After Metallicadebut, Kill them allbecame a template for a new style of music, the band realized it had to step up to thrash metal. Kills had released their dazzling debut Show no mercy. Anthrax put out Fistful of metal and Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammetts original band, Exodus, had a hot underground demo with a similar sound. When working on songs for their second album, Metallica were determined to be ahead of the pack, and when RID the lightning released on July 27, 1984, they proved that they were not just one of the best thrash bands they were one of that best bands, period.
Guitarist James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich had co-written most of Metallica’s first album Dave Mustaine. When Mustaine was no longer in the group, when the sessions for RID the lightning began, bassist Cliff Burton took the lead, contributing to six of the eight songs and encouraging his bandmates to experiment with different tempos and structures on songs such as “Fight fire with fire“and the cinematic instrumental”The Call of Ktulu.”
Metallica, “Fight Fire With Fire”
Like Iron Maiden‘s Steve Harris, who was one of Metallica’s musical heroes, Burton played with his fingers and imbued the songs with fluidity. Having some knowledge of music theory, he showed Hetfield and Hammett how to augment core notes with complementary countermelodies and how basic guitar harmony worked. He also enhanced the music with effects pedals, including the Morley wah-wah, which produced a sweeping, cutting sound beneath the metallic crunch.
“I think Cliff was the one who really taught them about melody,” adds the Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian. “Cliff was the maestro. He was really skilled and thought beyond thrash and metal. He always had one REM t-shirt and a Lynyrd Skynyrd pin on his jean jacket and I think that gives you an idea of where his head was at.
“RID the lightning gave Cliff a platform to shine as a songwriter and player,” said Metal Mania fanzine founder and KUSF Ramgate Radio DJ Ron Quintana. “He could do it all. He gave Metallica a lot more possibilities than just playing fast. He loved complex music. He listened to classical, Frank Zappa and it showed in his bass playing.”
In addition to burning with energy and creativity, Metallica were also extremely hungry — literally. They rented a house they called the Metallimansion in El Cerrito, California, but they could barely pay their rent and had to choose carefully between spending money on cheap food or budget beer and liquor.
“Everybody was so poor, we were lucky if we could afford Smirnoff,” Quintana told me in 2014. “And anyone who would bring good, hard alcohol was worshiped. It was such a small house. You would go up up the little front stairs and there was a little deck. And then to the right was the famous sofa that everyone would crash on in the main living room. And then to the left were two rooms where Lars and James lived.”
“Before I went over there for the first time, I thought it was going to be this really nice place,” early band photographer and current DRI bassist Harald Oimoen told me in 2014. “Of course, it was the furthest thing you could imagine. – a total dive. They practiced out back in a one car garage with barely enough room for a car. At one point they had to line the ground with milk crates and stand on them because when it rained it leaked the water in and they didn’t want to be electrocuted.”
Metallica, “Creeping Death”
It was in these cramped quarters that Metallica grew exponentially as players and songwriters, writing some of their most heralded songs. Three months before they went to Copenhagen, Denmark, to record RID the lightningthey were already playing unpolished versions of “Creeping death,” that title number, “Fight Fire With Fire” and “The Call of Ktulu” in concert. Then, the night before a show on The Channel in Boston on January 24, 1984, someone broke into Metallica’s van and stole Ulrich’s drum kit, Hammett’s Marshall head cabinet, and Hetfield’s modified Marshall head cabinet and speakers. Anthrax leased the band’s equipment for the remaining dates of the tour, so Metallica was still able to play shows, but that didn’t cure the sting of losing their gear, especially for Hetfield.
Dejected by the robbery, the Metallica frontman penned a melancholic, arpeggiated melody on an acoustic guitar, penning his most vulnerable, despairing lyrics to date. “Life seems to fade away, drifting on everyday / Getting lost in myself / Nothing matters to anyone else / I’ve lost the will to live.” Along with the delicate guitar passage, Hetfield’s seven-minute ode to suicide became Metallica’s first ballad, “Tray for black.”
“I’m sure I wasn’t really thinking about killing myself,” he said Nursery school Metallica dead. “But that was my favorite Marshall amp, man!”
