10 Greatest "What If?"s in Metal History | Revolver

10 Greatest "What If?"s in Metal History

What if Cliff Burton didn't die? What if Ozzy didn't split with Sabbath?
Cliff Burton getty actually 1600x900, Fin Costello/Redferns
Cliff Burton
photograph by Fin Costello/Redferns

The one constant about history is that we can't change it. For better or worse, the last 50 years of heavy metal have — and will always have — taken the course they did and led us to where we are now. Documenting that lineage as it takes shape is a big part of our jobs at Revolver, but studying the past for what it was is only part of the fun of being a music fan. Thinking about what it could have been is sometimes an even more stimulating intellectual exercise.

What if some of metal's most timeless heroes like Metallica's Cliff Burton and Pantera's Dimebag Darrell were still with us today? What if the bands that shaped heavy music into that force that it is never existed — or if one sole lineup tweak completely altered the chemistry of a seminal group? These are the butterfly-effect scenarios that metalheads have been playfully arguing over in bars, venues and vans for ages, so we wanted to highlight 10 of the greatest "what if's" in the genre's ever-evolving history. All of these scenarios are, of course, purely speculative, but its mind-blowing to imagine an alternate universe in which they actually played out.

tony iommi black sabbath GETTY LIVE 1976, Erica Echenberg/Redferns
photograph by Erica Echenberg/Redferns

What if Tony Iommi didn't lose two of his fingertips?

It almost sounds too far-fetched to be true, but there's a good argument to be made that heavy metal wouldn't exist if a 17-year-old English boy didn't lose the tips of his fingers. In 1965, aspiring guitarist Tony Iommi was working at his day job in a sheet metal factory when he suffered an accident that cost him the tips of his right middle and ring fingers. While the damage was traumatic for many reasons, the young Iommi was most concerned about how it would affect his musicianship, to which a doctor allegedly responded by saying, "You'll never play again."

Iommi didn't take no for an answer, training himself to work the fretboard with two badly deformed digits (somewhat protected by homemade thimbles) and eventually deciding to tune down the strings so that they were less painful for his sensitive hand to maneuver. In turn, the music he was playing became darker and heavier, and thus Black Sabbath's signature, Satanic blues-rock was born — along with a new genre called heavy metal. You could stay awake for days plotting all the ways music history would be different if it weren't for Iommi's simultaneously unfortunate and fortuitous accident.

MotorheadSelfPortrait.jpg, Joe Petagno
photograph by Joe Petagno

What if Lemmy Kilmister did "the right drugs"?

Motörhead were undoubtedly one of the most influential bands in heavy-music history, and it's wild to think that if their revered frontman Lemmy Kilmister had had a slightly different narcotic preference, then they may not exist at all. Throughout his life, the late, great vocalist-bassist claimed that he was kicked out of Hawkwind — the psychedelic band he played in during the early Seventies — because he did "the wrong drugs." His taste for amphetamines was quite literally speed-inducing, and therefore incongruent with the acid-munching vibes his then-bandmates were going for, so they booted him and he started a faster, harder band that could keep up with his pedal-to-the-floor lifestyle. Motörhead are utterly foundational to thrash, hardcore, grindcore and pretty much every fast-and-heavy band to follow in their footsteps, so who knows what metal would sound like if Lemmy did "the right drugs" and stayed in Hawkwind's comparatively mellow lane.

ozzy gettyimages-99639563.jpg, Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty Images
photograph by Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty Images

What if Black Sabbath didn't fire Ozzy Osbourne?

The most obvious answer is that if Ozzy Osbourne wasn't booted from Black Sabbath in 1979 for drug and alcohol issues, then there would be no Ronnie James Dio, Ian Gillan, Glenn Hughes, Ray Gillen or Tony Martin eras of the band. However, the effects of his departure reverberated far beyond Sabbath themselves. If Ozzy never left, then he would've never linked up with Randy Rhoads and released the wildly successful Blizzard of Ozz, which means there would be no "Crazy Train" — a song that's arguably as iconic today as any of Sabbath's biggest hits. Without a solo career, he never would've bitten a bat's head off onstage, snorted ants on the debauched 1984 Mötley Crüe tour, or taken a gang of promising upstarts called Metallica out for six months in 1986. All of these feats helped shape Ozzy into metal's most notable solo entity, building a brand that would eventually launch the influential Ozzfest and The Osbournes TV show. Would any of that happened if he remained in Sabbath? It seems very unlikely.

metallica james hetfield lars ulrich early young

What if James Hetfield never answered Lars Ulrich's ad?

