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Birth School Metallica Death
With Metallica about to show Glastonbury how it's done tomorrow night, we revisit the release of their seminal album Master of Puppets in this extract from Birth School Metallica Death: Volume II by Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood.
James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich had not been planning a big night out. The pair were in Los Angeles during the first month of 1986 in order that they might argue over the smallest details regarding the sound levels of Master of Puppets with Michael Wagener, the German-born studio technician charged with mixing their band’s third album. Their work at Amigo Studios on Compton Avenue in North Hollywood had been temporarily stalled, however, by an intervention by the US Customs Office, who had impounded the master tapes of the track ‘Battery’, the next song on which the trio were set to begin work, en route to California from Copenhagen. Unexpectedly, the two musicians found themselves on shore leave.
With Hollywood as their playground, Hetfield and Ulrich were spoiled for choice as to locations at which they might share a drink. But with Master of Puppets still a work in progress, the pair eschewed the temptations offered by iconic rock ’n’ roll drinking sheds such as the Rainbow Bar & Grill and the Roxy, opting instead to place their orders at the Cat & Fiddle, a British-style pub favoured by expat Englishmen, located on a section of Sunset Boulevard on which the magic dust of ‘the Strip’ did not sparkle. By Metallica’s standards at least, such a setting would provide the perfect backdrop for a quiet night out.
Or so it seemed. Unbeknownst to Hetfield and Ulrich, also gathered around one of the many wooden tables inside the Cat & Fiddle that evening were Black Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler, Judas Priest guitarists K. K. Downing and Glen Tipton and Rod Smallwood, the likeable yet blunt West Yorkshire-born manager of Iron Maiden. This quartet did not merely represent the high table of the British heavy metal industry, but also the English working class and its desire to get pissed. This the party duly did, with Hetfield and Ulrich playing the roles of kids in a liquor store.
Ulrich, however, was very drunk indeed, and caution had been damned.
The momentum of the evening was such that when the bar staff at the Cat & Fiddle called time on their customers at 2 a.m., the party decamped to Rod Smallwood’s home just above the Rainbow. Had the hour not been so late, and had he been less drunk, Lars Ulrich might have been rather more reticent regarding his decision to place into the tape deck of Smallwood’s stereo a cassette featuring rough mixes of a selection of the songs that would in just a few a weeks’ time be unveiled to the public under the banner Master of Puppets. Ulrich, however, was very drunk indeed, and caution had been damned.
For a man with a home in the Hollywood Hills, Smallwood could hardly have appeared less typical of a Tinseltown music industry insider. With a Huddersfield accent as hard as granite and directness of manner typical of one from the north of England, had Smallwood disliked the music he was hearing for the first time, he would have had no qualms about saying so. Having thrown discretion to the wind by commandeering Smallwood’s stereo in the first instance, Lars Ulrich decided that if he were going to be hung it may as well be for stealing a sheep as a lamb: he turned the stereo’s volume fully to the right. As Iron Maiden’s manager took in the sounds being played for him, Metallica’s front man and drummer found themselves exchanging smiles as both noticed their host nodding his head in appreciation for the music.
‘We could be kind of obnoxious, but in a silly, drunken, cynical kind of a way,’ remembers Ulrich. ‘We never thought we were particularly hot shit. But this was the first time that I felt this album might connect on a different level than before. When “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” came on, Rod was, like, “Can you play that again? That’s a really good song.” And I started thinking, ‘Hmm, maybe there’s hope for us here...’
