The Wild Ass Story of Recording Metallica’s ‘Ride the Lightning’
Author Mark Eglinton shares an exclusive excerpt from his new book, 'So Let It Be Written: The Biography of Metallica’s James Hetfield'
Outside the Metallica Mansion on Carlson Boulevard, El Cerrito, in 1984. Taken by "Banger" Bart
This article originally appeared on Noisey.
Metallica 'heads, take note: there's a new James Hetfield biography heading for the shelves next week, and while it's not officially authorized, Papa Het and his camp have had no complaints. The book is part oral history, part band biography, and part personal history; its narrative spans young James's early days in the nascent Bay Area thrash metal scene and follows him throughout the twists and turns of Metallica's mammoth career, offering commentary and anecdotes from friends, industry insiders, and fellow rockstars who knew, worked with, and played alongside him.
Author and ghostwriter Mark Eglinton—who first met James Hetfield and Cliff Burton in 1986 on the Damage, Inc tour—is no stranger to the prestige metal musician memoir, either; he's also co-authored books with Pantera bassist Rex Brown and Behemoth's Nergal, and this latest effort features a forward by Testament's Chuck Billy.
Eglinton told Noisey, "In many ways, writing So Let It Be Written was like solving a puzzle. In order to present genuinely new and interesting information about someone who exists in the public eye, it was important to somehow find ways to contact those who knew James, yet had rarely spoken about knowing him. That process inevitably led down some dead-ends, but also resulted in some fascinating revelations about the people involved in James' early life, as well as the making of early Metallica music.
From that perspective, this biography is unique in its insight and balanced in its commentary. Not just that, I've been informed that So Let It Be Written s existence has facilitated the reforming of friendships from James' teenage years. As a lifelong fan, that news is more gratifying than anything."
When 1984 rolled around, it was less Orwellian than some had predicted. Far from being a time of media censorship and cultural repression, there was an outburst of aural productivity, and it was an exciting time to be a metal-head. In many ways, 1984 was a pivotal year in the genre. Some of the more established bands enjoyed career-high success, while new acts—including Metallica—were trying to crash the party. Iron Maiden, the most successful act to hail from the NWOBHM that Lars loved so much, released their mighty Egyptian-themed Powerslave that year, while Judas Priest—that other force of British metal—were flying high with Defenders of the Faith. Both bands continued to tour and release quality material for another twenty-five–plus years, but this was one of several peaks for both bands, particularly Iron Maiden. Their vast stage sets and ambitious visual production set the standard for any rock band to follow. The Swiss band Celtic Frost—who influenced a slew of black metal and death metal bands with their off-kilter and avant-garde debut, Morbid Tales—were another young act trying to break into the market with a much darker and extreme sound. With a growing number of likeminded followers in Europe, if ever there was an opportunity for Metallica to establish themselves at the forefront of a transient metal scene, 1984 was it.
The year did not begin exactly as planned. After a gig at the Channel Club in Boston on January 14, Metallica's gear was stolen from a van outside the venue. Hetfield felt the loss of equipment more than most apparently, as he'd become reliant on a particular Marshall amplifier to create the guitar sound he wanted. Borrowed equipment from fellow Zazula-managed act Anthrax was a suitable replacement and allowed Metallica to finish the tour. There was no letup despite losing equipment. The Zazulas mined their new relationship with Venom further by booking Metallica to tour Europe with Venom on the Seven Dates of Hell tour.
xDave Marrs, whose involvement with Hetfield dated back to their school days in Downey, was still working for the band as Lars's drum roadie and remembered this Venom tour as a turning point: "We listened to Mercyful Fate pretty much 24/7 on that tour on the bus as I recall, and then when we were in Denmark and we went to Sweet Silence Studios, the band were actually there. At that point they didn't have enough money to keep me in Europe so I had to come home. I don't really feel any regrets, though, as I didn't really know what the hell I was doing up there. When you go out on the road you find out real quick whether it's meant for you or not, and it just wasn't meant for me."
