Metallica’s Ride The Lightning: the album that broke the boundaries of thrash

(Image credit: Music For Nations)

Friday, January 13, 1984 was a bad day for Metallica. The crown princes of thrash metal had pulled into Boston, Massachusetts, where they were due to play a show at local sweatbox The Channel the following night. They had just returned from a much-needed two-week break from the relentless treadmill of playing, rehearsing, writing and drinking that seemingly hadn’t stopped since the release of their landmark debut album Kill ’Em All six months earlier, and their spirits were high.

They were soon brought crashing down to earth. The night before the gig, on that ill-fated Friday the 13th, thieves broke into Metallica’s equipment van outside the venue. Lars Ulrich’s drum kit was stolen, as were frontman James Hetfield and guitarist Kirk Hammett’s Marshall head cabinets. Financial inconvenience aside, the robbery temporarily stalled their momentum. Understandably, they were gutted

But this particular cloud would have a silver lining. Bereft of his amp, James Hetfield picked up his acoustic guitar and began to write a melancholy arpeggiated melody and some uncharacteristically vulnerable lyrics: ‘Life it seems will fade away, drifting further every day/Get lost within myself, nothing matters, no one else.’

The sentiments may have been out of proportion to the crime, but the song that came out of it would be pivotal for Metallica. A seven-minute semi-acoustic suicide letter, Fade To Black was the controversial centrepiece of their second album, Ride The Lightning.

“If we’d been told when we were recording Kill ’Em All that we were gonna record a ballad on the next record, I’d have said, ‘Fuck off!’” Hetfield later said.

Both the song and the album it appeared on were hugely significant for Metallica, putting clear water between them and the scene they had created, and pointing the way to a future where anything was possible. Master Of Puppets would be the album that broke Metallica two years later. But Ride The Lightning was the album that made them.

Metallica were already way ahead of the pack by the time Kill ’Em All was released in July 1983. They had been the first thrash band to bag a record deal (with up-and‑coming US indie label Megaforce), they had already supported NWOBHM stars Venom at a one-off show, they were in the middle of a tour with another British band, Raven, and they were being fêted as heroes by the metal underground. 

They even had their own base of operations – a house with its own garage-cum-studio, affectionately dubbed the ‘Metallimansion’, located north of San Francisco, in El Cerrito, California. Onlookers could have been forgiven for thinking Metallica were rolling in it.

“Before I went over there for the first time, I thought it was going to be this really nice place,” recalls photographer Harald Oimoen, an early friend and champion of the band. “Of course, it was the furthest thing from that you could imagine – a total dive. They practised out in the back in a one-car garage that barely had enough room for a vehicle. At one point, they had to line the ground with milk crates and stand on those because whenever it rained the water leaked in and they didn’t want to get electrocuted.”

(Image credit: Fin Costello/Redferns)

Far from being a mansion, the house was only a few steps up from a hovel. Hetfield and Ulrich shared adjacent bedrooms, while a stained couch in the living room acted as a extra place for anyone who needed to crash.

“Anyone who would bring good, hard alcohol to the house was worshipped,” recalls Ron Quintana, founder of Metal Mania fanzine and another friend of the band. “They couldn’t even spell Stolichnaya, let alone afford it. Everyone was so poor, they were lucky if they could afford Smirnoff.”

It was from the Metallimansion that the band planned their campaign for world domination, led from the back by the relentlessly go-getting Ulrich. But it became clear it wasn’t just their groundbreaking music that separated Metallica from their rivals – it was their ambition too. Even as they watched the shockwaves from Kill ’Em All ripple outwards, the band knew that the follow-up had to move things forward once again. They wanted to grow beyond the speed demons who had popped up in the Bay Area in their wake.

“When you’re playing fast all the time, you kind of limit what you can do musically,” says Ulrich.

Metallica began working on the songs for their second album as soon as they returned from tour with Raven in September 1983. Their practice sessions were private. They were breaking new ground and they didn’t want anyone to hear what they were doing before it was ready.

Locked in the garage, the band members were focused and determined, sometimes spending hours arguing about the proper placement for a rhythm shift or the tone of a mid-section. They rehearsed from noon to night, day after day, with few breaks. “We were determined,” says Ulrich. “I can’t say we were comfortable. The garage had no heat and it was cramped. There was no luxury there. Does it make for better art when you’re uncomfortable like that? Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. But when it came to the songs, we felt like we were on a roll.”

