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Metallica Talk ‘Master of Puppets’ Reissue, Cliff Burton’s Last Show

Ahead of a new box set, Kirk Hammett and Lars Ulrich reflect on one of the most turbulent and triumphant periods in the band’s history.

When Metallica began gathering together everything they had in their vaults to include in a super-deluxe, box-set reissue of their touchstone 1986 LP Master of Puppets, they realized they had a lot more material to work with than on the reissues of their first two albums. “The hardest part of it all was the ‘kitchen sink element,'” Lars Ulrich tells Rolling Stone. “There’s a certain exaggerated, perverse beauty in just overwhelming people with as much stuff as possible, but there is also some line in the sand somewhere where it just gets to be too much. If we included everything from that time period, you would need a fucking forklift to get this thing into your house.”

Ulrich says he and the rest of the band were able to pare down the set’s contents by asking themselves, what would a fan want to hear? In addition to remastering the original album, they ultimately settled on a selection of riff tapes, demos, rough mixes, interviews and concert recordings that cover the making of the LP from the songwriting process to the last leg of the touring behind it. The concert recordings include gigs where they were opening for Ozzy Osbourne, a few headlining shows, their last concert with bassist Cliff Burton (who died in a bus accident while on tour) and, among others, their first with his replacement, Jason Newsted. The box set – out Friday – features vinyl, CDs, a cassette, DVDs, a hardcover book, reproductions of handwritten lyrics, buttons and a lithograph; the reissue will also be available in more affordable single-disc and three-CD versions.

In the 31 years since Master of Puppets came out, it has become one of the most influential albums in metal. The lightning-fast riffing of “Battery,” “Disposable Heroes” and “Damage Inc.” set the bar for thrash metal in the mid-Eighties, as it infiltrated the mainstream via Metallica’s opening slot for Osbourne’s tour, while tracks like the crushing “The Thing That Should Not Be,” moody “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” and proggy “Orion” showed that the genre was capable of so much more than speed. Meanwhile, the intricate title track balanced furious and more introspective passages, and became the band’s anthem – the song they’ve played most at concerts and the most-requested song on their recent “Metallica by Request” tour. The record ranked Number Two (behind only Black Sabbath’s Paranoid) on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Metal Albums list and has since been certified sextuple platinum.

In anticipation of the collection’s release, Ulrich and guitarist Kirk Hammett spoke with Rolling Stone about all the things they’ve documented with the reissue of Master of Puppets.

What are you most excited about in the box set?
Kirk Hammett: I’m excited about the rehearsal tapes and the live stuff, because it’s just cool. It’s beyond the normal.

Lars Ulrich: I have always been a fan of the booklets and looking at every little nuance, every piece of paper, every lyric, every ticket and every little wakeup sheet when it comes to other big box sets. So hopefully the fans are going to appreciate this even more. And there’s maybe additional emotional elements to this, since we’re tackling Cliff’s untimely passing. There’s audio of his last show and potentially what may be the last picture that was ever taken of us together onstage. So with things like that, you pause for a second and think of all the craziness and ups and downs and how much we miss Cliff, but also how fortunate we are to still be out here doing it and that people still care.

Let’s talk about some of the curiosities in the set. There’s a rough mix of a cover song by Fang called “The Money Will Roll Right In.” What’s the story behind that?
“The Money Will Roll Right In” was something we were just playing around with. Most of the cover songs in the early days were stuff that we had played when we started out as a covers band; “The Money Will Roll Right In” was more something that fell into our lap. I think Cliff may have brought it in, and it was more of a last-minute kind of thing.

Hammett: I can’t remember who played on “The Money Will Roll Right In.” I know Lars and James did, but I can’t remember if Cliff did. I remember I didn’t, because by the time it came around to me the track itself sounded too polished and too refined. Fang’s version was really raw; it sounded like they had an afternoon to lay down eight songs and that it was done in one take. With us, when we recorded it, it was a little too glossy sounding, somewhat overplayed. We caught none of the punk simplicity and rawness [laughs], which is why it didn’t end up being released. I never expected it to be released, but here we go.

