How a Metallica Demo Became Their Career-Making Moment
Metallica were still trying to find their identity, sound and even a stable lineup when they entered Chateau East Studio in Tustin, Calif., on July 6, 1982, to record the seven-song demo No Life ‘Til Leather.
They were full of youthful vigor, though, which made up for any shortcomings in other areas. No one was more energetic than new guitarist Dave Mustaine, who had linked up with the Los Angeles band just a few months earlier.
"Dave was a force of energy," drummer Lars Ulrich told Rolling Stone in 2015. "He came like a hurricane, just like whirling into our world with his charm and his good looks and he had great gear, like a backline, and he had roadies. He had everything. He had some skeletons or blueprints for a couple songs, and we tweaked them. We 'Metallica-ized' them or whatever."
Their studio time was financed by Kenny Kane, who ran the punk record label High Velocity. The band began working on new music, which included “Hit the Lights,” a song that had found its way onto the Metal Massacre compilation album just a few weeks earlier. Kane had envisioned tightened versions of the punk-flavored songs he had seen the band perform live, like “The Prince” and “Helpless,” unaware that those were covers.
“When we were in the studio and began recording our own songs with Kenny, he said, 'It sounds completely different!'" James Hetfield said in Joel McIver's Metallica: Justice for All. "'Yeah, Kenny, the other songs aren’t by us.’”
At that point, it was too late to take back the studio time, and while Kane wouldn’t be releasing the music on his label, recording continued. “Motorbreath” needed to be refined, as did “The Mechanix” and “Jump in the Fire,” the latter two penned by Mustaine and a bit on the risque side. "The lyrics to 'Mechanix' were literally – and I say this without judgment – about a sexual encounter at a gas station,” Ulrich later recalled. “There were all of these euphemisms that had sexual undertones. It wasn't that they were particularly bad lyrics, but it was just in line with so much of the American hard rock and metal at the time."
“Metal Militia” and “Phantom Lord” were much more muscular lyrically with lines about uniting as soldiers to spread the word of metal across the land in a veritable war on all who opposed. “Seek and Destroy” was similar thematically, but set in a more urban setting.
The message was clear throughout: Metallica planned to takeover by any means necessary.
Hetfield had grown into a great rhythm guitarist, providing razor-sharp riffs on “The Mechanix” and “Phantom Lord.” Groundwork was also laid on an early version of “Seek and Destroy,” which would reach more anthemic levels later. Hetfield was gaining confidence as a singer too, and even with occasional stumbles on “Jump in the Fire,” he was almost there.
No Life 'Til Leather, a play on Motorhead's live album No Life 'til Hammersmith as well as the first lines from "Hit the Lights," became a bootleg sensation before getting an official release on Record Store Day in 2015.
Less than a year later, across the country at Music America Studios in Rochester, N.Y., the potential Metallica hinted at on No Life ‘Til Leather would be fully realized, albeit with a few lineup changes. Bassist Ron McGovney had been replaced by Cliff Burton and Mustaine would be dumped for Exodus guitarist Kirk Hammett as the band went on to complete the recording of their masterful 1983 debut, Kill ‘Em All.
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