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Fighting Fire With Fire: Metallica Look Back on ‘Ride the Lightning’

Three decades on, Kirk Hammett and Lars Ulrich remember the freezing, beer-fueled nights that produced their defining LP

Three decades on, Kirk Hammett and Lars Ulrich remember the freezing, beer-fueled nights that produced their defining LP

“We were really broke,” drummer Lars Ulrich says, reflecting the state of Metallica as they were making their second album, Ride the Lightning. “We had to live day to day. A friend literally gave us his apartment to stay in while we recording. James and I slept in the bedroom, Kirk and Cliff shared his couch.”

It was the spring of 1984, and the Bay Area thrash-metal quartet was holed up in Copenhagen, Denmark – Ulrich’s home country – recording at a studio they had picked for two reasons: hard rockers Rainbow had recorded their Difficult to Cure album there, and more urgently, it was cheap. At the time, Ulrich and vocalist-guitarist James Hetfield were both 20, guitarist Kirk Hammett was 21 and bassist Cliff Burton was the old man of the group at 22. Less than a year earlier, they had kicked out guitarist Dave Mustaine, who went on to form Megadeth, recruited Hammett and released their speed-limit-breaking debut, Kill ‘Em All, the record that defined thrash metal. Now they were working on the album that defined Metallica.

Thirty years later, Ride the Lightning stands out in the group’s catalog as the album that introduced melody to its arsenal. Songs like the heavy ballad “Fade to Black” and the crushing “For Whom the Bell Tolls” would serve as blueprints for later Metallica hits like “Nothing Else Matters” and “Sad But True,” and the eerie, nine-minute instrumental “The Call of Ktulu” demonstrated their range. The single “Creeping Death,” has become a concert staple, thanks to the way it can get 10s of thousands of metalheads at a time to chant “Die! Die! Die!” along with its outro.

The record has since gone on to be certified six times platinum. But when Metallica were making it, they were poor, young headbangers, trying to stretch their dollars. On the eve of the 30th anniversary of Ride the Lightning, Rolling Stone caught up with Ulrich, Hammett and production assistant Flemming Rasmussen, who recorded the group in Copenhagen’s Sweet Silence Studio, to find out how the album was made and what it means to them now.

Where did the title Ride the Lightning come from?
Kirk Hammett: I was reading The Stand by Stephen King, and there was this one passage where this guy was on death row said he was waiting to “ride the lightning.” I remember thinking, “Wow, what a great song title.” I told James, and it ended up being a song and the album title.

Was recording in Copenhagen fun at that stage in your life?
Hammett: It was great when we started there, but we were homesick after three or four weeks [laughs]. 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.

How did you handle your homesickness?
Hammett: We didn’t really have anything else to do besides work on music and drink Carlsberg beer. We collected absolutely every single beer bottle in our friend’s apartment, because you were able to take in four six packs of empty beer bottles and get one six pack of full beer bottles back. Once we figured that out, that was a little thing that we did. Being homesick gave us the right amount of, I don’t want to say “depression,” but a little bit of longing that I think made its way into the recording process.

Were you good houseguests?
Hammett: We totally destroyed our friend’s house where we were staying. We plugged up the tub in his bathroom. He had a huge videotape collection of all these bands, live on video. And part of our thing is we would wake up in the morning, pick out a music video to watch. Go to the studio. Come back from the studio. Put on some more music videos. And drink beer. That’s what we did.

Flemming, what were your first impressions of Metallica?
Flemming Rasmussen: I had never heard of them, but I really liked them as people. 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.”

Lars Ulrich: Flemming was completely in tune to what we were doing. He was recording us with lots of ambiance, and we wanted heavy sounds and big drums.

Hammett: We recorded Kill ‘Em All, at this local studio in Rochester, New York, and I think the biggest artist that might have used that place was the singer of Foreigner for some demos or something. I don’t know. But we were really excited to be at Sweet Silence Studios because that’s where Rainbow did Difficult to Cure. We were excited because we liked the sound of that album, and we were looking to get a similar sound for our album, using that studio and the same engineer, Flemming.

