Excerpted from “Chapter Seven: Masterpiece” from Enter Night: A Biography of Metallica by Mick Wall. Available from St. Martin’s Press. Copyright © 2011. Reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
The day after their appearance at the Day on the Green festival, in 1985, a badly hungover James, Lars and Kirk met up at San Francisco International airport to catch the flight to Copenhagen. The first time they would be setting aside proper time to make an album, as opposed to simply tacking on some studio time at the end of a tour and aiming, essentially, just to record their live set, everyone was buzzing. Except for Cliff, who never showed up. “I remember James, Lars and I waiting at the gate and paging him and he never showed up,” smiled Kirk. “So we had to get on the plane without him. Cliff was good at missing things because he moved on his own time. He smoked a lot.” They tried calling him from a payphone but only got the outgoing message on his new answer-machine. But they understood where he was at; that big brother Cliff was probably kicking back at home in a fog of bud-smoke and beer fumes, maxed out. It didn’t take much figuring. Cliff also knew the first few days at Sweet Silence were likely to involve sitting around while Lars got his drums together and James lingered endlessly over the guitar sound. He’d join them later, he decided. After the excitement of Day on the Green, he needed a change of pace anyway.
Recording at Sweet Silence started on Tuesday, 3 September 1985. The band was still jetlagged and missing its bass player but in every other respect they were in the best shape of their lives. The hectic two-and-a-half years the Ulrich-Hetfield-Burton-Hammett line-up of Metallica had been together had seen it coalesce over more than 140 gigs and two albums into a fist-tight proposition. In the eighteen months since they’d completed RTL they had leapt forward as songwriters, as the new material they were now coming up with proved to them. They also had the ironclad confidence only nearly a million albums and singles sold worldwide can bring. “There was a sense of [expectation],” said Kirk. “It did feel like we had a huge amount of momentum behind us, people supporting us and pushing us all during the creation of that album… that this album was another big step forward.” Just to make sure, Lars had recently taken it upon himself to book drum lessons. He had been embarrassed by his amateurish approach in the studio the first time he’d worked with Rasmussen; he was going to show the producer how different things were now. Kirk, too, although always a conscientious pupil, had been away from home a long time and the summer of 1985 was his first prolonged spell back working with Joe Satriani – himself now about to embark on a recording career – since before he’d joined Metallica.
No more sleeping in the spare room either. With Elektra now paying the bills the band could afford to book into the luxury Scandinavia Hotel where Lars and James shared a junior suite and Kirk and Cliff shared another. “It just made the stay a lot easier for [the other three],” said Lars. “We thought we were just on top of the world!” laughed Kirk. Even Cliff, who arrived at the start of the second week there, began to settle down and enjoy the surrounds. Even as winter arrived and the nights got longer and colder, away from the studio, with their guitars and a plentiful supply of strong black hash, Cliff and Kirk ignored the snow on the ground outside and turned their room at the Scandinavia into a home from home. “For a bass player he played a lot of guitar,” Kirk recalled. “In fact, he would drive me crazy with it. We’d come back to the hotel after a night of gallivanting, like totally wasted at three in the morning or whatever. But instead of crashing out he would immediately want to set up the electric guitars and start playing for a couple of hours. I’d be exhausted but then I’d totally get sucked into it and start playing along with him. He would talk me into figuring out certain guitar parts of certain songs so that I could show them to him. Eventually that led to figuring out guitar solos so that he could play them on guitar. He was obsessed with Ed King, one of the guitar players in Lynyrd Skynyrd. He said that Ed King was his favourite guitar player, which was pretty weird.”
When they weren’t playing guitars together, they were playing poker. “We’d go out and play poker for eight hours straight after being up for twenty-four hours,” said Kirk. “We’d find a seafood restaurant that was open, eat raw oysters and drink beer, scream at the natives while we were drunk.” They were, he said, “some of my best memories” from that time. James and Lars were also hanging out more again. As on their previous visits to Denmark, when they weren’t working the two liked to get stuck into the Elephant beer. Recalled Lars, “In late November, early December they have something called Christmas beers, which is just an excuse for everyone to drink their Christmas sorrows away. It’s twice as strong as regular beer. Every time we went out and drank these Christmas beers, James would start trying to talk Danish – completely pissed out of his face!”
