"We were rivals once but it doesn't feel like there's any rivalry now. We're all on the same team, for heavy metal": Revisiting the first ever Big Four show, as Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax invaded Poland in the summer of 2010

The 'Big Four' in Poland, 2010
(Image credit: Kevin Nixon/Metal Hammer Magazine/Future via Getty Images/Team Rock via Getty Images)

For a generation of rock fans, thrash metal changed everything. Spawned on the streets of Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York in the early 1980s, thrash was fast, violent, chaotic, raw and anti-social, and every bit as revolutionary as punk rock had seemed a decade earlier. Like the US hardcore scene which developed along parallel lines, it was a movement in which angry, alienated kids sang aggressive songs to, for and about other angry, alienated kids, an underground community powered by fanzines, the trading of badly-dubbed demo cassettes and a word-of-mouth, peer-to-peer buzz which was gradually amplified from a whisper to a scream.

Debate continues over who was the very first thrash band - you'll meet people who'll cite Exodus or Overkill or Anvil as the true progenitors of the sound - but by 1986 there was absolutely no argument who the kings of the scene were. Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax were the Big Four, the most commercially successful, critically acclaimed and creatively inspired Thrash bands on the planet. Having taken this ferocious, flesh-stripping sound from suburban garages to shitty backstreet clubs and on into the mainstream, at the time they felt like the most important, inspirational and vital metal bands around, making the competition look tired, out-dated and largely irrelevant.

There was a degree of rivalry between the bands - famously, after being kicked out of Metallica weeks before the band recorded Kill 'Em All in 1983, Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine noted "I wanted blood. Theirs. I wanted to be faster and heavier than them" - but it was every metalhead's dream to see the quartet share a stage, even if only for one night. That dream came tantalisingly close in the summer of 1991 when Slayer, Metallica and Anthrax teamed up for the Clash Of The Titans tour, but exactly one month after that tour ended Metallica released their self-titled fifth album - aka 'The Black Album' - and immediately established themselves as the biggest metal band in the world, moving into a whole new league from their peers and effectively ending any prospect of getting the old gang back together. Or so everyone thought...

In 2009, Metallica invited Anthrax duo Scott Ian and Charlie Benante along to what drummer Lars Ulrich told Billboard.com would be "a sort of family reunion", as the San Francisco quartet were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Ohio. It was a nice gesture from the Bay Area band, and rather fitting, as Anthrax had shared so many of the Californian quartets significant moments during their formative years. Back in April '83, when Metallica visited New York city for the first time, it was Anthrax who found them a place to stay, in a shared room at their run-down rehearsal space, and brought them back to their own homes when the band needed to shower. In January '84, when Metallica had all their equipment (save for two guitars) stolen in Boston, the New Yorkers loaned the band their own gear so their tour could continue. In September '86, when Metallica bassist Cliff Burton was tragically killed in a coach crash en route to a show in Copenhagen, Anthrax, as their support band, were there to console his devastated bandmates. These bands, in short, have history. So it was no surprise that come the end of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony, Scott Ian and Lars Ulrich would be sharing a beer at the bar. What did come as a surprise though, was Metallica's drummer raising the subject of the Big Four hitting the road together for the first time.

"That would be fucking amazing," said Scott Ian, "but really, it's not going to happen is it?"

"Well, we're kicking around ideas," Ulrich replied.

As spring gave way to summer, and the four bands headed to Europe for festival shows, rumours of a future Big Four tour intensified. Every few weeks Scott Ian would call his buddy Kirk Hammett and ask, "Is this happening? Is it really happening?". And every time Metallica's guitarist would have the same response: "No no no..." And then one day, Hammet answered "Yes".

Metal Hammer line break

This is like a dream for every metalhead

James Hetfield

"Warsaw, Do you know what's happening? This is like a dream for every metalhead. You're a part of it and we're a part of it."

It's just after 9pm on June 16, and here are 88,000 people staring up at James Hetfield as Metallica's frontman looks out from the Sonisphere Poland stage. The vast majority of those present have paid 200 Zloty, approximately £40, and around 15 per cent of the average monthly wage in Poland, to be here today: some 5,000 punters have actually stumped up twice that amount for 'Golden Circle' tickets. An estimated 5,000 more have travelled over from the UK for the show, having taken advantage of an 'early bird' offer which gave them two free tickets for this gig when purchasing tickets for the UK leg of Sonisphere. The feverish reaction to Hetfield's words suggests everyone here would have paid much, much more to be at this first ever Big Four show.

Among those watching are a visibly awed Adam 'Nergal' Darski from Behemoth and his stunning pop star/model girlfriend Dorota Rabczewska, who can't quite believe that this slice of heavy metal history is unfolding just 5 miles from their Warsaw home.

"Don't ask me how I feel because there are no words," laughs Nergal. "It's fucking crazy that this is happening here. It's just amazing. I can't believe I'm fortunate enough to be part of this historic evening."

