1988: Thrash It Up!

A while back I posted a piece here about the live album phenomenon of the late 70’s, specifically the amazing fact that during the 12-months between January 1978 and January 1979, no less than ten notable Hard Rock/Heavy Metal bands released live albums. I declared 1978 the ‘Year of the Gatefold’, as during that time period, it was impossible to walk through a record store without tripping over a double live LP. Well, my friends, I’m about to make another declaration: I hereby declare that within the Thrash Metal genre, 1988 shall henceforth be known as: ‘The Year of the Cover Version.’

 

The phenomenon we’ll explore here didn’t make quite the impact that that live album cluster did, as it occurred within a relatively new sub-genre of rock music: Thrash Metal. By 1987, Thrash Metal was breaking out of the underground and into the Heavy Metal mainstream, pushed forward by the massive success of Metallica and their ‘Master of Puppets’ album, and the anointing of Thrash Metal’s ‘Big Four’, Metallica/Slayer/Anthrax/Megadeth as Thrash’s standard bearers. And as Thrash began to break out into the mainstream of Metal, an interesting phenomenon occurred: Virtually EVERY Thrash band of note released a cover version between January 1988 and January 1989, tallying almost TWENTY covers that year.
First, let’s go back a few years. Metal bands have recorded covers since the very beginning of the genre; the debut albums from both Black Sabbath and Blue Cheer, two records generally credited with birthing Heavy Metal, contained covers. This move is useful for several reasons; perhaps a band was short on songs, or maybe they had an interesting take on someone else’s material. Or… maybe the record company felt they had a chance at getting the band some extra attention (or airplay) with a cover of an established song. No doubt, covers have featured on Hard Rock and Metal records throughout it’s long history.
Now let’s look at Iron Maiden, one of the biggest bands to emerge from the NWOBHM. For Maiden, recording covers was an opportunity to celebrate their heroes, and they began recording covers for the B-sides of their singles during their ‘Piece of Mind’ sessions in 1983. Maiden were paying tribute to their influences, putting a NWOBHM spin on some choice ’70s hard rock and prog songs while also educating their fans on some of the music that inspired the band. They continued this practice for the next 25 years.
Now we’ll skip ahead just a few years to 1984, when several emerging Thrash Metal bands included covers on their debut albums. NY’s Anthrax included a cover of Alice Cooper’s ‘I’m Eighteen’ on their 1984 debut. Metal Church’s ’84 debut included their version of Deep Purple’s ‘Highway Star’. And in 1985, New Jersey’s Overkill included ‘Sonic Reducer’ by the Dead Boys on their debut. At year’s end, Metallica stood as the emerging genre’s leaders, and were very much following the Maiden template toward runaway success. When they released their ‘Creeping Death’ single in November, they backed it with two covers: ‘Blitzkrieg’ by Blitzkrieg and ‘Am I Evil?’ by Diamond Head. As with Iron Maiden, the practice of using covers for B-sides became the norm with Metallica for decades.
After Metallica’s next release, ‘Master of Puppets’ was certified Gold without the aid of radio play or an MTv video, every record company wanted their very own Metallica. A feeding frenzy ensued, with labels the world over snapping up any band wearing bullet belts and denim vests. And so second and third tiers were established within the Thrash genre, with Metallica leading the way, and the rest of the aforementioned ‘Big Four’ following close behind. And where Metallica went, the rest of the movement followed…
Metallica’s ‘The $5.98 E.P.’ firmly established the recording of covers as a standard practice for Thrash bands. The E.P. was comprised of thrashed-up renditions of other bands’ material, and the record once again served as a tribute to the band’s early influences. But because much of the material covered was unknown to a large portion of the band’s fan base, it worked as fresh Metallica material while the band continued to get their shit together after the tragic loss of their friend and bassist Cliff Burton. And, having reached #28 on the Billboard charts, the record was a ‘hit’. Now, for all record labels and bands within the rapidly evolving Thrash universe, there was another reason why recording a cover version was a good idea: Metallica did it.
Which brings us to 1988. Thrash was now a firmly established Heavy Metal sub-genre, and Metallica was arguably the biggest/hottest band in Metal. The bands following in their wake wasted no time in following the example Metallica had set the previous year with ‘5.98’. Thrash’s ‘Year of the Cover’ kicked off in January with Megadeth’s cover of the Sex Pistols’ punk anthem ‘Anarchy in the UK’ in January, which was also the lead-off single released from the band’s third album ‘So Far, So Good… So What!?’ Just as an aside: when the first single is a cover, it may be an indication that the band/label is lacking confidence in the strength of the original material on the album…