No one can possibly debate the stone cold fact that Metallica have released some of the best and most influential music in all of metal history. Beyond the sonic impact that they had on the genre they codified — and, by proxy, genres like death-metal, groove-metal, black-metal and metallic hardcore that grew out of thrash — their interpersonal turmoil as a unit directly led to the birth of Megadeth, who have their own bundle of "What if?"s on this list. Therefore, it's pretty mind-fucking to think that all of that history stemmed from James Hetfield stumbling onto an ad that a young Lars Ulrich placed in The Recycler classifieds back in 1981. "Drummer looking for other metal musicians to jam with Tygers of Pan Tang, Diamond Head, and Iron Maiden," it read. Hetfield was one of two people who responded, but what if he didn't? What if he picked up a different newspaper that day? What if a coffee stain blotted over Ulrich's call-out? What if Lars never answered his phone and Hetfield moved on to find different bandmates? Goddamn.

What if Metallica didn't fire Dave Mustaine?

It's possibly the most notorious firing in all of metal history — and the most impactful. On April 11th, 1983, three members of the fresh-faced Metallica — Hetfield, Ulrich and bassist Cliff Burton — woke up their hungover lead guitarist, Dave Mustaine, and sacked him on the spot. The band were posted up in New York City to record their debut album, Kill 'Em All, for which Mustaine had written a few killer songs, but his bandmates were fed up with his drunken misbehavior and decided to can him before they hit the studio. Mustaine, understandably furious, took a grueling four-day bus ride back to California and used the time to scheme up a new band that he would dub Megadeth, which we now know as one of the greatest thrash bands ever — some would even say the greatest.

By the time Mustaine was fired, Metallica had already drafted Kirk Hammett from fellow Bay Area thrash OGs Exodus, which left that band in the hands of their newly minted lead guitarist Gary Holt. Therefore, Mustaine's firing had a profound shuffling effect on the soon-to-be legendary Bay Area thrash scene: christening Metallica's classic lineup, spawning the similarly talented Megadeth and reconfiguring Exodus. If Mustaine's personality didn't clash with his former bandmates and he ended up staying, then Metallica may have continued on their path to dominance, but there's no telling what the scene around them would've looked like.

What if Kerry King joined Megadeth?

While Metallica's pivotal member changes often get the most airtime during evergreen metal debates, Megadeth's history also has its fair share of potential lineup tweaks that would've dramatically altered the course of metal if they went a different way. One of the wildest factoids is that Slayer axeman Kerry King almost became a permanent fixture of Megadeth a few months prior to Slayer's ferocious debut, Show No Mercy. In April 1984, King temporarily joined Megadeth on second guitar and played a grand total of five shows with the band before amicably departing to focus on Slayer. However, King and Mustaine's musical chemistry was so magical that, at one point, the two seemed destined to work together — which would have set thrash metal on a drastically different path.

In a 2020 interview, founding Megadeth bassist David Ellefson recalled the first time King came to practice and instantly picked up what Mustaine was putting down. "He would stand there with just no expression on his face and watch Dave play some gnarly riff like 'Chosen Ones' or 'The Conjuring,'" Ellefson said. "And then [King] put his hand on his guitar and played it back note for note. And you're, like, 'Holy hell! This guy really gets Dave.'" As we now know, King ended up committing full-time to Slayer and forging another one of metal's most important institutions, so we can only imagine what would've happened if he stuck it out in Megadeth.

pantera_jgp_0433.jpg, Joe Giron
photograph by Joe Giron

What if Dimebag Darrell joined Megadeth?

