"It was a fun summer," remembers Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, casting his mind back to 1987. "We played every day, drank beer, went to shows, watched Deep Purple videos, and that was kind of it."
But as any Metallica fan can tell you, that wasn't all the world's premier thrash band was up to 31 years ago this summer. Ulrich and his cohorts — vocalist and rhythm guitarist James Hetfield, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett and new bassist Jason Newsted — also found time that July to record The $5.98 E.P.: Garage Days Re-Revisited, a boisterous bash through songs by Diamond Head, Killing Joke, Misfits and more.
Though originally conceived as a low-budget promotional tie-in for Metallica's four shows in England and Germany that August — including a prestigious slot on the Monsters of Rock festival at Castle Donington — as well as something to tide the band's fans over between 1986's Master of Puppets and its eventual follow-up, 1988's …And Justice for All, the EP was ultimately far more than mere product for the metal marketplace. Raw, raucous and an absolute joy to listen to (especially at eardrum-shredding volumes), Garage Days Re-Revisited was both a rousing reaffirmation of Metallica's underground roots, and a healthy sign of life from a band still recovering from the sudden tragic death of bassist Cliff Burton the previous fall. "We were getting ready to go to the next chapter," is how Ulrich puts it today.
Indeed, the story of the EP really begins during the bleary weeks immediately following the band's fateful tour-bus accident of September 27th, 1986, which ended Burton's life on a lonesome stretch of Swedish highway. Though wracked with grief and struggling to make sense of their friend and bandmate's sudden demise, the surviving members of Metallica quickly plunged into auditioning potential replacements. "I don't remember there ever being a choice," Ulrich tells Revolver today. "I don't remember that there ever was a conversation where we said, 'OK, what are our options? We can call it a day, we can continue, we can do this or do that ...' It was just, 'OK, we've gotta keep going, and now we need a bass player.' It was very blinders-on, very pragmatic, and off we go!
"We were so shocked," he continues. "I mean, we were not emotionally prepared to deal with this. We didn't know what was up, down or sideways. We didn't know what grief was. We didn't know how to process feelings, or any of that stuff. My recollection is that we just jumped in a vodka bottle and stayed there for quite a few years!"
Attempting to minimize the pain with a tourniquet of metal and booze, Metallica rolled onward. Just six weeks after Burton's death, the band played its first shows with new bassist Jason Newsted (formerly of Flotsam and Jetsam), a pair of early November club dates in Southern California that served as a warm-up for Metallica's first-ever concert dates in Japan — an experience that added an extra layer of weirdness to the psychic fog they were already grappling with.
"This was a whole different way of being in a band and touring," says Ulrich of the group's introduction to Japan. "It was the first time we ever really had fans showing up at the train stations, at the airport, outside the Roppongi Prince where we were staying — 16-year-old girls with Hello Kitty handbags. They would give us toothbrushes!" He laughs. "It was all very surreal."
During their downtime on the Japanese tour, the band subjected their new bassist to intense hazing rituals, sublimating their grief over Burton's death into drunken pranks that included sticking Newsted with massive bar tabs, surreptitiously removing the furniture from his hotel room and convincing him that a dish of sinus-searing wasabi was actually mint ice cream.
"It was such an odd energy," laughs Ulrich, ruefully. "We'd never done that kind of stuff before. We were drunk and miserable and trying to figure it all out. And you have to understand that it didn't really have anything to do with Jason. He was the target, because he was the one that had taken Cliff's position. Obviously, Jason was awesome, and he stood his ground."
After Japan, Metallica finished out the turbulent year with a month of North American shows, then kicked off 1987 by making up the European dates that had been canceled in the wake of their bus accident. The band returned home to the Bay Area in the middle of February; after a few weeks of rest, they reconvened at what Hetfield would mockingly refer to in the Garage Days Re-Revisited liner notes as "a fancy, so-called 'real' rehearsal studio" to begin working on musical ideas for the follow-up to Master of Puppets. "We went in and just started throwing riffs and ideas at each other," Ulrich recalls. "And then there was a break in the action."
A break in the action, indeed: On March 26th, Hetfield wiped out while skateboarding and fractured his wrist — his second wrist-breaking skateboard tumble in less than a year — forcing the band to cancel a scheduled appearance on Saturday Night Live, and putting the writing sessions for the new album on hold. "There was definitely a pattern there," laughs Ulrich. "It had happened on the Ozzy tour the summer before, and John Marshall, who was Kirk's roadie, took over [on rhythm guitar]. But when James did it again, that put everything on the back burner for a month or two." Ulrich had recently moved into a house of his own in El Cerrito — just down the street from the tiny "Metallica Mansion" that the band called headquarters from 1983 to 1986. He used the unexpected free time to begin transforming its garage into a practice space for the group.
"It was like a standard middle-class California suburban ranch house, a two-thousand square foot house with a two-car garage," he recalls. "I asked my landlady if we could convert the garage into a small studio. And then James and I and Jason, we spent a month soundproofing it all ourselves. We put some carpet up on the walls, and put some different carpet on the floor."
