From the ominous opening chords of its title track to the breakneck closing riff of final song "Imitation of Life," Anthrax's Among the Living is a perfect snapshot of classic-era thrash. Released in March 1987, just months after the other Big Four bands' landmark albums, the disc shared in Reign in Blood's raw production values and Master of Puppets' intricate compositions. But with this, their third full-length, Anthrax — who, at the time, were vocalist Joey Belladonna, guitarists Dan Spitz and Scott Ian, bassist Frank Bello, and drummer Charlie Benante — contributed something previously absent in thrash metal: a sincere sense of fun.
Inspired by Stephen King novels, Judge Dredd comic books, and comedians like John Belushi and Sam Kinison (whom they sampled on their rap single "I'm the Man," released later that year), Anthrax peppered serious songs about Native American rights ("Indians") and Cold War politics ("One World") with odes to their favorite pop-culture phenomena. This new direction, when compared to their previous album, 1985's relatively straightforward Spreading the Disease, was no doubt a carryover from Ian and Benante's side project, thrash-hardcore crossover pioneers Stormtroopers of Death. In that group, alongside original Anthrax bassist Danny Lilker and future M.O.D. bigmouth Billy Milano, Ian and Benante wrote silly, off-the-cuff songs about everything from wanting milk to Freddy Krueger. With a new lease, the pair returned to Anthrax and commenced writing that band's masterpiece.
Holed up in beautiful Nassau, Bahamas, with coproducer Eddie Kramer, whose résumé contains names like Jimi Hendrix, Kiss, and Led Zeppelin, the group created an album that sounded vicious in a tongue-in-cheek way. Although the group would go on to release the more serious State of Euphoria the following year, Anthrax's sense of humor and willingness to try new things on Among the Living and later releases would define them as one of thrash's most innovative bands. Here, Benante looks back on the album's successes.
WHAT COMES TO MIND WHEN YOU THINK OF AMONG THE LIVING?
CHARLIE BENANTE It was definitely an interesting time for us, you know, because we were on the verge kind of breaking out and we had no idea.
WHY DID YOU HAVE EDDIE KRAMER HELP YOU ON THIS ALBUM?
I remember wanting him to do that record because of my love of the Led Zeppelin and Kiss stuff that he did. He just created this sound, and it's exactly what we wanted. But the record that we wanted to make and the record that he wanted to make were two different records. He wanted to have a lot of polish on it. We wanted the opposite. He was adding a lot of reverb to things. We didn't want that. It just kind of got a little weird, because for me especially, I was like, Well, this is Eddie Kramer. How could I tell Eddie Kramer, "No," because I have so much respect for him? He's a legend. At the end of the day, it came out good. I have nothing bad to say.
YOU RECORDED THE ALBUM IN THE BAHAMAS. WHAT WAS THAT LIKE?
We went down to Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas to mix it, and this is where U2 and Iron Maiden would go. We rented this townhome and right next door to this huge house, and ["Addicted to Love" singer] Robert Palmer lived there. We would see Robert Palmer at least three times a week coming out on his boat and waving, "Hi. Hey guys, how you doing? Blah, blah, blah."
A funny story about the studio is they had these interns — like, island people who worked at the studio. And our manager at the time, he had a rental car and he loaned it to one of the workers there to go get some stuff ... and the guy never came back. [Laughs] Took the car, took the cash that he gave him to get the stuff. Never came back. They eventually found the car and they found him, too. But that was pretty funny, and I remember him giving him, like, the list of stuff that he had to get, and he's probably thinking to himself, Yeah, yeah, just keep writing the bullshit down. I'm not coming back, so ...
DID YOU AND THE OTHER ANTHRAX GUYS START WEARING THE COLORFUL SHORTS THAT DEFINED YOUR EIGHTIES LOOK WHILE IN THE BAHAMAS?
The shorts were already implemented into the whole look. That was just because of our love of the whole skateboarding culture and stuff. That's the weird thing about it, and I guess we just kind of took advantage of it a bit, and people would come to the show dressed up like that, too, so it had this total fan-band relationship.
THE ALBUM STARTS PERFECTLY WITH THE CRUSHING TITLE TRACK. WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER ABOUT WRITING IT?
I remember how Scott and I would click on certain things back then, and one of those things was Stephen King. My music made him think of some of the themes in The Stand, it just fit together so well. It's also one of the hardest songs to play. I remember we used to open up with that song on tour and it was so hard because of all the tempo changes.
WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER ABOUT WRITING "CAUGHT IN A MOSH"?
The idea behind it, musically, was built around AC/DC's "Whole Lotta Rosie." I always wanted to write something with that tempo. It just made you want to get up and go and do something.
The idea behind the title came to us when we were on the Spreading the Disease tour. We were in Denver, and it was a crazy show. Kids were just jumping onstage constantly, jumping on the pedals. One of our guitar techs at the time, Art Ring, went to throw a kid off stage, and the kid grabbed him, and they both went off stage. And the kid landed on Art, on his back. And I remember after the show in the dressing room, Art was fucked up really bad. And he came out with a quote, he goes "Oh, I got caught in a mosh." It was like, Ding! That's it.
SPEAKING OF INSPIRATION, HOW DID ACTOR JOHN BELUSHI, WHO DIED OF A DRUG OVERDOSE IN 1982, INSPIRE ONE OF YOUR CONCERT FAVORITES, "EFILNIKUFESIN (N.F.L.)"?
