Master Of Puppets: The album that changed Metallica forever

Metallica in 1985
(Image credit: Joel Selvin )

Do you recall the first time you ever heard Metallica? If we’re truthful, not too many of us can claim being in on the act from the band’s 1983 debut Kill ’Em All; fewer still from the now infamous No Life ’Til Leather demo that preceded it. 

I got my first taste of the Metallica sound while hanging out in the original Shades Records in London’s St Anne’s Court one afternoon in 1984. A talkative young guy came into the shop and demanded that the advance vinyl copy of his band’s new album be blared out from the shop’s stereo. I’d never heard anything quite like the music that followed: fast, hard, heavy, and full of quality and well-placed hooks. 

Amazingly, the young guy said he was sure the test-pressing was playing a little slow. Nobody believed him. It later transpired that the band we were listening to was called Metallica, and the talkative young guy was their drummer, Lars Ulrich. The album, Ride The Lightning, was the band’s second, and it seemed to be going quite fast enough for everybody else. 

For most people, though, it was the next Metallica album, Master Of Puppets, where things began to make sense. By the time of its release in March 1986, Metallica had begun to take huge creative strides forward and, despite the uncompromising nature of their music and a collective mind-set that spurned industry tradition, their reputation began to spread. On the back of a couple of shows at London’s Marquee club, followed by a well-received slot at Castle Donington in 1985, Ride The Lightning dented the lower regions of the UK chart. 

By the time the band had finished a five-week headline tour of Europe, concluded with a date at London’s Lyceum theatre, their independent label in the UK, Music For Nations, discovered that the album had sold more than 100,000 copies in Britain and Europe and three times as many copies in the US. 

This had all been achieved with the absolute minimum of what the band perceived to be ‘selling out’; their sole concession to label politics on the album had been the inclusion of the track Escape. One influential fanzine had described Escape as a ‘ballad’. That description wasn’t too far from the truth – but only when you considered what the track was book-ended by. But Ulrich loathed Escape, and he and singer/guitarist/songwriting partner James Hetfield, vowed to never again compromise on such matters.

As a result, although Metallica were visible in the rock press, they stubbornly refused to do singles, even though Jump In The Fire and Creeping Death had both been released as such in Britain. 

It was only with their fourth album, 1988’s …And Justice For All, that they finally bowed to external pressure and agreed to make a video, for One. The video was inspired by Dalton Trumbo’s book and film Johnny Got His Gun. By then the band were on a major British label, Phonogram, and they insisted that if the promo was not to their liking they had the power to scrap it. Fortunately all went well, and from then on Metallica never looked back. 

In later years, of course, they would go the full hog on fully fledged power ballads like Nothing Else Matters; they would bring in Michael Kamen to arrange the ballads; they would even employ former Bon Jovi and Mötley Crüe producer Bob Rock to make them sound perfect on the radio. Back in ’86, however, such notions were utterly inconceivable. Partly because of that, Master Of Puppets retains a special place in the hearts of Metallica fans. It was the end of one era and the beginning of another entirely. Sadly, it was also the last album the band would make with Cliff Burton, the loon-panted bassist whose fingerprints were all over the project.

Inevitably, the band’s earliest fans quickly expressed their disgust at the band straying from their roots; accusations that they were chasing the dollar abounded. 

“What are we supposed to do? Just cater for a specific 200 or so people for the rest of our career?” Ulrich shrugged. “I have to admit, the fast things come easy to us now, but the slower stuff has become our greatest challenge. With Ride The Lightning we learned that you could still be powerful even if the pace was slowed right down, and now we’ve understood that you can still hit hard even when there’s subtlety to the music. 

"I don’t ever think the term ‘thrash’ applied to us anyway. Sure, we were the originators of the style because of the speed and obnoxiousness in our songs, but if we have to be seen as anything, then let it be a power-based metal band. I mean, what is avante-garde, death, hate metal music anyway? 

“Honestly, I’m fed up with the mentalities of so many thrash acts,” he continued with a bee in his bonnet. “All they wanna do is play faster and faster. What does that prove? Anyone can concentrate on speed for its own sake, but it doesn’t allow for dexterity or growth. We’re always seeking to improve ourselves, which is why we’re getting all this attention now.”

Metallica in July 1986

Metallica with Cliff Burton (left) in July 1986, two months before his death (Image credit: Paul Natkin )

When Metallica were offered a support slot on Ozzy Osbourne’s US tour that year, they grasped it with both hands. Not surprisingly, they went down well with the former Sabbath singer’s rabid US fans. It also catapulted them to a new level of success. Master Of Puppets made the Billboard Top 30, while in the UK it peaked at a very respectable No. 41. 

