METALLICA 'Kill 'Em All': 10 wild stories behind all-time thrash classic | Revolver

METALLICA 'Kill 'Em All': 10 wild stories behind all-time thrash classic

From haunted mansions to "sour notes"
METALLICA 2984 getty, Pete Cronin/Redferns
Metallica' James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett, 1984
photograph by Pete Cronin/Redferns

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On July 25th, 1983, Metallica made metal history with the release of Kill 'Em All, their debut album. The first full-length album of thrash metal to be released by an American band, Kill 'Em All featured such classic blasts as "Hit the Lights," "The Four Horsemen," "Whiplash" and "Seek and Destroy," along with Cliff Burton's mind-blowing bass instrumental "(Anesthesia) — Pulling Teeth," all of which sounded significantly more intense and dangerous than anything on the mainstream metal scene at the time.

"They were on fucking fire," wrote Scott Ian in his book I'm the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax, recalling Metallica's jam sessions at the New York rehearsal complex that they shared with Anthrax (and often slept in) during the run-up to the recording of Kill 'Em All. "It literally seemed like flames were coming out of their fingertips. They were so ready to seek and destroy. Every time I heard them, I was totally inspired."

Kill 'Em All would go on to inspire and influence countless other musicians, even though it would take another three years before the success of Master of Puppets finally pushed the album into the Billboard 200. But frankly, it's kind of a miracle that Kill 'Em All is as great as it is, considering the less-than-ideal circumstances of its creation. Recorded on a shoestring budget — about $15,000, paid in installments (and out of his own pocket) by band manager Jonny Zazula — by a heavy-drinking (and totally broke) band in an unfamiliar city with an unsympathetic producer, Kill 'Em All could have easily gone off the rails any number of ways. And of course, there was that little matter of the band firing their lead guitarist just four weeks before heading into the studio ...

Decades on, however, Kill 'Em All still ranks as one of the greatest and most important metal debuts. Here are seven insane stories surrounding its birth.

1. Kirk Hammett joins the band barely a month before the album sessions began
Despite having already temporarily relocated to the East Coast to begin work on what would be their full-length debut, Metallica's ongoing conflicts with lead guitarist Dave Mustaine had deteriorated to the point where the band saw no other choice but to bring in a new axeman for the recording sessions — even though they were only a month away from going into the studio.

The Metallica vacancy was a golden opportunity for Exodus guitarist Kirk Hammett, even though it meant diving straight into the deep end. "I had a week to learn the songs," he told Music Radar in 2008. "At the end of that week I flew out and I had a week to rehearse with them, and then we started playing shows. Every show just kept on getting better."

But when it came time to actually go into the studio, Jonny Zazula, the band's manager, insisted that Hammett recreate Mustaine's solos on the album. "[He] said, 'You know you have to play Dave's solos.' I said I didn't really want to. 'Then why don't you take the opening to every solo, so that people think that they're Dave's solos and then you can go somewhere else with them,' he said. As a 20-year-old kid, put in a position like that, you don't want to rock the boat too much, especially being the new kid in town — the fresh guy. So I said, 'Sure.' That's exactly what I did. I took the first four bars of most of the solos and changed them. When I changed them it was always for the better and everyone liked it."

2. The album is recorded in a haunted mansion
Kill 'Em All was recorded at Music America, a low-budget recording studio located in a large old house in Rochester, New York. Though the ballroom on the mansion's second floor was acoustically excellent — the band recorded their drums and guitar amps up there for extra ambiance — it also contained some decidedly disconcerting supernatural energy.

"The actual studio was in the basement of this huge old colonial-type of clubhouse," Lars Ulrich told Metal Hammer in 2008. "On the second floor there was a huge ballroom, perfect for getting a good drum sound. The problem was the place was fucking haunted — I had to have someone else up there the whole time I was recording. My cymbals would start spinning for no reason, shit like that. It was scary."

3. Dave Mustaine contributes two songs about sex — until James Hetfield rewrites the lyrics
"The Four Horsemen" and "Jump in the Fire," two of the four Kill 'Em All songs that bear Mustaine songwriting credits (the others are "Phantom Lord" and "Metal Militia"), initially had lyrics that were all about getting laid.

