"Lars smiled: 'What do you think?' 'You need more guitar solos, that’s for sure.'" How Metallica kickstarted thrash metal and changed the game forever with a "sloppy" little demo track called Hit The Lights

Metallica in 1984
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Metallica have bigger songs. They have better songs. But no Metallica song has had the same impact as the one that opened their game-changing debut album, Kill ’Em All. Four minutes and 17 seconds of suburban fury, Hit The Lights fired the starting pistol on the career of the most successful metal band in history and, by extension, invented modern metal as we know it.

If anyone can take credit for inadvertently galvanising both Hit The Lights and Metallica themselves into existence, it’s Brian Slagel. An LA fanzine writer and aspiring record label mogul with an ardent love of heavy metal, he’d met an exuberant, ambitious 17-year-old Danish ex-pat named Lars Ulrich in the parking lot of a Michael Schenker Group gig in Los Angeles in 1980. Lars hadn’t been in LA long, arriving there after abandoning his hopes of becoming a professional tennis player like his dad to pursue his rock’n’roll dreams.

“I remember being at his house one day, and he had a drum set in the corner – not put together, just the pieces,” Brian told Metal Hammer in 2021. “He goes, ‘I’m gonna start a band.’ ‘Yeah, sure, Lars, whatever…’”

Lars had been jamming with a bunch of musicians, including a lanky kid he’d met named James Hetfield. Nothing had come of any of it, but Lars wasn’t ready to give up. When Brian Slagel told his friend in the autumn of 1981 that he was putting together a compilation album titled Metal Massacre to showcase the underground LA metal scene, Lars wanted in. “He called me up and said, ‘Hey, if I put together a band, can I be on your compilation album?’” said Brian. 

That band would be the earliest incarnation of Metallica: essentially Lars and his new buddy James jamming in a bedroom. The song they wrote for the Metal Massacre compilation – the very first song they ever wrote together – was Hit The Lights, an enthusiastic slice of early 80s heavy metal cannibalised from an existing song James had from a previous group.

“Hetfield brought in the verses and the chorus, which came from something he had done in a band called Leather Charm, and I brought in the whole back half of it, which was from something I had done before,” Lars told Metal Hammer in 2016. “After three verses and three choruses, it goes into this whole other universe, with a new riff and a fucking half-hour-long jam out.”

The pair enlisted the help of Lloyd Grant, a hotshot guitarist Lars had been jamming with who could play the solos James couldn’t (though the latter did play bass). “They’d got a tape and it was an early instrumental version of Hit The Lights,” Lloyd told Metal Hammer in 2016. “I liked it – I wish we’d written it! It was probably a bit faster than I was trying to write at the time, but it was right up my alley.”

The band didn’t even have a name at this point. After cycling through some fairly unpromising options, Lars settled on a name he had pilfered from a friend who was considering it for the title of a fanzine: Metallica.

Hit The Lights may have been written and recorded for the Metal Massacre compilation, eventually released in August 1982, but it made its debut five months earlier as the opening track on Metallica’s first proper demo, recorded in March 1982. This version had been redone by the first solid Metallica line-up assembled by James and Lars, featuring the singer’s schoolfriend ex-Leather Charm bandmate Ron McGovney on bass and a wild, charismatic kid named Dave Mustaine on second guitar.

“The song wasn’t bad,” wrote Dave Mustaine in his 2010 autobiography Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir of the first time he heard Hit The Lights. “The playing was uniformly sloppy, the sound quality even worse, and the singer had little pitch control or charisma. But there was energy. And style. When it ended, Lars smiled. ‘What do you think?’ ‘You need more guitar solos, that’s for sure.'” 

Despite his criticisms, the prototype version is easily recognisable as the one that would eventually open Kill ’Em All. James Hetfield’s singing is a more indebted to the trad-metal of the time than his later feral snap, but the jagged chug and air of malicious intent are both evident. 

