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.
1982. 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.
It’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.
On 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.
Slayer, 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.
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.
Megadeth 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.
By 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.