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Metallica Talk 30 Years of ‘Master of Puppets’: ‘We Were Just Kids’

Lars Ulrich and Kirk Hammett reflect on Cliff Burton and the year that changed them forever.

Lars Ulrich and Kirk Hammett reflect on Cliff Burton and the year that changed them forever.

When I listen to Master of Puppets now, I just sit there and go, ‘What the fuck? How do you do that?'” Lars Ulrich tells Rolling Stone with a laugh. “It’s very gutsy music.” Thirty years have passed since the drummer and his Metallica bandmates released their mind-boggling masterwork, and it still sounds as powerful as it does fearless. Master of Puppets originally came out on March 3rd, 1986, and it remains a high-water mark for not just the band but for metal as a genre. Its eight songs make up a deep and visceral look at manipulation in all its forms, but thanks to a mix of headbangable riffs and rhythms, it never trades heavy for heady.

The LP came out just five years into Metallica’s career, and in that half-decade they had already pioneered thrash metal on their debut, 1983’s Kill ‘Em All, and added intricate and elegant melodies to the mix on the following year’s Ride the Lightning. But it’s in the twists and turns of Master of Puppets’ title track, the breakneck, scattershot rhythms of “Disposable Heroes” and the heavy pull of “The Thing That Should Not Be,” among other songs, that the band reenergised and refocused its sound. It’s a record with a legacy that Metallica, whose members’ average age was 23 at the time, couldn’t escape now even if they tried.

In the years since, the record’s moody “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” and brutal “Battery” have become set-list staples, while its title track – a nuanced showstopper about drug addiction – has become Metallica’s most-played live song. “A couple of years ago, we did a tour in Europe where we let fans pick the set lists, and, out of 20 or 30 shows, ‘Master of Puppets’ was the Number One most requested song at every show,” the drummer says. “It’s crazy.”

The album is also irrevocably tied to bassist Cliff Burton, who had co-written close to half its songs and who died in a freak tour-bus accident six months after the record came out. In recent years, the band has begun playing Master’s eight-minute instrumental “Orion” in deference to Burton.

The album by itself would be enough to secure Metallica’s place in metal’s pantheon – even if they hadn’t regrouped later that year and, after a few releases, went on to record the mega-selling “Black Album” and become one of the biggest bands in the universe. It’s a legacy that will be explored in depth this fall in Back to the Front, a new book by author Matt Taylor that examines the Master of Puppets album and subsequent Damage Inc. Tour via previously unseen photos and interviews with the band and its crew. In celebration of the album’s anniversary this week, though, Ulrich, guitarist Kirk Hammett and co-producer Flemming Rasmussen spoke with Rolling Stone about what Master of Puppets means to them three decades later.

It was a crazy time,” Ulrich remembers of the summer of 1985. That spring, band members had wrapped months of touring in support of Ride the Lightning and returned home to the San Francisco Bay area. Hammett went camping and fishing, according to a 1986 interview with Ulrich, while Hetfield and Ulrich traveled around the country, following Deep Purple. When they felt settled and ready to write, the singer and drummer, who shared a house in El Cerrito, began woodshedding new material, using cassettes of Burton and Hammett’s ideas, in their garage. They’d all get together and jam and eventually recorded them with the other members on a boombox.

metallica puppets1“When I see photos of us from that time, there was a purity,” Metallica’s Lars Ulrich says. “We were all music fans.” Krasner/Trebitz/Redferns/Getty

“We were really young, really fresh-faced,” the drummer says. “When I see photos of us from that time, there was a purity. We were all music fans. We had all kinds of posters on the wall: Iron Maiden, Michael Schenker, UFO, Ritchie Blackmore. Everything was about music. We were listening to fucking Deep Purple, AC/DC, Motörhead and the rest of it. We were living and breathing music 24/7 with no ulterior motives.”

The summer of ’85 still feels fresh to Ulrich, and one memory in particular stands out. “We sat around and watched Live Aid,” he says. “We recorded the concert, sat there and watched Black Sabbath play at 9 in the morning or whatever it was. There was Status Quo and Led Zeppelin. It was a crazy time.”

