35 Years Ago: Metallica Stir Controversy on ‘Ride the Lightning’
A year and two days after releasing their landmark debut, 1983's Kill 'Em All, Metallica returned on July 27, 1984, with their second album, Ride the Lightning -- and promptly stomped all over the sophomore jinx with a set of songs that found the band broadening the scope of its thrash metal sound to incorporate sharper arrangements, more thoughtful songwriting, stronger melodies, and even a little acoustic guitar.
Rolling Stone rounded up Metallica members Lars Ulrich and Kirk Hammett, along with 'Ride the Lightning' producer Flemming Rasmussen, for a fond look back at the album's legacy, as well as some shared memories of the sights, sounds, and odors that erupted when four dirt-poor metalheads descended upon Rasmussen's Sweet Silence Studios in Copenhagen in the winter of 1984.
"It was great when we started there, but we were homesick after three or four weeks," Hammett said, laughing. "It was three American guys and a Danish guy. It was easy for the Danish guy to fit in, but it wasn't so easy for the three American guys to fit in. We were experiencing culture shock a little bit." Adding that they "didn't really have anything else to do besides work on music and drink Carlsberg beer," he admitted, "we totally destroyed our friend's house where we were staying. We plugged up the tub in his bathroom."
"I had never heard of them, but I really liked them as people," Rasmussen recalled. "The studio I worked at, Sweet Silence, was renowned in Denmark. My mentor was really into jazz, and he pulled me aside one day and said, 'What's going on with these guys? They can't play." And I'm like, 'Who cares? Listen to the energy.'"
As Ulrich pointed out, the material on Ride the Lightning was affected by the fact that it represented the first set of songs that the band had written as a unit after founding member Dave Mustaine was fired. "It was the first time that the four of us wrote together and we got a chance to broaden our horizons. I don't think it was a conscious effort to break away from anything musically," he mused. "Obviously, listening to songs like 'Fight Fire' and 'Trapped Under Ice,' we were obviously still into the thrash type of stuff. But we were realizing you had to be careful that it didn't become too limiting or one-dimensional. ... 'Ride the Lightning' was the first time that both [bassist Cliff Burton] and Kirk got a chance to add what they were doing. They just came from a different school, especially Cliff, who came from a much more melodic approach."
That was wholeheartedly deliberate, as evidenced by Ulrich's remarks in a 1984 interview with Kerrang! in which he shared his reasons for shying away from thrash. "It implies lack of arrangement, lack of ability, lack of songwriting, lack of any form of intelligence," he argued. "Thrash metal to me is just open E riffing for five minutes as fast as you can go."
Lightning was a sales success for the previously underground outfit, peaking at No. 100 on the Billboard chart -- and ultimately attracting the interest of Elektra Records, who signed the band to a new deal and reissued the album later in the year. Still, the record's expanded musical palette wasn't without its detractors.
"There was an odd reaction to 'Fade to Black' and to the variety of the record. It did surprise us a little bit, I guess," Ulrich admitted. "People started calling us sellouts and all that type of stuff. Some people were a little bit bewildered by the fact that there was a song that had acoustic guitars. That was kind of funny because every great Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Mercyful Fate record, that was part of their arsenal, too. The fact that we followed down that path surely couldn't have surprised anybody."
Ultimately, concluded a laughing Ulrich, "Obviously it holds up very well. There's kind of a youthful energy that runs through the record. A good portion of these songs are still staples of our live set. And between 'For Whom the Bell Tolls,' 'Creeping Death,' 'Fade to Black' and 'Ride the Lightning,' that's not a bad batting average."