Cliff Burton was the key to Metallica’s artistic development. The band had been so keen for the bassist to join that they had relocated to the Bay Area in order to secure his services. For Burton, this was an opportunity to demonstrate his ability as a player and songwriter. A fan of Frank Zappa, Lynyrd Skynyrd and classical music, he didn’t just bring a new level of musicianship to the songs they were playing, he demolished the boundaries Metallica might otherwise have built around themselves.

“Cliff was the one who really taught them about melody,” says Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian, who knew Metallica from their early days. “Cliff was the maestro. He was really accomplished and was thinking beyond thrash and metal. He always wore an R.E.M. T-shirt and a Lynyrd Skynyrd pin on his jean jacket, and that gives an idea of where his head was at.”

“Cliff affected all of us in a lot of ways with his open-mindedness, and was responsible for a lot of the changes from Kill ’Em All to Ride The Lightning,” Ulrich says. “We would never have become the band we were without him.”

Burton was dragging the rest of Metallica in his wake, but it would be unfair to give him sole credit for upping their game. Hetfield and Ulrich strived to balance high-velocity tempos with new musical virtuosity, while Kirk Hammett was expanding his arsenal of tricks by taking lessons from virtuoso guitarist Joe Satriani. The directness of Kill ’Em All was being replaced by offbeat time signatures and unexpected tempo shifts. Just one album in and they were already busting out of the thrash ghetto.

As the band worked on new material, they scheduled sporadic shows to remind people they were still out there, and to test the water with the new material. They’d already showcased an incomplete version of the instrumental The Call Of Ktulu (then titled When Hell Freezes Over) on August 30 to a packed crowd at the Country Club in Reseda, California. On November 4, they returned to the Country Club, where they played a fleshed-out version of the song, as well as debuting a fearsome new thrasher titled Fight Fire With Fire and the epic-in-waiting Creeping Death. Three days later, at The Stone in San Francisco, they added the song Ride The Lightning to their set.

The future was within touching distance.

Through the end of 1983, Metallica road-tested the new songs on audiences across America. The approval that greeted them only boosted the band’s confidence. Even the robbery in Boston only temporarily halted them. Within a few days, their manager and Megaforce Records owner Jonny ‘Z’ Zazula had asked Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian if they could use the New York band’s backline for the last couple of dates on the tour.

After they finished touring Kill ’Em All, Metallica remained on the East Coast to continue writing for the new album. There, they wrote Trapped Under Ice, Escape and most of For Whom The Bell Tolls. “We were in a cold cellar in nowheresville, New Jersey,” recalls Ulrich. “We were cold and hungover all the time.” [See boxout, right.]

But they were also sitting on gold, and they knew it. On February 20, following a handful of dates supporting Venom in Europe, Metallica holed up with producer Flemming Rasmussen in Copenhagen’s Sweet Silence Studios to record Ride The Lightning.

Ulrich had suggested Rasmussen because he liked the producer’s work on Rainbow’s 1981 album Difficult To Cure. Being back in his old home town was hardly a drawback for the drummer, but there were other benefits too. Sweet Silence was cheaper than comparable studios in the United States and there were guest rooms where the band could stay while they worked on the record.

The first challenge for Rasmussen was finding amps to provide the appropriate crunch Hetfield and Hammett had with their old Marshalls.

“We got all of the people we knew that played metal music and had good Marshall amps and cabs,” the producer later said. “We got them to come to the studio with their amps and cabs and we simply tried them until we found one that we thought sounded good.”

With the amp problem solved, Rasmussen discovered a much more vexing issue. Ulrich played impressive fills, but when it came to keeping a beat, he played to his own internal rhythm, impulsively speeding up and slowing down as the songs progressed. “I thought he was absolutely useless,” Rasmussen recalls. “The very first thing I asked when he started playing was, ‘Does everything start on an upbeat?’ And he went, ‘What’s an upbeat?’”

