How Metallica’s Kill 'Em All changed the world

James Hetfield giving the middle finger to camera
James Hetfield: Zero fucks given
(Image: © Escott Schafer)

Lars Ulrich is looking back on the record that laid down the foundations for not only his band’s career, but an entirely new strand of heavy metal. It’s been 33 years since Metallica’s debut album, Kill ’Em All, came roaring and snarling out of San Francisco, leaving a trail of carnage in its wake.

“I’ve got a mixed bag of memories,” he says of one of the most influential debut albums in history. “The primary ones would involve youth, innocence, ignorance and a kind of unawareness of what the future held.”

The drummer is taking a break from what he describes as “putting the finishing touches” to Metallica’s as-yet-untitled 10th album, a project that’s as shrouded in mystery and secrecy as the tax dealings of your average high-ranking politician. Chief among the other plates he has spinning are brand new reissues of Kill ’Em All and its follow-up, Ride The Lightning, both of which have been given the “Led Zeppelin treatment”, including high-end deluxe editions that come in boxes with all manner of rare and unheard live and demo material and Metallica ephemera. Right now, Lars isn’t entirely sure whether he’s looking forward or backwards.

“It’s a bit of a mindfuck,” he says. “But one thing I’ve realised in the last few months is there’s this kind of instinctive thing that drove it all. When were were 19 or 20, we never slowed down long enough to think – we just did.”

However you slice it, the inarguable fact is that Kill ’Em All changed everything. The youthful Metallica – Lars, frontman James Hetfield, bassist Cliff Burton and guitarist Kirk Hammett, who replaced original six-stringer and future Megadeth founder Dave Mustaine – took the drummer’s beloved New Wave Of British Heavy Metal and spliced it with the DNA of American punk. And while they can’t quite lay credit to inventing thrash metal – Kirk’s former band, Exodus, should be given due credit for that – Metallica can take credit for turning it into a worldwide phenomenon that’s still echoing down the years.

“Yeah, there was a little bit of arrogance to it, a little youthful cockiness,” says Kirk. “But at the same time we weren’t particularly jaded, and we didn’t have much baggage attached to us musically. We were in a new territory, and we knew we were doing it better than anyone else.”

They had already served notice of their intentions via a trio of demo tapes, the third and final of which, the widely ground-breaking No Life ’Til Leather, showcased a band who had emerged fully formed, but Kill ’Em All honed their attack even further. Listen to the likes of Hit The Lights, The Four Horsemen or the gimlet-eyed Whiplash today, and you can hear the hunger and ambition bursting out.

“Hunger and ambition aren’t words I would use,” counters Lars. “I’d probably use words like ‘determined’ and ‘single-minded’. Now when I look at my life, there’s my wife, my kids, my dad, my circle of friends, and of course there’s Metallica. Back then, there was just music. When I came to America in 1980, I wasn’t super-ambitious. I never formed a band to tour the world or make money and meet girls. I just wanted to be the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, Californian version.”

As Lars and Kirk look back on that landmark debut, one thing is clear: in that, he more than succeeded.

Hit The Lights

The first track on one of the landmark debut albums in the history of metal starts off with a wall of noise that quickly erupts into a 100mph statement of intent, complete with one of the great opening lines in history: ‘No life ’til leather, we’re gonna kick some ass tonight.’ If one song represents the birth of Metallica, this is it.

LARS: “I’m not going to argue with that. The version on Kill ’Em All was basically a marriage of two songs. Hetfield brought in the verses and the chorus, which came from something he had done in a band called Leather Charm, and I brought in the whole back half of it, which was from something I had done before. After three verses and three choruses, it goes into this whole other universe, with a new riff and a fucking half-hour-long jam out.”

KIRK: “It was the first Metallica song I played on. I’d only been in the band for three weeks. I flew in the second week of April, under the auspices of auditioning for the band. I arrived on a Monday and played the first show that Friday. We played two or three shows a week, so I was ready to go. I kind of realised I must be in the band because nobody told me otherwise.”

WHAT WAS A TYPICAL METALLICA WRITING SESSION LIKE? DID YOU SIT DOWN TOGETHER AND BUILD SONGS FROM THE GROUND UP LIKE LENNON AND McCARTNEY, OR DID PEOPLE BRING IN DIFFERENT PARTS THAT YOU GLUED TOGETHER UNTIL THEY WORKED?