The first — which would end up on Megadeth's debut, Killing Is My Business... And Business Is Good, in its original form and under its original title, "Mechanix" — imagined a tryst at a gas station, inspired by Mustaine's time working as a gas station attendant. The second was the first song Mustaine ever wrote — at age 16 — and dealt with teen angst and sexual desire. James Hetfield flipped the first into a menacing anthem about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; the second became a cheerfully satanic ode inspired by Iron Maiden's "Run to the Hills."

"It didn't make a lot of sense to me at the time," Ulrich told Metal Hammer of Mustaine's raunchy lyrics, "but we knew that was the sort of thing we wanted to move away from — the sexual stuff that hard-rock bands were singing about at the time, which we we thought was a little light and a little obvious. You didn't find stuff like that on the first Witchfynde album."

4. Kirk Hammett tries to do Joe Satriani proud with "Seek and Destroy" solo, instead records "sour notes"
Ghosts weren't the only thing haunting the band during the recording sessions for Kill 'Em All — the judgmental specter of a (still-living) guitar hero hung heavily over Kirk Hammett as he recorded his guitar solos for the album, especially the one for "Seek and Destroy."

"I had been taking lessons from Joe Satriani for, like, six months prior to joining the band," Hammett recalled to Guitar World in 2008, "so his influence was pretty heavy in my mind and in my playing. He passed down so much information to me, I was still processing a lot of it. When it came time to do the ["Seek and Destroy"] solo, I was thinking, I hope Joe likes this. I hope this isn't something he'll just pick apart, like he has in the past."

Though it's become something of an iconic solo for Hammett, he wasn't totally pleased with the outcome at the time. "I didn't have much really worked out," he admitted. "I knew how I wanted to open the initial part of the solo after the break, so I just went for it two or three times. And then the producer said, 'That's fine! We'll use it!' There were no frills, no contemplation, no overintellectualizing — we weren't going over the finer points. On a couple of notes in that solo, I bend the notes out of pitch. For 18 years, every time I've heard that guitar solo, those sour notes come back to haunt me! [Laughs] I remember on that tour, whenever it came time to do that guitar solo, I was always like, OK, I'm gonna play this so much better than the way I recorded it!"

5. Cliff Burton records "(Anesthesia) – Pulling Teeth" by himself in one take
Cliff Burton's epic Kill 'Em All showpiece opens with the words, spoken by engineer Chris Bubacz: "Bass solo, take one." And indeed, "(Anesthesia) – Pulling Teeth" was recorded by Burton in just a single first playthrough, and only after he kicked everyone else out of the room.

"I remember him recording his bass solo separately from anyone or anything," Kirk Hammett recalled to Metal Hammer. "He was upstairs in this big empty room, standing there alone, just him and his bass amp. I watched him play while they were getting his sound right downstairs in the control room. After 15 or 20 minutes, he got the sound right and then he looked at me and said: 'Get away from me, man — I'm about to do this.' And then he took a hit off a joint, bent over and drank a beer, and I hightailed it out of there."

6. The album's original mix isn't "heavy enough"
Though Metallica already had a reputation for being a formidable concert act, they were still relatively inexperienced with studio recording, and could have really used a producer who knew how to translate the fire and fury of their live sound to tape. Unfortunately, their producer was Music America studio owner Paul Curcio, a music biz veteran best known for working with the Doobie Brothers and Santana, who thought James Hetfield's brutally overdriven guitar tones sounded way too harsh. Curcio also, according to Jonny Zazula (who was credited as the album's executive producer), originally mixed the record with Hetfield's rhythm tracks barely audible, and Hammett's guitar solos up much higher than the band wanted.

"[Curcio] had engineered Santana's earlier albums," Zazula recalled in Martin Popoff's Metallica: The Complete Illustrated History, "and he was just mixing Kirk like Carlos Santana ... I get there at the end of the album, after being broke from finalizing the recording, and James is all depressed. And Lars has to speak to me, and he says, 'Jonny, this isn't heavy enough.' So we went in and had James redo all the rhythms, with the big, big chunky sound he's famous for."