As a form of music, metal often takes as its subject matter notions of dominance and supremacy, of overpowering an enemy, or else of rebelliousness in the face of an oppressive force, whether this be ‘The Man’ – to whom Dee Snyder of Twisted Sister announced, ‘We’re not gonna take it’ – or, as is the case with ‘Welcome Home (Sanitarium)’, the allegorical setting of an insane asylum. For their part, Iron Maiden had made their name with songs such as ‘Run to the Hills’, a romp through the Wild West of nineteenth-century United States cavalry and Cree Indians that offers numerous lyrical perspectives of the story being told and is thus more complex and nuanced than it is usually given credit for being. That said, throughout the familiar themes of heavy metal remain strong, with the frontiersmen arriving on the shores of an indigenous population and ‘selling them whisky and taking their gold, enslaving the young and destroying the old’. In 1986 Maiden’s most recent studio album was titled Powerslave, released two years previously; the eleven-month tour that supported the release was dubbed the ‘World Slavery tour’. In Darwinian terms beloved of so many metal groups of the time, by inviting Hetfield and Ulrich and their cassette tape of their soon-to-be-finished new album, Smallwood had taken the enemy from the gates and invited it in for a cold beer. In the middle of the Eighties Iron Maiden were at their commercial zenith in the United States, a point to which they would not return until well into the following century. This decline might have found itself under way even without the attentions of a younger, emerging audience being held in sway by the arrival of a younger, more thuggish-looking, sharper-edged and musically more ambitious group, not least because in the late Eighties and Nineties Iron Maiden released a succession of albums that lacked the quality and energy of their earlier work. But with their third album Metallica would light a fuse that would burn a slow but determined path towards a charge of such force that it would change the sound and nature of metal’s mainstream forever.
Neil Perry was of the opinion that the LP constituted nothing less than ‘a landmark in the history of recorded music’
Master of Puppets was released in the United States through Elektra on February 26, 1986, and on Music For Nations in the United Kingdom on March 7. The eight-track album was preceded by no seven- or twelve-inch single and no video clip was filmed for use on MTV or the music programmes of terrestrial television. In Britain the fifty-four-minute forty-six-second album entered the Gallup album chart at no. 41. At the time heavy metal albums followed a strict sales trajectory: the first week of release saw the largest number of copies sold, followed by a decrease in subsequent weeks that was often precipitous. It seems odd to reflect that an LP that has come to be viewed as one of the greatest – occasionally as the greatest – of the genre actually failed to secure a position in the Top 40 albums not only on its first week of release but at any point over the next twenty-seven years.
But while the response to Master of Puppets was hardly remarkable in terms of its width, in depth the reaction to the album was noteworthy. Writing in Sounds magazine, journalist Neil Perry was of the opinion that the LP constituted nothing less than ‘a landmark in the history of recorded music’, a statement that seems startling even by comparison with the kind of hyperbole that was fast becoming associated with the Metallica name. Among the group’s older constituents, opinions were not quite so effusive. Despite having beaten a drum for the group for more than three years, Xavier Russell found that this wasn’t sufficient to prevent his opinions falling foul of the censors at Kerrang! Although he recognised Master of Puppets as being ‘a great album’, Russell’s commissioned review of the release found its way only to the spike and not the shelves of the country’s newsagents. This would not be the last time that the magazine would take editorial decisions based on political calculations.
‘Maybe Kerrang! thought, “We need to keep on the side of the band . . .”,’ reflects Russell. ‘I was generally positive about it, but I think I gave it four Ks [out of a possible five], and Dante [Bonutto, then the magazine’s deputy editor] was, like, “We can’t run this, this is just too silly.” ’
The review of Master of Puppets was instead recommissioned in the direction of Mick Wall, who gladly accepted the chance not just to review the most significant release of that year so far but also to ease himself into the position of Metallica’s British cheerleader-in-residence, a post he would occupy for the next several years. His first act on the job was to write a full five-K review of the release, which proclaimed that, with Master of Puppets, ‘Metallica have grown up’ and now ‘stand taller than ever before’.
‘The band are still travelling the same hungry roads but where they used to stomp and maul the senses like a bully out of control, now they dance and fly adding an animal grace to their sheet metal aggression,’ Wall wrote, adding that, ‘Metallica should be very pleased with themselves: Master of Puppets is their finest LP to date, finer I think than any of their so-called contemporaries are likely to record this year.’