LARS: “Ha ha, I think we should leave Lennon and McCartney out of it. No, I’d definitely go more on the latter. It was more of a piecemeal thing. James had some ideas, I had some ideas, eventually Mustaine came in with some ideas. And then, yeah, we took those ideas and glued them together, added little things like picking technique, heavied it up and made it fast, put some energy and some youthful punkish enthusiasm behind it, and out came this Metallica thing.”

The Four Horsemen

If Hetfield and Ulrich were the mouth and heart of Metallica, Dave Mustaine was its sneer. The wildcard guitarist was kicked out of the band a month before they were due to record Kill ’Em All, but his imprint remains – not least on this seven-minute mini-epic, powered by one of the greatest riffs the band have ever recorded.

LARS: “Dave brought in some things he had from his old band, Panic – things he’d been jamming, bigger-picture ideas, stuff like that. The song The Four Horsemen was, in its early version, called ‘Mechanix’, and it was literally a song about sex. There were lyrics about taking the hose and sticking it in the tank – a gas station stop disguised as sexual engagement. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me at the time, but we knew that was the sort of thing we wanted to move away from – the sexual stuff that hard rock bands were singing about at the time, which we we thought was a little light and a little obvious. You didn’t find stuff like that on the first Witchfynde album.”

WAS THE MUSIC YOU WERE MAKING A CONSCIOUS REACTION TO EVERYTHING ELSE THAT WAS HAPPENING IN AMERICAN ROCK AND METAL AT THE TIME?

LARS: “When you talk about Metallica during that time period, you have to use the word ‘contrary’. It’s not so much what turns you on as what turns you off. You often went: ‘We definitely don’t like that, so we’re gonna do this.’ We didn’t want to be this, we didn’t want to do that, we didn’t want to do what the American bands were doing, we didn’t want to write this particular way. We were finding our own voice.”

KIRK, DID IT FEEL LIKE YOU WERE PLAYING SOMEONE ELSE’S PARTS?

KIRK: “Yeah, a little. I was near enough to the music to feel secure enough playing it, but it did have that feel of me playing someone else’s music and trying to emulate what had been there previously. But I wasn’t emulating it very well, ha ha!”

Road dogs

Road dogs
(Image: © Ross Halfin)

Motorbreath

If there’s one Kill ’Em All song that deserves more credit than it gets, then it’s this ode to the rock’n’roll lifestyle which kicks off with Lars pummelling seven shades of shit out of his drums before giving way to a precision-tooled James Hetfield riff. Lyrically and musically, it seems to be a shoutout to one of the band’s biggest influences: Motörhead.

LARS: “No, Motorbreath was actually something that Hetfield had brought in from somewhere else, something that we heavied up and sped up. I don’t think the word ‘Motor’ in Motorbreath correlates to ‘Motor’ in Motörhead. It was purely coincidental.”

IF WE HAD WALKED INTO THE STUDIO HALFWAY THROUGH RECORDING KILL ’EM ALL, WHAT WOULD IT HAVE SMELLED LIKE?

LARS: “Oh man… probably cheap beer, greasy food, sweaty armpits, stinky cigarettes. We were in upstate New York, in Rochester, well away from the San Francisco Bay area and out of our comfort zones. We had four or five weeks in a place called Barrett Alley – it was like an old furniture warehouse. There was no money and everything was a struggle. We drank the cheapest, shittiest beer we could get hold of and ate the worst fast food, and Cliff and a few other people smoked cigarettes. We were just being a bunch of snot-nosed 20-year-old kids, and we would rock ’til we fell over.”

KIRK: “We were supposed to stay somewhere, but we ended up staying at this other guy’s house, a guy who worked at the studio named Gary Zefting. We were there for two or three weeks. And we totally destroyed his house.”

Jump In The Fire

Released as the second single from Kill ’Em All (after Whiplash), Jump In The Fire was another song that Dave Mustaine brought to the table – though its final, quasi-Satanic trappings were a world away from its original lyrical theme.