The first song Metallica wrote for the LP was “Battery,” followed by “Disposable Heroes.” A rough demo the group recorded that summer, allegedly the day after Live Aid, contains instrumental and vocal versions of “Battery,” “Disposable Heroes” and a combo of “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” and “Orion,” then known as “Only Thing,” as well as an instrumental of “Master of Puppets.” The only songs that weren’t complete by the time they got to the studio were “The Thing That Should Not Be” and “Orion.” Originally, they’d hoped Rush singer Geddy Lee would produce the LP, but he was unavailable due to time constraints. So they decided to work again with Rasmussen, who had previously produced the band’s Ride the Lightning LP.

“Metallica always made really, elaborate, really good demos,” remembers Rasmussen. “Everything was always arranged and ready to rock.”

“There’s a spark or spontaneity or impulsiveness that happens when you’re in your twenties,” Ulrich says. “We wrote Master of Puppets in probably eight weeks over that summer. Nowadays, it takes me eight weeks just to drive own to the studio. It’s like, ‘What the fuck did we do in the summer of ’85 where we could just give birth to that from the first note to the last note in eight weeks?’ Death Magnetic took us probably 18 months from when we started writing to when we started recording. On this current record, it probably took us about nine months. How the fuck do you write a record like Master of Puppets in eight weeks?”

A month after Live Aid, Metallica flew to England for what would be their biggest gig to date, a middle-bill slot at the Monsters of Rock Festival at Castle Donington. “If you came here to see spandex and fuckin’ eye makeup and all that shit, and the words ‘rock & roll, baby’ in every fuckin’ song, this ain’t the fuckin’ band,” Hetfield told the audience. “We came here to bash some fucking heads.” A reported 80,000 showed up that day for the festival, which ZZ Top headlined.

Metallica quickly returned to California where they played a loose, beer-fueled set billed to the Four Horsemen at the Bay Area punk and metal outpost Ruthie’s Inn, as well as an August 31st gig at San Francisco’s famed Day on the Green festival. Then it was off to Copenhagen’s Sweet Silence Studios to reunite with the Danish producer. The next time they would play San Francisco, on New Year’s Eve 1985, they’d premiere a brand-new anthem: “Master of Puppets.”

We more or less wanted to redo Ride the Lightning, just a lot better,” Rasmussen says. “I’ve always thought Metallica raised the bar every time they went in the studio. They challenged their own technical ability all the time, which is the only way you can get better.” The first songs Metallica recorded for Master of Puppets never made it onto vinyl or any other medium. Sessions for the album began on September 3rd, 1985, and according to Rasmussen’s recording notes, the band intended to tackle a handful of cover songs as possible B-sides, just to loosen up. “We did [the Misfits’] ‘Green Hell’ and [Diamond Head’s] ‘The Prince,'” he says, looking at his notes. “We were also supposed to be doing something called ‘Money’ – I don’t know which ‘Money’ song it is – but we did ‘Green Hell’ instead.”

“At least for myself, I found out in the recording of those two cover songs how I should play the drums on the other songs, which is playing a lot more aggressively, even in the studio,” Ulrich said in 1986. “I think all of us are playing more aggressively. We’re so confident now in the studio.”

“Money,” in the case of Metallica circa 1985, would have been San Francisco punk group Fang’s dirgey “The Money Will Roll Right In,” which the band had performed raucously at the Ruthie’s show, and which Nirvana would famously cover at the Reading Festival in 1992. Metallica would later record the other two songs again with bassist Jason Newsted – “Green Hell” would be combined with another Misfits song, “Last Caress,” for 1987’s $5.98 EP: Garage Days Re-Revisited, and “The Prince” would become the B side to their 1988 single “One.”

“We always talked about the vibe of the song.” – Flemming Rasmussen

To record the rest of Master of Puppets, the band worked diligently through December, beginning recording at around 7 p.m. and working through the night, ending anywhere between 4 and 6 a.m. “The hotel they were at included a free breakfast buffet, so they more or less got back in time to eat,” Rasmussen recalls.

Although they’d accepted the nickname “Alcoholica” at the time, the sessions were focused and productive. “Lars and I were almost anal about how tight everything sounded,” the producer recalls. “We wanted it to be spot on. We always talked about the vibe of the song.”

