Still Pulling Your Strings: ‘Master of Puppets’ 25 Years Later

Master of Puppets

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.

Censorship Drive

The general public — particularly the more puritanical segment — did not like what they heard. And in the fall of 1985, a group of congressional housewives known as the PMRC took their dislike of metal and various other allegedly naughty lyrics to Capitol Hill, demanding that the industry include warning labels on certain recordings. Why? Because they supposedly influenced listeners to do bad things and hastened the demise of the family. Their proof? Absolutely zilch, not even one study. Just baseless allegations.

The angry wives weren’t out to censor anyone, they insisted, though censorship was the byproduct of their campaign, which prompted retailers like Sears, JC Penney, Wal-Mart, and Fred Meyer to remove rock titles from their stores, and undoubtedly created the environment that led to Dead Kennedys lead singer Jello Biafra going on trial for obscenity for merely putting an H.R. Giger poster inside their 1985 album, Frankenchrist. It also helped subject America to at least a decade’s worth of stupidity from religious zealots who protested at shows and appeared on the idiot box to spout off their “expertise” about the harmful effects of rock ‘n’ roll. It was almost uncanny: The views of Jesus were exactly in line with the anti-rock preachers, as if he could read their minds. And in spite of being written nearly 2,000 years earlier, before the invention of rock ‘’n’ roll, let alone electricity, scriptures explicitly spoke against heavy metal. Only in America could charlatans like this be allowed to speak without inspiring uncontrollable laughter.

Basically, the PMRC signaled to many of us that it was war. We listened to your shitty music, we watched your shitty corporate channel MTV, we suffered through the debut of Madonna for crying out loud — and now you wanted to take away the one thing that provided escape and made us forget what a crappy decade the 1980s was. Even non-metal performers like Biafra (known to make fun of metal during DK shows), Frank Zappa, and John Denver objected, as well as metal haters in the rock press like Robert Christgau and especially Dave Marsh. (And of course, metal wasn’t the only target; would-be censors disliked music by lower-income African Americans — rap — as much as they disliked the music of generally blue-collar whites.)

Zappa, Denver, and Twisted Sister vocalist Dee Snider cleaned the PMRC’s clock during a September 19, 1985, Senate committee hearing, but the PMRC was far from finished. No one knew what was coming next, or if it would have a chilling effect on the industry — making it harder to hear certain artists. Turning on the radio or watching MTV in early 1986 certainly didn’t provide hope because it was, well, the same old shit.

Then came Master of Puppets. With all the momentum Metallica had picked up on the underground, there was already a huge buzz leading up to its March 3, 1986, release — and the contents proved such enthusiasm was not unfounded. Ride the Lightning was a more than worthy follow-up to the debut, but in some ways — on songs like “Escape”, “The Call of Ktulu”, and “Fade to Black” — the rough edges had been smoothed out. Puppets had no such melodic aspirations.

Master of Puppets was darker, heavier and more advanced in terms of musicianship. Only three of the album’s eight tracks — “Battery”, “Disposable Heroes”, and “Damage Inc.” — thrashed to the max like what was on the previous two albums, as the speed made way for a slower, more diversified sound of the title track (a mid-tempo mix of riffs and a haunting, dual-guitar melody in the middle), “Leper Messiah”, and the evocative instrumental “Orion”. “Battery”, “The Thing That Should Not Be”, “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)”, and “Damage Inc.” had slow, contemplative intros making way for the metallurgy that followed. The lyrics were about insanity, drug addiction, domestic violence, war and religion — all spitting a mouthful of whisky in the face of the many lame acts on the charts. There was even a hilarious octagonal red warning sticker baiting the PMRC on initial pressings: “THE ONLY TRACK YOU PROBABLY WON’T WANT TO PLAY IS ‘DAMAGE, INC.’ DUE TO THE MULTIPLE USE OF THE INFAMOUS ‘F’ WORD. OTHERWISE, THERE AREN’T ANY ‘SHITS,’ ‘FUCKS,’ ‘PISSES,’ ‘CUNTS,’ ‘MOTHERFUCKERS,’ OR ‘COCKSUCKERS’ ANYWHERE ON THIS RECORD.”