Another of the important figures in Hetfield's early life left the story. As with Hugh Tanner before him, life in a metal band wasn't the right career path. Marrs, like Tanner and McGovney, was a key link back to the early days in Downey and his departure left Hetfield on his own with the band. Just as they had on the US tour with Venom the previous year, Metallica went "fuckin' nuts on the first night," as Venom guitarist Jeff Dunn bluntly described it. The two bands had serious chemistry, and that led to debauched drinking and chaos that continued until the tour finale at the Aardschock Festival in Holland on February 12. In the festival crowd that day was German metal fan Mille Petrozza, who went on to form an uncompromising thrash band called Kreator. They would become one of Europe's premier thrash flag-bearers during the 1980s and refused to change their style in the lean days of the 1990s, when thrash was driven largely underground.
Petrozza remembered being inspired by Hetfield and Metallica even before that Aardschock appearance: "When Kill 'Em All came out, it was like some kind of sonic revolution. There were bands out there like Venom and Accept that played fast, but Metallica took this style to a level of perfection." When discussing that day in Holland, Petrozza was equally reverential: "We were excited when we heard that they would open for Venom and everyone went there to see Metallica. It was an experience I'll never forget." Dunn acknowledged the success of the tour and recalled how the bands interacted: "Lars was always the spokesperson and always had the most to say. James was always down-to-earth, just a genuinely nice guy who seemed to be pleased to be there and was there for the love of it." Metallica, Hooker and Music for Nations gave serious thought to the second Metallica album. They released "Jump in the Fire" from Kill 'Em All as a single, along with live versions of "Seek and Destroy" and "Phantom Lord." It was a stopgap release, but one that sustained fans' attention until new material was ready. Instead of returning to America to record, the band remained in Europe—in Lars's home country of Denmark.
The responsibility of following up Kill 'Em All from behind the mixing desk went to the calm Danish producer Flemming Rasmussen, whose Sweet Silence Studios became the band's home for the next few weeks. Rasmussen was an easygoing guy who'd come to the band's attention on the back of British traditional rock band Rainbow's Difficult to Cure, to which he'd given an energetic gloss in 1981. Given that he'd dealt with Rainbow's mix of egos and personalities, he was the ideal choice on both an interpersonal and sonic level. Metallica did not want a repeat of the Kill 'Em All sessions, where they felt they could have had more help from their producer. What they needed was someone who could refine or, even better, develop the band's sound, and with Rasmussen they felt they had the right man. The fact that this was Lars's hometown was also significant, as it served as a safety blanket for the band. Because it had taken all the available funds to get the band into the studio, they made full use of those facilities by sleeping there, too—they couldn't afford hotel rooms.
According to Marrs, after the Venom tour ended in February, the band drove to Sweet Silence, which had recently been used by Mercyful Fate and their charismatic singer, King Diamond. Album number two was called Ride the Lightning, and the road to making it happen began and ended at Sweet Silence. Rasmussen recalled, "The first time I met [Hetfield] was in the studio, and he's got a pretty strong mind about what he wants from a sound perspective." There was an immediate problem: Hetfield's favorite guitar amp had disappeared at that Boston show. Hetfield and Rasmussen had to put their heads together to arrive at a solution, as Rasmussen recalled: "We started out playing some Kill 'Em All tracks so I could hear what he was talking about, and we started testing guitar amps, which took a couple of days." The original amp had been modified, which meant, as Rasmussen bluntly stated: "Nobody remembered what the fuck had gone on, so we were all kind of lost. What we ended up with was something very different, which from my point of view was brilliant because I could then work on getting the sounds I wanted."