LARS: “That song was like Mechanix, in that it originally had sexual connotations to it. But that’s who Dave Mustaine was. He was cool and confident, he had a cool haircut. When we went and hung out with him at his apartment, there were girls there. He was much more of a man of the world, where James and I were these weird little awkward, disenfranchised teenagers.”

DID YOU ALL ARGUE OVER SONGS?

LARS: “Not to my recollection. That’s what we’re struggling with now, making this new Metallica record. We don’t necessarily argue, but the thing that’s happening now is that because we’re so much better at what we do, there’s so many more options. Every time James plays a riff, he can play it faster, he can play it slower, play at half-time or thrash metal style. We’re sitting there and we’ll say: ‘Let’s try it this way, or that way… Let’s play a drop-D… I can play a thrash beat to it.’ And you sit there and your head starts spinning with all these options. I never remember having those options at the start. We just did it.”

(Anesthesia) – Pulling Teeth

Bassist Cliff Burton replaced original four-stringer Ron McGovney in December 1982, immediately lifting Metallica’s game musically. This was his musical showcase- cum-tour de force.

LARS:Anesthesia was a bass solo disguised as a song, instead of it just being called ‘Bass Solo’. It was like what Geezer Butler did in Black Sabbath – he just gave it a clever, cool title.”

KIRK: “I remember him recording his bass solo separately from anyone or anything. He was upstairs in this big empty room, standing there alone, just him and his bass amp. I watched him play while they were getting his sound right downstairs in the control room. After 15 or 20 minutes, he got the sound right and then he looked at me and said: ‘Get away from me, man – I’m about to do this.’ And then he took a hit off a joint, bent over and drank a beer, and I hightailed it out of there.”

WHAT WAS CLIFF’S INFLUENCE ON THE BAND MUSICALLY?

LARS: “Cliff came from a different musical background. He didn’t know who Diamond Head were, he didn’t know who the Tygers Of Pan Tang were. He would sit there and listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Eagles and Yes and Simon & Garfunkel. I knew who Simon & Garfunkel were, but I’d never heard them –or if I had, I turned it off as quick as I could. Cliff wasn’t really part of the songwriting on Kill ’Em All – when he joined, all the songs were basically the way they were. But his influence and contribution is pretty significant on the stuff on Ride The Lightning.

KIRK: “Cliff had studied music. He was at a more musical level than I was. There were concepts I didn’t understand, which he knew and explained to me – relative scales and whatnot.”

LARS: “He understood words like ‘harmonies’ and ‘arpeggios’. We couldn’t even spell them.”

Taking a bite out of the Big Apple: James onstage at L’Amour East in Queens, 1983

Taking a bite out of the Big Apple: James onstage at L’Amour East in Queens, 1983
(Image: © Frank White Photography)

Whiplash

If there’s one song that represents the birth of thrash as we know it, this is it. Fellow Bay Area denizens Exodus might have kickstarted the genre, but Whiplash took it to the world. The rest is history.

LARS: “On Whiplash, we just tried to play as fast as we could and have it make as much sense as possible. One of the bands we were listening to, who were an influence on Whiplash, was Venom. That first record [1981’s Welcome To Hell], with songs like Angel Dust and Live Like An Angel (Die Like A Devil), was a big inspiration. They took the energy and speed of what Motörhead were doing and made it a little more heavy metal – Motörhead had more of a punkish attitude. Venom need to get namechecked more when people talk about Metallica’s early days.”

WHO IN THE BAND WAS PUSHING METALLICA TO PEAK VELOCITY?

LARS: “It was something that we were just doing together. I don’t sit here and go, ‘I did this, he did that.’ We all just ended up living together, being on top of each other 247. We drank the same beer, ate the same shitty food, listened to the same music, like you do when you’re 18 or 19 years old. I don’t think one person was more responsible for this than any other guy was. It was more us just trying to make it heavier and faster and more over-the-top.”

Phantom Lord

Another Hetfield-Ulrich-Mustaine co-write, and one which shows the band’s influences most clearly.

