Metallica gave birth to thrash metal: within a few years, they wanted to kill it

Metallica in November 1986
(Image credit: Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music)

Former Megadeth bassist Dave Ellefson has more perspective than most on the thrash metal scene. “They talk about the Big Four,” says Ellefsen. “Quite honestly, there was a Big One, and that was Metallica. They were miles and miles ahead of all of us.” 

So far ahead, in fact, that Metallica almost immediately outgrew the genre they had single-handedly inspired. By their third album, Master Of Puppets, I was warned during a visit to the studio where they were recording it not to even mention the word thrash. Released the same year as Slayer’s Reign In Blood, Lars was content, he said, “to let Slayer run with the whole thrash thing now. They want it, they can have it.”

Which is exactly what happened and over the next five years, as Metallica’s ambitions stayed apace with their rocketing success, their peers ceased to be Megadeth and Slayer, but Guns N’ Roses and Bon Jovi, then the biggest rock bands in the world.

Thus, in 1991: the Black album, Metallica’s sonically-exquisite, fully-textured, ballads-and-all assault on the summit of Everest-like rock popularity. Their attempt to win the hearts and minds of an audience that wouldn’t have been seen dead listening to ‘thrash’ that proved so extraordinarily successful it not only propelled Metallica onto the same stratospheric plain as Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, it did more to kill off thrash than grunge – its contemporaneous black sheep first cousin – ever could.

Up until that moment, the other thrash ‘originals’ – Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth – had carved out a significant niche just by not being Metallica. After the Black album, though, the game was up. Incinerated in the furnace – like jet-stream of Metallica’s commercial lift-off, thrash had become little more than an interesting footnote in the history of rock – until Metallica came back nearly 20 years later and breathed new life into it again with the disingenuously titled Big Four.

"You know something?” Kirk Hammett asked as the Big Four tour got under way in Poland, at the Sonisphere festival on the industrial outskirts of Warsaw. “In 1988 this show never would have happened, for whatever reason. In 1998 no one gave a fuck, and now in 2010 it’s big fuckin’ news. God fuckin’ bless it!"

Jon Hotten

Jon Hotten is an English author and journalist. He is best known for the books Muscle: A Writer's Trip Through a Sport with No Boundaries and The Years of the Locust. In June 2015 he published a novel, My Life And The Beautiful Music (Cape), based on his time in LA in the late 80s reporting on the heavy metal scene. He was a contributor to Kerrang! magazine from 1987–92 and currently contributes to Classic Rock. Hotten is the author of the popular cricket blog, The Old Batsman, and since February 2013 is a frequent contributor to The Cordon cricket blog at Cricinfo. His most recent book, Bat, Ball & Field, was published in 2022.