Ulrich: At the time, we took recording very seriously – you gotta get the best sounds, you gotta get the kick drum sound from the last Def Leppard album – so our M.O. was to record some cover songs and by the time we got to our song then we would have the sounds dialed in. So instead of experimenting with a couple of our songs, we would experiment with covers.

There’s a bootleg of you guys playing it live in ’85 at Ruthie’s Inn that sounds pretty raw.
Hammett: Yeah, there was a time when we would play it because the album was in rotation and Fang played every other weekend, because we were in the Bay Area and I saw them often.

Did you ever hear Nirvana’s cover of the song? They played it at Reading in 1992.
No, I had no idea. Wow. I had no idea they were even aware of Fang. They weren’t the most popular punk band in the Bay Area. That is totally weird.

The other interesting cover here is Diamond Head’s “The Prince,” which I didn’t realize you’d recorded during Cliff’s time in the band. You later re-recorded it with Jason Newsted around … And Justice for All. Why didn’t you release this one?
I think what happened with that one is we might not have cleared it with Diamond Head at that point. Or maybe we were working a deal out with Diamond Head, I don’t know. It was the business end of it.

Ulrich: As we got further into the project and we were working under a deadline, we decided not to put vocals on it and to focus our time and energy on the songs that were going on the record.

One of the more curious things is that the rough mix of “Orion” features synthesizers during the intro. Why was that?
We thought it would be cool to have a keyboard beginning. We wanted to use more of a Hammond organ or B-3 sound, so those synths were there just to mark the spot.

Who played them?
I can’t remember. When it comes to keyboard parts in the studio, I think most of us are one-finger keyboard players.

A lot of the recordings are pretty similar to what made the cut on the album. Do you remember experimenting much with the songs?
No. At the time, we were so protective of anybody fucking with what we were doing that we didn’t change much of it. If you changed it, that would be giving in. We never really sent any of it to the record company or to management. And I don’t mean this disrespectfully, but we didn’t really consider Flemming [Rasmussen] a producer in that sense. He was more like an engineer that was there to record and get the best sound and make it sound big. In our minds at the time a producer was somebody that would fuck with your stuff and try to make it more radio-friendly or tame it down. So it was like, “No producers.” There was a very defiant mood in the band, so if you listen to the demos to the final album versions, there’s not much in terms of different arrangements, though in the studio we embellished them. James especially loves tinkering with sounds in the studio and was very into some Queen stuff on the production side. But no producer was going to come in and tell us what to do.

But weren’t you trying to get Rush’s Geddy Lee to produce the album at some point?
Ulrich: Wow [pauses]. I believe he may have been on a very, very short list of people that we may have had a conversation with.

What do you remember about how the lyrics came together for the album?
Ulrich: At the time, James would go off into his own world and handwrite them, and the lyrics would come from talking about different things. “The Thing That Should Not Be” has its origins in the H.P. Lovecraft mythology; “Disposable Heroes” came out of talking about just being just a tool in somebody else’s war; “Leper Messiah” I think, was something Kirk suggested that came on with a David Bowie song, and at that time obviously the Jimmy Swaggarts and the Jerry Falwells and all those dudes that were on TV all the time. And we’d sit around and watch TV a lot, and there was a lot of stuff on TV that would trigger lyric ideas, and just sitting around and watching those evangelists do their whole thing, you know, “Send me money and I’ll heal you,” and all that type of stuff. Obviously they had an effect on us at the time [with “Leper Messiah”]. “Damage, Inc.” and “Battery,” were just about the family of fans and that sense of belonging to something greater than yourself. “Master of Puppets” was obviously about the addiction and all that stuff, and it was somewhat inspired by our friend, Rich Birch – who was the one quoted on the back of Kill ‘Em All, “Bang that head that doesn’t bang” – he used to crash on the couch of James’ and I’s house and he would wake up and chop his breakfast on a mirror and then get going. Listen, we loved the guy to death, and he was a good friend of ours, so it wasn’t a judgment, but it was just about how people rolled at the time.

