Metal History – Thrash Metal Part 2: The Big Four

July 28, 2013 — 2 Comments

In Part 1 of this series on thrash metal, we looked at the influences that made this popular subgenre of heavy metal what it is today. In addition to influences from “the usual suspects” like Black Sabbath and NWOBHM acts like Iron Maiden, thrash metal’s progenitors also embraced an unusual pick for the time: hardcore punk. True differentiation from the hair metal bands and proto-metal clones of the day (early 80s) demanded a shot of something from outside the traditional metal realm that meshed in a real and aggressive way. Hardcore punk was the true kicker that made thrash, thrash: it simply wouldn’t have sounded the same if the only influences allowed were other metal bands.

“The Big Four” is a name given to a group of four of the most popular and influential thrash metal groups, all of whom started in the United States in the 1980s: Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Slayer.  Between them, they have sold about 200 million albums worldwide, a true juggernaut.  For many mainstream listeners, thrash metal performed by one of these groups is likely their first exposure to heavy metal of any kind. They are considered leading lights of the genre for a reason.

We are starting here because Metallica’s career is more or less the barometer for the genre they invented, thrash metal.

Not long after their first phone call in which they bonded over their mutual love for Budgie, Lars Ulrich and Dave Mustaine were in a band together along with a singer named James Hetfield…but it was a band with no name yet. Or even a single live gig to its credit. After hearing Dave’s extremely helpful and constructive input such as “You need more guitar solos, that’s for sure,” Lars came up with the name Metallica while James drew the logo.

Anyway, the young rookies submitted a demo version of the song below to a compilation called Metal Massacre. Though it was meant to showcase the hottest, most up-and-coming talent in metal, nobody else on that tape sounded like this in 1982…

Quick to earn the nickname “Alcoholica” (I’m completely at a loss as to the reason), the new band tore up Los Angeles. This was a big deal at the time, because bands like Motley Crue and Ratt were the big draw on the Sunset Strip in the city. “Glam” and “fashionable” Metallica were not. It was fortunate for its career that the band also gained a strong following in the San Francisco Bay Area, where it seemed to them the crowds were less concerned about the visual appearance and more invested in the noise they were making. Decades later in fact, the city’s mayor even christened August 7th, “Metallica Day.”

With James eventually picking up rhythm guitar so they wouldn’t have to locate another guitarist, the final piece came together when the band relocated to San Francisco to recruit a bass player they knew would turbocharge their songs: Cliff Burton. He was widely acknowledged as the most talented bass player in the city, perhaps even the whole state.

When the No Life Till Leather demo dropped in ’82, containing several future Metallica classics, the band’s profile and success only grew. But there were personality differences at work, and the short version of all that is that Dave was the angry drunk while James and Lars were the happy drunks. That can make for funny stories when you go out, but it becomes unworkable when you’re all spending so many hours in a van, shlepping up and down the coast and eventually cross country to New York City for your first East Coast appearance.

As often happens in bands, one account will say “I was fired,” while another will say, “He just quit.” However it truly went down, the fact remained that Dave Mustaine returned to LA from that New York visit no longer a member of Metallica. Angrier, more driven, and playing more aggressively than ever, Dangerous Dave was not to remain bandless for long.

“More power to him. He’s a smart man, Mustaine; he’s got freckles, but he’s a smart man.” – Lemmy

While Dave worked his ass off to re-establish himself, his old bandmates were also crafting Metal Hall of Fame music. James Hetfield was drawing on his religious upbringing in Christian Science to become a potent lyricist, and Cliff Burton kept exploring and bringing in non-metal influences like Lynyrd Skynyrd. “There’s no way you’re really playing with this band,” their eventual record label representatives said regarding the bassist.

With lead shredder Kirk Hammett now in tow from Bay Area sensation Exodus, Metallica released Kill Em All (1983) and Ride the Lightning (1984), both of which burst them out of the West Coast to both national and eventually international acclaim. They toured Europe for the first time, where audiences were even more receptive to them for helping deflate the pomposity of 80s glam metal. Metallica stood as something raw, primal and passionate but still accessible.