With the help of roadie Flemming Larsen, who played in the Danish thrash band Artillery, Rasmussen gave Ulrich a crash course in basic drumming. “We started telling him about beats. That they have to be an equal length of time between that hit, that hit and that hit, and you have to be able to count to four before you come in again. Then he could play a really good fill that nobody else had thought of doing at that time.”

The majority of the eight songs that would make up the album had been written and were ready to record. The only one that wasn’t fully arranged was the epic For Whom The Bell Tolls. After a bit of jamming, Burton inserted a flanged bass line between crashing power chords, fleshing out the song, and the band recorded the bell sound using an anvil and a metal bar. “We put it on a backstairs when we recorded it,” Rasmussen says. “That was ridiculous – it weighed a ton. But Lars hit it and it sounded really good. That was before samplers, so we had to make our own sounds.”

With impressive efficiency, the album was finished in less than a month. On March 14, when Metallica sat down to listen to the finished record, they knew they were sitting on something special.

They were already tearing up the thrash template. The album opened with a lush, 37-second classical guitar intro – heresy in those fast’n’furious times, even if it did give way to piledriving opener Fight Fire With Fire. If the crunching title track played it safe, then the faultless one-two of For Whom The Bell Tolls and Fade To Black were the sound of a band who were moving forward with utter disregard for what anyone thought of them. 

The former was cinematic and grand, with a lengthy intro from Burton in which he added distortion and wah-wah effects on his bass. Fade To Black was something else entirely – the bruised, reflective ode to suicide written after the band’s equipment was stolen a couple of months earlier. (“I’m sure I wasn’t really thinking of killing myself,” James Hetfield later said. “But it was my favourite Marshall amp!”)

It wasn’t just their musical boundaries that Metallica were expanding. Lyrically, they were rising above the juvenile concerns of Kill ’Em All, engaging with political and literary topics. They tackled the destructive potential of the arms race on Fight Fire With Fire and capital punishment on Ride The Lightning itself. Call Of Ktulu wore the influence of horror author H.P. Lovecraft, while For Whom The Bell Tolls took its title and subject matter from Ernest Hemingway’s 1940 Spanish Civil War novel of the same name. Metal Militia it wasn’t.

The album’s most enduring song owed a debt to the biggest book of all: the Bible. Creeping Death retold The Plague Of The Death Of The Firstborn from the Book Of Exodus, from the perspective of the Angel Of Death. While the shadow of James Hetfield’s strict religious upbringing hung over the lyrics, the spark came from a less divine source.

“James told me that they had a video cassette of [Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 biblical epic] The Ten Commandments at the studio and they watched it over and over,” says Anthrax’s Scott Ian. “The song’s all about the plight of the Jews when they were slaves in Egypt and how God got revenge on the Egyptians by sending the Angel Of Death to kill their first-born sons. I think he felt he could relate to me because I was Jewish.”

(Image credit: Pete Cronin/Redferns)

Metallica returned to the stage a fortnight after finishing the album, with a gig at London’s Marquee Club on March 27, 1984 – their first ever UK show. Their next American gig wouldn’t be until July 20, when they played a homecoming gig at San Francisco’s Mabuhay Gardens, where they were received like homecoming heroes.

Exactly a week later, Ride The Lightning was released. The majority of their fans were thrilled by the growth that had taken the band from the adolescent thrash of the debut to this newer, more complex sound. Yet some purists were furious with the changes. The acoustic opening of Fight Fire With Fire and the near-commercial melody of the NWOBHM-influenced Escape were greeted with suspicion. And Fade To Black was seen as an outright betrayal.

“Lots of people hated it at first,” says Ron Quintana. “Fans wanted them to do Kill ’Em All 20 per cent faster on the second album. These fans were into the newer, faster bands. In the Bay Area, many bands were still going for speed, speed, speed and a lot of people were following Exodus more.”

Indeed, Exodus – the Bay Area bruisers from whom Kirk Hammett had been poached – instantly capitalised on what Metallica had done. They printed a T-shirt with a two-word slogan: ‘No Ballads’. But then Exodus had a bigger axe to grind. Hammett had used a riff from their song Impaler in Trapped Under Ice. Worse, the ‘Die by my hand!’ refrain from Creeping Death had originally appeared in another Exodus song, called Die By His Hand.

