Metal Up Your Ass: How METALLICA's 'Kill 'Em All' got iconic art and title | Revolver

Metal Up Your Ass: How METALLICA's 'Kill 'Em All' got iconic art and title

Cliff Burton's outrage — and the hammer he took everywhere — made their mark on the thrash classic
metallica kill em all

The making of Metallica's Kill 'Em All was not an easy one.

Not only did the pioneering thrash-metal band have to replace wayward lead guitarist Dave Mustaine shortly before the May 1983 recording sessions for their debut LP — Kirk Hammett, plucked from Exodus, only had a week to learn all of the material — but they also had to contend with pesky ghosts (the studio they recorded at was haunted) and unsympathetic recording engineers who actually locked the band out of their own mixing sessions. And adding insult to injury, the band was forced to scrap their original album title and cover art concept at the last minute.

Knowing that their debut album needed a title that would succinctly sum up their music and attitude, the band had decided to call it Metal Up Your Ass, a title they'd originally used for a 1982 demo of live material. And just in case you didn't get the point, so to speak, the artwork offered the most literal depiction of the phrase that they could imagine. "We were gonna have a hand coming through a toilet bowl, holding a machete, dripping with blood," Lars Ulrich explained in a 1984 interview. "And the toilet had barbed wire around it. That would've gotten everyone squirming uncomfortably."

As the band saw it, the title Metal Up Your Ass — especially when paired with Stephen Gorman's irreverently graphic artwork (which wasn't quite as gnarly as Ulrich's description) — would serve as both a come-on and a warning, attracting real metal fans everywhere while repelling the posers. Unfortunately, it also repelled their prospective distributors, most of whom thought that the album's title and cover art would be a tough sell to retailers. Metallica's then-manager Jonny Zazula, who was preparing to release the album on his own Megaforce label, broke the bad news to the band; as the owner of a record store, he understood that an independently-released album called Metal Up Your Ass wouldn't stand a chance in the retail environment of the time.

metallica metal_up_your_ass.jpg
Stephen Gorman’s "Metal Up Your Ass" artwork

"Our record label told us that record distributors in America had strongly objected to the title and the planned sleeve. And we ran the real risk of not having our product stocked," Ulrich explained in 1984. "That wouldn't have helped us at all."

"It was very stringent then," Zaszula recalled in Mick Wall's Enter Night: A Biography of Metallica. "It was before [parental advisory] labelling but they still had this moral issue. Wal-Mart or any of what they call rack-jobbers, they wouldn't touch the record."

Compromise wasn't a popular word in the Metallica camp, least of all with bassist Cliff Burton. "Cliff was such an original thinker, and he had so much confidence," Hammett told journalist Jaan Uhelszki in 2008. "He wasn't going to take shit from anyone and he always let everyone know that …

"We were pissed off [that we couldn't use Metal Up Your Ass], but we knew we had to think up a new name," he continued. "We were walking from the place we were staying to the photographer's studio to shoot the portrait on the back cover and thinking about names for the album, and Cliff said, 'You know what? Fuck those fuckers, man, those fucking record outlet people. Just, we should just kill 'em all!"

"Cliff got real mad," Zazula told Wall, "but Lars goes, 'Kill 'em all … That's a good name.' I go, 'That's a great name!' The next thing you know the album was called Kill 'Em All."

Zazula had enlisted photographer Gary L. Heard to do the front cover of the album as well as the band portrait on the back, and Metallica informed Heard of their new title as soon as they arrived at his studio. "That's when Cliff Burton mentioned something about wanting there to be a bloody hammer on the cover," Hammett told Uhelszki, "but then Cliff Burton carried a hammer with him everywhere he went … he always had a hammer in his luggage, and he would take it out occasionally and start destroying things."

metallica kill em all

Heard took Burton's idea and ran with it, shooting a shadowy hand dropping a hammer in a pool of blood on a white tile floor. The resulting image, combined with a stark but powerful layout by designers Harold and Shari Risch, made for an attention-grabbing package. And though still unquestionably violent, Kill 'Em All's title and cover were apparently palatable enough for retail chains to sell.

That wasn't the end of the line for Metal Up Your Ass, though. The fact that they'd even considered it as a title for their first album helped to further bolster Metallica's metal cred, and it soon became a popular bit of trivia, especially among metalheads looking to one-up each other. ("Dude, do you know what they wanted to call the album?") The phrase unsurprisingly continues to resonate with headbangers today, even morphing into the hashtag #MUYA in the age of Twitter.

Stephen Gorman's killer toilet thankfully hasn't faded into obscurity, either. In 1985, the band released a three-quarter-sleeve baseball T-shirt with Gorman's original MUYA artwork, which quickly became a sought-after collectable. It since been reissued and bootlegged many times over, and is still considered one of the greatest (and most controversial) metal T-shirt designs ever unleashed.

Get Metallica Kill 'Em All vinyl, CDs and merch at Revolver's shop.