The year is 1981: The New Wave Of British Heavy Metal is cresting, its full force crashing across the globe. The wave’s godfathers, Judas Priest, are the biggest heavy metal band in the world, having just unleashed British Steel the year prior. Iron Maiden have just released their sophomore album, Killers, in early February—it would be another year still before they carried what was still very much a blue collar club phenomenon to new heights and solidify themselves as the movement’s most successful ambassadors. Motörhead are still the fastest band in the world; Venom’s debut won’t come until the end of the year; Accept’s Restless And Wild and Tank’s Filth Hounds Of Hades are still a year away; and Satan won’t release their first album until 1983.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, a little band called Mötley Crüe formed in January and hit the club circuit. They would go on in rock ‘n’ roll infamy for bringing the vibe of the Sunset Strip scene to the world—a scene that, alongside bands such as Ratt and Quiet Riot, would define Los Angeles’ rock for a number of years. In spite of this, a handful of upstarts read the British Steel invasion in a different context. Listening to the early efforts of the two camps is like trying to compare different translations of the bible: One is somewhat watered down and easy to digest, a revival of the pre-punk era of rock that emphasized aesthetics as much as the music itself. It was more about selling a fantasized lifestyle of excess than it was about pushing rock music to something new. Songs about girls and cars that jumped straight for the party-ready singalong hooks were blended with a glam aesthetic borrowed from groups like the New York Dolls. The alternative was found in a small handful of kids who found something special in what was still an obscure, foreign phenomenon: The New Wave Of British Heavy Metal. Rejecting the easier path to commercial viability, these kids tapped into the heart of the British scene and made it their own. It represented the full fire and brimstone of the trenches, slinging the full hammer to the nail of Heavy Metal and pounding it Up Your Ass. Stripped down of all the bullshit, it solely focused on seeing just how fast and how hard this heavy metal machine could move.
The first recorded effort of Metallica (or Mettallica, as they were mistakenly credited on the release) was a scraped together version of “Hit The Lights,” a re-worked, re-invigorated song from James Hetfield’s prior band, Leather Charm. It was a last minute addition for a compilation of Los Angeles area hard rock and metal bands funded and released by Brian Slagel, an old mate of Lars Ulrich and fellow NWOBHM enthusiast who was running a small fanzine at the time. The band was little more than an idea, almost willed into being by Lars. Say what you want about his drumming, but so much of what Metallica accomplished from the get-go was only possible due to his superhuman will to power. Hell, they weren’t even a full band yet—the only musicians on that first recording were James and Lars, with a particularly blistering “guest” solo tacked on at the last minute by Lloyd Grant, an early Metallica auditionee and occasional informal guitar instructor to Hetfield.
Released in June of 1982 under catalogue number MBR-1001, the Metal Massacre compilation marked not only the introduction of Metal Blade Records but the first recorded offering of Metallica to the world (or at least those who heard its initial 2,500 copies). The rushed inclusion of the band onto a regional compilation bares striking resemblance to Bathory’s first recorded material two years later on the Scandinavian Metal Attack compilation. There are lessons to be found here. For musicians, if you are truly driven to something, let the music fall into place. This isn’t to say it shouldn’t come first—it’s an easy trapping to become lost in how something will be marketed vs. letting it come naturally in the heat of the moment. Let things be what they are, and allow them to develop naturally! And for listeners, take things for what they are, but dig deeper and try to find the soul. Attempting to understand what the band is seeking to accomplish is often more rewarding than merely accepting the music at its surface value. Find the muse in the music!