Second tier (third?) Thrash band Death Angel recorded a cover of Kiss’ ‘Cold Gin’ for their sophomore effort ‘Frolic Through the Park’, released in March of ’88. It’s a little goofy, but not completely out of place on an album that also includes the ultra-goofy ‘I’m Bored’. As a young thrasher myself, I was of the opinion that this kind of throwaway filler was perfectly fine as a B-side (see: Anthrax, Maiden. Metallica), but as an album track, I felt it was a waste of space. I wanted to hear another original, not junk like this.
May of ’88 brought us two covers: Testament delivered a version of Aerosmith’s ‘Nobody’s Fault’, and Flotsam & Jetsam rolled out Elton John’s ‘Saturday Night’s Alright For Fightin’. Okay, I can believe that Aerosmith was an influence on Testament, and their take on ‘Fault’, a contender for A-smith’s heaviest song, is solid. But it’s more than a bit of a stretch that The Flots were inspired by the music of Sir Elton. But hey, what do I know. A great song is a great song, but Flotsam seem to be playing this one for laughs. Sadly, I see this one as yet another wasted album track.
Nuclear Assault’s second offering, ‘Survive’ was released in June, and ended with a cover of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Good Times, Bad Times’. The Nukes wisely decided to place the song at the end of the album’s running order, so it doesn’t feel like an intrusion, but on an album with a run-time of 30:15, another original song (or two (or three)) would have been more than welcome. The song was released as a single along with some live stuff, and another ‘cover’, their version of the theme from the ‘Happy Days’ TV show, which amounts to a never-ending three minutes of awful. Sadly, both of these covers are throwaway tracks.
I feel compelled to introduce the term ‘sophomore slump’ here; it refers to the phenomenon where a band has years to write the songs for their debut, but only months to put together songs for their second, almost guaranteeing that record #2 would be short on high quality material. That said, four of the last five covers outlined above appear on each band’s sophomore album; not as B-sides, but as album tracks. Just sayin’.
Voivod concealed a short but suitably skewed take on the ‘Batman’ theme at the end of their ‘Dimension Hatross’ album in June. At 1:14, does this count this as a ‘Thrash ’88’ cover? Sure. Coming out of nowhere after the listed songs end, it’s neither an album track nor a B-side; it’s an enigma… just like Voivod. A month later, Slayer placed their take on Judas Priest’s ‘Dissident Aggressor’ on their ‘South of Heaven’ album. Vocal concessions are made, but otherwise Slayer play it straight, and illustrate just how far ahead of it’s time this song was. It’s a rare example of a ‘Thrash ’88’ cover that actually works exceedingly well as an album track; fitting into the context of the album around it perfectly and complimenting the album as a whole. Bravo!
Metallica gave us two more killer covers in August: ‘Breadfan’, their second Budgie cover, and their third Diamond Head cover, ‘The Prince’. I myself was not a fan of Metallica’s ‘…And Justice for All’ album, but I loved these two recordings; basically anytime Budgie gets props, I’m thrilled, and also there’s a couple of bass guitar breaks in ‘The Prince’, and you can actually hear the bass! Truth be told, I’ve actually enjoyed Metallica’s covers more than their originals since the ‘$5.98 E.P.’, what can I tell ya.
In September, Anthrax released three covers, and one of them became arguably their biggest song. ‘Antisocial’, originally by the French band Trust, was recorded as an album track on fourth album ‘Sate of Euphoria’, and became that record’s second single. Arguably, ‘Antisocial’ was the song that broke Anthrax through to the Metal mainstream, but the lion’s share of the credit goes to Trust, as the song is simple, melodic, and catchy, with a chant-worthy chorus. During the later third of ’88, the video for the song (highlighting Anthrax’s …questionable wardrobe choices during that era) was all over MTv’s Headbanger’s Ball show, and the single even crept onto the UK singles charts, peaking at #44.
The two B-sides to the ‘Antisocial’ single were a cover of the Kiss klassic ‘Parasite’, and yet another Trust song, ‘Le Sects’. The Kiss cover is fun, but where ‘Antisocial’ translated exceptionally well into the Anthrax attack, ‘Le Sects’, not so much. The dark, angry lyrics about Jim Jones and mass suicide clashed with Joey Belladonna’s vocal approach; try as he might, Joey just cannot sound convincingly angry and mean. Best that this one was relegated to a B-side.
October brought us Sacred Reich’s sophomore (!) release, the ‘Surf Nicaragua’ E.P., and a cover of Black Sabbath’s epic ‘War Pigs’. Thankfully, it’s a sturdy take on a absolute classic, and the drums in particular are nuts, but I was glad this showed up on an E.P., rather than taking up over six minutes on an album proper. The E.P.’s title track contains brief snippets of ‘Wipe Out’ and the ‘Hawaii Five-O’ theme, but we’re not gonna include that song on this list, as we have to have some standards in place, don’t we?