Kirk, there are a lot of riff tapes in the box set showing your sketches for solos. How did you work out your lead breaks back then?
Back then, I was really into composing the entire solo, beginning to end. I wanted to have it at least 80 to 90 percent complete before going into the studio. I didn’t improvise in the studio. I was young, and I didn’t really have the development in my playing or the ability to show up with nothing and then put down 500 ideas. I can do that now because I’m so much more of a musician now; with “Hardwired” I had no idea what I was gonna play and I figured it out within 90 minutes. I couldn’t do that in 1986. With “Damage Inc.,” I would have just sat there and been scratching my head with a dumbfounded look thinking, “What else am I gonna play?”

There isn’t anything in the box set from Cliff’s tapes. How did he present songs to the band?
He played the intro to “Damage Inc.,” with the volume swells, and then he played me the tune that was the inspiration for that, which is a Bach piece. And he said, “Does it sound alike?” and I said, “No way, man. You’re totally in the clear. It sounds completely like your own thing.” And he wrote the whole middle bit in “Orion” on bass and then worked out the harmony parts on guitar but played them on bass. On the record, James and I were playing all this harmony and initially Cliff wanted to do all of those harmonies on bass. It wouldn’t have worked because it would have been more of a solo sort of thing, like the thing in “Damage Inc.” So we integrated it into “Orion” and came up with the guitar-bass arrangement that’s on the album. That was his swan song, really.

There are a lot of cool concert recordings in here. What do you remember most about these shows?
Ulrich: When I think back to Master of Puppets, I think back to the Ozzy tour. We spent more time on the road with Ozzy than anyone else. We would sometimes play our own shows when we were not with Ozzy, and I think the Aragon Ballroom gig was one of those.

Hammett: I distinctly remember playing “Disposable Heroes” at the Aragon Ballroom show and watching the crowd go absolutely bat-shit fucking crazy. “Disposable Heroes” was not in our support-slot set, so I got the idea of how effective that song was live.

Ulrich: The Hampton Coliseum show [in the box set] was with Ozzy. People had no idea what was hitting them. They’d never seen anything like what we were doing. We’d play all these middle-American arenas and play “Battery” and “Master of Puppets” and the look on a lot of people’s faces was pretty crazy.

Hammett: I remember the Meadowlands show being particularly good because the night before, James, Cliff and I were hanging out with the Samhain guys. It was really cool to be hanging out with them, and I remember Eerie [Von] and Glenn being at the show and us being excited about that fact and being really inspired and wanting to play a really good show because fucking Glenn from the Misfits and the Samhain guys were there. Like, “We gotta put on a good show.” That’s what inspired my playing.

What do you remember about the Hampton Coliseum show, which featured Kirk’s guitar tech, John Marshall, on rhythm guitar, since James had injured himself skateboarding?
John started out that tour on the side of the stage, but Cliff would constantly say, “Get your butt out here.” So the funny thing is John would start the show from behind the stage but by the third or fourth song, he was out standing in front of the amp. By the fourth show, we just said, “It doesn’t really jive well with you standing off to the side and then all of a sudden you’re on the stage. Come out for the first fuckin’ song.” And I’ve known John Marshall since I was 13 years old, and we played guitar together since we were 15, so for him and I it was a trippy thing ’cause all of a sudden him and I were playing guitar together on the Ozzy tour. It was a weird sort of thing for us to experience. It was really trippy and cool.

Ulrich: The Hampton Coliseum show was the last one of the Ozzy tour. We had a lot of fun during Ozzy’s set later. We invaded the stage, and we all had diapers on and we came out with our guitars and silly wigs. That was also the show where our manager, Cliff [Burnstein], told us that the album had gone gold, and that was kind of crazy. It was also Hetfield’s birthday.

Is it emotional listening to the cassette of Cliff’s last show, which was in Stockholm?
Ulrich: Obviously, we’re 31 years past this. So you pause, you reflect, you think, you appreciate, you’re humbled. I move so fast through a lot of the stuff that I never slow down long enough to reflect. And occasionally, when you sit with some of the stuff at 2 o’clock in the morning, you go, “Wow.” When you sit there and listen to the last two songs or look at the pictures from the last show with him, it stops you in your tracks as you deal with it.