It was local heroes Behemoth who kicked off the Sonisphere Poland show just before 4pm today. Their blackened death metal isn't best suited to blue skies and blinding sunshine, but playing behind ornate wrought iron mic stands they're a compelling, corrosive spectacle and songs like Ov Fire And The Void from the brilliant Evangelion album represent a stunning distillation of everything that Metallica and Slayer were trying to achieve in LA garages almost three decades ago.

As Behemoth's 40 minute set draws to a close, members of the Big Four bands are beginning to assemble backstage at the Bemowo Airport site. The backstage area is utilitarian and spartan - unlike at UK festivals, there's no designated hospitality area for cocktail-swigging Kate Moss-wannabes to ponce around in unsuitable heels - but with Behemoth, Anthrax, Slayer and Megadeth's dressing rooms all housed in one large steel hut it's an environment conducive to inter-band bro-downs.

Metallica hosted a dinner for the other Big Four bands last night in Warsaw - with no managers, agents or record label executives invited, just the 17 musicians - and as high fives and manly hugs are exchanged today, it's clear that that typically thoughtful gesture has ensured there's no awkwardness or unease among the band members today.

"It was a fucking cool night," smiles Kerry King, perched on a sofa in Slayer's dressing room. "I was sitting at a table with Shawn [Drover] from Megadeth and at one point I looked up and said 'Dude, there's a lot of famous people in here!' I had a great time."

Of all the musicians milling around the dressing room area today it's Kerry King who has the biggest reputation for blunt honesty. A somewhat prickly interviewee, the guitarist doesn't suffer fools gladly and is commendably forthright when expressing his opinions, a characteristic that has ensured he's frequently been drawn into feuds with fellow musicians, as Dave Mustaine, with whom King played the first five Megadeth shows, can attest: "Ask anybody in the biz about Dave Mustaine," King told Metal Edge magazine back in 2005, "and if they have an opinion, he's a cocksucker..." If anyone here was to expose the backstage bonhomie as a charade it'd be King, but this afternoon the guitarist is all sweetness and light, cheerily stating that his dressing room door is open to anyone who wants some "hooch" - that's 'booze' in our language - tonight.

"The gigs are going to be awesome," he states. "I'm just going to enjoy the hell out of them. I think it should be a worldwide event. I said to James [Hetfield] at dinner last night 'Dude, this is awesome, everybody should see it, not just in theatres and on DVD'. It's all down to Metallica wanting to do it because they're so much bigger than everyone else, but I'm hoping James will keep it in mind and we can go more places."

Sitting on Slayer's tour bus, Tom Araya echoes his guitarist's sentiments.

"I heard that Metallica were going to wait to see how this goes before committing to anything else," Tom says with a smile. "And I'm like 'You have to wait and see?' I know this would be awesome everywhere!"

I don't think metal would mean as much as it means now without these four bands

Tom Araya

Ask Araya if he thinks today's convivial atmosphere will be sustained right through to the final Big Four show in Istanbul and he gives another lazy smile, shrugs and says "Every day is a new day. People are people, and sometimes they're going to say and do stupid things." But ask if he can imagine the heavy metal world existing without these four bands and he becomes more serious and reflective.

"Metal would still exist," he says slowly, "but I don't think metal would mean as much as it means now without these four bands. But man, these four bands fucking lucked out."

As Slayer climb aboard golf carts to transport them all of 400 metres between the backstage area and the stage, James Hetfield waves them off and shouts "Kick ass!"

The LA quartet proceed to do just that. World Painted Blood, Hate Worldwide and Jihad prove that this isn't merely an exercise in nostalgia, but as ever it's the killer kiss-off of South Of Heaven and Raining Blood which truly takes the Polish crowd over the edge. When they return to the backstage compound, Kerry King is literally punching the air with happiness.

Megadeth's Dave Mustaine is in equally emotional mood after his band's early evening set. With original bassist Dave Ellefson back in the band alongside drummer Shawn Drover and guitarist Chris Broderick, this might just be the best line-up of Megadeth Mustaine has ever assembled, and playing in front of a Rust In Peace backdrop, and performing that album in it's entirety to mark the 20th anniversary of its release before rounding off their 60 minute set with Headcrusher, Sweating Bullets, Symphony Of Destruction and a glorious Peace Sells, the quartet are in devastating form. Even the fact that his band's name is listed as 'Megadeath' on production notices around the backstage area can't dampen the singer's ebullient mood.

This is one of the best days of my life. I feel like I've been born again

Dave Mustaine

"This is so fantastic," he beams. "I was one of the guys that helped build this whole scene and I'm just so honoured to be here. Fuck man, it's like one of the best days of my life. Truly I feel like I've been born again."

Mustaine's longstanding rivalry with his old friends in Metallica has been well documented over the years, but that, he insists, is all in the past, something he attributes to a change in his own attitudes after he became a Christian.

"After 2002 when I got saved, my life changed," he insists. "The things I got upset about back then don't bother me anymore. At one point I was so bitter about everything, but then one day I thought 'Dave, you're one of the greatest guitar players in the world and you've been in the two biggest heavy metal bands in existence on the planet, and that's when I realised how fortunate I am."