In the same year, Metallica finally found what would be their true initial lineup, recruiting a somewhat reluctant Ron McGovney (a former bandmate of Hetfield’s in Leather Charm, who was pursuing a career in band management and photography) and a brilliant musician and notable hot-head, Dave Mustaine, on lead guitar. After five months of garage rehearsals, Metallica first took the stage on March 14th, 1982 at Radio City in Anaheim, California. It’s viewed retrospectively as a ragtag gig—still a mere sketch of what Metallica would become. Nevertheless, the details were starting to fill into Lars’ and James’ raw ambition that secured them the spot on Metal Massacre. Largely a cover set with Hetfield awkwardly only handling vocal duties, the tunes included the Sweet Savage and Savage covers (found on their initial Whiskey Audition Tape demo), a Blitzkrieg cover, and not one, not two, but four Diamond Head covers as heard on Ron McGovney’s Garage Demo from around the same time. (If you haven’t listened to Lightning To The Nations, now is a great time to stop reading and hop on that record.) Two bits of metal history were unveiled to the general populace that night: “Hit The Lights” and “Jump In The Fire,” which, along with a working version of “No Remorse,” were also featured on the Garage demo. Yet it seemed as if the majority of the crowd weren’t quite equipped for Metallica’s interpretation of heavy metal—perhaps too fast or too hard for the glamorous L.A. crowd of the time. The serviceable attendance by the audience (Seen credited as anything from 60-200 people) wouldn’t be again attained for a good while, but Metallica kept at it. Call it steadfast dedication to vision or boneheaded metal devotion—either way, their resolve was strong. The following month, the band recorded the so-called Power Metal Demo (a name given by the words scribbled on the cassettes by bassist Ron McGovney) that offered the first recorded rendition of “The Mechanix,” what would eventually become “The Four Horsemen” on Kill ‘Em All.
On July 6th, 1982, Metallica hit Chateau East Studio in Tustin, CA. Financed by Kenny Kane of punk label High Velocity Records, the initial studio effort of the band was ultimately rejected for production for not being punk rock. Okay, sure, it doesn’t fit the “aesthetic” values of the time, but, in some of the thickest irony of all of rock music, scamming a punk label into thinking your band plays punk rock when they don’t is one of the most punk rock things a band could have pulled, especially as late in the game as 1982. Not to say Kane’s decision wasn’t understandable, but damn... What a way to lose the fucking plot. The absolute attitude, the absolute balls it takes to try to sneak one under like that! While there is a bit of sympathy to be found in Kane’s hesitation, it’s a blunder on par with that of Dick Rowe’s rejection of The Beatles under the claim that “groups with guitars are out.”
It may not have been immediately apparent with the forerunning NWOBHM influence, but the speed and intensity on the recording gave ample evidence that Metallica was harnessing not only the spirit of heavy metal, but rock ‘n’ roll itself. The ferocity of the recording owes a debt to the renewed fury of rock found in the music of The Ramones, or, more contemporarily speaking, a band like Discharge, particularly with regard to guitarist Bones’ integration of heavy riffing to a punk world otherwise largely obsessed with a fixation on reinvigorating the same marriage of roots rock ‘n’ roll rebellion while possessing the same rude, overwhelming loudness as Mötorhead. What’s more, it worked in Lars’ favor. As Garry Maloney proved, one doesn’t have to be a competent drummer to be a passionate, serviceable drummer—what matters is matching intensity with the rest of the band, secondary even to keeping consistent time. It’s an element that becomes so disputable on the later recordings without the context of the earlier material, in a time when the audience’s immediate perception of the material becomes dependent on the product they are consuming, more so than the spirit behind it.
Objectively speaking (and with the benefits of retrospect), No Life ‘Til Leather represents the very moment where Metallica seized the baton from British heavy metal before taking off down the block with Kill ‘Em All. It’s the static pause at the top of the first peak that would become the whiplashing roller coaster of thrash metal. It’s the moment that takes the life out of the rider for a brief moment before the whirling of adrenaline of a new sensation takes over. Yet, it’s done with the sonic footprint that reveals its influence. Metallica may not have always credited their NWOBHM covers in early live gigs (knowing full well that the majority of their small audience at the time had no clue who Sweet Savage was), but the treads of the boots (of Diamond Head, in particular) are all over No Life.
Perhaps it’s the higher pitch in James’ voice, the shredding prowess of Dave Mustaine, or the rougher recording (still, for a demo, the quality is better than a lot of metal albums from around the globe now held in cult status that came even well after), but gut instinct says it’s the energy that sets No Life ‘Til Leather apart. There’s something more playful to the way the songs that defined the next era of heavy metal on Kill ‘Em All on its proceeding demo that just feel different, even more so from the darker, more stoic vantage point of Ride The Lightning. Listening, one can almost smell the beer and cheap vodka-addled sweat, plus the dust particles grilling on the tubes of the amps in Ron’s musty garage as the youthful quartet forged a crude iron that would become the gleaming steel of thrash metal for the ensuing debut full-length.