 

Original Bay Area Thrashers Exodus were a little late to the party, but just made this list with a pair of covers recorded for their ‘Fabulous Disaster’ album, released on January 30th of 1989. Their version of War’s ‘Low Rider’ made the album (it shouldn’t have), while their take on AC/DC’s ‘Overdose’ was used as a bonus track later on. ‘Overdose’ works well, as Zetro’s voice exhibits a strange similarity to Bon Scott’s, and the band lay back in the ‘DC groove and really crunch it up. If a cover needed to appear on ‘Fabulous Disaster’, it should have been this one, with the cheesy ‘Low Rider’ relegated to ‘bonus track’ status.
Now then! Let’s do the math: SIXTEEN covers in just over a year! In the relatively small stable of bands inhabiting the Thrash genre, this is a ridiculously large number, and certainly qualifies as a phenomenon. Again, covers have always featured in Rock and Metal music, but this was something more: clearly, in Thrashworld, recording covers were not merely an option, it was a requirement. Simply put, Metallica were blazing a trail to major mainstream success, and their peers were following the path very closely.
I’m thinking this list would make a pretty cool mixtape/CD comp/playlist; this pile of tunes is a very mixed bag, a bit uneven in consistency and quality, but gathering them together provides a snapshot of a brief but curiously interesting period in Thrash Metal’s evolution. Oh! And if you want to add a few bonus tracks for that imaginary CD comp, we need only look to the burgeoning German Thrash movement, and include Kreator’s slamming interpretation of Raven’s ‘Lambs to the Slaughter’ from their ‘Out of the Dark…’ E.P., and Sodom’s ‘Mortal Way of Live’ album for their live cover of Motorhead’s ‘Iron Fist’… which would then bring our total to EIGHTEEN covers by Thrash bands of note between January 1988 and January ’89. Wow.
Interesting side notes: Iron Maiden actually covered themselves in 1988; re-recordings of both ‘Prowler’ and ‘Charlotte the Harlot’ appeared on the B-side of their ‘The Evil That Men Do’ single. As Maiden were not a Thrash band, we won’t include them in our overall tally here, although Maiden themselves certainly racked up a slew of covers over the years. If you include those two self-covers, plus versions of ZZ Top’s ‘Tush’ and Thin Lizzy’s ‘Angel of Death’ that were recorded for B-sides during the ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ cycle, but never used, Maiden’s cover count totals a whopping 23. Metallica still has them beat, with a running total of 32 covers. But the undisputed kings of the cover are Anthrax, who have cranked out a grand total of 42 (forty-two!) covers.