Kick Down the Wall

Other than college radio, however, no one played Master of Puppets. Which is why it was so hard to believe that it soon hit the charts at number 29, sticking out like a sore thumb amongst all those ghastly ’80s records.

It was as if someone had knocked down the Berlin Wall and you were watching the dust settle. Without airplay, promotion, or even so much as a whiff of mainstream publicity, plus an active attempt to suppress it, Master of Puppets had defied the odds. A cutting edge band had finally made it. (Sure, Iron Maiden overcame a similarly ridiculous campaign by fanatics a couple years earlier — but they were already established in Europe, and in fact did briefly get FM airplay.) Though no one knew it at the time, it was a turning point, the same way Franco Harris’ immaculate reception reversed 40 years of losing for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1972 or the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, albeit on a lesser scale.


Not that it made a huge difference in the late ’80s, which sucked. But the metaphorical knocking down of the wall proved that modern metal could make money, and when something proves profitable for corporations — virtually nothing can stop it. Which ensured heavy metal’s victory over the PMRC and other puritanical morons. Musically, it also signaled the end of corporate metal — or as it’s since come to be known as, hair metal.

On June 22, 1988, at the Akron Rubber Bowl, I personally witnessed the changing of the guard on the Monsters of Rock tour, which featured (in order of appearance) Kingdom Come, Metallica, Dokken, Scorpions, and Van Halen. It wasn’t that the other four — including the brand new yet anachronistic Kingdom Come, who were unabashed Led Zeppelin worshippers — didn’t get a response. But when the old guard played, the crowd was just watching a stadium show.

When Metallica took the stage in early afternoon, the electricity was evident all around. People descended from the bleachers to the field and pushed against the stage, women frantically got piggyback rides from their boyfriends to see over the sea of people, water of unknown origin sprayed indiscriminately to fight the sun and heat, and the cheers were as loud as the massive sound system. Playing a set culled from the three albums, plus one new number (“Harvester of Sorrow”) from their upcoming … And Justice for All album, the Tallicatz hit the gas on a blazingly fast set whose energy was interrupted only by the “Fade to Black” ballad — which inspired most of the crowd to sing along. The knockout was delivered even faster than Mike Tyson’s 91-second KO of Michael Spinks that same month. The other bands didn’t have a chance.

From that tour on, Metallica would be superstars, with all the requisite awards, high-grossing tours, million-selling albums, and notoriety. With fame came chants of “sell out” from a small segment of fans, to which the band — Ulrich in particular — cried foul. Lars was right about the unfairness of the charge; unfortunately, he was wrong about why most early fans lost interest. Sales or not, the music wasn’t as good after Master of Puppets.

Albums like Justice, Metallica, and Load all have their moments, some even equaling classic Metallica, but something’s missing. So much of their early identity was tied up in the urgency of fighting the mainstream, and fame put the kibosh on that. Mainly, they missed Cliff Burton, who perished tragically in a bus accident in Sweden on September 27, 1986. Burton made the songs on Kill ‘Em All (mostly written before he joined) better, had writing credit on six songs on Ride the Lightning, and provided a key element on Master of Puppets by not only co-writing three songs, but also with an aggressive bass style that enhanced the group dynamic by alternating melody, rhythm, and riff into one powerful force. No one before or since could feed off Ulrich’s Phil Taylor-isms like Burton.

Nonetheless, Metallica had mortally wounded hair metal, and Nirvana and the rise of Seattle in 1991 delivered the bayonet thrust that finished it off. While majors always had cutting-edge bands on their rosters, Master of Puppets was the album that really proved that an underground band could sell records. So even if Metallica couldn’t quite deliver artistically on its own promise, the band paved the way for the brief early ’90s respite from corporate rock and, in this way, made a contribution that outweighed all of the subsequent fame.

Like it or not, the PMRC also made a lasting contribution in the form of the universal “Parental Advisory Explicit Content” sticker. The resulting ban of stickered albums from sale at retailers such as Wal-Mart and restriction elsewhere could be construed as a victory. However, when one considers the relative accessibility of music from independent retailers, Internet and mail order vendors, and downloads, it’s a hollow victory at best. Chalk another one up for free speech.