A couple of weeks into the sessions, on September 14th, the band played a one-off gig at Germany’s Metal Hammer Festival, where they test-drove Master of Puppets’ thrashing anti-war salvo “Disposable Heroes.” “That song has some of my favorite lyrics that James has written,” Ulrich says. “He nailed the whole wasted irrelevance of a soldier going off to war and life playing out before his birth. Musically, it’s got a lot of classic Metallica elements: fast parts, mid-tempo verses, halftime things and a lot of interesting progressive stuff that weaves itself in and out of the whole middle section. These days, it’s an awesome track to pull out for special shows.”

One noticeable way in which Metallica had grown since recording Ride the Lightning was Hetfield’s singing. Although he’d sung the first part of the quasi-ballad “Fade to Black” for the 1984 LP, the frontman – then aged 22 – approached Master’s lightest track, “Welcome Home (Sanitarium),” which was inspired in part by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with newfound confidence. “He was more of a shouting kind of vocalist on Ride the Lightning,” Rasmussen says. “The improvement was massive. He was still a bit intimidated by doing vocals, but we did some stuff we wouldn’t have been able to on Ride the Lightning.”

Another manner in which Metallica had improved on the past was the intricacy of their songs. Like “Disposable Heroes,” album opener “Battery” – as in “assault and battery” – boasted a complex arrangement that spanned acoustic, Ennio Morricone–inspired plucking, locomotive thrash riffs and a bluesy solo. “Damage Inc.,” another fret-crushing speedster, begins with swelling chords that approximate Johann Sebastian Bach’s sacred song “Komm, süßer Tod, komm selge Ruh” before revving to Hetfield barking, “Fuck it all and fucking no regrets.” They experimented with doomy, Sabbathy H.P. Lovecraft horror metal on “The Thing That Should Not Be” and lambasted greedy televangelists on the proggy, unpredictable “Leper Messiah.”

Then there was Hetfield’s drug-addict takedown “Master of Puppets.” “I just went to this party in S.F. and there was a bunch of sick freaks shooting up, and it made me sick,” Hetfield said in 1986 of why he wrote it. “It’s not about any drug in general but people being controlled by drugs and not the other way around.” With its stuttered opening guitar line, moody middle solo and arty breakdown, the eight-and-a-half-minute epic soon became the apotheosis of Metallica’s sound.

“My favourite song is ‘Master of Puppets,'” Burton said in a 1986 interview reprinted in K.J. Doughton’s book Metallica Unbound. “I think it’s the best Metallica song yet.”

“That one took some time,” Rasmussen recalls. “There are a lot of different parts and melodies, but it’s a primo song.” To tighten up the sound, the producer remembers asking the band to tune their instruments slightly lower than usual so they could mix with the tapes running faster so it sounded like it would be in tune. “We banged it out a couple of times and decided on the one with the best feeling, because they’d have to play it live.”

Since getting a tight sound was important to Metallica at the time, they worked hard to find the right instruments to record with. Hetfield and Hammett had already figured out which amps worked for them in the Danish studio, after their gear was stolen before recording Ride the Lightning, but Ulrich still wanted a different drum sound, specifically that of a Ludwig Black Beauty snare. The only musician he knew of who had one at the time was Def Leppard’s Rick Allen, and he was still recovering from an auto accident that had cost him his left arm. “So [Lars] called their manager and said, ‘Hey, Rick’s not using the snare right now. Can you send it over?'” Rasmussen recalls. “The next day it was there. They just overnighted it. Then on one of his days off, he went to some music shops in Denmark and found one that had been sitting on the shelf for, like, 10 years and it cost the 1976 price. Now he’s got, like, 20 of them.” For his part, Allen would make a comeback at England’s Monsters of Rock Festival that summer.

As what would become a three-and-a-half-month session wore on, the U.S.-born members of Metallica started to become homesick. Hammett and Burton became especially bored while waiting for Ulrich to finish the drum tracks. “We would stay up 24 hours at a time and just go out walking around Copenhagen kind of drunk, doing whatever we could to bide the time,” Hammett says. “I remember at one point, we found a beach on a map. So we went there but it was so cold and there was absolutely no wave action or anything. Cliff and I were just bundled up on this weird beach in Copenhagen saying, ‘God, this place is driving us crazy!'”

The other thing they would do to pass the time was play poker. “Cliff was one of the really keen poker players,” Rasmussen says. “He was nuts about calling wild cards. It would be deuces and one-eyed jacks and black kings. I think he really wanted to have a royal flush but he never got it. He figured if he had eight different wild cards, there’s a chance.” He laughs. Most of the time, they were playing for “bug sums of money,” the producer adds, like the Danish krone equivalent to 10 cents.