Even at this early stage, Hetfield had developed a unique guitar sound, and it took Rasmussen to make the best of James's newfound need to sound like nobody else on the planet. Rasmussen explained, "He liked the fact that he had his own sound and wasn't trying to copy someone else's. I think we took most of the recording process to pretty much get his thing. So we ended up looking for something that was new but also sounded something like his own stolen amp." But what did the Dane make of the man on a personal level? "I always considered James to be an angry young man. He had a great attitude I thought, though." Rasmussen was the perfect foil for the opinionated Hetfield back in 1984. He tempered Hetfield's angst and channeled those feelings down a creative route. The Ride the Lightning sessions under Rasmussen's care might have been the beginning of a more musically mature James Hetfield. The business acumen of Hetfield was also put to the test, as Rasmussen noticed: "They were negotiating a new deal because they were on that independent [Megaforce] label. They had different conversations with various labels and he was a big part of that. He's a smart guy."
The recording process was split into two chunks: February/March and part of June. During the break in between, the band headed to London to play two shows at the renowned Marquee Club. This kept the pot boiling for a UK audience, who were well aware that a new record was imminent. Originally, Metallica were scheduled to tour Europe with two other Megaforce acts, The Rods and Exciter, but the Hell on Earth Tour had to be scrapped—rumored to be due to poor ticket sales. Dan Beehler, the drummer and vocalist with Canadian thrashers Exciter, recalled an encounter with James in London around that time. "Music for Nations rented two apartments in Baker Street; Metallica were in the basement and we were above," Beehler said. "I would go down and hang out with James and the boys, and we'd party large." Beehler recalled being somewhat surprised by Hetfield's stature: "When I first saw the back of the Kill 'Em All album cover, I thought he was a little guy. Then when I met him he was pretty tall. He's a super guy and was totally happy-go-lucky and loved to have a good time back then."
Metallica returned to Copenhagen and put the album to bed. Afterward they went on a brief four-date tour with New York greasepaint rockers Twisted Sister, finishing on June 10. On June 27, Ride the Lightning landed with an almighty thud. Zazula released it on Megaforce in the US, had Music for Nations do the honors in the UK and negotiated for a label called Roadrunner to handle it in Holland. The response across the board was one of open-mouthed disbelief.
Kill 'Em All was an aggressive, heavy affair and a fabulous debut, but Ride the Lightning was a huge step forward. The growth in both sound and songwriting was so marked that one could be forgiven for questioning if this was the same band. Hetfield's contribution had morphed from being, in retrospect, an awkward debut into a far more dominant role, in terms of both his vocals and his rhythm guitar precision. Rasmussen captured the band's heaviness yet found a way to give that sound space to breathe—all with devastating effect. When asked in 1988 about the way Ride the Lightning sounded, Hetfield bluntly stated, "Flemming was in a reverb daze." The album did have a lot of reverb, but nobody could question the songs. Even the front cover—which depicted an electric chair suspended in what looked like a night sky, beneath that now familiar logo—was a more mature statement of the band's rapid growth.
As opening tracks go, "Fight Fire with Fire" was one of Metallica's most telling compositions ever. Note the word "composition" because one of Ride the Lightning's most impressive features was its implacable will to create complex yet powerful songs. Previous material had been delivered much more crudely. Starting with a delicate but highly ominous acoustic intro, the track festers into a terrifying fade-in that in turn heralds a riff of warp-speed brutality. The song signs off with the sound of a nuclear explosion that leads directly into the title track, with no discernable pause for breath. Its whining dual guitar intro settles into a mid-tempo chug, with Hetfield taking on the role of a condemned man awaiting his electric chair fate. The music is complex, taking in a progressive midsection and a stirring Hammett guitar solo, before returning to where it began.
For many, the focal point of Ride the Lightning is the penultimate track, the unforgettable "Creeping Death." Kicking in with a monstrous, repeated guitar salvo, it eases into a fluidly effective riff. The lyrics deal with "The Tale of the Firstborn" from the Book of Exodus. "Creeping Death" encompasses everything that the band was about at the time, and it became the most frequently played live song in the band's career.
While the excitement about the album release was raging, there was a management issue to resolve and a tour to embark on. Metallica's relationship with the enthusiastic and extremely generous Zazulas and Megaforce was running out of time. Without them the band might not have ever released an album, but Metallica had outgrown Megaforce. The band needed the support of a big label to make good on the huge potential suggested by Ride the Lightning.