In 1982 Brian Slagel was a teenage heavy-metal fan preparing to enter college and working as a buyer for Oz Records, a shop in Woodland Hills. While curating obscure heavy-metal albums for the store and operating a fanzine called The New Heavy Metal Revue, he became frustrated over the lack of attention L.A. metal bands he loved were receiving. Operating out of his mother's garage, he put together a compilation album called Metal Massacre, which featured the first recorded output from Metallica and Ratt. It launched Metal Blade Records, a label that has weathered three decades of controversy, changing trends and a collapsing music industry.
To commemorate the label's 30th anniversary, we spoke with Slagel, Kerry King of Slayer and members of Armored Saint, Bitch, Gwar and Six Feet Under. The oral history below focuses on the formative years of Metal Blade, as well as the targeting of some of its bands by Tipper Gore's Parents Music Resource Center.
THE EARLY YEARS, 1982-85
Brian Slagel: I got the idea to put out a compilation [Metal Massacre] inspired by Metal for Muthas, which spotlighted a bunch of New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands. I wanted to help the scene.
Joey Vera (bassist, Armored Saint): In December 1982, Slagel saw an ad for one of our shows, and came and checked us out because he thought we looked like Iron Maiden. He stood out in the crowd right away because he was the only person with his forearms fully covered in metal studs and leather.
Slagel: The original Armored Saint EP in 1983 [was a crucial release], because after that, they signed to Chrysalis. Chrysalis and the band were really good about telling everyone where they came from. It was a huge deal to have this major-label band in the '80s talking about us.
Vera: Everything happened so fast for us. We were 20 years old when we signed a contract with Chrysalis. At that moment, you had to acknowledge that Metal Blade was a large part of that.
Slagel: Shortly thereafter was Show No Mercy by Slayer in '84, which at the time was our biggest record and sold big on the independent level.
Kerry King (guitarist, Slayer): I think Brian had come to see us play at a club called the Woodstock in Orange County. We were stoked to have an opportunity to do a record. You've got your whole life to make your first record ... but even before that, you have to get noticed. Brian was the first to notice us. Certainly it wasn't like being on Chrysalis or a major label, but it was still very important.
Slagel: The first three years was just me doing [the label] by myself, in my mom's garage. Those two things [the Armored Saint EP and Show No Mercy] helped establish us as a real label. By the time Slayer and Metallica became big, of course, it doesn't hurt that we can say, "They came from Metal Blade." It also doesn't hurt that, to this day, those guys are amazing for giving us credit for starting them out.
TARGETED BY THE PMRC, 1985-87
In 1985, Tipper Gore co-founded the Parents Music Resource Center, an organization whose goals included pressuring record labels into placing advisory stickers on albums that featured (what they considered to be) objectionable content. One of the earliest Metal Blade releases, Bitch's Be My Slave, drew her attention; it featured S&M lyrics on tracks like "Leatherbound" — "When you tie me up and gag me/The way you give me pain."
Slagel: Having politicians and powerful people telling you that your records are not welcome here ... the threats of labeling and censorship were scary. But on another level, I was, like, "Why is this really happening?"
Betsy Weiss (aka Betsy Bitch, Bitch vocalist): Even if the PMRC didn't have good things to say about us, we were pleased with the attention we were getting. Tipper Gore would hold up our album while speaking about her cause. Even if it was for the wrong reasons, it still put our name in good company alongside Twisted Sister, Prince and the other bands they were speaking about.
Slagel: They wouldn't have had nearly the amount of exposure they received otherwise. It was scary for a year or two, where you weren't sure where this was heading or how it was going to affect everything. But in the end, it ... had the opposite effect, it actually helped. It was a huge benefit for all of the bands involved with that.
King: To rebellious teenagers, any controversy is good. To the people that loved this music, the PMRC made themselves look like idiots. Our first advisory sticker was on our album Reign in Blood, and we welcomed it.
Slagel: I grew up in the '70s and was a huge Alice Cooper fan. He went through the same stuff that we got caught up in later. I didn't want to tell bands what they can and cannot say. During the '80s and '90s, there were a lot of people that wanted to ban and censor albums. I am so staunchly for people being able to speak their minds and create the art that they want to create. It almost made me angry and made me want to push the envelope further because these people were pushing back.