“I recall calling Kirk up and giving him a great deal of grief,” Exodus guitarist Gary Holt later grumbled. “He said, ‘Ah, I thought I asked you if it was OK.’ I’m like, ‘No, you didn’t.’ So I’ve had the pleasure – and I use the term loosely – of watching 60,000 people chant ‘Die by my hand!’ at Metallica shows, yet I’ve never received a penny for it.”

For everyone who hated what Metallica had done on Ride The Lightning, there were even more who loved it – including Anthrax’s Scott Ian.

“It had a much denser sound and I couldn’t get enough of it,” he says. “Those guys were really happy with the album too, but it’s funny – they hated the cover art. When we played Roseland with them in August 1984, they had the cover with them and they showed it to me. I have a photo with James and Kirk in the hotel room and James is holding his nose with a big thumbs-down.”

More importantly, Ride The Lightning attracted the attention of some influential people. One was Michael Alago, a rising young A&R man at Elektra Records, the hip label that had once been home to The Doors, The Stooges and The MC5. Alago was so impressed with the album that he persuaded his superiors to let him try to sign Metallica.

“I saw them at that Roseland Ballroom show,” says Alago. “I knew there were other A&R people there. So, basically, I bolted the door shut and wound up being the only one backstage early in the evening. I said, ‘Look, I’m freaking out. I love you guys and you have to come to my office tomorrow.’ Well, they got there bright and early. We were in the conference room. I ordered Chinese food and beer for them and we just sat there and talked. I think they liked that I was their age and that I was enthusiastic and that I’d take the right care of them, and I did, from day one.”

Elektra reissued Ride The Lightning on August 15, making it the fastest and heaviest album ever released by a major label at that point. Inevitably, it prompted a feeding frenzy: suddenly every major label wanted their own thrash band and within 18 months, most had one.

The hardest bit might have been done, but that didn’t mean Metallica were about to take their foot off the gas. With a new label behind them, as well as a new management company (Q Prime, who also looked after Def Leppard) in their corner, Metallica were rapidly becoming too big to fail. Though their stock was rising in the US, Europe was still their stronghold, and they returned across the Atlantic for the Bang That Head That Doesn’t Bang Tour with gnarly British metallers Tank in support, climaxing with a triumphant gig at London’s Lyceum on December 20.

Thirty years on, Ride The Lightning remains Metallica’s most pivotal album. It was a gear change for the band themselves and thrash metal as a whole, proving there was an audience for both outside the sweaty clubs of the Bay Area. The hardcore fans might not have liked its more ‘commercial’ stylistic diversions, but the bands that followed certainly did – suddenly, every other thrash album started with an acoustic intro or had a weighty, introspective ballad in the middle of it. 

Even Metallica themselves ripped it off. Their big breakthrough album, Master Of Puppets, followed exactly the same structural pattern when it came to pacing, from the opening thrasher to the complex instrumental towards the end. Ride The Lightning was more than just a stepping stone – without it, Master Of Puppets wouldn’t exist in the shape the world knows.

“Metallica has always been about breaking boundaries and avoiding limitations,” says Lars Ulrich. “Whenever we did something, we’ve always thought, ‘Okay, what can we do next to be different?’” 

Published in Classic Rock #196

(Image credit: Blackened Records)

Metallica: Ride The Lightning Deluxe Box Set

Metallica’s classic second album Ride The Lightning put them on the global map thanks to instant classics such as Creeping Death, For Whom The Bell Tolls and Fade To Black. This Deluxe Box Set Edition include four vinyl records, six CDs, one DVD, a hardcover book, a mini-book of lyrics handwritten by James Hetfield and a set of three posters.

Jon Wiederhorn

Jon Wiederhorn is a veteran author, music journalist and host of the Backstaged: The Devil in Metal podcast. He is the co-author of the books Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax, Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen, My Riot: Agnostic Front, Grit, Guts & Glory, and author of Raising Hell: Backstage Tales From the Lives of Metal Legends. He has worked on staff at Rolling Stone, MTV, VH1, Guitar Magazine,, and, while his writing has appeared in TV Guide, Blender, SPIN, Classic Rock, Revolver, Metal Hammer, Stuff, Inked, Loudwire and Melody Maker.