Scott Ian: "Nobody thought Metallica would be bigger than Iron Maiden"

Scott Ian
(Image credit: Will Ireland)

When thrash metal arose in the early 80s, four names shone brighter than just about everybody else. Metallica, Anthrax, Slayer and Megadeth might not have been the first bands to indulge in speed, but they did make up the illustrious Big Four, releasing landmark records and (in time) headlining arenas and festivals around the world. 

We spoke to Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian about the birth of the genre and how his friendship with Metallica came to be...

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Where did you first cross paths with Metallica?

“We were down at [future Megaforce Records boss] Johnny Z’s record store Rock N Roll Heaven one weekend in 82 and he had the No Life ‘Til Leather demo. He said, ‘I got this demo from this band from San Francisco called Metallica, check this out’. We were just like, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’ He tells us he’s bringing them to New York and he’s gonna start a record label. We’re like ‘how are you doing all this?’ and he says ‘I don't know, but no one else will sign it and someone's got to put this out’.”

What are your memories of meeting them for the first time?

“When Metallica got to New York, they’d drove across in a truck. Johnny said, ‘Why don't you guys go meet them, I got them a room there too so they can rehearse, but they're also going to be living there’. I'm like ‘What?! They can't live there – it's horrible and is in one of the worst neighbourhoods in New York, don’t they have hotels or houses they can stay at?’. And he tells us there’s no money for anything like that. So Danny and I went down there met them for the first time and of course they start asking us, ‘Do you guys know where we're staying?’ I'm like, ‘Call Johnny Z – let him tell you because I'm not breaking that news!”

This was when Dave Mustaine was in the band, right?

“Yeah Dave was in the band at that point. I actually remember when he got fired – they were still living in that music building. I showed up one day and Cliff was standing outside smoking a cigarette. He goes ‘Oh, we fired Mustaine’. I couldn’t believe it – no fucking way, they had a gig that weekend and were leaving in a few weeks to make the album. 

In those days Mustaine was basically the frontman – he was the focal point because James hadn’t become James yet so it seemed inconceivable to get rid of their lead guitarist and songwriter. But they were like ‘Yeah he’s on a bus to San Fransico right now, we’ve got this guy from a band called Exodus, he’s gonna fly out tomorrow – can you give him a ride from the airport?’”

What were they like at that point?

“It was like meeting people you're already friends with even though it was the first time. We were all into the same music, same movies and horror… we just had a lot in common. Plus they were living in the music building and we were practically living there because we’d go seven days a week just to hang out. Neither band had a pot to piss in – literally, because most of the toilets in the bathrooms in that building didn’t work! They were disgusting.”

“Everyone knows the story, we gave them the refrigerator from our room and a toaster oven so they could at least heat up food. We even leant them our gear when theirs got stolen. They weren't gonna be able to go to Europe and we leant them a backline.

“In those first four or five years from between 82 and 88, basically from the time where nobody even knew who either band was, to both bands making Gold records by 1988, we went through a lot together. Kirk, Cliff and I were like the three musketeers. We were very, very tight, mainly because of our love of comic books, horror and movies. James and Lars liked those things too, sure, but they just they weren't nerds like we were.”

Did it seem like they were destined to be massive?

“Look, I'd be lying if I said, ‘Oh I knew one day they're gonna be the biggest band in the world’. Nobody ever said that. Nobody was walking around saying ‘Metallica is gonna be bigger than Iron Maiden someday’. You know what I mean? Like, that's, that was not something people were saying. But everybody knew that they were ahead of the game.

Even once we became friends with Exodus and Slayer. Even Dave Mustaine, moving on with Megadeth, it was this idea that they had a jumpstart on everyone else. But I think it might be a little bit more than that, I think it has to do with James's hands and his brain”


(Image credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns))

What were things like for the nascent thrash scene when Kill ‘Em All came out?