How complete were the songs when you began recording?
Hammett: Three or four months prior to recording Ride the Lightning, we would do these small, theatre shows where we would play were “Creeping Death,” “Ride the Lightning,” “Fight Fire With Fire” and “The Call of Ktulu.” Those songs were about 90 percent complete, in terms of arrangement and the guitar solos were already written.

Ulrich: We were hovering in New York in December and January of ’83 and ’84, and we wrote quite a bit of “Fade to Black” in New Jersey in the basement of our friend Metal Joe [Chimienti].

Songs like “Fade to Black,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “Escape” were more melodic and slower than the songs on Kill ‘Em All. Were you trying to do something different, musically?
Ulrich: 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. 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.

All four of us were so into so many different things. And Kill ‘Em All was primarily written with James and I and Mustaine; so Kirk and Cliff didn’t really contribute to any of the songs on Kill ‘Em All. Ride the Lightning was the first time that both Cliff 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.

Did you just jump right into recording right when you got to Copenhagen?
Hammett: All our equipment got stolen in Boston, right before we were going to leave for Europe. The only things that we had were our guitars.

Rasmussen: James had this special Marshall amp that had been modified when he recorded Kill ‘Em All.We had to get all the Marshall amps from some of the metal bands that were in Denmark at that time, so like nine Marshall amps, and spent the first day testing them. We actually recreated James’ guitar sound on Kill ‘Em All, but just beefed it up. He was really pleased with that.

Hammett: It wasn’t a particularly fun or happy time. But we were glad to be at a great studio in good working conditions. Everything else outside the studio was a struggle.

How did Cliff come up with the descending bass riff in the intro of “For Whom the Bell Tolls”?
Hammett: He would play that riff a lot in the hotel room, when him and I were hanging out. He used to carry around an acoustic classical guitar that he detuned so that he could bend the strings. Anyway, when he would play that riff, I would think, “That’s such a weird, atonal riff that isn’t really heavy at all.” I remember him playing it for James, and James adding that accent to it and all of a sudden, it changed. It’s such a crazy riff. To this day, I think, “How did he write that?” Whenever I hear nowadays, it’s like, “OK, Cliff’s in the house.”

Where did the bell sound at the beginning of that song come from?
Rasmussen: We had an anvil in the studio, and Lars had to bang that; it could’ve been that or from a record of sound effects. But there was a really heavy, cast-iron anvil and a metal hammer, and we stuck them in an all-concrete room. He’d just go wang.

You were recording in February. Wasn’t it cold?
Rasmussen: We were recording at night and it was freezing sometimes. We had big gas heaters heating up the drum room so Lars wouldn’t catch a cold. That studio is now somebody’s apartment, by the way. Somebody’s living room is where Lars actually sat and recorded Ride the Lightning. That’s kind of amazing [laughs]. I think I should move there.

Kirk, riffs from songs by your previous band Exodus, “Die by His Hand” and “Impaler,” found their way into “Creeping Death” and “Trapped Under Ice,” respectively. Did you bring those to the table?
Hammett: No. What I think happened was when Lars and James were thinking about getting rid of Dave [Mustaine], our sound guy, Mark Whitaker – who was Exodus’ manager – gave them Exodus’ demos. I think “Die by His Hand” might have caught their ears. So when they were writing “Creeping Death,” they went, “Great. ‘Die by His Hand.’ Put it right there.” It was definitely not me going, “I have a riff here in this Exodus song, and it needs to be here in this Metallica song.” By the way, I wrote that “Die by His Hand” riff when I was, like, 16 years old.

Did the whole band sing the “Die! Die! Die!” chant in the studio?
Rasmussen: I’m pretty sure Cliff didn’t – well, it was Cliff or Kirk – but one of them just stood there moving his mouth. At one point, the other three decided not to sing, just to check it out, and either Cliff or Kirk didn’t say a word [laughs].

What was Cliff like in the studio?
Rasmussen: He was a one of a kind. It was the Eighties, and everyone was doing the punk thing with tight pants, but he was still wearing bellbottoms. He didn’t give a shit what people thought about him. He was a good musician, really nice on a personal level and a good poker player. As a bassist, he was more like a soloist than a regular bass player. The first time I recorded him, I tried all sorts of shit to make him feel comfortable, because he was used to the live environment. Eventually, I put his amp in another room, and he’d play in the main room like he was onstage, with the sound blasting from these speakers. It was pretty wild. I liked him a lot. It was a sad day when he died [in a bus accident while on tour in 1986].