Case in point…

All this time, Dave Mustaine cooled his heels by launching Megadeth back in Los Angeles, and for its debut record one of the first things he did was re-record “Mechanix,” a Mustaine song from Kill Em All that Metallica had reworked and re-titled “The Four Horsemen.” Megadeth’s version is closer to Dave’s original vision for the song–faster, sharper, and of course angrier. It was another instance of a feud between the two bands that unfortunately spilled over into the fanbases for both of them, and to this day you can still make a message board light up by igniting a “Metallica vs. Megadeth” debate–even though the bands themselves have made peace.

Always a fan of dark and dystopian comics (especially The Punisher series), Mustaine commissioned a local artist to create Vic Rattlehead, one of metal’s most enduring and recognizable mascots. Though the character’s initial debut on the cover of Killing Is My Business…And Business Is Good! was unflattering, it was on the cover of 1986’s Peace Sells that really marked Vic’s true appearance. Standing in front of the ruins of the UN, he is both a political and a military figure to match the album’s title track.


So although Metallica’s lyrics could be biblical and apocalyptic, and some Megadeth songs were developing an aggressively political flair, neither of those two styles could really be considered “evil” (by well-adjusted adults whose opinions are worth listening to, that is).

But for a band that truly terrified and also delighted millions, sounding “evil” was exactly what they aimed for…


I was having drinks with a friend who was in town all the way from Buenos Aires, and naturally educating him about the wonders of metal (at his request, I swear). At some point when I mentioned death metal, he perked up and asked, “Oh, you mean like Slayer?”

Though this Big Four quartet is considered a prime influence on that other subgenre and has much love and respect from its fans (you know who you are!), Slayer is just not considered death metal.

But the guy should be forgiven for thinking that. Listen to, and look at, this…

From both a visual and lyrical perspective, Slayer embraced evil, violent, and Satanic imagery that appeared to some to even directly attack Christianity. Their album covers are a veritable Dante’s Inferno of hellish scenery, and their pacing throughout many of their records is more or less an all-out crazed, blood-covered sprint. They have also written songs about serial killers, horror movies, and the Holocaust. Not to mention the pentagram logo, still one of the most recognizable in all of metal. The joke here is that you should play a drinking game when listening to any Slayer album and take a shot any time they mention hell or Satan!

“There are times in life when things fall into place PERFECTLY. There was no more perfect mixture of music-driven emotion, teen rebelliousness, and socially outcasting adulation for what a band was doing at the time. Repeated listens produced the ability to consume it and truly understand the meaning of ‘Heavy.’ Experiencing Slayer’s Hell Awaits was the perfect storm. Period.” – Phil Anselmo, Pantera

Having been to many shows in my life, I can tell you that something about Slayer’s music makes their fans the craziest bunch I’ve ever shared a venue with. I kid you not. Jim Breuer is not exaggerating below…

“You do not go onstage after Slayer and not be fucking gold. That’s one band you just don’t follow if you don’t have it.” – Rex Brown, Pantera

Lead guitarist Kerry King was a tape trader back in its early 80s heyday and acquired his copy of No Life Till Leather through that network. By the time that happened, however, Slayer’s members had already coalesced to form a close contemporary peer of Metallica. King was just recently removed from seeing his first and favorite metal band, Judas Priest, on their Point of Entry tour. “I loved the British Steel album and the whole two-guitar thing,” he reminisced. “Then I copped all their previous albums and became a huge Priest fan!”

As mentioned in part 1, guitarist #2 Jeff Hanneman was the hardcore punk fan, which leaves the passionate Chilean Catholic Tom Araya on bass and vocals, and the high-powered but in-again-out-again Dave Lombardo on drums to complete the lineup.

“I consider what we do to be art,” Tom Araya explains in Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey. “And art is a reflection of society…and I guess, we’re just picking up all the dark ones! But evil’s everywhere, man, everyone’s got it…regardless of whatever you believe is right, everybody knows what’s wrong…it doesn’t matter what you believe.”

