Don Brautigam’s Master of Puppets Cover Creation

Don Brautigam’s artistic prowess, combined with Metallica’s vision, culminated in the iconic album cover of “Master of Puppets”.

On the left, a black and white portrait of artist Don Brautigam. He appears contemplative, with a subtle smile, wearing a dark turtleneck sweater. On the right, the iconic album cover for Metallica's 'Master of Puppets' featuring a red-hued sky at sunset over a field of white crosses tethered by strings to a pair of hands emerging from above.
Don Brautigam
Key Takeaways
  • The “Master of Puppets” cover, a collaborative effort involving Metallica and artist Don Brautigam, was based on James Hetfield’s initial sketch.
  • The artwork, featuring white crosses manipulated by strings against a blood-red sky, symbolizes themes of manipulation and control.
  • The original Don Brautigam painting, initially owned by Jon and Marsha Zazula of Megaforce Records, sold for $35,000 in 2008.

Crossroads of Art and Inspiration

The intersection of art, literature, and music often leads to unexpected yet profound influences, as seen in the collaborative world of Metallica, Stephen King, and Don Brautigam. Metallica’s album “Ride the Lightning” found its title from a line in Stephen King’s “The Stand”, where a character faces execution, referred to as “riding the lightning.” This line resonated with Metallica’s guitarist, Kirk Hammett, creating a unique bridge between literature and music.

In the realm of visual art, Don Brautigam played a pivotal role. Known for his paperback cover art, Brautigam created the artwork for “The Stand,” which was acclaimed as “Cover of the Year” by Marketing Bestsellers in 1980. His innovative use of black paint in book illustrations revolutionized the design of paperback and hardcover jacket illustrations, setting a new standard in the industry.

A line from a book can ignite the title of a legendary album.

Before becoming a household name in the book cover world, Brautigam had already established himself in the music industry. His early work included designing album covers for artists like James Brown and Chuck Berry. However, it was his transition to the world of hard rock and metal that marked a significant shift in his career. Brautigam’s work for Metal Church’s “The Dark” in 1986 was a turning point, leading to collaborations with bands such as Ace Frehley, Mötley Crüe, AC/DC, Anthrax, and Vicious Rumours.

The Making of “Master of Puppets” Album Cover

In mid-1985, Don Brautigam was commissioned to create the cover for Metallica’s “Master of Puppets”, a task that would cement his place in the annals of music history. The cover concept, a nightmarish scene set in Arlington Cemetery, was a collaborative effort involving Metallica and their manager Peter Mensch. It was James Hetfield’s initial sketch that laid the foundation for this iconic artwork.

A sketch by Hetfield, a vision by Brautigam, an album cover for the ages.

Brautigam, renowned for his airbrush and paintbrush techniques, completed the piece in acrylics in an astonishing span of just three days, despite juggling multiple commercial commissions. The artwork depicts a cemetery field of white crosses, each tethered to strings and manipulated by a pair of hands in a clouded, blood-red sky. This powerful imagery, as explained by Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, symbolizes themes of manipulation and control.

Interestingly, Brautigam had not listened to any music from the album before creating the image. Yet, the inclusion of a soldier’s helmet on the cover’s leftmost cross inadvertently aligns with the antiwar themes of the song “Disposable Heroes.” This element adds a layer of depth to the artwork, connecting it even more closely to the album’s message.

In the bottom right corner of the “Master of Puppets” album cover, just above the “S” in “Puppets,” are Brautigam’s initials “D.B.,” a subtle signature that marks his contribution to this legendary piece. The original painting, measuring 17×17 inches on an illustration board, was initially in the possession of Jon and Marsha Zazula of Megaforce Records, who played a crucial role in Metallica’s early career.

The artwork’s journey did not end there. In November 2008, Christie’s Auction House sold the original piece for $35,000, a testament to its enduring value and impact.

Master of Puppets: A Cultural Phenomenon

Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” not only achieved commercial success but also garnered critical acclaim, making a profound impact on the music industry and culture at large. The album peaked at number 29 on the Billboard 200 and was lauded for its complex compositions and thought-provoking political lyrics.

Not just an album, but a cultural milestone.

Regarded as one of the most influential metal albums, “Master of Puppets” played a crucial role in shaping the American thrash metal scene. Its impact on the genre has been both profound and enduring, influencing countless artists and fans worldwide. The album’s significance extends well beyond its initial release, continuing to resonate with new generations of metal enthusiasts.

The album’s success is not just anecdotal; it is backed by significant achievements. In 2003, “Master of Puppets” was certified six times platinum by the RIAA for shipping six million copies in the United States, along with receiving similar recognitions in Canada and the UK. These certifications are a testament to the album’s widespread appeal and enduring popularity.

In a landmark achievement for metal music, “Master of Puppets” was selected in 2015 for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress. This recognition, for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” highlights the album’s importance in music history. The inclusion of “Master of Puppets” in this prestigious archive underscores its role not only as a musical masterpiece but also as a significant cultural artifact.