“It was great! Not only were we happy for our friends, but they opened the door for us. Kill ‘Em All came out and actually started selling, people were buying tickets, Suddenly, Megaforce is making money, which, of course enables Anthrax to go make an album. It was great for everybody.”

Was there a point where you knew things had properly blown up?

“The real big one is when we were out on tour in the summer of ‘84, Raven and Anthrax in the States. The last show of that run was in New York City at the Roseland Ballroom and Metallica were added to the gig. So Anthrax, Metallica and Raven sold out like 3500 tickets, which was kind of unheard of for three independent bands. It was literally the point of this new wave coming in and that night at Roseland certainly for us and Metallica, that wave broke. 

All three bands signed their major deals within a couple of months of that show happening. Metallica to Elektra, us to Island and Raven to Atlantic. I still remember walking on stage, we opened with Death Rider and 3500 kids had their fists in the air – every single one. We've never seen anything like it before. Not even a year before that you had us and Metallica playing shithole dive bars in New Jersey to 100 people.”

You toured with Metallica in 1986, which was thrash’s breakthrough year. What do you remember about that?

“I have memories of running around with Cliff through the halls of the hotel late at night. We found the room that has the laundry sheets and I remember pissing down them, doing all kinds of stupid shit as you would when you're 22 and just finished your first ever tour, every show sold out and never had done anything like that in your life. It was pretty fucking fabulous and fantastic, a mind blowing experience.

Of course, it all went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows less than a week later of course, in Sweden [Cliff Burton was killed in a tourbus crash on September 27, 1986]. Certainly in the context of being in a band I think it was the worst thing that had ever happened to any of us, completely inconceivable and unknown. Even all these years later, there's parts of me that are still in denial about it, like how it possibly could have happened. Everyone pretty much walks out unscathed but we lost Cliff. It's still so unbelievable. I think about him weekly – I’ve got a giant photo in my house.”

How did you find out the news?

“We were there when Kirk and James were brought to the hotel in Copenhagen that night, after the accident. I think Lars had gone home to his dad's house, but James and Kirk came to the hotel and had to fly out the next morning. I remember Charlie [Benante, drums] and Frankie [Bello, bass] taking James outside to just walk him around the block a few hundred times to try and clear his head, while I stayed up all night talking to Kirk.

“They flew home and we flew back a few days later. I stayed with James in his tiny little apartment in the city for a couple of days and we just spent every day out at Kirk's mom's house. I was with James, Lars and Kirk and a lot of their

friends from other bands. We spent like a week, you know, just literally sitting around Kirk's mom's house, drinking beer and telling stories. It was one of the deepest, most powerful experiences humans can go through together.”

What story do you feel best illustrates who Cliff was?

“Cliff and I got arrested together while in London. I’d flown over to do press for Fistful Of Metal in Spring of ’84 and Metallica was also there, so I just lived in this apartment with them for three weeks in London. One day Cliff and I were going to Tottenham Court Road because he needed a new Walkman. Two police approached us and asked if we were drug dealers. We said no and they said, ‘Well you might as well just admit it now because things will go easier for you’.

They took us into the police station and arrested us and they found cold medicine in Cliff’s coat. They were like, ‘We're gonna have to send these to the lab’ and I'm like, ‘It's Sudafed motherfuckers!’ We had to give them the address of the flat and that's when I got really nervous because I knew Cliff had a whole bunch of weed back at the apartment.

They separated the two of us and we had stripped down to just our underwear. I'm sitting in this concrete cell with just a door, not even a window and I'm thinking, about the movie Midnight Express because that's what I had running through my brain!

Three hours later, they guy opens the door and says, ‘Alright, come with me, I'm taking you to the Captain's office’. And I'm like, what's going on? He goes, ‘The captain will explain here's your clothes, get dressed’. And I see Cliff again and he’s got no idea of what’s going on. Well they went to the apartment and checked for the weed… but didn’t look under the mattress! We were free to go and that was when I thought, ‘Someone up there really likes Metallica’, though Cliff never did get his Walkman!”