 

So far.

Thrash Course in Brain Injury

On June 22, 2010, ‘The Big Four’: Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax, performed together for the first time. The concert was filmed and transmitted via satellite to over 450 movie theatres in the US and over 350 movie theaters across Europe, Canada, and Latin America; screenings were arranged later in Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand. A DVD album from the event was released in late 2010, which achieved Gold status in Germany, Platinum status in Brazil, and Double Platinum status in the US and Australia. This combination of bands played a total of 14 stadium shows together in 2010/2011, with the average number of people in attendance at each show at around 50,000. Then add in those in attendance at the 800 movie theatres streaming the event live; now add the number of people who bought the multi-million selling DVD set.

Ladies and gentlemen: That’s HUGE. All four of these bands were almost a quarter century into their careers, and still wielded the drawing power to pull off an event of this magnitude. In the midst of this monumental success, it’s easy to forget that the humble origins of the hugely successful Thrash Metal movement can be traced back to one ambitious kid… one of three key characters in a truly amazing story of fierce self-belief, independent spirit, and passion for music. Decisions made and chances taken by these three people would influence the fate of six young bands, and would in turn change the sound and character of heavy metal music forever.

In the Spring of 1981, a young Danish immigrant named Lars Ulrich, aged 17, places an ad in a local paper looking to form a band. Mentioned in the add are NWOBHM bands Diamond Head, Tygers of Pan Tang, and Iron Maiden. James Hetfield answers the ad, and a friendship is born.

While Ulrich and Hetfield work to put a band together, 20-year old Oz Records employee Brian Slagel is importing NWOBHM records for the store and publishing a fanzine that covers the LA metal scene. Slagel plans to release a compilation album of LA bands, and Ulrich asks Slagel if his (as yet unformed) band can contribute a track; Slagel agrees. Ulrich and Hetfield record a rough demo of a song Hetfield wrote for his previous band, Leather Charm, titled ‘Hit The Lights’. Hetfield plays rhythm guitar and bass; another local kid, Lloyd Grant, plays the guitar solo.

metallica-power-metal-demo1982. Ulrich completes his band, which includes Dave Mustaine on guitar. A friend of Ulrich’s, Ron Quintana, is planning to start publishing a metal ‘zine, and can’t decide between the names ‘Metallica’ and ‘Metal Mania’ for his publication. He settles on the latter, and suggests the former to Ulrich. Quintana is also a major player in the underground tape trading culture of the day, where unsigned bands trade demo tapes through the mail to get their music exposure. The newly-christened Metallica record a demo called ‘Power Metal’ in April; it hits the tape trading network via Quintana and gives Ulrich’s band it’s first exposure to metalheads outside of the LA scene.

In June, Slagel’s comp, titled ‘The New Heavy Metal Revue Presents Metal Massacre‘ is released. Metallica’s track, as rough a recording as it is, causes much buzz in the underground, standing out against the ‘LA’ sound of the other bands on the record. Another demo tape is recorded the following month, titled ‘No Life ’til Leather’. This tape is also widely distributed via the thriving underground tape trading market.

47727It’s around this time that guitarist Kerry King sees Metallica play in LA, an experience he will later call ‘life changing’. His own band, Slayer, has been playing mostly covers, but his Metallica experience inspires him to start writing faster, heavier stuff. Also in the summer of ’82, in San Francisco’s Bay Area, a band called Exodus, which includes guitarist Kirk Hammett, is demoing their NWOBHM-inspired material. Brian Slagel’s ‘Metal Massacre II’ is released in the fall, featuring a track by a Bay Area band called Trauma; their bassist, Cliff Burton, is courted by Metallica after Hetfield and Ulrich see the band perform in LA. Burton agrees to join, but only if the band will move north. Metallica leaves LA and moves to San Francisco.

