Metallica has been a cultural commodity for so long that it’s difficult to imagine their lives before global fame. Fortunately, there is a time capsule: the band’s life-altering debut Kill ‘Em All, which hit shelves four decades ago today. The album came out when the band members were in their early 20s. It is Metallica at its best: ferocious, uncompromising and driven. Long before Metallica wrote ballads, recorded an album with Lou Reed, or played with Lady Gaga, they were a brash band with an us-vs.-the-world mentality. They were kids looking for a break in the emerging metal scene. As a result, Kill ‘Em All has a single approach: Mow down everything in your path.
The stories about Kill ‘Em All are metal legends at this point. Metallica fired guitarist David Mustaine for his drinking shortly before the recording and replaced him with Exodus guitarist Kirk Hammett. A dejected Mustaine returned to Los Angeles, formed Megadeth, and kicked off nearly a half-century of drama, gossip and consternation. Metallica recorded Kill ‘Em All with one-time record store owner Jon Zazula in New York. Zazula wisely convinced the band to drop the Metal Up Your Ass title, paving the way for Metallica’s career.
Money was tight and Kill ‘Em All was pressed in batches of 500 units. By the end of 1983, it had sold 17,000 copies. It has since sold in the neighborhood of 9 million copies—not as many as Metallica (17.3 million) but far more than most discographies. It was a smart gamble for both Zazula and Metallica. Pretty much all 17,000 people who purchased a copy of Kill ‘Em all formed bands, became lifelong metal fans, or both.
Slayer’s Reign In Blood is still the thrash metal landmark. But Kill ‘Em All was the opening salvo. Kill ‘Em All is best viewed beyond band politics and backstories. For a generation of metalheads well into middle age, it is part of their coming of age and one of the formative albums that fueled their love of metal. While Ride the Lightning (the band’s masterpiece) and Master of Puppets have ballads and slower tracks like “Fade To Black” and “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” Kill Em’ All is angst, propulsion and forward momentum.
Even though it’s the opening track “Hit the Lights” is nowhere near the most powerful song. That is “Whiplash”—a four-minute thrash masterclass that to this day leads to clenched fists and headbanging. Kill ‘Em All is packed with unforgettable riffs and sing-along choruses: “Seek and Destroy,” “Four Horsemen” and “No Remorse” are some of metal’s finest songs. Kill ‘Em All is ferocious but also approachable; Metallica had the ability to reach a wide audience from the outset.
Bassist Cliff Burton makes Kill ‘Em All shine. His gifts are omnipresent, whether it’s the legendary bass solo “(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth” or the hook supporting “Jump In the Fire.” Galloping rhythm courses through Kill ‘Em All. Yet to praise Burton’s rhythmic prowess short-sells his virtuosity. Hetfield told us years ago that Burton had an uncanny gift for harmony and melody. He could also make good material exemplary. His presence elevated Metallica from a good thrash band to a unit capable of worldwide success.
Kill Em All‘s 40th is likely to trigger nostalgia and yearning for many metalheads that heard it when they were young. Albums like Kill ‘Em All—written by kids for kids—weren’t supposed to age. They were powerful because they were combustible and contained the same qualities as their young listeners: boundless energy and appetite for life. It’s still possible to appreciate Kill ‘Em All with older ears and wisdom because it thoroughly captures one part of the human experience. Although you can’t be young again, you can appreciate the drive, recklessness and ambition that comes with youth.
Kill ‘Em All is one of metal’s finest moments. It helped birth thrash metal, launched a legendary career, and is as listenable today as it was 40 years ago. More importantly, it is a treasured keepsake for generations of metalheads, a watershed moment they still remember and try to replicate. Few records change lives and perspectives and entire genres of music. Kill ‘Em All is one of them.