The band knew the value of the song from the start. It was the opening number at their first ever gig, at Radio City, Anaheim, on March 14, 1982 (a spot setlist it would hold in the Metallica until early 1984). By the time it re-appeared on their landmark No Life ’Til Leather demo, released in July 1982, it had become the closest thing they had to a signature song. It certainly provided Metallica with their mission statement. “No life ’til leather/We’re gonna kick some ass tonight,” howled James, a promise those early Metallica shows delivered on.

Spearheaded by Hit The Lights, the No Life ’Til Leather demo became Metallica’s calling card. A network of grassroots tape traders began circulating it, its speed and aggression setting it apart from most other metal songs at the time. One person who heard No Life ’Til Leather was Jon Zazula, aka Jonny Z, who owned and ran the record shop Rock’N’Roll Heaven from his house in New Jersey with his wife Marsha. 

“We sold demo tapes at the time, but we didn’t play them cos they sounded so crappy,” Jon told Metal Hammer in 2016. “But we happened to play this one and it was, ‘Wow, this is amazing!’ It just had this energy and speed to it that other bands didn’t.” So impressed was he that he offered to manage the band, subsequently founding his own record label, Megaforce, to release Metallica’s debut album when no other labels were interested (Jon passed away in 2022; Marsha, died in 2021).

Metallica: Hit the Lights (Copenhagen, Denmark - June 14, 2024) - YouTube Metallica: Hit the Lights (Copenhagen, Denmark - June 14, 2024) - YouTube
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Metallica didn’t exist in isolation. Other bands were making equally forward-looking rackets: Slayer in LA, Anthrax in New York, Exodus up the coast in the Bay Area. But Metallica had gotten there first with Hit The Lights, and they were perpetually half a length ahead of the competition.

Metal Massacre, the compilation that prompted Lars Ulrich to form his band, was finally released in August 1982. Hit The Lights, still featuring one of Lloyd Grant’s original solos (to Dave Mustaine’s annoyance), was its closing track. The song was erroneously credited to ‘Mettallica.’ “Yeah, we got it wrong,” Brian Slagel told Metal Hammer. “I don’t think it did them any harm in the long run.”

It certainly didn’t. When Metallica released Kill ’Em All in July 1983 via Johnny and Marsha Z’s Megaforce label, Hit The Lights took its rightful place as the record’s opening track. It was one part self-mythologising flex, one part tribute to the small but growing battalion of followers. “You know our fans are insane/We're gonna blow this place away,” sang James. “With volume higher/Than anything today.”

Kill ’Em All, and Hit The Lights, didn’t turn Metallica into overnight stars - the album was either ignored or mocked by the metal press at the time. Yet those who were paying attention knew that it signified a change, one that would come to fruition sooner than anyone could ever anticipate with the advent of the thrash scene. With that came a baseline shift in metal itself – it got harder, faster, more vicious, more real. 

But just as Metallica themselves had planted the seeds for thrash with Hit The Lights, so they were the first to outgrow it. Within 10 years, they’d gone from scrappy underdogs to the biggest metal band on the planet, and one of the most successful bands in any genre. And once again, where Metallica led, so many other bands followed.

“James and I had some ideas,” said Lars in 2016 of Hit The Lights, the song that started it all. “We took those ideas and glued them together, heavied it up and made it fast, put some energy and some youthful punkish enthusiasm behind it, and out came this Metallica thing.”

Dave Everley

Dave Everley has been writing about and occasionally humming along to music since the early 90s. During that time, he has been Deputy Editor on Kerrang! and Classic Rock, Associate Editor on Q magazine and staff writer/tea boy on Raw, not necessarily in that order. He has written for Metal Hammer, Louder, Prog, the Observer, Select, Mojo, the Evening Standard and the totally legendary Ultrakill. He is still waiting for Billy Gibbons to send him a bottle of hot sauce he was promised several years ago.