We were so into comedians back in those days. We would get on the bus and watch standup comedy all the time. And John Belushi was a favorite. He wasn't really a standup comedian, but what he did in skits was just so legendary and he was fuckin' hilarious, and he was just ahead of his time. He partied — he partied hard. And I remember, at the time, us being so against drugs and stuff like that, and that song was a protest song about drugs.
DANNY LILKER GOT SONGWRITING CREDITS ON "I AM THE LAW" AND "IMITATION OF LIFE." WERE THOSE S.O.D. HOLDOVERS?
Yeah, "Imitation of Life" was originally the intro riff for an S.O.D. song called "Aren't You Hungry?" [which S.O.D. later recorded on that band's 1999 Bigger Than the Devil album]. And Scott really wanted to use it for an Anthrax song and we kind of mashed the two up, so Danny got credit on that song.
WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER ABOUT WRITING "I AM THE LAW"?
That was a song that basically was a few riffs I had during the Spreading the Disease time that never got arranged. During the Spreading the Disease tour, we worked it out in soundchecks and stuff. We would jam on the original riff of "I Am the Law," and every time people would hear it, they said, "This sounds like this monster jumping from one end of Manhattan to the other."
It sounded like the soundtrack to a horror movie. And we were so big on comic books at the time, and especially Judge Dredd for some reason that we decided to write that song about him. And those were such great times 'cause no one else was doing any of this stuff. It was just so organic.
YOU'VE ALWAYS PLAYED A MAJOR PART IN ANTHRAX'S SONGWRITING. WHAT WERE YOUR INFLUENCES AT THE TIME?
Well, if you listen to the first album that we did, there are about five or six songs in that record that were written before I was in the band. And then there are five songs that were written after I came into the band, and you can totally hear those songs. In the early ones, you can definitely hear their influences on those five or six songs, like, the Iron Maiden, Judas Priest influence, and then after I came into the band the band took a different sound with songs like "Deathrider" and "Death From Above."
By the time Spreading the Disease was being written, we didn't have a singer, and the only songs that were left over for the Spreading the Disease record was "Armed and Dangerous" and "Gung-Ho," and that was it. And that's when I took over more of the music songwriting duties, 'cause Scott had to take over more of the lyrics. You know, Frankie and Danny, they had input on it, too, but it was usually me who would come in with the basic idea of the song.
WAS SHIFTING SONGWRITERS WEIRD FOR THE BAND?
It was natural. It just happened that way out of necessity. I would always hear a song in my head, and I would have to convey it, and that's why I taught myself how to play guitar — 'cause it was impossible to do on the drums.
WHO WERE YOUR SONGWRITING INFLUENCES AT THE TIME?
When I came into the band, I brought that whole speed element 'cause I was way influenced by the punk type of stuff at the time. Like Motörhead, to me, was it. And I just liked the underground shit like Venom and Raven.
It's funny how a lot of the bands at the time — Metallica, ourselves, and Slayer — we could always count on one hand the bands that influenced us, and it was Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Motörhead, Rush, and, like, Accept. And of course a handful of other bands came into play, too, but, like I said, we all agreed on Motörhead.
At the time, Motörhead were not huge by any means at this time. They had this cult following, and if you were a Motörhead fan, you were a Motörhead fan. So it was great to see other people appreciated Motörhead. We were just creating this sound and it's funny how we created our sound, Metallica created their sound, and Slayer created their sound, and it really didn't sound the same, but in a sense it had the same vibe. For me, I thought it was a great time for music.
SPEAKING OF METALLICA, AMONG THE LIVING WAS DEDICATED TO CLIFF BURTON. YOU WERE ON TOUR WITH THE BAND WHEN HE WAS IN THE BUS ACCIDENT AND DIED. HOW WELL DID YOU KNOW HIM?
Cliff was just an awesome person. I won't sit here and tell you I knew him as well as James or Kirk did, but we knew him well, and he was always a great hang. Like, when we were on tour together, we would go to breakfast and stuff like that. It was just a great vibe.
The way I felt about Cliff was — this is a very strange thing — I thought he was Metallica because I just felt that he was the most grounded in that band and he knew ... I don't know it just seems to me that that was the case.
ONE OF THE THINGS THAT REALLY STANDS OUT ABOUT AMONG THE LIVING IS ITS COVER. HOW DID THAT COME TOGETHER?
I spent a lot of time on that with the artist. I wanted to set a tone for that record and I think it did. As I said, we were huge Stephen King fans. We found the story "Apt Pupil" [from King's Different Seasons, about a Nazi in hiding, which was the basis for Among the Living's "Skeletons in the Closet"] very inspiring, and the tilt for Among the Living was just that there's this kind of dark person who lives amongst all of us, inside all of us — and here he is on the cover. People would always say he looked like Rev. Harry Kane from [horror movie] Poltergeist, and, of course, I would say, "Yeah, you're right." He's supposed to be [The Stand character] Randall Flagg, but the vibe is that he's just among the living.
THINKING BACK, IS THERE ANYTHING YOU WOULD HAVE CHANGED ON AMONG THE LIVING?
No. That, to me, captured a moment in time. I listen to it now and I don't cringe. I love everything about it.