When explaining to Mr. Buenos Aires why Slayer was not death metal, I told him about Araya’s vocals: he isn’t really growling like a cookie monster, he’s just singing really loud!

By comparison, the Big Four crew that had the most melodic, high-pitched (but still loud!) vocals is Anthrax. We’re switching coasts to New York City now. When Metallica came East to New York, Anthrax helped prevent them from starving by lending them such luxuries as a refrigerator, many cans of soup, and a toaster, as the now-San Franciscans were so broke they were borderline homeless.

On Anthrax’s 1984 debut album, vocalist Neil Turbin featured vocals more appropriate for a power metal group. This would be his only album with the young upstarts, but he did his part to help put New York City back on the map of metal.

“I didn’t want to be one of the burnouts,” founder and guitarist Scott Ian said in the band’s Behind the Music episode. “All I wanted was to get out of Queens!” Always with an appreciation for the native New York sounds of hip-hop and hardcore, Anthrax soon became its own entity–very much part of thrash metal, but also part of something else, especially when the 80s ended. When the Big Four got together for their grand show at Yankee Stadium, Anthrax came on first to many raised fists and yells–at that point “the local band.”

Joey Belladonna joined as vocalist in the middle of the decade just as the band’s songwriting and riffage was reaching its perfect point. Both Turbin and Belladonna are the leather-lunged tenors, differentiating them from the snarls or growls that the other thrash bands were using.

Having scored the record deal and production label they wanted, as well as its first hits, Anthrax was stoked beyond stoked to join their friends in Metallica as the opener for their Master of Puppets tour in 1986.

That namesake album had been released that year, and it remains Metallica’s calling card to this day for metalheads. The songs were all astounding, an even more massive leap than Ride the Lightning was from Kill Em All. It even had the effect of making the band’s other albums re-chart. It was the first thrash metal album to sell one million copies–followed by an additional five million units in the US after that by 2003. And Master of Puppets was the first metal album of any kind to be chosen for inclusion in the National Historic Registry in the Library of Congress. Its title track is routinely ranked among the top metal songs ever written. It was that significant back then, and still is.

The accompanying tour should have been a supreme triumph for Metallica, but it wasn’t–and not just for the main reason those of you in the know are aware of. James Hetfield had broken his wrist after a skateboarding accident, forcing him to only sing for a number of shows. Logistics were a problem as well.

On September 27, early in the morning while it was still dark, Metallica’s tour bus skidded on a patch on black ice on a highway somewhere in Sweden, overturning and crashing. Thrown through a bunk window, his upper body pinned halfway under the overturned bus, Cliff Burton was killed instantly. If James Hetfield hadn’t decided to pass out somewhere else on the bus, he surely would have been next.

It was a deep loss.  Many fans maintain that Metallica was never the same again; to this day debate persists about the different musical direction they took as the 1990s took off (but that’s another part).  Nonetheless, Burton’s work on Metallica’s first three albums is a lasting testament, “gone too soon” indeed. He continues to be sorely missed. Such a painful and unnecessary loss it was that the metal gods took pity on the Big Four, sparing them another major death for almost three decades.

“I remember Bobby Schneider [tour manager] lying next to me later at the ER, as they were taking blood pressure and stuff, and saying, ‘Cliff’s gone, you know.’ All of a sudden the reality of everything hit me.” – Kirk Hammett

“I just couldn’t…no. I was in a state of numbness for days.” – Scott Ian

While Metallica picked up the pieces of its broken band, back home in LA their peers in Slayer also put everybody else on notice with 1986’s Reign In Blood.

His personal favorite Slayer record, Jeff Hanneman described it as “so short and quick and to the point.” By 1992, it had gone gold in the USA.

Slayer had recorded its darkest, fastest, and most acclaimed reflection yet. Its title track drives headbangers crazy to this very day.  A true landmark for its time and still inspiring legions of bands, it’s highly unlikely Reign In Blood’s impact on thrash (and metal as a whole) will be equaled by anyone else. Slayer have performed the album in its entirely on several occasions, and the grand finale, featured below, was a fitting send-off.