On the other side of the country, A New York band called Anthrax records a demo of originals with heavy riffs and dynamic vocals, and a new band formed by New Jersey punk rock veterans called Overkill is abandoning covers and starting to write originals, putting their own street level spin on the dramatic style of classic Priest and early Sabbath. On both sides of the country, young American metal bands are moving metal forward, forging a style that, while still firmly rooted in the NWOBHM and the classic metal before it, pushes the boundaries of speed and power.

hqdefaultOn to 1983. In Febuary, Slayer completes the first song written in the band’s new direction: ‘Black Magic’. Also in February, Bay Area band Exodus records a 2nd demo. By March, Metallica’s ‘No Life ’til Leather’ demo is causing a considerable buzz, and catches the attention of New Jersey retailer John Zazula. Johnny Z is involved in the tape trading culture on the East Coast, owns a record shop called Rock and Roll Heaven, and also promotes local hard rock and metal shows. He is floored by the tape, and offers to broker a record deal for the band. Zazula gets to work booking shows for Metallica in the New York/New Jersey area.

Metallica are ready to record an album. Brian Slagel, working his fledgling label, dubbed ‘Metal Blade Records’, out of his mom’s garage in the San Fernando Valley, doesn’t have the funds to sign the band or finance a recording. The band records a 3rd demo, their first with new bassist Burton, to shop to labels. A few weeks later, the band are staying in the Z’s house, prepping for a string of dates put together by Zazula to create buzz and provide showcase opportunities. No labels are interested; Johnny Z scrapes enough cash together for the band to hit the studio. He forms a label, Megaforce Records, so he can release Metallica’s debut album himself.

During Metallica’s East Coast ‘tour’, it becomes apparent that continuing forward with Dave Mustaine will be impossible; he is fired. Kirk Hammett, of Bay Area band Exodus, flies out to replace him (bringing some choice Exodus riffs with him). Just before Overkill are to enter the studio to demo songs they have written from 1981- 1982, guitarist Dan Spitz quits to join Anthrax, who have just appeared as support to Metallica on a few of their East Coast dates. With Spitz now on board, Anthrax records a 2nd demo.

nknknkSlayer, still working to write faster and heavier material, are asked by Brian Slagel to record a song for his Metal Massacre III; the band contributes ‘Agressive Perfector’, and demos an additional 5 originals. Slagel, who missed out on Metallica, signs Slayer to his Metal Blade label. Slagel’s offer to Slayer includes the band financing their own recording. Johnny Z somehow comes up with $15,000 for Metallica’s recording sessions, and Megaforce releases it’s first record on July 25th: Metallica’s ‘Kill ‘Em All’.

Exodus have replaced Kirk Hammett with Rick Hunolt, and release a 3rd ‘demo’ in July; actually it’s a rehearsal tape, but it clearly shows the band now following the same tightly structured, vicious metal attack as Metallica.

Soldiers%20of%20Metal%20(Demo)New Jersey’s Overkill wrap up recording their first demo in September. The tape is a sensation on the now-red hot tape trading network. In November, Johnny Z’s Megaforce, is well on the way to selling through it’s first pressing, and releases it’s 2nd record: a 7″ single from Anthrax called ‘Heavy Metal Soldiers’. And as 1983 draws to an end, Slayer completes work on their debut ‘Show No Mercy’ in Novermber; Slagel rushes the release, and it’s out in December. Overkill record a 2nd demo.

In February of 1984, Megaforce releases the first Anthrax album, ‘Fistful of Metal’. Malcom Dome reviews the album in Kerrang! Magazine, and coins the phrase ‘Thrash Metal’, inspired by the song title ‘Metal Thrashing Mad’. The genre has been gradually moving away from the NWOBHM style and towards a tougher, tighter and more intense sound. Dome’s term catches on quickly and soon becomes the accepted name of the genre.