What do you remember about the final show with Cliff?
Ulrich: We’d finished playing all the “odeons” in England, which are these old, 3,000-seat movie theaters and we got to Scandinavia where they were more like ice-hockey holes – smaller, colder, darker. It was a different vibe. We played the show in Stockholm, and it went incredibly well. I think it may have been a rare case where we actually played an additional song that wasn’t on the set list, because the show was so good. That’s not something we did a lot then or now. So there was a good vibe.

Hammett: It was significant because it was the first show where James played guitar again. He strapped on a guitar and was able to play the encore; I think it was “Blitzkrieg” or something. But I remember the five of us, including John Marshall, being really stoked James was back and playing and looking like was gonna make a pretty healthy recovery. I distinctly remember that show being good, and the feeling when we got offstage was really great and positive and forward-looking. Like, “Great, James is back in and it won’t be long ’til we’re back to our old selves again.” It was that kind of mood after the show and then the accident happened and it literally felt like we were going from a hopeful sort of circumstance to one where we found ourselves in into a deep, black pit.

Ulrich: We did a lot of press that day, and we did a photo shoot for a Swedish magazine called OK, which was almost like a teenybopper magazine. We were sitting on the bus afterwards, talking about how cool it was, and Cliff and I were hanging out, having a beer. It’s a little fuzzy now but it was a good day.

Hammett: I remember right when we were about to leave in the bus, the fans started running towards us. And Cliff said, “Look at them. They look like zombies!” He was way into zombies. We were all just kind of laughing. Then we started playing cards. And we had a long, long drive. And everyone knows the rest of it. 

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“Jason [Newsted, second from right] had this incredibly useful positive energy and was like a fireball,” Lars Ulrich says. Credit: Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images

The box set also has Jason Newsted’s first audition and first gig. I imagine that was a rough time.
Yeah, we didn’t know what was up, down or sideways, and we decided that the smartest thing we could do was to keep going. We laid Cliff to rest a week or two after the accident, and then there wasn’t five minutes after that [to process it] because if we slowed down, we were afraid we were going to disappear into nothingness or go so far into the abyss that we wouldn’t be able to pull ourselves up. So I called a few people, including [Metal Blade Records founder] Brian Slagel, and said, “Who are the guys out there that were the hot bass players?” And we set up auditions the week after Cliff’s funeral.

Hammett: It was weird. We were all very nervous about the first show back. Things sounded good in rehearsal, and we were wondering if Jason would be able to cut it live. You can rehearse with someone ’til the cows come home, but once you go on tour, and being away from home and playing shows, that’s what really separates the men from the boys. There are no manuals or training courses. And Jason was good at it. He really rose to the occasion.

Ulrich: Jason had this incredibly useful positive energy and was like a fireball. He came in and was gung-ho and ready; he just had the right attitude, the chemistry and his personality and approach to his instrument were really unique. And he could not have been more of a 180 from Cliff, so it wasn’t like were getting a “Cliff Junior” replacement. I remember having a gut feeling that Jason was the one to beat.

From when you started writing Master to the end of your touring for the album with Jason Newsted, the box set covers only about two years of your life, yet so much happened in that time. What do you make of that?
Hammett: There was a responsibility for the band’s future that was just thrust upon us. Before September 1986, the band’s future looked super rosy. But by October, we had no idea if we were ever gonna play together again. And we had lost a brother. It forces you to take stock mentally and emotionally. And we grew up a lot, ’cause by the next tour, we were a little more mature. We were a bit more focused. We were also playing well. And out of that desire to play well came [1988’s] … And Justice for All.

Cliff Burton once said that “Master of Puppets” was his favourite Metallica song and the band’s best song yet. It’s since become the group’s most-requested tune and the song you’ve played the most. Why do you think it has endured?
It cycles through a lot of great emotions. It’s really atmospheric in the middle part. It’s super heavy and it has good energy. It has a lot of emotion. After I either listen to or play “Master of Puppets,” I feel like I’ve purged something. The greatest music is like that – you either gain something or it helps you get rid of something emotionally. “Master of Puppets” is an incredibly cathartic song. It hits on emotions that people could relate to that just need to be brought to the fore and that song does it. People feel better for it afterwards.