7. The band is "locked out" of the mixing sessions for the album
But even after James Hetfield was allowed to beef up his guitar parts, Paul Curcio and engineer Chris Bubacz chose to handle the final mixes themselves, and though Jonny Zazula relayed the band's instructions, Curcio and Bubacz took some sonic liberties that still rankled Metallica decades later.

"When everything was recorded, the engineer and the producer decided that they wanted to mix the album themselves, then pretty much locked us out of the studio while they were mixing it," Kirk Hammett recalled to Music Radar in 2008. "They added all these weird delays and reverb and these things that we wouldn't have done. That's why there's such a drastic sonic difference between Kill 'Em All and Ride the Lightning. There are also things that we would have liked to have fixed or re-recorded, but we couldn't because we just basically ran out of time."

8. The album's original title is too "obscene"
Knowing that a fierce and uncompromising debut album should have an equally fierce and uncompromising title, Metallica decided to call their new record Metal Up Your Ass. "Seriously, we had the whole thing mapped out — even down to the cover we wanted," Lars Ulrich said in an interview shortly after the record's release. "We were gonna have a hand coming through a toilet bowl, holding a machete, dripping with blood. And the toilet had barbed wire around it. That would've gotten everyone squirming uncomfortably."

Alas, Jonny Zazula recognized that the already-challenging task of getting an independently-released thrash-metal album into stores would have been even more daunting with a title like that. "We got a phone call from our manager telling us half the record outlets wouldn't carry the album if it's called that, because the name was obscene," Hammett told Music Radar in 2008. "Cliff said, 'You know what? Fuck those fuckers, man, those fucking record outlet people. We should just kill 'em all.' Someone, I can't remember who, said, 'That's it! That's what we should call the album.'"

An equally disturbing (if significantly less comical) image of a bloody hammer was commissioned for the final album artwork, though Stephen Gorman's hemorrhoid-terrorizing "MUYA" image would thankfully be repurposed a few years later for Metallica T-shirts.

metallica kill em all cover art

9. Kill 'Em All's final cover art is inspired by the hammer Cliff Burton took with him — everywhere
Jonny 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," Kirk Hammett told journalist Jaan Uhelszki in 2008, "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."

Speaking to Kerrang! Radio in 2023, James Hetfield remembered of Burton: "He loved fishing and hammers... He would take his little Pocket Fisherman on tour and find any little lake. And he carried a hammer in his suitcase. I was, like, 'What are you doing with that?' He [was, like], 'I don't know. Just in case. Just in case you need a hammer.' He was quite a character — very, very himself. He was unapologetically Cliff."

10. Megaforce Records is created to release the album — because nobody else wants to put it out
Though it seems crazy now, the band that would become the biggest-selling metal act in history was unable to find an established record label to finance and release their debut album. Metallica's fast, raw and ferocious brand of heavy metal was considered utterly uncommercial, while the few independent labels that recognized the band's power and talent — like Metal Blade, which in 1982 had included Metallica's "Hit the Lights" on its first Metal Massacre compilation — couldn't afford to bankroll a full album.

As a result, Jonny Zazula and his wife Marsha decided to form their own label, Megaforce Records; the couple scraped together the start-up cash from money they'd made running Rock N' Roll Heaven, a record store at a flea market on Route 18 in New Jersey, which was a mecca for area metal fans.

"I figured, if we can buy [records] from a distributor, as we did as a record store, we could certainly sell them a record to sell to all the other record stores," Zazula recalled in Mick Wall's Endless Night: A Biography of Metallica. "We didn't know that nobody from the distributors wanted to talk to you. The whole thing was we just did it. Maybe I could have gone to someone like Metal Blade or Shrapnel on the West Coast, but this stuff was so new-sounding I didn't know if anyone else would get it, you know? I was like the guy who didn't know if he had a great idea or a stupid one, and I knew there was only one way to find out."

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