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.

The Big Four vs The Big Hair

Of all the unfortunate musical developments of the 1980’s, MTv had to be rock bottom. One of the worst things to even happen to Heavy Metal, MTv split the genre down the middle, and forced our heroes to take sides: Go glam or go underground. Some of the greatest hard rock and metal bands of the late 70’s/early 80’s succumbed to the allure of big hair and big bucks… Def Leppard, Krokus, Scorpions, Saxon, Whitesnake, Y&T, even Judas Priest all upped their image ante while sugar-coating their music for a new generation of fans who learned about metal on the visual medium of TV, rather than from their older brother’s record collection.

While the old guard of mostly British and European metal bands abandoned their artistic integrity for a chance to crack the lucrative American market, a new breed of metal band began to develop in America. These bands picked up where the early years of the NWOBHM had left off, injecting a dose of hardcore into an already punk-informed movement. This new sound and style was also a response to the MTv-driven rise of glam; metal fans who weren’t into the whole pretty-boy thing had nowhere to go but down, meaning underground. Gentlemen, this is Thrash.

The gulf between these two styles was enormous. Thrash was about precision, speed, and aggression, where Glam was about surface flash, image, and style over substance. Thrash lyrics dealt with fighting the corrupt system and dystopian futures; glam lyrics concerned themselves with sex, love, partying, and …sex. To be fair, the thrashers were image conscious, too; their tough-guy uniform consisted of long hair, torn jeans, leather jackets, and denim vests. The glam contingent favored gender-bending make-up, big hair, and flashy clothing. There was virtually zero common ground between these two musical movements. Which side were you on?

Although not accessible enough be played on commercial radio or MTv, thrash nonetheless found its own way to success. When Metallica achieved Gold status for their 2nd LP ‘Ride the Lightning’ in 1984, the genre began to be recognized as valid not only by the metal mainstream, but also by the major record companies. The labels felt that a band that could sell 500,000 copies of a record without commercial radio support was a band worth looking at. Metallica was picked up by Elektra; Megadeth by Capitol, Anthrax by Island, and Slayer by Sony offshoot Def Jam. These four bands were about to graduate from the underground to the big leagues, where they would seriously threaten faltering stalwarts like Priest and Maiden; their impact and success would lead to these pioneering bands being dubbed ‘The Big Four’.

Meanwhile, back in Hair Metal Hell, a different formula for success had established itself. Bands with zero talent were selling millions of records based on their looks alone, while their wildly expensive and artistically vacant music videos bombarded the masses in heavy rotation on MTv. By the mid-’80’s, this ‘pop’ metal ruled the airwaves, both on TV and on the radio. By 1986, Pop/Glam/Hair metal was the most popular form of rock music in the world. The stage was set for a battle of epic proportions.

In the 13 months between February 1986 and March of ’87, the so-called ‘Big Four’ would make their grand statements, releasing four genre-defining albums that would establish thrash metal as a valid sub-genre of heavy metal forever. That very same year, in a parallel universe, Hair Metal’s elite forces would detonate 4 highly successful glamma bombs of their own. Heavy Metal had torn itself in two. Peaceful coexistence was out of the question. It was the girlz against the boys in the battle for the soul of Heavy Metal.

February 1986: A Declaration of War

Metallica’s ‘Master of Puppets’

By 1986, Metallica were already recognized as the leader of underground metal. With the colossal ‘Master of Puppets’, they led that niche genre out of the underground, into the mainstream, and forward into battle. This band had come a long way as writers in just a few records, and MOP showcases the full extent of their full reach and scope. Everything about this album screams ‘Epic’; the riffs, the arrangements, the sounds, the song lengths. While ‘Tallica still steadfastly refusing to release a single or video to promote their work, ‘Puppets’ nonetheless reached #29 in the US. Thrash Metal was moshing up the American Top 40… The young upstarts had become the conquering heroes. Metallica seemed unstoppable. Just seven months later, they would face their greatest challenge.

May 1986: Counter Strike

Europe’s ‘The Final Countdown’

How many countdowns are there, anyway? And if this one was final, how come I keep hearing this song, 28 years later? This impossibly cute Swedish band somehow found the formula for the perfect earworm in the album’s title track, a song that has gone on to become the ultimate anthem. Second single Carrie (following the standard hair metal formula of 1st single: anthem, 2nd single: power-ballad) was a bigger hit, but ‘TFC’ has firmly established itself as an inescapable piece of modern pop culture. That, my friends is the definition of evil.

