Still Pulling Your Strings: 'Master of Puppets' 25 Years Later
Master of Puppets not only rocketed Metallica into stardom upon its 1986 release, but it also blew a hole in the industry’s unwritten rule that a band without commercial aspirations could not make it and, as a result, helped undermine music censorship.
No rock 'n' roll fan set anger as a goal for the 1980s.
But in the final decade that the entertainment industry had a chokehold on everything you saw and heard, it was hard not to get angry. The 1980s was rock's nadir, and the obnoxious manner its lowest common denominator was marketed made it even harder to bear. And by 1985, there was even an attempt -- spearheaded by the Parents Musical Resource Center (PMRC) -- to undermine your right to even listen to certain types of music outside the shitty mainstream.
When Metallica’s Master of Puppets crashed the Top 30 in March 1986 without airplay, it signaled a turning point that’s still relevant 25 years later. A growing mass of rock fans tired of the same old shit delivered a message to the industry: We don’t have to listen to what you want us to.
From Bad to Worse
After 1979, who wouldn't have been optimistic about the next decade? AOR and disco notwithstanding, it was a year of great punk albums by the Damned and Stiff Little Fingers, post-punk landmarks by Gang of Four and Public Image Ltd., stellar power pop by the Beat and 20/20, groundbreaking metal by Motörhead, and bustling underground scenes all over.
But in retrospect, it was false hope. The top sellers of 1980 -- including "Another Brick in the Wall, Part II", "Ride Like the Wind", and "Heartache Tonight" -- were complete and utter shit, and -- from a screechy-voiced castrato schmuck sporting a red leather jacket to Pat Benatar to Def Leppard, things just got worse in the ensuing years. As the music sank lower, the underground got angrier. Punk mutated into a faster, angrier, more overtly political form called hardcore. A large swathe of rock fans turned their backs on the 1980s and even most of the 1970s as they revived '60s garage and psychedelia. And over in England, a return to heavy metal’s roots took shape with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM).
Though only a few NWOBHM bands -- Iron Maiden, Witchfinder General, Samson, and Saxon -- made consistent albums, there were many great singles. And in Southern California, a transplanted Danish tennis player named Lars Ulrich took notice -- soon parlaying his enthusiasm for Motörhead and NWOBHM bands like Diamond Head into his own outfit, Metallica, formed in October 1981.
After debuting on the Metal Massacre compilation with "Hit the Lights" in 1982 and recording several raw demos with the original lineup of Ulrich (drums), James Hetfield (rhythm guitar/vocals), Dave Mustaine (guitar), and Ron McGovney (bass), Metallica made its first key move in replacing McGovney with Cliff Burton. Burton contributed not only stellar bass playing and an uncanny musicality that advanced the band's sound, but also inspired a move north to the San Francisco Bay Area -- home to like-minded proto-thrash bands like Trauma (the group Burton had just quit), Possessed, Exodus, and Murder.
Thrashmetal fused metal's instrumental prowess and blue-collar underpinnings with the speed and anger of punk. But unlike punk, which mostly reserved its lyrical shots for social issues and class war, thrash skewered the biggest sacred cow of all, organized religion. The more people who heard its combination of radical sound and blasphemous lyrics, the more who were offended. This wasn't metal for the masses; it was for diehards.
Metallica didn’t trade in Satanism, instead devoting most of their lyrics to themes of social alienation, warfare, and aggression. None of which were necessarily anything new, but the sound was. Frustration with current music and their perennial underdog status fueled their rage and their speed, an inner inferno so raging that not even replacing Mustaine (soon to form Megadeth) with Bay Area maven Kirk Hammett (fresh out of Exodus) could extinguish it.
By the time Metallica had parlayed its sound into a debut album, Kill 'Em All, in 1983, thrash bands had sprouted all over: Overkill and Anthrax in New Jersey, Slayer in L.A., Destruction and Sodom in Germany, Destructor and Purgatory in Cleveland, Hellhammer (which evolved into Celtic Frost) in Switzerland, and Voivod, Sacrifice, and Exciter in Canada. By 1985, all the aforementioned early Bay Area bands, save Murder (whose recordings were released posthumously), had recorded albums. Likeminded veteran bands such as Motörhead and Anvil finally gained a foothold in America.
As the thrash movement mushroomed, so did the attention. College radio shows devoted to nothing but extreme metal took to the airwaves, and thrash even saw limited exposure on a nationally syndicated one-hour FM show called Metalshop. Thrash was now accessible beyond just the underground tape-trading circuit; Metallica's second album, 1984's Ride the Lightning, was even picked up by a major label, Elektra.