“We got into a huge, huge game of liar’s dice, and it ended in a big, drunk wrestling match with Mercyful Fate.”– Kirk Hammett

Metallica also relaxed during the sessions by partying with their friends in the Danish occult-metal group Mercyful Fate. “We went out to the bar and started drinking,” Hammett says. “I remember we got into a huge, huge game of liar’s dice. It ended in a big, drunk wrestling match between us and Mercyful Fate. It was so fucking hilarious. We started wrestling inside the bar and somehow it spilled out into the street. We were laughing the whole time, just being drunk and not hurting each other. It was just a way to blow off our steam and frustration and any sort of apprehensions and insecurities we had,” Hammett continues.

Whatever insecurities Metallica had, they didn’t show on the record. One of the boldest pieces of music on Master of Puppets is the eight-and-a-half-minute instrumental “Orion,” which opens with a raw, mushy bass sound and grows into a grooving jam with solos that alternate between gloomy and hopeful before fading out on a militaristic rhythm-guitar line. “Cliff came up with these really, really good melody parts,” Rasmussen says. “The melodies are so strong that you don’t need vocals on there.”

“For me, ‘Orion’ was Cliff Burton’s swan song,” Hammett says. “It was a great piece of music, and he’d written the whole middle section. It kind of gave us a view into what direction he was heading. If he would have stayed with us, I think he would have gone further into direction. Our sound would be different if he was still here.

“He had a different sort of feel and approach than the rest of us,” he continues. “It was much welcomed.”

When the sessions were done, Rasmussen helped pack the tapes into a drum flight case so Ulrich could make it home to the Bay Area by the band’s Civic Auditorium show, where they’d play “Master” and “Disposable Heroes” for the first time in the U.S. The next time the band would play a show, Master of Puppets was a few weeks old and the ensuing tour would change the band forever.

From March until August 1986, Metallica spent most of their Damage Inc. tour dates opening for Ozzy Osbourne. “They were always a very good band,” Osbourne recalled in 2009. “We did one tour together, I remember. … I’m kind of honoured to be able to hand the torch to a new generation.”

The tour went smoothly until July when Hetfield broke his arm skateboarding, leading guitar tech and Metal Church member John Marshall to play rhythm guitar, but Metallica carried on undeterred. After the Ozzy tour ended, they took a month off and began a European leg of the tour that would last a little over two weeks. By the band’s September 26th gig in Stockholm, the frontman’s arm had healed and he played rhythm guitar live for the first time in months. It would also be Burton’s final concert.

“If it’s been 30 years of Master of Puppets, this year is the 30th anniversary of Cliff’s passing,” Ulrich says. “That’s crazy. Thirty years? Fuck.”

After the Stockholm show, Metallica’s members and their crew loaded onto a tour bus to head back to Copenhagen, this time for a concert. At around 6:30 in the morning, the vehicle skidded off the road. Hammett, who was thrown from his bunk, suffered a black eye, and Ulrich broke a toe. Burton was thrown through a window of the vehicle, which then toppled onto him, crushing him. He was 24.

“Cliff was just so unique.” – Ulrich

The driver, who was later charged with manslaughter but was not convicted, blamed an icy patch on the road for the accident. Hetfield and Hammett screamed at him, according to Metallica Unbound, and the singer stormed up the road to look for the skid as they waited for a crane to come to lift the bus off the bassist. Hetfield later broke two hotel windows that night, while Hammett slept with the light on because he was so shaken by the incident. Guitar World reported that the bassist’s funeral was held 10 days later in the Bay Area, and “Orion” was played during the service.

“Cliff was just so unique,” Ulrich says. “He was fiercely protective of his own kind of thing. A photographer might say something things like, ‘Cliff shouldn’t wear those baggy bellbottoms,’ but he was so protective of who he was.”

“He’d say, ‘Well, if I wore them long enough they’re going to come back into fashion again anyway, and I like it,'” Rasmussen says. “He was one of the nicest guys I ever met, a gentle giant. But who wore bellbottoms in the Eighties?”

“He revealed in being unique and autonomous, and that’s obviously one of the bigger messages of Metallica,” Ulrich says. “There was nobody like that guy.”