August 1986: Trilateral Offensive (and I do mean offensive)

Cinderella’s ‘Night Songs’

Hidden under all of that hair, Cinderella was probably a halfway decent bar band before MTv changed the game. While the front cover pic instantly takes this album out of the running for any serious consideration, the tunes and the playing inside are fairly solid. Having friends in high places certainly helped Cinderella; Jon Bon Jovi got the band signed to Polygram, sang backups on ‘Night Songs’, and arranged to have them appear as the opening act on the entire 7-month ‘Slippery When Wet’ tour. Second single ‘Nobody’s Fool’, a virtual rewrite of Def Leppard’s ‘Bringin’ on the Heartbreak’, hit the Top Twenty. Thanks, JBJ.

Bon Jovi’s ‘Slippery When Wet’

Hair Metal’s biggest album. It’s interesting to speculate about where JBJ’s career would have gone had he not enlisted the songwriting assistance of veteran hit maker Desmond Child to write for ‘SWW’… Child, the infamous ‘song doctor’ who later co-wrote several key songs for post-make-up KISS and post-drugs Aerosmith, among many others, co-wrote ‘You Give Love a Bad Name’ and ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’. Both songs were worldwide smashes, and the primary factor in the record’s mega-success. Ya, these guys could play, but more importantly, the time was right for a gang of pretty boys (and Tico Torres) with catchy tunes, cowboy boots and fringe leather jackets.

Poison’s ‘Look What the Cat Dragged In’

Poison, on the other hand, had zero musical ability, zero songwriting skills, and zero shame. ‘LWtCDI’ was similar to Motley Crue’s debut from just a few years before, in that it was a crappy album, released by an independent label, recorded on a shoestring budget by a bunch of talentless hacks, but still made a pretty big splash because of the band’s ‘look’. This time around, however, the timing was perfect and the market primed and ready to eat this crap up, to the tune of a Billboard #3 slot and 3 million copies sold. The cover is notorious for confusing and embarrassing thousands of hetero guys (‘Check out the hot chicks!’) and the music within is 100% garbage (more on garbage later in this post). Perhaps a better title would have been ‘Look What the Cat Coughed Up’.

October 1986: Shock and Awe

Megadeth’s ‘Peace Sells (But Who’s Buying?)’

When Dave Mustaine recruited players for his post-Metallica band, he purposely chose musicians with a jazz/fusion background. The result: Megadeth reached new levels of technicality and precision, raising the bar for musicianship in metal in the process. ‘Deth’s second album, ‘Peace Sells…’ features a plethora of meticulously arranged, impeccably played songs that featured a boatload of classic Mustaine riffs that Metallica would soon sorely miss. This mixture of dynamic ensemble playing and muscular musical menace, along with a healthy dose of politically aware lyrics, further established thrash metal’s mainstream credibility.

Slayer’s ‘Reign In Blood’

The intensity level of Slayer’s music is truly frightening. That’s Slayer’s thing: scaring people. Slayer scared lots of people with their third album ‘Reign in Blood’, including the suits at Columbia Records, who, at the last minute, decided they didn’t want to distribute the album due to its artwork and lyrics; Geffen/WB stepped in and the rest is history. At a brief but harrowing 29 minutes, ‘RIB’ is never boring, not for one single second; each song a short blast of unprecedented intensity, disorienting solos, and panic attack vocals all delivered with crystal clear, in-your-face production. ‘Reign in Blood’ so successfully achieves everything it set out to accomplish that it is rightfully recognized as one of the greatest albums ever recorded, no matter the genre.

March 1987: Reinforcements from the Eastern Front

Anthrax’s ‘Among the Living’

Anthrax may have been late to the party with ‘Among’, but it’s no less important a record than the other Big Four entries. Anthrax was the only B4 band with a credible lead vocalist (at least in conventional rock music terms), and a viable single in ‘Indians’, which gave ‘Among’ had the best shot at radio play. Anthrax was also the only band of the Four with any discernible sense of humor, throwing in a few yucks while bringing the noise. The songwriting may get a little clunky here and there, but the chops on display are truly monstrous. The mix of melodic vocals and hardcore speed/thrash crunch on ‘Among’ would prove to be hugely influential. Arriving to bat clean-up, ‘Among the Living’ is another groundbreaking thrash album and a worthy bookend to the 13 month Great Thrash Offensive.

