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, but that’s not really 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:
But before it conquered the world and outlasted the glam metal it had passionately opposed, thrash metal developed largely from the edgier 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 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.
Hailing from the Bay Area, the Dead Kennedys:
And hailing from DC, Bad Brains and Minor Threat:
Much like the original punk rock before it, original American hardcore was astoundingly prolific for a brief period, where aficionados were seemingly treated to a classic album every other month (from 1980-1982, more or less).
<i>”Add ‘Wild In the Streets’ and magically there are elbow sized holes in the dry wall.”</i> – 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.
“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 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 respective 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.
But if you had to pick a truly seminal thrash-metal track that represents the blueprint for what would become the most popular form of metal ever, you would have to look at a little-known band called Diamond Head, who conjured up a riff-fest called “Am I Evil” that has been covered by literally 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.
Coming up next, we’ll see how the four most successful thrash bands of the day took Diamond Head’s monster track and developed it, each in their own unique way.
Written by Matt P