The drummer has been thinking a lot about Burton lately, as he worked on the deluxe reissues of Kill ‘Em All and Ride the Lightning, along with the book Back to the Front, poring over old photographs. “I actually said to my wife the other day when we were going through old pictures, ‘He was a pretty good-looking guy in the right light,'” Ulrich says with a laugh. “We look back on those years, and we were all awkward and disenfranchised, and I don’t know if ‘good-looking’ was something ever attached to Metallica, but there are a couple of pictures where he’s a very handsome, good-looking dude. And he had a magnetic, pretty charming personality when he wanted to be.”

Shortly after Burton’s death, Metallica decided to carry on and began a search for a new bassist. They auditioned dozens of prospective four-stringers but the gig ultimately went to a 23-year-old Phoenix musician named Jason Newsted, who’d previously played with Flotsam and Jetsam.

In the first week of November 1986, Master of Puppets became the first Metallica record to be certified gold, and it has since gone on to sell more than 6 million copies in the U.S. alone. That same week, Metallica resumed the Damage Inc. tour on November 8th, 1986, Newsted’s first official show. “Cliff had this kind of artistic approach, whereas Jason was very technical, he played to perfection,” Rasmussen says. “Cliff was more musical.”

metallica puppets3
Metallica in 2016. From left: James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett and Robert Trujillo Kevin Winter/Getty

Newsted stayed with the group through 2001, and during his tenure, the band incorporated unused Burton riffs into “To Live Is to Die,” from 1988’s …And Justice for All. In 2003, former Suicidal Tendencies and Ozzy Osbourne bassist Robert Trujillo stepped in. But no matter who is in the band, Ulrich still treasures the time the spent with Burton.

“I think about him a lot,” the drummer says. “It was a very unique thing that we had going for us on those three records in terms of the sound of that lineup, and God bless Jason Newsted and God bless Robert Trujillo for their individuality and what they’ve brought to Metallica since his death, but Cliff really was a character all his own. That hasn’t changed one iota since then. It only becomes more and more apparent.”

About a decade ago, Metallica started taking stock of what they had created on Master of Puppets. When Metallica began writing tunes for their latest album, 2008’s Death Magnetic, producer Rick Rubin asked them to think about the records they were playing while they were making Master of Puppets. “You can be inspired and influenced by something without trying to recreate it,” he said, according to Ulrich. (“The main goal of our work together was to get them to re-embrace being Metallica, feeling OK to be a heavy metal band,” the producer told Rolling Stone US last month.) Clearly inspired, the group decided to perform Master of Puppets in its entirety live on a 2006 European tour. It became a turning point for the band.

“It was a lot of fun,” Ulrich says. “We were a little wary of the nostalgia thing, but once we did it, it was really cool. It was the first time we allowed ourselves to look in the rear-view mirror and feel good about what we had done in our past. We’ve always had a fear of repetition and we almost denied our past. But that felt good.”

What Hammett has discovered is that the legacy of Master of Puppets has continued to grow in unique ways. “What surprises me the most is when I listen to the radio and something from the album will come on and I’m amazed at how current and modern it still sounds in the midst of all the other music being played before and after it,” he says. “I’m thankful for that. That doesn’t always happen.”

“We were just playing music and drinking beers.” – Ulrich

Rasmussen, who last worked with Metallica as co-producer on their 1988 LP, …And Justice for All, has had a harder time hearing how Master of Puppets holds up – literally. “I don’t even think I have my Master of Puppets CD,” he says. “My kids keep stealing it. It’s a pain in the ass, but it feels good that they want to listen to it.”

Ulrich is simply eager for the release of Back to the Front, due out this fall. “It’s fucking awesome,” he says. “The author, Matt Taylor, did a book about the movie Jaws, and this is like that on steroids.”

If anything, he’s grateful for the experience of working on the book and Metallica’s other archival projects so he has an excuse to look again at photos from the era and think about how Metallica became who they are now. “We were just kids,” he says. “We were part of a music scene, a movement. At the time, we weren’t aware of the possibilities. I’ve always felt musicians from New York and L.A. have this thing about wanting to get into bands to ‘make it’ and become ‘rock stars’ and buy big mansions in Beverly Hills and get chicks.” He laughs. ” I don’t remember thinking any of that shit. We were just playing music and drinking beers.”