While the rest of the world was embracing the party-hearty, big-hair image of glam metal, a whole nest of underground styles rose up against it for fans who wanted something different. These were fans who were tired and disaffected by bands like Whitesnake and Poison–in fact, didn’t even consider it real music (shocking to hear such language on the Internet, I know).
In some ways, it was similar to Black Sabbath’s original rejection of the late-60’s flower power movement, only updated for the 1980s. Remember that at this time the Cold War was still in full swing, and it was the high-water mark of the Moral Majority and the religious right. The reaction against it went something like this:
“Sure, partying is cool and all, but that’s not what real life is like, 24/7. Most people aren’t snorting cocaine and doing body shots off of strippers on the Sunset Strip; other people are just grinding it out day after day. They aren’t concerned about where the next party is; they’re concerned about where their next paycheck is. They have different concerns: deaths in the family, the experiences of young people possibly being sent off to war, wondering what happens to those people inside that concrete building with no windows down the block, and about that feral gang that terrorizes the town when the streetlights come on.”
It made them angry, and this newfound, fast-paced aggression became the hallmarks of thrash metal, the most popular form of heavy metal music in the world. Although it started as an underground reaction to hair metal, thrash eventually boasted several of heavy metal’s leading groups, including the world’s most popular metal band, Metallica. Thrash is characterized by chugging riffs, speedy drumming, and rapid-fire guitar soloing (often making use of a dual guitar attack). At its best, it is a stripped-down, no-frills, high speed classic brew that still excites audiences today.
If a new listener was curious enough to ask a thrash fan about the key songs that defined this subgenre of metal, most likely you would be referred to this song, “Master of Puppets.” It has an anthemic quality and encapsulates everything fans love, and it has aged remarkably well since 1986 when it came out. You don’t see many audiences today getting this excited over a 31-year-old song:
“Puppets” is truly overwhelming the first time you hear it, and to be honest you could write a thesis on all the different influences that went into it. Surely it did not just appear out of thin air. Thrash metal needed time for its influences to ferment for a while before it was ready to take on the noble mantle of metal.
Before it conquered the world and outlasted the glam metal it had passionately opposed, thrash metal developed partially from the edgy hardcore punk scene that was generating buzz, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington DC. Bands that were part of this scene had turned up the aggression (and the leftist/anarchist political views) from classic punk bands like The Ramones and Dead Boys. Authenticity and attitude became the most highly prized traits in a band’s sound, often as a trade-off with instrumental prowess.
The late Jeff Hanneman of Slayer, another giant of the thrash genre, was into hardcore punk much more than his bandmates.
“I was much more about the singers at the time–Rob Halford, Dio–and hardcore seemed like a dumbed-down metal to me, just with shittier singers,” fellow guitarist Kerry King spoke about Slayer’s early days at Hanneman’s funeral. “But Jeff brought all that hardcore influence with him into the band, and turned us onto it.” Safe to say that Slayer would not have become the band they are today without this stuff. Revisiting their roots in the 1990s, the band even released an entire album of hardcore punk covers, Undisputed Attitude. Seems an apt description for what it contained.
One of Jeff Hanneman’s favorite bands hailed from Bay Area, the Dead Kennedys–and another, Black Flag, from the southern half of the state:
On the opposite coast of America, another major underground hardcore scene developed in Washington, D.C., where there was much politically-fueled anger, wailing and gnashing of teeth. The US was in a recession at the time, and the hardships that accompanied it helped to inspire a DIY work ethic. Bands would manage and promote themselves, find some creative ways to get studio time, and gigged relentlessly. Mainstream exposure for songs with titles like “I Kill Children” and “Pay to Cum” wasn’t exactly forthcoming.
Two of the most respected D.C. hardcore bands were/are Bad Brains and Minor Threat.
The former were up for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination recently, but the committee decided to take a flyer and wait–no surprise there. Perhaps Bad Brains’ combo of reggae, Rastafarianism and hardcore is just too much for those unaccountable suits.
Minor Threat’s appeal has continued to the present day. Growing up on Long Island, a lot of my high school friends who were into hardcore punk were all about Minor Threat. They were stupidly pretentious about it, which seemed silly for music that’s supposed to be about the everyday struggles of the little guy against the system (“There’s punk rock, and there’s hardcore. <i>This</i> is hardcore,” they would sniff).
At the same time, Minor Threat and others importantly adopted the “straight-edge” ethos, which meant no drugs among other things. When a number of kids at the local public high school went down the road of substance abuse (at least one of which lost his life), I remember many kids adopted straight-edge as a source of both comfort and remembrance. Some had greater success than others. Although the thrash bands generally speaking did not follow suit (booze is just too delicious to give up entirely), they knew how hard they would have to work to get their music heard.