Even with the insane amount of energy, the first few strums on “Hit The Lights” in the lighter recording tones reveal even more just how much of an homage to Diamond Head’s “The Prince” the song really is—from the succulent mids in the guitar tones to Lars’ drum fills sounding like a primitive roll across a line of skulls. Those fills steal all the attention from the actual beat as the notoriously hyperactive kid rushed as fast as he could to get to the fun bits. The small touches, like his sizzling four count on the hi-hats to kick off almost every song afterwards, adds to the live-recorded element. It gives the demo little boosts of anticipation throughout the performance. Additional slices of life like James’ spirited call for “Guitar!” sprinkle touches of genuine excitement. While his vocals haven’t yet found the gruff signature style, the higher pitched singing is delivered with such conviction, the slight reverb making the extended “yeaaaeeeaaaahs” sound amazing. And the lyrics! It takes supreme confidence in a vision to include a line like, “We got the metal madness, when our fans are screaming it’s right,” when absolutely no one has heard a note of the music. The fury-fingered dueling of solos hit like straight-to-the-engine shots of nitrous. It’s insane how seemingly bottomless the tank is as it boosts the song forward in little sprints before slamming down with the solos and burning through the songs with little care as to overheating the engine. It’s a theme that makes complete sense later on in the anthemic “Motorbreath” that barks an affirmation, rhyming the same word at the end of each line without giving the slightest bit of a fuck.
“Don’t stop for nothin’, it’s full speed or nothin'”
Simple touches like the exasperated sigh that opens a more spirited take of “Jump In The Fire,” or the not-so-subtle analogy between a greasy, just-out-of-high-school, blue collar working class job and unabashed horniness on “The Mechanix” just hits differently on the cruder recording.
Seriously, to this day my favorite version of the song that pits Metallica’s rendition on Kill ‘Em All as “The Four Horseman” and Mustaine’s “Mechanix” on Megadeth’s fiery retribution of Killing Is My Business, And Business Is Good! is the demo recording with both Dave and James. The rougher recording just adds to how cheap and sleazy the song feels—it’s as greasy as the song’s ’80s porno plot subject matter. The sleaziness of the L.A. scene wasn’t entirely lost on Metallica: The song has a certain adrenalined boogie to it that makes it the kind of song I can’t help but hope to hear played in the cocaine-fueled strip clubs in the seedier, red-lit back alleys in Heavy Metal Valhalla—the kinda places you have to get a special invite to find.
Speaking of versions that translate better as a demo, “Metal Militia” feels like the sort of anthem heard in a sweaty, over-lit and under-mixed club where the energy takes total precedence. As much as I love Kirk’s style (especially on Ride The Lightning, where he had more of a hand in the creation of the songs), there is something lost in the over-the-top shredding that is so explicitly Dave that’s lost on the re-recorded version found on Kill ‘Em All. I’m not even gonna bother to try to look it up—that lead over the verse, and the solo on “Metal Militia” have so much Mustaine over it that the playing speaks for itself. There’s a naive sense of youthful urgency that Metallica never quite captured (or desired to capture) again in the studio. While it’s not quite the thrash anthem the later “Whiplash” would be, it’s nigh-impossible not to get caught up in the bare energy of the song.
While Ron McGovney’s bass playing can’t hold a candle to that of Cliff Burton, it’s a pretty unfair standard to hold most any bass player to. Being able to not only keep up with the rapid downstrokes of Hetfield’s rhythm and Mustaine’s scorching leads while gluing them to Lars’ overexcited drumming on the breakneck tempo of a track like the closing “Phantom Lord” is a pretty commendable feat in its own right. The focus on McGovney is usually outside of the music—it tends to zero in on a narrative as some sort of overwhelmed den mother by providing rehearsal space, funding, and trying to keep a sort of level-headed peace between the extreme personalities that surrounded him in Metallica. However, it is a role that is just as visible in the music itself. Ron’s playing may often merely be written up as serviceable, but it was a vital service. There is no way a track like this could be pulled off without a solid anchor for the absolute inertia that builds across the half hour runtime of the demo. The chunky tones of the bass may be following the guitar lines, but they accentuate just the right moments of the blitzing tornado of souls (forgive me) around it.
Now, Metallica have their recording, but High Velocity is refusing to release it. Utilizing his own experiences with discovering NWOBHM bands, Lars turns to tape-trading friend Patrick Scott, essentially enlisting him to copy and send tapes out into the world. In exchange for getting the word out about the band, Scott would receive trades, a practice that remains vital to underground metal distributors to this day. At first, the effort seems futile: Despite the tape reaching diehards across the U.S. and Europe, Metallica were still playing to fairly minimal crowds in L.A.
A brief stint to play a gig in San Francisco changes everything, though. No Life ‘Til Leather landed Metallica the fanbase they needed to find affirmation for the confidence they had in their material. Not only were they playing to larger crowds, but the audiences were going nuts. People knew the songs, and they were singing along to future live staples like “Seek And Destroy” and whipping their heads around to the likes of “Metal Militia.” Up north in the Bay, people actually cared about Metallica, after so much downhearted rejection and (at best) nonchalant reaction, one can only imagine the elation, the confidence, the affirmation, the inspiration this delivered to the band.
The importance of the demo certainly doesn’t end there. While it’s pretty common knowledge that Ron was dropped and the band moved to the more welcoming San Francisco to enlist the talents of Cliff Burton, No Life ‘Til Leather continued circulating through the tape trading scene. Their rabid fans would bootleg live performances and send them out as well. One in particular, the tape known as Live Metal Up Your Ass—a particularly fiery performance at the Old Waldorf [Editor’s note: the original article mentioned Cliff Burton played on the recording, it was in fact Ron McGovney]—made it to the hands of Jon and Marsha Zazula. The metal-obsessed couple owned a fledging record shop (more of a stall, really) in New Jersey known as Rock’n’Roll Heaven, and they were just getting into booking and helping bands like Venom, Raven and Manowar land gigs in the area. They became so obsessed with Metallica that they took out a mortgage to pay for the band to come to the east coast and serve as an opener for touring acts. During the band’s extended tenure, they dubbed more copies of No Life ‘Til Leather to sell at Rock’n’Roll Heaven to help cover at least a bit of the expenses. Seeing the potential in Metallica, Jonny and Marsha took out a second mortgage to start Megaforce Records in order to record and release Kill ‘Em All, and, well, the rest is history!
On the surface, Metallica seem like a strict band. It’s James’ and Lars’ vision, and what they say goes. “We determine the direction of the band.” “We have final say.” “No side projects. Everything goes to Metallica.”
“Everything goes to Metallica.“
If there is one principle that’s followed the band since the beginning, it’s this. No member that has ever been in the band has been merely a hired hand. Plenty of bands replace musicians, few find musicians whose personalities ultimately have such a hand in shaping the music. Every member that spent a significant time in the band, from McGovney to Grant to Mustaine to Burton to Newstead to Trujillo, leaves an impact. No Life ‘Til Leather stands as a testament to this. Sure, it’s seven of the ten songs that would make Kill ‘Em All, but it’s an entirely different feel based on who was giving blood to Metallica at the time. It’s more than a mere curiosity for ultra-fans, it is excellent on its own merits. As essential as it is in the band’s story, however, the lineup in Metallica in 1982 was set for combustion. The personalities involved created an unstable reaction.
The “what if Mustaine had stayed in the band?” question still sparks the imagination, but, truth be told, I figure the band would have lasted two albums at most before the fuse blew. What matters is this: As essential as Mustaine’s leads and songwriting credits were on NLTL and Live Metal Up Your Ass up through Ride The Lightning, his imprint was felt on Metallica. He was merely attaching his set of talents to the drive of Lars and James. It’s something I think Cliff and Kirk inherently understood as well. Metallica was a sandbox they could play in. The two core members may set the parameters, but they ultimately just want to play the music they love, regardless of the direction it takes.
What makes No Life ‘Til Leather such a fun listen to this day is experiencing an unstable reaction reach the point of combustion, contained only by the tape reel it was recorded on. Neither could have gotten as big without the other. Dave undoubtedly gave the band an early boost, and Metallica gave him a muse. Whether powered by revenge or a broken heart, Lars and James’ commitment to making the band work ultimately left him with a goal to pursue. For a brief moment in time, they were focused on having fun without a bit of pressure and making something downright special together, something that would ultimately define American heavy metal as its own entity. The band itself may be an imbalanced reaction, but man, if the recording isn’t fun to witness explode again and again and again. And if you don’t like it, well…
In the end, dudes would rather change the course of metal history time and again before going to therapy. However, for as far as they went and as tumultuous as the road ahead would continue to be, that little captured moment of music that resulted in the No Life ‘Til Leather demo remains no less as fun and exciting as it’s always been. Ultimately, that is all that matters, and that’s what makes it so special, even forty years later.