It’s widely acknowledged that 1991’s ‘Clash of the Titans’ tour, featuring Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax (Metallica was filling arenas on their own) was the height of trash metal’s popularity, but by 1992, both genres were in serious trouble. Metallica, who almost single-handedly led the thrash movement from its ‘Garage Days’ origins to mainstream acceptance and multi-platinum successes, abandoned thrash metal on their untitled 5th album, and as the public tired of a never-ending parade of ‘power ballads’, most of the major hair bands had either fizzled or self-destructed. Then along came Grunge. Game over, man.

So as the dry ice cleared, who could we declare the victor? The glammy stuff certainly sold more records than the scary stuff did by ’92. If sales are your only criteria, then the poodles won overall. If influence, longevity, and continued relevance count, then the story has a very different ending. Released at the height of hair metal’s popularity, BJ’s ‘Slippery’ went on to sell 12 million copies to ‘Master’s 2 million; but 25 years later, Metallica’s 2008 album ‘Death Magnetic’ has racked up over 2 million units sold; Bon Jovi’s latest, ‘What About Now’, has sold just over 1 million. While Jovi’s last few have hit #1, the remaining 3 Big Four bands have been consistently nipping at BJ’s heels, with each of their most current records climbing to at least #12 on the Billboard Top 200. And what of Cinderella, Poison, and Europe? Please.

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Perhaps the most interesting fact I discovered while researching this post was that the cover art used for Bon Jovi’s ‘Slippery When Wet’ was a photograph of a wet garbage bag with the title written in the water. That’s fitting; I mean, everyone knows what you find inside garbage bags, right?

(Royalty) Check, Please

Sometimes being a professional musician is all about compromise; specifically, about how much of your art you’re willing to compromise toward success in the business of music. Being a fan is about loyalty; and sometimes that loyalty is pushed beyond tolerance by the compromises a musician makes.

Many a rock fan’s loyalties were tested in the 80’s. With the advent of MTv, suddenly what you looked like was at least as important as what you sounded like (and in some cases, maybe more important). Many metal bands that had started in the 70’s but had yet to break through to a mainstream audience saw MTv as a way to do just that. And so we lost several bands to the siren song of mass appeal and mainstream success. All that was required was a greater focus on the image or look of the band, and a slavish adherence to a limited musical template that boiled down to either a) overwrought power ballad, or b) super-dumb rock anthem. Scorpions had virtually invented the power ballad in the mid-70’s, and sadly, made the transition easily. NWOBHM heroes like Krokus, Whitesnake, and Saxon (who actually fired their bass player, who didn’t have ‘the look’) all climbed on board the bandwagon, all hoping to ‘break’ in the states. Perhaps the poster boys for this type of sell-out were the already-image conscious Twisted Sister, who’s debut album was actually a straight-up metal record, but who quickly transformed into bizzarro drag queen cartoons on MTv. In an ironic twist, Kiss, kings of the super-dumb rock anthem, actually had to take make-up OFF to partake in the festivities. But the greatest disappointment had to be The Beast That is Priest.   

I will never forget the first time I heard ‘Turbo’ by Judas Priest. A co-worker had an advance cassette, and let me hear the first song, without telling me who it was I was listening to. After a solid minute I still couldn’t identify who it was, even thought I was listening to a band I had followed for the last 8 or 9 years. When my friend broke the news to me that I had been previewing the new Judas Priest record, I was angry. Not disappointed. Angry.  

Like a lot of metal fans, I take this kind of thing personally; always have. I am tremendously loyal, I invest my time, my money and my passion in the music that I love and in the musicians that make it. Fans aren’t interested in the business that goes on behind their favorite music, they only care about the music, and are grateful to the musicians who make it. For me personally, when an artist makes a calculated business decision to move away from the sound I have committed to, the aesthetic I invested in, I feel betrayed; I’m offended and insulted. And sometimes, shocked; I truly never expected that Metal’s Ambassadors to the world, a band that represented the Heavy Metal genre in much the same way that Metallica would later; would be capable of such silliness.

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Back to ‘Turbo’: Sequencers, synthesizers, over-processed guitars, predictable hair metal riffs and inane pop metal lyrics, all wrapped up in a cover that looks like a magazine ad for nail polish. This is not what I signed on for. Gone were the ominous pseudo-religious sci-fi lyrics. Dave Holland’s hard hitting, no-nonsense drum sound was replaced by computerized canon fire. And don’t even get me started on KK’s perm. This was a monumental moment in heavy metal history; one of the heaviest bands of the 70’s had sold out and cashed in.