Knowing they would never out-do Reign In Blood for speed, Slayer hit the brakes on the pacing for their follow up album, South of Heaven–and then found a perfectly fine balance between the two for the album after that, Seasons In the Abyss.

“When we went through the States we opened for Slayer. Tom Araya is really nice guy (plus he plays bass and sings as I do!)…I enjoyed that tour quite a bit, actually. On the last night during Slayer’s set I went behind Jeff Hanneman and just stood there–dressed up as Adolf Hitler.” – Lemmy

So now (mid-80s), thanks to all these records that both sounded magnificent and sold pretty well, thrash metal was starting to get some attention (though not nearly as much as the hair bands they were competing with). But there was enough buzz and sales to make people sit up and take notice.  The period from 1986 to 1990 is often dubbed “The Golden Age of Thrash” as bands cranked out masterpiece album after masterpiece album, a function of all the groups hitting the prime of their talent and creativity all at once. It was a period of astounding creativity in the now-burgeoning thrash underground.

Anthrax had their biggest success yet with 1987’s Among The Living, with a percussive focus that made their mosh pits even wilder places to get your ear chopped off before jumping right back into it (yes, that actually happened to somebody at an Anthrax gig). Then they had an (in hindsight) ill-advised foray into rap metal with “I’m The Man” in 1988. It was supposed to parody the style of Anthrax’s fellow New Yorkers Beastie Boys, Run DMC, and Public Enemy.

Whatever its creative merit and meaning to Scott Ian, who has been an outspoken fan of hip-hop from its early days, it’s safe to say most headbangers preferred this instead:

Returning home from Europe licking its wounds, Metallica enlisted Jason Newsted to man the four bass strings at Brian Slagel’s recommendation. Working with whatever pieces of music Cliff Burton had left behind, Metallica’s next batch of songs featured progressive rock-like song lengths and some fine riff selections. …And Justice For All would be their last pure thrash effort for many years, and was a success thanks to its intense music video for “One,” still a concert mainstay. It would have been even more well-received had the production not sounded so paper-thin.

“I hated that record–it sounded awful: the bass was non-existent and the drums sounded like biscuit tins.” – Gem Howard, tour manager

“When I heard it I almost wept.” – Martin Hooker, record distributor

Finally, a truly astounding guitar duo was formed when Dave Mustaine teamed up with guitarist Marty Friedman, who contributed many magnificent solos to Megadeth’s 1990 masterpiece, Rust In Peace.  There were even more political and war-themed lyrics going than before. In fact, I don’t think “Dangerous Dave” has ever written a happy song, but that’s okay–the fans like it that way. Both technically demanding and catchy, metalheads devoured it all in spades.

So did The Onion, who ran this headline recently:

Humanity Still Producing New Art As Though Megadeth’s Rust In Peace Doesn’t Already Exist

“I kept watching Marty play, listening to what was coming out of his guitar, and…well…I crumbled. I don’t know how else to say it.” – Dave Mustaine

So many are the Big Four’s collective accolades and sales that some would argue they crowded out many other excellent, lesser-known bands that also contributed mightily to thrash metal. And they’d be right to a point. There are plenty of other non-Big Four bands from all across the USA and all around the world who answered the war cry.

More on the rest of that blood-red, whiplashed, maniacal field in part 3, next time. Till then, thrash on!


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2 responses to Metal History – Thrash Metal Part 2: The Big Four

  1. If you’re doing a history lesson it’s a good idea to make sure what you’re typing is actually true.

    1. So Ron McGovney never existed then?
    2. It was James that broke his wrist skateboarding during the tour not Kirk.
    3. It’s not known whether Cliff was killed instantly. He may well have still been alive before the crane dropped the coach back on him.
    4. Also the black ice story has been disputed, James claims the driver was drunk and the ice could not be located.

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