What Wall was alluding to with his use of the phrase ‘so- called contemporaries’ were the other groups that populated the now bustling thrash metal genre. Revisiting the articles published about Metallica at the time of Master of Puppets, it is striking just how much ink was wasted not only on attempting to define ‘thrash’ as a musical form, but also to locate Metallica’s place within this form. In point of fact, Wall’s opinion that the LP under review would prove to be a work superior to anything ‘their so- called contemporaries are likely to record this year’ would prove to be inaccurate. In the autumn of 1986 Slayer would release their new LP, Reign in Blood in the United States. Produced by Rick Rubin and released on the hip hop label Def Jam, the Los Angeles quartet’s third album was a body of work of such overwhelming speed and power, not to mention (in studio terms) technical perfection, that in no time at all its ten songs were recognised as being timeless. What was less immediately apparent, however, was that with the twenty-eight minutes that comprised Reign in Blood, Slayer’s dominance of the form had effectively killed thrash metal for every band other than themselves.
Not that Ulrich himself would have had any truck with this development. Like any artist worthy of the name, the drummer had been attempting to negotiate an exit from the pigeon-hole into which his group had been placed from the very second that they’d been placed there. With the clarity afforded by hindsight, Metallica’s place within the thrash metal movement seems so obvious that one wonders why at the time it was viewed as being a topic worthy of any kind of discussion at all. As with the Clash and punk and, later, Nirvana and grunge, Metallica came from thrash metal but were never quite of the genre. The group were desiring of the form’s intensity, but were of no mind to pay heed to its many creative restrictions.
'People always want to lock you into a little square and say, “Okay, this is what you do.” They don’t need to know if we’re thrash, speed, heavy, slow, green, black. All those categories – I hate ’em.'
‘From a musician’s point of view, I don’t really like that term,’ the drummer stated at the time. ‘It implies lack of arrangement, lack of ability, lack of songwriting, lack of any form of intelligence. There’s a lot more to our songs than just thrashing.’
Ulrich’s efforts to place clear water between his group and the gnashing and foaming of the chasing pack, and to shake loose the thrash metal tag that had been tied to the toe of his band, were as fully understandable as they were entirely boring. To his acute frustration, distinctions that to the drummer were piercingly apparent were often overlooked by magazine journalists who saw it as their job to contextualise the kind of groups who sang songs about Satan – Slayer – and those who did not, but who possessed an adolescent fascination with death (Metallica, Anthrax and Megadeth). As ridiculous as it seems today, such divisions were at the time viewed by otherwise sensible people as being entirely crucial.
‘One of the reasons we’ve progressed the way we have is [is that we] realised that from working with a lot of different moods and dynamics that there are other ways of being heavy [other] than just playing fast,’ says Ulrich. ‘People always want to lock you into a little square and say, “Okay, this is what you do.” They don’t need to know if we’re thrash, speed, heavy, slow, green, black. All those categories – I hate ’em. That’s why we have a band name, so that people will know who we are. If you want to pinpoint one thing about us, the best thing you could say is that there’s always some kind of power there. As long as you have some kind of intensity, it’s fuckin’ Metallica.’
Such was the perfect alignment of Metallica’s fortunes as heard on Master of Puppets that to this day the album is viewed by a number – perhaps even the majority – of the group’s audience as being its authors’ creative high-water mark. Even if one does not subscribe to this point of view, it is difficult to deny the praise that still rains on this album’s broadest of shoulders. From the opening acoustic strum that precedes the forensic flurry of opening number ‘Battery’ – to this day, one of Metallica’s finest compositions – to the broken-glass staccato thrust that signals the end of closing track ‘Damage, Inc.’, the overall effect of the band’s third release is to take lightning thrown from the sky of a perfect storm and capture it within the twelve-inch sleeve of a vinyl album.