Living alone for the first time in ages — "I'd spent three or four years with James at the Metallica Mansion," he recalls, "most of that time sharing the same bedroom" — Ulrich also turned his attention to furnishing his new bachelor pad. "I had this shitty old nasty couch, a couple of shitty old chairs, a fucking old bed with holes in it," he laughs, "and then I had a television that looked like it came from 30 years in the future. I'd bought it in Japan when we were there a couple months earlier, because I'd started collecting VHS tapes and making my way into the underground tape-trading of video. I had all these Iron Maiden shows and Deep Purple shows on video, but a lot of them came from Europe or Japan, and the only way to play them was to get what was called a 'multi-system television,' because they had different formats for video in different countries — PAL and NTSC. It was just very odd, because I had a pretty ranky set-up, but I had a state-of-the-art television so I could watch my Deep Purple videos from Germany!"
By late spring, Hetfield's wrist had healed, and the band began rehearsing regularly at Ulrich's garage, which was barely big enough to fit all four members and their equipment; Hetfield stood right next to the drums, and often taped his lyric sheets to Ulrich's toms. "Music stands were still a year or two away for us at that point," the drummer chuckles. "James had a half-stack or a full-stack, and same for the other guys, and I had a drum kit, and we were in there sweating and making noise and drinking shitty beer."
Though the band would continue to carry emotional baggage from Burton's death for years to come, Ulrich insists that the overall mood of these rehearsals was extremely upbeat — in part because the group spent most of the time playing cover songs, a pleasurable, low-pressure way to get back into the swing of things. "It's a different energy," the drummer reflects. "When we write our own songs, we're so anal and so detailed, and when we record our own songs, it's so precision-based. With cover songs, you just play, and you lose yourself in the music."
When Metallica was offered a slot at Monsters of Rock '87, the idea of a covers EP quickly emerged as an ideal means to promote the band's appearance, while also giving Newsted (who would be credited on the sleeve as "Master J. Newkid") his first official appearance on a Metallica record. "It seemed like a good time to throw something new with Jason out to the fans, that was not writing a whole new album," says Ulrich. "But it was also about celebrating a side of Metallica that had always been there, and had obviously been introduced on the B-side of the Creeping Death EP [in 1984], when we did 'Am I Evil?' [by Diamond Head] and 'Blitzkrieg' [by Blitzkrieg]. So as James came out of his arm-break downtime, it was kind of like, 'Let's pick it back up with this EP and these covers.'"
The hardest part, however, was deciding which songs to include on the EP. "You've got songs that you like, songs that you want to play, songs that are more in your wheelhouse or DNA," Ulrich explains. "And then there's stuff that challenges you. And then it's, 'What are the vocals like? Can James sing it? What are the lyrics like? Are the lyrics cool? Or if they're not cool, are they at least not un-cool?'" He laughs. "So I guess there was a bit of a checklist …"
The band ultimately settled on six songs, with Diamond Head's "Helpless" and Holocaust's "The Small Hours" representing their NWOBHM influences, Budgie's "Crash Course in Brain Surgery" reflecting their love of early Seventies British hard rock, and covers of Killing Joke's "The Wait" and Misfits' "Last Caress" and "Green Hell" (the latter two of which were joined together in a medley) serving notice that Metallica's musical interests extended into the punk and post-punk realms, as well.
"'Helpless' was part of our live repertoire going way back," Ulrich says. "The Misfits stuff was obviously just super-embedded in our bodies. Some of the stuff was obviously more adventurous, like 'The Wait' and 'Crash Course in Brain Surgery,' those were songs we didn't really have a history with. They weren't songs that we'd played before. It was more of an exploratory path we were on with that."
Once the band was ready to record, they headed down to Los Angeles, where they quickly banged out the tracks at A&M and Conway studios. "It was in and out," Ulrich recalls. "The whole idea was to do it all as quick as possible." The self-produced EP was released quickly, as well, hitting the streets on August 21st, the day before the band performed at Donington. While the title Garage Days Re-Revisited was a reference to the B-side of the Creeping Death EP, the band also included the low list price of the new record in its title, a savvy way to keep unscrupulous retailers from milking the Metallica faithful for extra bucks. (The original cassette also featured a sticker reading, "If they try to charge more, STEAL IT!") "We thought if we put the price in the title, that would be an additional measure in the direction of not having the kids get ripped off by the record chains," Ulrich explains.
Fans on both sides of the pond responded enthusiastically to the new record, sending it to No. 28 on the Billboard 200, and to No. 27 on the U.K. singles chart; it would eventually sell over a million copies in the United States alone. If the EP wasn't exactly a full-fledged follow-up to Master of Puppets, it was at least reassuring to hear Metallica roaring again in the studio, while their fiery takes on Misfits, Budgie, Killing Joke, Diamond Head and Holocaust songs turned more than a few listeners on to those bands, as well.
"I think it's held up well," says Ulrich of the EP, which Metallica are reissuing in several formats in honor of Record Store Day. "There's good energy, and it's pretty lively. There's a good vibe. It's like you're in the room with us when we're playing. It's got kind of a youthful thing of 'Let's go for it' — there's a little bit of overplaying, occasionally, and the grooves get broken up, but it's got that youthful passion."
"It was all about having fun and capturing what we did that summer," Ulrich concludes. "It's really a moment, you know?"
Below, watch Metallica tear through an epic rendition of Judas Priest's "Rapid Fire" joined by Rob Halford: