The Story of How Metallica, the Ultimate Heavy Metal Band, Formed


Metallica performing in Detroit, Michigan.

Metallica – Story by Anne Erickson, photo by Ken Settle

Let’s go inside the history and pedigree of Metallica with the story of how Metallica formed

When it comes to metal music, it doesn’t get any bigger than Metallica. Sure, pure metalheads might argue that the guys went “mainstream” on “The Black Album.” But, was it such a bad thing that “The Black Album” introduced metal to millions of people, helping to make it the popular musical genre it is today? There’s no denying that metal music is alive and very popular today, thanks in no small part to Metallica. So, let’s go inside the story of how Metallica formed.

Metallica formed in the early 1980s. This was way before people would discover talent on TikTok and YouTube. Heck, this was even before MySpace and Napster. As the story goes, drummer Lars Ulrich ran a newspaper advertisement looking for some people to form a band and simply jam. James Hetfield responded. It was the fall of 1981, and from there, the guys also brought guitarist Dave Mustaine and bass player Ron McGovney into the jam sessions. Mustaine would famously get fired from the band just a couple years later, and McGovney left and was replaced by the late, great Cliff Burton. At this time, Metallica also relocated from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

The earliest Metallica lineup to appear on a proper studio record was Ulrich, Hetfield, Burton and Hammett, who played on 1983’s “Kill ‘Em All.” Mustaine was actually let go from Metallica during the recording sessions for the album. Mustaine, of course, would go on to front another extremely successful metal band with Megadeth.

“Kill ‘Em All” was a big leap forward for Metallica. It marked their first studio record and was released on a bona ride record label. The band went from California to New Jersey to meet with Jonny Zazula of Megaforce Records. Zazula was blown away by the band’s demo tapes and inked them. Metallica released “Kill ‘Em All” on July 25, 1983. The record was massive for the underground metal scene. More than anything, the album was one of the first thrash albums and inspired plenty of thrash-influenced bands to follow.

“Ride the Lightning” following the next year, featuring some of the band’s most popular songs to date, including “Fade to Black,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “Creeping Death.” This marked a turning point for Metallica, as it featured even stronger songwriting than “Kill ‘Em All” and also found a wider audience.

Then, Metallica took another big step forward in their career. They inked to Elektra Records in 1984. As the story goes, while the band was touring behind “Ride the Lightning,” Elektra Records executive Michael Alago went to one of their shows in New York. He was more than impressed. He signed Metallica in September of 1984, and they were actually the first act that he signed after starting the record label. Smart guy, right? Metallica pretty much made Elektra Records and enabled the label to find a successful, longstanding career. Without Metallica, one could argue that there would be no Elektra Records.

Metallica’s first Elektra Records release was 1986’s “Master of Puppets.” Boy, what a collection of songs. The record arrived on March 3, 1986, and reached No. 29 on the Billboard 200. More importantly, it not only garnered lots of commercial success but was also widely accepted by the metal underground. Metallica went on tour with Ozzy Osbourne after the album’s release, too, which helped earn them even more exposure.

That initial Metallica lineup of Ulrich, Hetfield, Burton and Hammett lasted for years. Then, tragically, Burton died in a tour bus accident in 1986. Jason Newsted stepped in to replace him, but his bass guitar lines were pretty much inaudible on his first record with the band, “…And Justice For All.” In a 2021 interview with Metal Hammer’s Stephen Hill, he admitted that he wasn’t happy about his bass sounds getting so buried in the mix. “I was f***ing livid!,” he said. “Are you kidding me? I was ready [to go] for throats, man!” Can you blame him? As a bass player myself, I understand the frustration of the bass often taking a backseat in band business and press. But, having the bass line pretty much missing from a mix is totally unacceptable.

Metallica still had plenty of firsts up ahead. They picked up their first Grammy in 1990 for Best Metal Performance for the song “One.” The following year, they also won the same category with “Stone Cold Crazy.” Then, in 1992, they won the same category with “Metallica,” widely known as “The Black Album.” So, the Grammy world was certainly loving on Metallica, even though many hardcore fans burned their Metallica T-shirts after 1991’s mainstream-sounding “The Black Album” arrived. But, it’s all an important part of the story of how Metallica formed.

The next major lineup change came when Newsted left Metallica in 2001. In February 2003, Robert Trujillo joined the band as their official new bass player. His first record with the band was 2008’s “Death Magnetic.”

Today, Metallica are still going incredibly strong. They have their own record label, Blackened Recordings. “It’s always been about control for us as a band,” Ulrich told Rolling Stone regarding the move. They did have a strange record in “Lulu,” but let’s no go there. For more on that, read our feature on the strangest metal albums ever released here.

Metallica released their 11th studio album, “72 Seasons,” in April 2023. Metallica are also on a massive worldwide tour, performing two-night stints in arenas and amphitheaters and selling out these massive venues. Metal is a genre built on fire, passion, heavy sonics and a fight against the norm, and Metallica are still the champions of this message, even decades after first forming.

Anne Erickson
Posted by Anne Erickson | Features, Metal, Music

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