As was inevitable, much has been made of the musical progression evident throughout the release. Anchored by a riff that is not so much a signature as it is a leitmotif, the album’s title track manages to find the space to stretch its limbs from the kind of chorus that begs to be sung by an arena full of faces to an unhurried and even hushed middle section that is progressive to the point of seeming classically trained. In this vein, more impressive still is the defiantly restrained ‘Orion’, an eight-minute instrumental piece comprising an opening act that throbs like the banks of a swollen river and a middle section of such restrained and melodic beauty that its template is one that seems to have been set by Pink Floyd more than it does Black Sabbath.
Metallica’s forward strides were not merely musical, either. In 1986 metal was a genre whose lyrical quality was rarely considered, often for good reason. But listeners minded to pay attention to the words being sung would have noticed James Hetfield’s continued emergence as a lyricist. On occasion the subject-driven nature of the Master of Puppets lyric sheet did carry with it a note of convenience, or even of contrivance. As beloved of its audience as the album’s title track quickly became, nonetheless as a lyric the portrait of an individual’s free will broken on the wheel of drug addiction is not wholly convincing, not least because at the time Metallica were a band familiar with the smell of cocaine. The line ‘chop your breakfast on a mirror’ is in fact directly inspired by their old friend Rich Burch’s morning routine on the many occasions he woke up on the floor of 3132 Carlson Boulevard. Elsewhere, themes such as the pernicious influence of TV evangelists (‘Leper Messiah’) and the futility of war (‘Disposable Heroes’) may have been shop-worn metal favourites, but at least in Hetfield’s hands such topics were examined with bite and an uncommon degree of articulation. The same could be said of the feelings of entrapment and control inherent in ‘Welcome Home (Sanitarium)’, a song inspired by Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which revisited many of the themes explored on Ride the Lightning. On the occasions when Hetfield’s developing sense of wordplay is afforded free rein, the results are magnificent. The most impressive example of this is the lyric that accompanies ‘Battery’, an examination of a tsunami-like force the exact nature of which remains undefined. Taking as its starting point the not entirely promising premise of the sight of a Bay Area Metallica concert – the title comes from the Old Waldorf club being situated on Battery Street – the subject is given flight by words that are both powerful and poetic. ‘Smashing through the boundaries, lunacy has found me, cannot stop the battery,’ sings Hetfield, over music that sounds like life being spirited away amid rapids of foaming water. Inevitably, the song quickly becomes a matter of life and death, with its narrator unable to ‘kill the family battery is found in me’.
Master of Puppets stands comparison not just with albums of a similar genre released during the same period of time, but with any collection of music released in the Eighties. Gauged by such exacting standards however, it would be incorrect to describe the work in a musical sense as being flawless. For example, an attentive ear will identify the grinding gears that separate the middle sections of both the title track and ‘Orion’ as belonging to a band whose technical vocabulary was not yet fully equal to their artistic vision. But such criticisms are as nothing compared to the achievements to which Metallica’s third album can lay claim. The release displays a strident forward propulsion, in its creators’ ability not merely to write songs but also to balance these songs together in a collection that, as with all great albums, appears to be more than the sum of its parts. Alongside this, the group’s 1986 release also carries with it a willingness to fly in the face of mainstream commercial wisdom that is more strenuous and far bolder than heard on its predecessor.
‘Master of Puppets is definitely a more uncommercial album than Ride the Lightning,’ believes Flemming Rasmussen. ‘Definitely. Master of Puppets is Metallica celebrating that they’ve got a major label deal and that they no longer give a shit. It was them saying, “We’re just going to do the stuff we like and if the record company doesn’t like it, then fuck them.” I think that was the attitude. And it worked too. There’s not one bad song on the album, not a single one. It is just fabulous from start to finish.
‘They had that youthful attitude of “We’re better than everybody else in the whole world” and they were just out to kick some ass.’
For his part, Lars Ulrich merely adopts his best what-can-I- tell-you? voice, and says that ‘Master of Puppets is a motherfucker of a record.’
Taken from Birth School Metallica Death: Volume II: 1983-1991 by Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood
Metallica have sold in excess of 100 million albums and won seven Grammys. This book takes us from the band's inception through to the recording and eve of release of their seminal, self-titled, 1991 album.