You took a break in the middle of recording to do a tour. What was it like when you came back?
Ulrich: When we got back, we had to sleep in the studio because we couldn’t afford any place to stay. Literally, we stayed in a room with all four of us on the floor.

Rasmussen: They were young kids. We didn’t have any problems with them staying at the studio. I had to kick some of them into the showers after a couple weeks because they kind of just smelled. When they put on the same T-shirt they had been wearing for like a week, “OK, new T-shirt.” “Right, I get it.” But you know, they were like kids are, I enjoyed it. We’d start recording at 7 at night and go on ’til 4 or 5 in the morning. So they’d just crash and sleep all day.

Ulrich: Mercyful Fate’s rehearsal room was right next to Sweet Silence Studios. We actually finished the last couple of songs we did for Ride the Lightning – like “Fade to Black,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “Escape” – in their rehearsal room. We were obviously huge fans of theirs, but we also became friends and they were our peers.

Hammett: It was a trip meeting Mercyful Fate because their music makes you think the guys are a bunch of evil, satanic, human-sacrificing devil worshippers. But in reality, they’re all a bunch of goofy Danish guys. King Diamond had a bit of an aura about him, but you couldn’t find a sweeter, more funny guy than him.

Ulrich: I remember we’d heard all the live, bootleg tapes where they’d talk about how, “Now we’re going to bring a roadie out and tap blood from him and offer it to the mighty dark lord,” and all this type of stuff. And all of a sudden, we were looking at the goose feathers that had been used for tapping blood from the roadies. It was very surreal. But there was a sincerity to it. It’s hard to not respect and hard to not totally appreciate that.

Hammett: At one point I thought Mercyful Fate were the heaviest heavy-metal band out there. I remember we played them a few of our songs on Ride the Lightning and Michael Denner, their guitar player, came up to me afterwards and said, “After listening to ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls,’ I thought Mercyful Fate was the heaviest band in the land, but I think now Metallica is the heaviest band in the land.” And I looked at him kind of shocked.

Flemming, was recording James’ acoustic guitar on “Fade to Black” straightforward?
Rasmussen: We probably fucked around with that a lot. On some of these takes, we actually turned the tape around and recorded him playing part backwards while listening to the tape backwards to get mystery sounds in there. We also did that in the acoustic intro for [Master of Puppets‘] “Battery.” They also recorded some electric guitar that fades in and out [on “Fade to Black”] in the background.

“Escape” is one of the catchier, more commercial songs on the album, but the band didn’t play it live for 28 years at the Orion Fest. Was it meant to be a single?
Rasmussen: I remember them talking about that, because they were on this small, independent label, so that was their way of pleasing a major label, so they could get signed. Luckily, they went away from that whole pleasing-a-record-label thing.

Hammett: When we played “Escape” at the Orion Fest, we collectively agreed why we never play that song: It’s not really a great song to play live. It’s in the key of “A,” like “The Call of Ktulu” and “Metal Militia,” but the key of “A” doesn’t really work well for us for some reason or another. Playing that song was more of a novelty than anything else, but we loved playing all the other songs.

Were any labels courting Metallica while they were in the studio?
Rasmussen: They had dealings with Bronze Records at the time, but they wanted the band to record everything again with the label owner’s son producing. They said, “It’s good, but it could sound better,” and everyone just looked and went, “What?” So the label kind of blew it. Bronze has since went bust.

Ride the Lightning came out on July 27th, 1984, on Megaforce Records and, after the group signed with major label Elektra, it was reissued on November 19th of that year. What did you think of the reaction to the album’s more melodic songs?
Ulrich: 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. 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.

Thirty years later, how does the album hold up in your opinion?
Ulrich: Obviously it holds up very well. There’s kind of a youthful energy that runs through the record [laughs]. 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.

Hammett: I thought playing it in full at Orion was great. That album holds up really well. I love the sound of that album. It’s very analog. I think it’s our warmest-sounding album. By the time we recorded Master of Puppets, the days of just bashing it out were much fewer than in the Ride the Lightning days. Just bashing it out always led to a more natural sounding performance to me.