Once they were inside Sweet Silence every night though, it was all business. Far from merely carrying on where they’d left off with RTL, the new album would be something else again, they decided – beginning with the sound quality. I put it to Rasmussen that, listening back now, it’s as though they had made some giant breakthrough with Ride the Lightning and were now intent on taking it somewhere new with Master of Puppets. “Yeah, that’s exactly how it was,” he replies. “We were pretty pleased with Ride. But when we were gonna do Master we really tried to [raise] the bar and just make everything actually better than we were capable of. We knew we had a bunch of really good songs so we put the bar up really high, really worked a lot on that.”
Lyrically, the new material was several moves on from what had come before too. James may later have downplayed much of the thrusting new content as simply “about playing live,” but that was like his hero Clint Eastwood’s man with no name in The Good, the Bad & the Ugly suggesting there might be a spot of bother further down the road. It would be another five years before Hetfield was ready to completely bare his soul and start writing brutally frank songs about his real-life emotional state, but there were no schoolboy ‘Metal Militia’s on MOP; no more glory-of-rock ‘Phantom Lord’s. In their place there were songs about addiction (the title track, all light and shade dynamics, the Zeppelin of thrash); American TV evangelists (‘Leper Messiah’, title lifted from David Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust’); madness (‘Welcome Home (Sanitarium)’, about an unjustly incarcerated patient at a mental hospital, hence the misspelled sanitarium of the bracketed title, prefaced by the lonely chime of a treated guitar note); and of course their old friends war (‘Disposable Heroes’) and death (‘Damage Inc’) – both instant thrash classics, performed at psychotic speed, the fastest, all-out headbangers on an album that, ironically, signalled the band’s fond farewell to thrash. With its woozy intro utilising a range of harmonies, volume swells and effects, ‘Damage Inc’ was also Metallica’s metaphorical adieu, perhaps, to their early innocence, as they eagerly awaited the rewards and trappings of major stardom, which though they still didn’t talk about where they might be overheard they were all now anticipating with varying degrees of feverish delight. Hetfield spelling it in the lyrics: ‘We chew and spit you out / We laugh, you scream and shout…’
Seen as a whole, Master of Puppets was in many ways merely a new, vastly improved version of Ride the Lightning. Certainly the track sequencing followed the template almost to the letter, beginning with the atmospheric acoustic guitar intro before segueing into the superfast, ultra-heavy opening track, ‘Battery’ – in reference to their days playing the Old Waldorf club on San Francisco’s Battery Street; a nasty collision between punk and metal that made no apologies to either rigidly defined culture. There followed the monumentally epic title track; swaggering death-march – ‘The Thing That Should Not Be’(like ‘The Call Of Ktulu’, inspired by HP Lovecraft, its lyric ‘Not dead which eternal lie / Stranger eons death may lie’ the same paraphrased quote which also appeared on the cover of Iron Maiden’s Live After Death, bought by Lars during their stay in Copenhagen) – then spooky demi-ballad, ‘Welcome Home…’ and so on up to and including the by now obligatory eight-minute-plus, bass-led Burton instrumental, ‘Orion’; the small white dot in the ocean of black the band veils the rest of the album in, yin to its yang, Cliff’s solo seeping in so seamlessly it’s unclear where the guitar fades out and the bass takes over. Nevertheless, the total track-for-track affect of Master was a quantum leap on from anything Metallica had achieved on Ride, and while these days both albums tend to be mentioned in the same breath, historically, where the former was Metallica’s first exceptionally accomplished recording, the latter would swiftly become recognised as their first stone cold masterpiece; their Led Zeppelin II; their Ziggy Stardust; their legacy. There would never be a Metallica album quite like it again.