Much like the original punk rock before it, original American hardcore was astoundingly prolific for a brief period, where aficionados were treated to a classic album every other month (from 1980-1982, more or less).
“Add ‘Wild In the Streets’ and magically there are elbow sized holes in the dry wall.” – Amazon reviewer for Circle Jerks
“New York’s alright…if you like drunks in your doorway.” – Fear, “New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones”
“Your Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not” – X
All you really have to do to witness how much hardcore punk meant to the early thrash bands is see how many covers there are of thrash metal’s finest giving it homage–and not just in their early garage days, either. Slayer, Overkill, and Sepultura have all famously made their favorite hardcore moments their own. Most recently on Dystopia, Megadeth offered a cover of “Foreign Policy” by LA’s Fear:
In the United Kingdom, Motorhead was also a big influence upon thrash metal; in fact, Lemmy and company are one of the few bands that holds strong appeal between metalheads and punk rockers. It seems unusual now, but there was a time when metalheads and punk rockers did not mix. Long hair at a hardcore gig? Nope. Shaved head at a metal show? Nope.
“I don’t think I can put into words how much Motorhead meant to me when I first started buying their records and going to their gigs,” Lars Ulrich of Metallica praises the trio. “I remember when they supported Ozzy in the States and some friends and I followed their bus around for about six days!”
At least two other UK bands, Discharge and G.B.H., were responsible for adding the frenzied distortion that was more common in NWOBHM to hardcore music.
All of these would be major influences on the snarling, barking vocal delivery of many thrash metal bands. A frequent target of attack were the then-conservative governments in both nations: Reagan in the United States, and Thatcher in the United Kingdom (though if you were the Dead Kennedys, Jerry Brown was your favorite roast target). Themes also included war, death, mental illness, and even science fiction and horror.
The “horror punk” image and sound was developed by a New Jersey band called The Misfits, who scored one of the most recognizable band logos ever with a famous “death head” that has sold millions of T-shirts and merchandise since then. Metallica has cited Misfits songs like “Die, Die My Darling” and “Last Caress” as early favorites and have covered them on numerous occasions, including a 30th anniversary show in 2011 with Misfits singer Glenn Danzig joining them onstage to enormous cheers.
Kerry King has already hinted at it above, but I have to mention NWOBHM that I’ve covered previously. Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Angel Witch and others were as widely respected back then as they are now.
“They, more than any other band, are responsible for opening up the doors for heavy metal in the 1980s,” said Lars Ulrich back in 1987. “They’ve never given in, and as a result have been a big inspiration to a band like us.
When that same Lars put out an ad in Recycler magazine looking for a guitarist for a band that had no name yet, he requested somebody who knew Iron Maiden, Motorhead, and….Budgie. At some point, Lars got a phone call from the one other dude in Los Angeles who knew them: a young Dave Mustaine, who had this to say about the little-known early metal band in his autobiography:
“I was instantly blown away. The speed and power of the music, without abandoning melody–it was like nothing I’d ever heard.”
Don’t you agree? Made it to #15 on my Best of the 1970s countdown…
“Fuck, dude! You know fucking Budgie?!?!” Lars shrieked at Dave later over the phone. Don’t you just love reactions like that?
Black Sabbath, in addition to laying the groundwork for all of heavy metal music, had its share input for thrash metallers too. Dave Mustaine and others have cited their song “Symptom of the Universe” as one of their favorites–and potentially the Ur-example of thrash, even though it came out in 1974, well before the subgenre hit paydirt.
But if you had to pick a truly seminal NWOBHM track that represents the blueprint for what would become the most popular form of metal ever, you would have to look at Diamond Head, who conjured up a riff-fest called “Am I Evil” that has been covered by practically every thrash band ever since it came out. The song is that influential.
Once again Diamond Head’s super-fan is Lars Ulrich, who helped compile the band’s greatest “hits” for a collection and convinced them to get back together to open for Metallica when they became superstars in the early 90s. The song also played a key part in the recent Big Four reunion tour, big enough for all the bands to put aside whatever differences they had to jam out on this true metal standard.
“It wasn’t so much that it was a particularly challenging solo, technically speaking–it was simply the fact that I hadn’t played it in a quarter of a century,” Dave Mustaine reflects on that moment in his book. And on the live DVD, you can hear the huge cheer when Dave Mustaine and James Hetfield of Metallica share a huge hug.
Coming up next, we’ll see how the four most successful thrash bands of the day took all these different influences and developed them, each in their own unique way…and why that reunion was such a huge deal in the first place!
Written by Matt P