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How Metallica’s Kill 'Em All changed the world

Four kids. One album that changed the landscape of metal forever. As Metallica reissue classic debut Kill ’Em All, Kirk and Lars reveal the stories behind the songs...

Lars Ulrich is looking back on the record that laid down the foundations for not only his band’s career, but an entirely new strand of heavy metal. It’s been 33 years since Metallica’s debut album, Kill ’Em All, came roaring and snarling out of San Francisco, leaving a trail of carnage in its wake.

“I've got a mixed bag of memories,” he says of one of the most influential debut albums in history. “The primary ones would involve youth, innocence, ignorance and a kind of unawareness of what the future held.”

The drummer is taking a break from what he describes as “putting the finishing touches” to Metallica’s as-yet-untitled 10th album, a project that’s as shrouded in mystery and secrecy as the tax dealings of your average high-ranking politician. Chief among the other plates he has spinning are brand new reissues of Kill ’Em All and its follow-up, Ride The Lightning, both of which have been given the “Led Zeppelin treatment”, including high-end deluxe editions that come in boxes with all manner of rare and unheard live and demo material and Metallica ephemera. Right now, Lars isn’t entirely sure whether he’s looking forward or backwards.

“It’s a bit of a mindfuck,” he says. “But one thing I've realised in the last few months is there’s this kind of instinctive thing that drove it all. When were were 19 or 20, we never slowed down long enough to think – we just did.”

However you slice it, the inarguable fact is that Kill ’Em All changed everything. The youthful Metallica – Lars, frontman James Hetfield, bassist Cliff Burton and guitarist Kirk Hammett, who replaced original six-stringer and future Megadeth founder Dave Mustaine – took the drummer’s beloved New Wave Of British Heavy Metal and spliced it with the DNA of American punk. And while they can’t quite lay credit to inventing thrash metal – Kirk’s former band, Exodus, should be given due credit for that – Metallica can take credit for turning it into a worldwide phenomenon that’s still echoing down the years.

“Yeah, there was a little bit of arrogance to it, a little youthful cockiness,” says Kirk. “But at the same time we weren’t particularly jaded, and we didn’t have much baggage attached to us musically. We were in a new territory, and we knew we were doing it better than anyone else.”

They had already served notice of their intentions via a trio of demo tapes, the third and final of which, the widely ground-breaking No Life ’Til Leather, showcased a band who had emerged fully formed, but Kill ’Em All honed their attack even further. Listen to the likes of Hit The Lights, The Four Horsemen or the gimlet-eyed Whiplash today, and you can hear the hunger and ambition bursting out.

“Hunger and ambition aren’t words I would use,” counters Lars. “I’d probably use words like ‘determined’ and ‘single-minded’. Now when I look at my life, there's my wife, my kids, my dad, my circle of friends, and of course there’s Metallica. Back then, there was just music. When I came to America in 1980, I wasn’t super-ambitious. I never formed a band to tour the world or make money and meet girls. I just wanted to be the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, Californian version.”

As Lars and Kirk look back on that landmark debut, one thing is clear: in that, he more than succeeded.

Hit The Lights

The first track on one of the landmark debut albums in the history of metal starts off with a wall of noise that quickly erupts into a 100mph statement of intent, complete with one of the great opening lines in history: ‘No life ’til leather, we’re gonna kick some ass tonight.’ If one song represents the birth of Metallica, this is it.

LARS: “I’m not going to argue with that. The version on Kill ’Em All was basically a marriage of two songs. Hetfield brought in the verses and the chorus, which came from something he had done in a band called Leather Charm, and I brought in the whole back half of it, which was from something I had done before. After three verses and three choruses, it goes into this whole other universe, with a new riff and a fucking half-hour-long jam out.”

KIRK: “It was the first Metallica song I played on. I’d only been in the band for three weeks. I flew in the second week of April, under the auspices of auditioning for the band. I arrived on a Monday and played the first show that Friday. We played two or three shows a week, so I was ready to go. I kind of realised I must be in the band because nobody told me otherwise.”

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