LARS: “Obviously, the whole thing we were doing was using the English sound and the English way of doing things, which was two guitars. Everything in America was primarily one guitar, a little bit looser. There were some guiding lights. If you take Diamond Head’s Lightning To The Nations, Motörhead’s Overkill, Ace Of Spades and No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith… if you take Iron Maiden’s first record, if you take Judas Priest’s British Steel, if you take Saxon’s Wheels Of Steel, Tygers Of Pan Tang’s Wild Cat… those are the blueprints that fed into what we were doing.”

No Remorse

One of only three songs from Kill ’Em All that didn’t appear on the No Life ’Til Leather demo, alongside Whiplash and Anesthesia. Even so, it proved Metallica’s unwavering vision was in place from the start.

LARS:No Remorse was embellished to a degree from when we first wrote it, as was Phantom Lord and Four Horseman and Seek & Destroy, but the songs weren’t radically different to the way they were written. We had a clear vision – once something worked, it worked. It wasn’t: ‘Fuck you, we’re great, none of this has to change.’ But if it was working, it was working.

“Everything was instinctive, impulsive, momentary. Now, when you sit and make a record, and look at all the things that are on your radar for the day or the month or whatever, it’s just one confluence of options of different things. You’re overloaded and trying to figure it out, and you sit there and go, ‘Fuck, when I was in that house in El Cerrito, California, with James and Dave Mustaine, it all seemed so easy. We made records in half an hour, wrote a fucking song in an afternoon’, all this kind of crap. It really wasn’t, but that’s how you formulate things.”

James flipping out at an early photoshoot

James flipping out at an early photoshoot

Seek & Destroy

Is there a more enduring Metallica song than Seek & Destroy? A mainstay of the band’s live show since their early days – they’ve played it more than 1,300 times – its immortal riff first made an appearance on the legendary No Life ’Til Leather demo.

LARS: “That main riff is a classic Hetfield riff. In its demo version, Seek & Destroy was two chords, two versions and a middle bit. But one band you can’t leave out of a conversation about Metallica’s influences are Mercyful Fate. They had long songs that were journeys through all different moods and dynamics and light and shade, and they were responsible for us lengthening our own songs. By the time we’d spent six months listening to Mercyful Fate, we’d added an extra verse, an extra chorus and started making the arrangement longer. It was a matter of trying to better it, I guess.”

WERE YOU CONSCIOUS THAT YOU WERE WRITING A SONG YOU’D STILL BE PLAYING 35 YEARS LATER?

LARS: “Ha ha, we weren’t conscious full stop. No, absolutely not. Without sounding too full of ourselves, we always treated the songs as equals. We felt that the song before Seek & Destroy and the song after it were just as good. And the one thing we didn’t have was a lot of songs to choose from. Kill ’Em All was not the 10 best songs we had in 1983 – it was the 10 songs in 1983. You read interviews with other bands: ‘Yeah, we wrote 20 songs and picked the best 10 for the record.’ That’s not our approach. What’s the point of writing a song if it wasn’t good enough to go on the record? There weren’t seven leftover songs for the Ride The Lightning album. Every single song that we’ve ever written, you’ve heard.”

Metal Militia

Musically, a fast and furious finale. But lyrically, it’s the redheaded step-child of Metallica’s career – a leather-clad salute to heavy metal itself that verges on the clichéd. It’s an avenue they’d swiftly abandon.

LARS: “Obviously, a song like Metal Militia has a different lyrical vibe to it than some of the stuff we came up with over the next few years, ha ha. ‘Leather and metal are our uniforms’? I wish I could tell you 35 years later that it was a kind of pisstake, but there wasn’t a lot of irony present in Southern California in the early 1980s. It was a case of people taking themselves slightly too seriously. You’re 18 years old and you’re just trying to figure it all out, trying to make head or tail of it. There weren’t a lot of guys in the harder rock and metal scene who were writing otherworldly, poetic stuff. The lyrical subjects were almost secondary to the music. They were just there to keep the song going.”

IS IT FAIR TO SAY THAT THE BAND MOVED AWAY FROM THIS SORT OF THING PRETTY QUICKLY?

LARS: “I would say that’s accurate, yeah. As we started figuring out what we were doing, we deliberately started to move away from what we perceived to be the heavy metal clichés – the sword and sorcery imagery, the leather and studs, and all that. By the time we sat down to write the next batch of songs, we started getting into things like fear and manipulation, the idea of being trapped in situations you can’t get out of.”

