abt 5 years ago from The Garden State

        Thanks, all.

      • SkySlave profile image

        Skyler DeCristoforo 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

        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 profile image

        GH Price 5 years ago from North Florida

        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 profile image

        Steve Orion 5 years ago from Tampa, Florida

        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 profile image

        FreedomMetal 5 years ago from Somewhere In Time

        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!

      • FatFreddysCat profile image

        Keith Abt 5 years ago from The Garden State

        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)

      • hotwebideas profile image

        Bruce Chamoff 5 years ago from New York

        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!

      • FatFreddysCat profile image

        Keith Abt 5 years ago from The Garden State

        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 profile image

        cryptid 5 years ago from Earth

        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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