At what point did you start getting approached to try and do a Big Four show? 

“I don’t feel like it was something we were talking about a lot. When Anthrax, Slayer and Megadeth did the Clash Of The Titans tour in 1991 we had a running joke that it took all three of us teaming up to play the same-sized venue as Metallica could by themselves. When Lars brought it up to Charlie [Benante, Anthrax drummer] and I the first time, it was when Metallica were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2009. 

I think it was the afterparty and Lars came up to Charlie and I; you have to remember we were quite a few drinks into the evening by that point, and he just said ‘hey, what would you guys say to doing some Big Four shows?’ I didn’t even know what he was talking about! I had to ask what he meant and when he mentioned us, Slayer, Megadeth and Metallica playing a show it was like ‘oh, that would be amazing! But you guys are never gonna do that'. 

Later that year our manager said we’d just had a call from Metallica’s management asking if we were available in this period to do some Big Four shows. I’d chalked it up to drunk talk and didn’t think Lars was serious, but thinking about it later and how everything Metallica do is done with military precision, they clearly already knew and were just running it past us.”

What was the mood going in to do those shows?

“We were incredibly excited. Strictly speaking about Anthrax, we were in the weirdest part of our career in that period. At the time we didn’t officially have a singer because Joey [Belladonna, vocalist] hadn’t signed back on but here we were writing the record that became Worship Music. A lot of things were in flux for Anthrax at that time, so when we got that phone call, it kicked things back into gear for us in so many ways. 

We knew then we had to get Joey back in the band – he was the guy who was there when all these things were happening for us in the first place. We then pushed ourselves to finish writing and recording Worship Music, which became our comeback album. It put us in front of audiences that either hadn’t heard of us, or hadn’t seen us in a long time. Without those shows – and the record we put out – I honestly don’t think Anthrax would still be here ten years later.”

What are your favourite memories of the shows?

“It’s the little things, like James coming to our dressing room every single day. He’d come in, say hi and ask if everything was cool – he didn’t want anyone to feel like they couldn’t talk to them or their managers. He straight up said, ‘if you ever need anything, tell me’ and would sit there shooting the shit with us, every day. He did that with the other guys too. 

I remember sitting in a bar in Romania on a night off and Slipknot happened to be there too, so I was with Corey Taylor and Kerry King. I got this text from Kirk saying ‘hey man, we’re thinking about putting together a jam session for the show in Bulgaria, for the movie. We’re thinking about doing Am I Evil. We’ve got a room set up backstage to rehearse it, if you’re interested.’ Hell yeah I was interested!

We also ended up doing Overkill by Motorhead and oh my god, it was a fuckin’ trainwreck! Lars got up and Dave Lombardo sat down, so the bit at the end of the song where the double-bass kicks back in suddenly got ten times faster than what we’d been playing, so we all got lost trying to figure it out. Then Charie gets on and the pace changes again - it was carnage!” 

What do you think Metallica bring to the Big Four?

“To the person who doesn’t know that world – the 80s, thrash metal, all of that stuff, they could see that even though we were all considered thrash metal and helped create that genre, all four bands sound completely different. 

The dynamic Metallica bring is that you can reach the highest commercial heights in all music, transcending genre while remaining underground. Metallica didn’t have any of the avenues pop, country or rap are afforded – they did it anyway. Nobody is ever confused who should be the headliner and the closer of those shows – it was Metallica and they proved that every single night, not that they have anything to prove to anybody.”

Rich Hobson

Staff writer for Metal Hammer, Rich has never met a feature he didn't fancy, which is just as well when it comes to covering everything rock, punk and metal for both print and online, be it legendary events like Rock In Rio or Clash Of The Titans or seeking out exciting new bands like Nine Treasures, Jinjer and Sleep Token.