 "Those fucking West Coast bands and their dramas!" laughs Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian when we corner him for a chat.

"I'm totally kidding," he adds quickly, "but really, whatever dramas there have been over the past 25 years, what does it matter? It's so stupid. I was sitting last night with James, looking at another table where Lars and Dave were talking and I was saying to James 'The last time I saw the two of them talking was when Dave was in Metallica.' Last night was amazing, there was a real energy and vibe in the room from every band, just like 'You can fucking believe this?' Everyone is really pumped about this."

Somewhat ironically, given that they've traditionally been the least volatile of the Big Four, it's Anthrax themselves who've endured the most drama in recent years, with seemingly endless confusion over who's actually fronting the band. When the New Yorkers received an offer to play these shows John Bush had just been freshly re-installed as their vocalist, but just last month it was announced that Joey Belladonna would be returning for this third stint as Anthrax's singer for these dates.

Scott Ian claims that this will be the line-up that records the next Anthrax album, but speaking to Joey Belladonna, one can't shake the suspicion that, for now at least, this is a marriage of convenience. When Belladonna speaks of Anthrax he uses the word 'they' rather than 'us', and as he mooches around backstage with his wife, he seems a rather distant figure. And when he looks to the future, his words, perhaps not surprisingly, are tinged with caution.

"Nobody said anything about me staying last time," he shrugs. "Whenever anyone asked them it'd be like 'Well, we're taking baby steps, so who knows...' Then they were searching for another singer and I was in the line but it'd be like - counts along an imaginary line of singers, with a pointing finger - 'Yeaaaah....hmmmm....no' and I'd just get bypassed. That I'm here now just blows my mind. And if people are sincere about the future that's all good."

To their credit, whatever is going on behind the scenes, Anthrax look united and happy onstage, and their eight song set is a reminder of what a great, influential band they remain. But that, just two weeks after this, the biggest gig in their 29 year history, Joey Belladonna singing and playing drums in front of a couple of hundred people with his classic rock covers band Chief Bigway at Suzy's Tavern in Auburn in New York - a gig they'll have to finish by 10pm when the weekly karaoke night starts - is a reminder that this can be a shit business.

The mad egotistical 'look how big our dicks are' stuff got left behind in our 30s

Lars Ulrich

Holding court outside the dressing room area an hour before his band are due onstage, Lars Ulrich is in a rather more chipper mood. It was Ulrich who fought hardest to make the Big Four tour a reality, and the drummer who's spent the past year firing off text messages to the other bands from different time zones, and naturally he's buzzing with excitement today as his plans come alive before his eyes.

"As we get older we don't take any of this stuff for granted," he smiles. "The mad egotistical 'look how big our dicks are' stuff got left behind in our 30s, and while I I can't speak for the other bands, for Metallica, we're obviously appreciative and and humbled here, like 'Oh wow, look at all the people that still give a shit'."

"This isn't about looking back on the old days and thinking 'Wow, look how much more fun we had back then...'" he insists. "There was a different energy then, a lot of naive energy, a lot of innocence, a lot of spunk and a lot of chest-pumping and a lot of bravado. Now it's more about a celebratory energy, it's like 'Holy fuck, we actually all survived it, we all made it through' Here are four bands that are still as relevant as we all were back in the day, four bands that are continuing to put out albums as vital as they ever were. And that's fucking cool."

And is there any element of Lars Ulrich now that's still the snotty-nosed teenager who wants to blow every other band off-stage?

"I don't feel that coming up much," says the affable Dane. "It's not so much about blowing everyone else offstage as about blowing your own mind these days. It's more about being the best that we can be each night. With bands like Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax playing before us, you have to be on your game and firing on all cylinders. It's a big circle of inspiration. And that feels pretty good at this point in our career."

For all the shared memories and mutual back-slapping on this tour, the other bands acknowledge that they owe a debut of gratitude to Metallica for putting this run of shows together. There's a reason Metallica are the biggest of the Big Four, and that's all too clear when the San Francisco quartet take the stage at 9pm, with James Hetfield welcoming Poland to "the greatest show on earth".

Before Seek And Destroy, at the end of a killer two hour set - in which Fade To Black, Blackened, Master Of Puppets and For Whom The Bell Tolls are scorching highlights - James Hetfield asks for the lights in the arena to be turned on the crowd so he look out at the 88,000 faces in front of him.

"We would like to take a good look at history right here," he says quietly. "I can hopefully speak for all the bands here tonight - for Anthrax, Megadeth, Slayer and Metallica - when I saw thank you for your support for heavy, live music."

"We were rivals once," Dave Mustaine says afterwards, as more hugs are exchanged backstage, "but it doesn't feel like there's any rivalry now. We're all on the same team, for heavy metal. All we ever wanted to do was to matter. We were young kids, we were hungry, and we wanted to play guitar and have people say 'You mean something in this world. You are going to make a difference'. I made a difference. We all made a difference. And I love that. This is everything we ever wanted."

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.