KIRK: “We finished the tracks and got a Greyhound bus and hightailed it back to San Francisco. It was an amazing feeling. I remember talking to Cliff all the way back about how excited we were to finally make an album, to have it on vinyl, to actually hold it and look at the cover. At one point, he went: ‘I wonder what the second album is gonna be like? I wonder what the third album is gonna be like?’”

RIDE THE LIGHTNING CAME OUT A YEAR AND TWO DAYS AFTER KILL ’EM ALL. DO YOU MISS THAT PACE THESE DAYS?

LARS: “I don’t know if I do. The pace is much faster now, ’cause there’s so much other stuff to deal with. There’s 24 hours in a day – six hours a day devoted to Metallica, 14 hours devoted to other stuff. There’s so much other stuff you have to deal with when you’re 52 than there is when you’re 18.”

“There was talk of Lars becoming frontman”

Original Metallica manager Jonny Z looks back on the band’s early days

In 1982, Jon Zazula was the owner of record shop Rockn’ Roll Heaven in New Jersey, which he ran with his wife, Marsha. It was there that he first heard Metallica’s No Life ’Til Leather demo.

“It was amazing,” he says now. “We sold demo tapes at the time, but we didn’t play them ’cause they sounded so crappy. But we happened to play this one and it was, ‘Wow, this is amazing!’”

Jon contacted the band and offered to become their manager. “The first time I met them was when they pulled up to my house with their rental U-Haul truck. One of them was driving, the others were travelling inside. When the door opened, they just piled out.”

Jon hawked No Life… around the labels, to no avail. Instead, he set up his own record company, Megaforce, expressly to release the album that would become Kill ’Em All. While Jon – known to his new charges as Jonny Z – was hands-off in terms of the music, he spent plenty of time in the studio with them as they worked on the record.

“I was in the studio most days,” he says. “The producer [Paul Curcio] loved Kirk’s lead. He wanted it to sound like a Santana record – where Carlos Santana’s lead guitar is right there at the front. James and Lars came to me and said, ‘Hey Jonny, there’s a problem – this producer thinks we’re done with the tracking, can you sort it out?’ So we sorted it out.”

Jon busts the myth that Metallica were drunk all day every day. “They were professional, totally,” he says. “Lars and I planned a lot of stuff. But James wasn’t the most confident of singers. I don’t think he felt comfortable. At one point there was even talk of Lars becoming the frontman. For about five seconds.”

Jon’s managerial relationship with Metallica ended before they recorded Ride The Lightning, though Megaforce went on to be pivotal to the thrash scene, releasing albums by the likes of M.O.D., Testament and Vio-lence. But even back then, he knew what he had on his hands with these four kids from the Bay.

“There was no one who could tell me they weren’t the next Led Zeppelin,” he says. “I knew we were writing the pages of history.”

Speak & Destroy

Metallica touring buddies and Hetfield-approved rockers Volbeat tell us what Kill ’Em All means to them…

ROB CAGGIANO (GUITARIST, AND EX-ANTHRAX MEMBER): “It changed the world of heavy music. I was a kid growing up in the States. For me, that was an interesting period. I was really young… there was an outdoor flea market in Yonkers, New York, my mom used to take me to every Sunday. I remember the first record I got was AC/DC’s Back In Black, and then the next week I got a Van Halen one, and then a few weeks later I got Kill ’Em All. It was just amazing. I think I got it on a weird cassette; I don’t know if it was even properly released back then. It totally blew me away.”

MICHAEL POULSEN: “I have to admit that the first time I heard Metallica was Ride The Lightning, and later on Master Of Puppets. I was aware that there was this record before, and it took me some time to get into Kill ’Em All, but you can totally hear they had something special. And I was back in school when I heard that. Like Rob, I was very young. I was more about the more melodic stuff, and Kill ’Em All had that fucking thrash attack – it had that attitude.”

THE REMASTERED VERSIONS OF KILL ’EM ALL AND RIDE THE LIGHTNING ARE OUT NOW ON CD, VINYL AND DELUXE BOX SET VIA BLACKENED RECORDINGS