However, the spectre of their former guitarist Dave Mustaine – then still an alcoholic drug abuser, who had been ejected from the band after a fist-fight with Hetfield in 1982 – still lingered. Mustaine was now forging his own career with Megadeth – a band who threatened to overshadow Metallica’s new-found success. 

“I may as well still be in the band, because they’re still using my music,” Mustaine stormed. “I wrote Leper Messiah and they didn’t give me a credit on the record. Look at James Hetfield on stage now and you can see where he got his charisma from. I can’t even be myself, because people will say I’m ripping off James. But I’d be ripping myself off!” 

Nevertheless, increasingly so in the eyes of the public, Metallica were incapable of doing wrong. Buoyed by the success of Master Of Puppets, the band set off on a two-month European tour with support act Anthrax. The tour included a headline show at London’s Hammersmith Odeon on September 21. At a post-gig party, Metallica were in a jubilant mood, swigging booze like it was going out of style, throwing food around and greeting guests like old friends. Not for a second did party-goers stop to think it would be the last drink they would ever share with Cliff Burton. 

Tragedy struck just six days later when, in the early hours of a journey between Stockholm and Copenhagen, the band’s tour bus skidded – supposedly on a patch of ice – then careered off the road and overturned. Burton was killed after being thrown through a window and having the coach land on top of him. 

After that night’s show, Burton had had a friendly dispute with Hammett over who should sleep in what would turn out to be the ill-fated bunk. They decided to settle the issue by splitting cards; Burton pulled the ace of spades, and Hammett was forced to surrender and sleep at the front.

Understandably, the band have rarely spoken about the precise circumstances of tragedy. But more than 10 years later, on an excellent VH-1 Behind The Music special, they finally spoke about the full horror of the incident. 

“I heard everyone screaming except for Cliff, and I thought: ‘Oh my God, something’s wrong’,” Hammett recalled in the documentary. “I turned around and saw Cliff’s legs sticking out from underneath the bus.” 

While the band prayed for the survival of their friend, a crane was sent for to lift the bus. But just as an inanimate Burton was about to be pulled from underneath, the chain slipped and the bus crashed back down on top of him again. If Cliff wasn’t already dead, he almost certainly was now. There was nothing anyone could do except head for the hotel and the bar, and proceed to try to hide the pain behind an alcoholic haze. 

“After that I was in such shock that I can’t even remember the next three or four hours,” Hammett said. “I remember at four in the morning I could hear James down on the street, drunk. He was screaming: ‘Cliff! Cliff! Where are you?’ I just broke into tears.”

Metallica pose backstage in 1986

Metallica with new man Jason Newsted (second from left) (Image credit: Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music)

Nobody would have blamed Metallica for a moment if they had opted to take the rest of the year off, but that was not their way. Ulrich, Hetfield and Hammett quickly decided that they should minimise the time spent wound-licking and try to find a replacement. 

“It’s what Cliff would have wanted,” Ulrich reasoned. 

Incredibly, they were back on stage just 43 days later, fulfilling a secret ‘special guest’ slot for their old friends Metal Church at the Country Club in Reseda, California, with the on-trial ex-Flotsam And Jetsam man Jason Newsted playing bass. 

Within two months of the accident, they headed off to tour Japan. There had been rumours of Megadeth’s David Ellefson being offered the job, and also of talks with Armored Saint’s Joey Vera. But when the group touched down in Tokyo in November ’86 it was a clearly gobsmacked Newsted who was with them. Newsted, a long-time fan of the band, had heard about Cliff’s accident, but until the last minute hadn’t even considered going to the audition. 

Metallica ended a tempestuous year with a triumphant show at the Felt Forum, the New York venue often referred to as ‘the little brother of Madison Square Garden’. Some 5,000 eager fans braved an icy December night to cheer the band and their ‘new fucker’. 

By now Battery was established as the opening number of their 90-minute set, and tunes like Welcome Home (Sanitarium), The Thing That Should Not Be, Damage, Inc. (included in medley form with their cover of Diamond Head’s Am I Evil?) and Master Of Puppets itself had all become firm stage favourites, and would remain so for years. 

For Metallica, an incredible year was finally over. They has been through a lot. Fortunately for them, in 1987 things would only get better.

Dave Ling

Dave Ling was a co-founder of Classic Rock magazine. His words have appeared in a variety of music publications, including RAW, Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, Prog, Rock Candy, Fireworks and Sounds. Dave’s life was shaped in 1974 through the purchase of a copy of Sweet’s album ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’, along with early gig experiences from Status Quo, Rush, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Yes and Queen. As a lifelong season ticket holder of Crystal Palace FC, he is completely incapable of uttering the word ‘Br***ton’.