As it turns out, King wasn't the only guitar hero who almost became Mustaine's right-hand man. In 1989, shortly before Megadeth would release what many fans consider to be their magnum opus, Rust in Peace, Mustaine called up Pantera shredder Dimebag Darrell and asked him to join the band. At the time, Pantera were still an unsigned glam-metal group who had just linked up with new vocalist Philip Anselmo the year before and were in the midst of revamping their aesthetic. In 1990, they'd release the landmark groove-metal classic Cowboys From Hell and soon become world-renowned, but none of that had happened yet when Dime was invited to join one of the hottest thrash bands on the planet — which would've been life-altering.

In an extreme act of loyalty to his brother, Pantera drummer Vinnie Paul, Dime said that he'd only join Megadeth if his sibling could come with him. However, Mustaine had just hired Nick Menza to sit behind the kit and wasn't able to accommodate the Texan prodigy's request, so the deal fell through. Things ended up working out great for both parties, but if Dime chose to take the opportunity of a lifetime and ditch his Pantera bandmates, then metal would've been deprived of one of the most innovative and untouchable catalog in the genre. That's chilling to even consider.

cliff Burton 1984 GETTY, Pete Cronin / Getty Staff
Metallica's Cliff Burton and James Hetfield, 1984
photograph by Pete Cronin / Getty Staff

What if Cliff Burton didn't die?

It's a date that lives in infamy: September 27th, 1986. Metallica's tour bus crashed in Sweden, and bassist Cliff Burton, who was asleep in a top bunk, was thrown through a window and killed. It easily could have gone differently, as the night before, Burton and guitarist Kirk Hammett had drawn cards to decide who got to choose their bunk. The bass player pulled the Ace of Spades and called dibs on what was Hammett's usual sleeping spot.

It was a massive twist of fate, with huge ramifications in heavy-music history as Metallica have since become the biggest metal band in the world, having shaped the genre in unfathomable ways. Burton was a crucial part of the thrashers' early identity and attitude, and he played a major role in the development of their sound. How would the band and heavy metal writ large be different if he hadn't died? There's no way to know. What we do know is that any time Metallica does something controversial (which is often), one thought comes to mind for a certain segment of their fanbase: There's zero way the band would have done whatever it was if Cliff were alive.

Dimebag darrell 2004 GETTY, Steve Brown/Photoshot/Getty Images
Dimebag Darrell, 2004
photograph by Steve Brown/Photoshot/Getty Images

What if Dimebag Darrell wasn't murdered?

Today, Pantera are one of the most revered and influential metal bands of all time, with a new generation discovering them, a young fanbase that never got to see the group — who played their final show in 2001 — perform live. All hope of a reunion was crushed three years later, on December 8th, 2004, when virtuosic guitar hero Dimebag Darrel was shot and killed by a mentally ill fan while playing with his post-Pantera project Damageplan. Following his murder, his former Pantera bandmates, Philip Anselmo, Rex Brown and Darrel's brother Vinnie Paul (who passed away in 2018 due to a heart condition) couldn't give an interview without being posed with the impossible hypothetical: Would Pantera have reunited if Dime were still alive? Somewhere in a beautifully badass alternate universe, we like to think they're playing a show together right now.

What if Sepultura didn't split with Max Cavalera?

Sepultura were at the height of their powers in 1996. Early that year, they released Roots, a trailblazing album that boldly introduced elements of Brazilian indigenous music and Korn-style nu-metal into their signature death-thrash-groove-metal attack. It would prove to be their most popular LP, embraced by the likes of Dave Grohl, who has AB'd his own albums against it. Sepultura should have been riding high; instead, just months after Roots' release, everything went to shit.

First, founding frontman Max Cavalera's stepson Dan Wells died in a car accident, then his bandmates told him that they wanted to fire his wife and Dana's mother, Gloria, as Sepultura's manager, and by the end of 1996, Max had split — despite his brother, OG drummer Igor, still being in the group at time. How might metal history be different had the acrimony been avoided? On Max's side, no Soulfly, no Killer Be Killed (his supergroup with Mastodon's Troy Sanders and Dillinger Escape Plan's Greg Puciato), no Cavalera Conspiracy (his reunion project with Igor). On the Sepultura side, no Derrick Green era and its nine albums (three more than the band made with Max). Where might the band be had its classic lineup not fractured just as they were breaking big? Could Sepultura have become nu-metal stars? Perhaps. But as with all the speculative scenarios on this list, we'll never know: What if?