Brian SlagelEXPAND
Brian Slagel
Stephanie Cabral

How $50 Almost Killed Metallica's First Recording for Metal Blade Records (Book Excerpt)

In 1982, Brian Slagel was a 21-year-old metal fan living in Woodland Hills, devouring every album and 7-inch single he could find from near and far. He had begun taking steps toward becoming a tastemaker, as a buyer for a local record store called Oz Records, and as publisher of a fanzine called The New Heavy Metal Revue. Slagel would use these outlets to champion his favorite obscure acts to a small but devoted fan base of Los Angeles metalheads, including future Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich.

Slagel grew frustrated at the number of Los Angeles metal bands that were not getting the exposure or recognition he felt they deserved. Cobbling together limited funds and operating out of his mother's garage, he began putting together a compilation record he would eventually call Metal Massacre. The release featured the first recorded output from acts such as Metallica and Ratt, and would be the launch pad for Slagel's label, Metal Blade Records.

Through Metal Blade, Slagel soon followed the release of Metal Massacre with the debut albums of other then-on-the-rise acts such as Bitch, Armored Saint and Slayer. The success of these early records boosted Metal Blade from its beginnings as a shoestring, DIY operation to its current status as a heavy metal powerhouse, home over the years to such now-iconic acts at Cannibal Corpse, GWAR, Amon Amarth and The Black Dahlia Murder.

Metal Blade Records is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, and Slagel has commemorated the milestone by penning an autobiography that serves as both a document of his own heavy metal fandom and of the ups and downs of three decades of running a genre-specific record label in a music industry that has changed dramatically since his early days. The book, For the Sake of Heaviness: The History of Metal Blade Records, comes out Tuesday, Aug. 29. It was co-authored by Mark Eglinton and features a foreword by Lars Ulrich.

The excerpt below details the last-minute scramble by Ulrich to deliver the tape for “Hit the Lights,” Metallica's contribution to the original Metal Massacre compilation. The recording was a very primitive version of the song that would later open Metallica's 1983 debut record, Kill 'Em All. The track did make the final cut for the album, but the frantic nature of the timing would result in a very memorable error:

The backstory — and it has been written about many times already — is that Lars and James Hetfield had met and had been rehearsing a little, but couldn’t, at the outset, find anyone to be in their band. Apparently nobody else had their knowledge of the NWOBHM [New Wave of British Heavy Metal] or was into anything they were. So they couldn’t gig — couldn’t do anything. Nothing was happening for them, so when the opportunity to be on an album came up, they were going to take it. In fact, they were the last band to sign on to what would be called Metal Massacre.

John Kornarens [Slagel's partner in The New Heavy Metal Revue fanzine]:
Around this time, Lars actually asked me if I wanted to join Metallica. He said, “We’ll rehearse five nights a week in Downey.” I already knew James and felt that, while he was motivated by Lars’ musical knowledge, on a personal level he bonded with me more because we shared that Southern California ethos of muscle cars and Ted Nugent!

But joining Metallica meant I’d have to quit my job. My mom would have probably kicked me out of the house, and I was a month and a half away from graduating college. I’d been told that if I didn’t go to college, I’d get kicked out permanently. So Lars makes the call and says, “I’m putting this band together with James — you want to play rhythm guitar? James is struggling between playing guitar and singing.”

I thought about it for 30 seconds. I was making $13 an hour at the supermarket, which was good money back then. I was about to finish college, so I said, “Thanks Lars, but I better not.”

He said, “OK, no problem!” I had absolutely no sense that they’d ever make it.

A month prior, Brian and I had gone down to Lars’ place, and he showed us this drum kit he had in a closet in his bedroom. He told us he was starting a band. I thought, “This guy’s nuts. He’s living in a townhouse in Newport Beach; everyone’s going to kick him out because of the noise.” He had this ridiculously humongous silver drum set. I just closed the closet door, walked out of the room, and said, “All right Lars, go for it.”

John Kornarens and I had scraped together just enough money from here, there and everywhere to get the compilation done.

When it got down to the final days — when I had nearly all the tapes from all the bands together, and was almost ready to do the pressing — I still hadn’t gotten a tape from Lars. Desperate, I called him and said, “Dude, we’re coming up on the deadline here. I need this.”

Nothing happened.

At the very last moment of the last day when John and I were mastering the record with the engineer at the Hollywood Bijou Studio, Lars came running up the street with his tape. They’d seemingly produced it the night before on a small four-channel machine on which you could just barely make a somewhat medieval recording. They’d recorded the track “Hit the Lights” and, on the original pass, James played the guitars, the bass and sang; Lars played drums, and Lloyd Grant, another one of Lars’ friends, played the lead. That was the original version.

Lars brought the recording in on a cassette. To properly master something like that it had to be bumped up to a reel-to-reel. Luckily, one of the guys who worked at the record store had given us a crazy good deal to use the studio, but there was still an additional $50 charge to transfer the tape.

I didn’t have 50 bucks; Lars certainly didn’t have 50 bucks. Thankfully, John Kornarens did, so we were able to put the Metallica song on the record. Otherwise, I’m not sure what the hell would have happened there!

I was already pulling a million favors to assemble this compilation record. I couldn’t possibly focus on every detail all the time. I just wanted it to exist. The girl who agreed to do all the typesetting — who also did the typesetting for the fanzine — was doing everything for free. And in those days, somebody had to sit and laboriously put the letter block together in preparation for the actual printing process.

Lars had literally given me everything at the last minute: the name of the band, the song and everything else. When I gave it all to the typesetter — and because the word Metallica didn’t exist in the English language at that time — she somehow felt that the word should be spelled in a different way. It was so desperately late; I had no reference from which to approve it, so we just went with it. After the record went to press, I looked at the back of it, and my heart sank. It was spelled “Mettallica.” At that point, there was nothing whatsoever I could do about it. It was one of many rookie errors I’d make.

Brian Slagel's For the Sake of Heaviness: The History of Metal Blade Records is available via Metal Blade Records.

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