Meanwhile, Dave Mustaine has spent his time since exiting Metallica trying to put a band of his own together. After 6 months of searching for a vocalist, and anxious to get his project off the ground, Mustaine decides to sing himself. Still not a complete band, Megadeth plays it’s first live shows in February of 1984, with Slayer’s Kerry King filling in on 2nd guitar. Back in Jersey, Overkill’s ‘Death Rider’ appears on Slagel’s ‘Metal Massacre V’. Metal Church, Voivod, and Fates Warning also appear on the comp. The heavy metal underground is now spawning an abundance of bands in the rapidly-developing Thrash style.

4250Megadeth records their first demo in March as a 3-piece. Mustaine includes a song he wrote while in Metallica, ‘Mechanix’, and increases the tempo considerably to further distinguish it from Metallica’s ‘The Four Horsemen’, a reworked version of Mustaine’s song recorded for ‘Kill ‘Em All’. As Metallica ready their 2nd album, they put together a song called ‘Ride the Lightning’, which includes several of Mustaine’s riffs and ideas. The song will also become the album’s title track.

As the genre gains strength, Exodus, one of the bands present at Ground Zero (the band first formed in 1979), seems to have been left behind. They finally enter the studio to record an album at the beginning of the summer. The songs ‘Die By His Hand’ and ‘Impaler’ are prepped for recording, but are dropped when the band learns that Metallica have recorded songs (‘Creeping Death’ and ‘Trapped Under Ice’) for their 2nd album containing riffs Kirk Hammett wrote while in Exodus. Exodus complete the album, called ‘A Lesson In Violence’, and release two songs from the sessions into the tape trading underground. The tape is a huge hit and anticipation of their debut full-length is intense.

Overkill_EPBy the winter of 1984, Mustaine is fielding offers from labels, Exodus are struggling with album titles and cover ideas, while both Anthrax and Slayer have released albums, and Metallica have released two. Overkill release a 4-song E.P. on a local indie, also beating Exodus and Megadeth into the record shops. The E.P. is an underground sensation, selling through its initial pressing quickly.

1985. Anthrax hire Joey Belladonna as lead vocalist and hastily record an E.P. to get something on the market, showcase Joey and maintain momentum. ‘Armed and Dangerous’ is released on Megaforce in March. Megadeth, after 6 months of shopping for a label, sign with NY-based Combat Records, as they have offered the band the largest advance: $8,000.00. Megadeth begin working on their debut. The band burn through the 8k, mostly spent on drugs and food, and Combat coughs up another $4,000.00.

Overkill complete work on their debut album, ‘Feel The Fire’, for Johnny Z’s Megaforce Records. The album is released in April to a rabid underground audience. Exodus finally releases their album, now titled ‘Bonded by Blood’, on Combat. It, too, is a success, but the impact of the album is diminished considerably by its delayed release. Megadeth fires their producer and completes their debut album themselves. It is released in June, over two years since Mustaine’s exit from Metallica. With the release of Megadeth’s ‘Killing is my Business… And Business is Good!’, the last of the ‘Big Four’ is now on the map.

Within a few months, every one of these six bands would find its way to a major label (Exodus would be last, in 1990). All six still exist today, although only four of them have transcended the ‘Thrash’ genre and achieved massive mainstream success. I’ll leave it for others to postulate how the ‘Original Six’ (to borrow a hockey term) ultimately became the ‘Big Four’… But it’s clear which band led the way. Who would have dreamed that Thrash Metal, the ugly offspring of the NWOBHM, would evolve into a the platinum-selling, stadium-filling monster that it evolved into? That little Danish guy behind the drum kit dreamed that dream… He can be a real pain in the ass sometimes, but hey– maybe he deserves a little slack.