Metallica, “Fade to Black”
Metallica wrote the remaining three songs RID the lightning“Escape,” “Trapped under ice” and “For whom the bell tolls,” at Sweet Silence Studios in Copenhagen, Denmark with producer Flemming Rasmussen. The band’s manager Jonny Z chose the venue because it was affordable and the band liked it because Rainbow had recorded Hard to heal there. When their amplifiers had been stolen in Boston, Metallica brought their guitars and Rasmussen hooked them up with nine Marshalls he borrowed from Danish bands that were in town.
“[We] spent the first day testing them,” he told Rolling Stone. “We actually recreated James’ guitar sound on Kill them all, but just reinforced it. He was really happy about that.”
Once the amplifier problem was solved, Rasmussen discovered a much more annoying problem. Ulrich definitely played inventive drum fills, but when trying to keep a straight beat for extended periods of time, he would speed up some parts and slow down for others. “I thought he was completely useless [at first],” said Rasmussen Enter night author Mick Wall. “The very first thing I asked when he started playing was, ‘Does everything start on an upbeat?’ And he said, ‘What’s an optimistic’.”
With the help of drum roadie Flemming Larsen, Rasmussen gave Ulrich a crash course in basic drumming. “We started telling him about it [beats] — that they have to be the same amount of time between that hit, that hit and that hit, and you have to be able to count to four before you come back in.” Rasmussen said.
Fortunately, Ulrich learned quickly, and although some songs required more takes than others, Rasmussen was eventually able to track the drums at the right tempo without the aid of computer programs like ProTools, which had not yet been invented. Rasmussen also contributed creatively to the recording, using backwards guitar on top of normal melody lines on songs like “Fade to Black” and the intro to “Fight Fire with Fire.” The creativity in the studio was contagious. Burton came up with the twisty, descending bass pattern for “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, and for the bell notes at the end of the song, Ulrich hit an anvil with a metal hammer.
In mid-March, when Metallica listened to the finished album, they were satisfied with the quality and diversity of the recording. While “Fade to Black” was a prominent melodic single, it was clear from the start that “Creeping Death” was a real highlight. “I was sitting in the control room after we did it [‘Die, die, die’] gang vocals [for the song] and everybody was going crazy,” Hetfield told Guitar World.
Metallica, “For Whom the Bell Tolls”
Elektra Records signed Metallica in September. 12 and republished RID the lightning on Nov. 19. Four days later, they released a 12-inch for “Creeping Death,” which featured covers of “Am I Evil?” by Diamond head and “Blitzkrieg” by Blitzkrieg. RID the lightning peaked at No. 100 on the Billboard album chart, and even without a music video or radio play, the band grew quickly and organically. Some old-school fans felt betrayed by melodic songs like “Escape” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” but many more open-minded listeners welcomed the diversity, and new listeners who didn’t follow thrash were drawn to “Fade to Black.”
“One of the first moments when I realized that something was really happening for us happened when I was at my boyfriend’s house right then RID the lightning come out,” Hetfield said Louder Than Hell: Metal’s Definitive Oral History. “I was waiting for her while her sister was home and I don’t think she knew I was there and I could hear ‘Fade to Black’ blasting out of her speakers in her bedroom. It’s like nobody was there who heard her listen to it. She listened to it because she liked it and it spoke to her. That was a pretty big thing for me. You know, ‘Fade to Black’ was one of the key songs for us, where you had a hardcore fan who said: ‘Screw you, you sold out, you did a ballad.’ It was their simplistic thinking. Then you had the other people who were like, ‘Wow, nobody had ever spoken to me like that in a song and I totally relate to that and it’s helped me’.”
To date, RID the lightning has shipped six million copies in the US, and more than half of the album’s tracks – “Ride the Lightning”, “Creeping Death”, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “Fade to Black” – remain part of the band’s live sets.
Metallica, “Ride the Lightning”
Loudwire contributor Jon Wiederhorn is the author of Raising Hell: Backstage Tales From the Lives of Metal Legendsco-author of Louder Than Hell: Metal’s Definitive Oral Historyas well as the co-author of Scott Ian’s autobiography, I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthraxand Al Jourgensen’s autobiography, The Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen and the Agnostic Front book My riot! Grit, Guts and Glory.