Judas Priest referred to themselves as a Heavy Metal Band when it was very uncool to do so. They had almost single-handedly carried Heavy Metal through its weakest period in the late 70’s; after the old guard had died out, they flew the flag proudly during the punk rock and new wave revolutions, and led metal music straight into the NWOBHM and metal’s resurgence in the early 80’s. And while they had toyed with camp ever since 1979’s ‘Hell Bent For Leather’, they’d successfully navigated the fine line between tongue-in-cheek and parody on several records, right up to ‘Defenders of the Faith’, where production concessions revealed a willingness to go with the 80’s flow. That album worried me; ‘Turbo’ confirmed my fears. 

So Priest decided they no longer needed me as a fan, and had apparently made the calculation that so many other bands of that era made as they entered the MTv era: they’d likely gain more new fans than the number of old fans that would walk away. They were probably right. So: good business decision; bad artistic decision. Very bad. Embarassingly so. Priest eventually tried to self-correct, and spent the next few years chasing trends until a new breed of metal bands rendered them irrelevant. Their iconic image, legendary status and landmark early releases ensured they’d be able to maintain a career for another 2 decades, but after ‘Turbo’ they had lost all credibility with much of their original fan base. ‘Defenders of the Faith’ my ass. Thank God for Thrash Metal.

Speaking of Trash Metal, Metallica was another band that, after years of pioneering, groundbreaking, and breathtaking music, succumbed to the numbers and decided to no longer allow artistic concerns to guide their career path. Correctly deducing that, with just a few ‘minor’ changes, they could go from being the biggest band on Metal to one of the biggest bands on Earth (a much more lucrative position), they hired Motley Crue’s producer and made the transition from being uncompromising standard-bearers to arena rock’s heaviest band.

Metallica_-_Black_Album

I hold a special kind of animosity towards Metallica for ‘Metallica’, aka ‘The Black Album’. For metal once again, change was on the horizon, and bands like Pearl Jam, Jane’s Addiction, and Soundgarden made music that was appealing more and more to metalheads every day. Grunge and Alternative music was everywhere, and some of it was downright metallic, but… It was very much like 1976/77, when punk rock took off and metal’s heavy hitters became… confused. Started experimenting. Made lousy records. What Metal Nation needed badly at the dawn of the 90’s was a band to put an end to the mass defection to Seattle. A band to remind everyone how and what great heavy metal was. What better band to do just that than the mighty Metallica?

Metallica, however, had other ideas. Rather than creating a record that could have led metal through the alterna-grunge swamp and onward toward a new era of global domination, Metallica instead sat out that fight and re-launched their brand, simplifying their songwriting and overall sound, recasting themselves as a Top 40 arena rock band. The singles/videos came one after another, signaling a new willingness to market themselves in ways they had resisted for years. Where once they had led, they now chose to conform. Metallica turned their backs on their art and their fans and made their deal with the devil, becoming megastars while leaving the door wide open for Nirvana and the Alterna-Grunge contingent to further dilute metal’s already fractured fan base.

Yes, dumbing-down their music was a smart career move… if you measure success in dollars and cents. Yes, ‘Metallica’ would not only become Metallica’s biggest-selling album, but one of the biggest selling albums of all time. But these facts speak nothing of its artistic value. I’m aware that, for many reading this, ‘Metallica’ was their first exposure to Metallica, and therefore seen by millions as their defining moment. To understand what a left turn that album was for their original fan base is difficult for those who jumped on the bandwagon after all of the challenge and confrontation was removed from their music. It takes a certain perspective to see this record as the betrayal that it truly was. For us, ‘Metallica’ was a slap in the face; a Fuck You to myself and my friends who had seen them at the Rathskellar in Boston in 1983; who had watched them steadily grow from strength to strength, without radio, without MTv, and without mainstream press, right up to the multi-platinum ‘Master of Puppets’, all without compromising their art. one. single. bit.    

At least with ‘Metallica’ they hadn’t changed their look to conform to the commercial trends of the day. That would come a little later, with their next studio album, the aptly-named ‘Load’.  

Musicians, of course are free to make whatever decisions they wish in the service of their careers. Hopefully they’re aware of how transparent these moves are, no matter how they try to spin it, and how these kinds of moves rightly invoke the wrath of their most fervent fans– although it’s clear that this kind of fan doesn’t factor into the equation when bands do the Devil’s Arithmetic. The bottom line here is that both of these albums suck, and pale in comparison to the records that were made by these bands before potential superstar status was part of the bargain. I understand that surviving in any business requires compromise; ‘evolve or die’, I get it… But, as Stephen King wrote in ‘Pet Sematary’, “Sometimes dead is better.”