From Newspaper Ad to Global Sensation: The Birth and Rise of Metallica

Metallica, one of the biggest selling acts in American history, was born on October 28, 1981 when drummer Lars Ulrich and guitar player/singer James Hetfield got together via Ulrich’s LA Recycler newspaper ad​.

A nostalgic photo of Metallica's early days with teenage Lars Ulrich on the left and James Hetfield on the right. Lars, sporting a white baseball tee, sits beside an amplifier, while James, in a 'Whitey' jersey, leans on a guitar amplifier. Both are smiling, surrounded by musical equipment, capturing the genesis of their soon-to-be legendary metal journey.
Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield (1981)

In short…

  • Metallica was formed on October 28, 1981, by drummer Lars Ulrich and guitarist/singer James Hetfield, who met through an ad in The Recycler newspaper in Los Angeles​​.
  • Their first original song, “Hit the Lights”, recorded in 1982 for the Metal Massacre I compilation, marked their early entry into the music scene, with their first live performance in March 1982​​.
  • In 1982, bassist Cliff Burton joined Metallica, replacing Ron McGovney, and Dave Mustaine, struggling with substance abuse, was replaced by Kirk Hammett in 1983.

The Birth of a Legend

The year was 1981. In the vibrant city of Los Angeles, a Danish drummer named Lars Ulrich decided to put out a call into the void. He placed an advertisement in a local newspaper, The Recycler, seeking other metal musicians to jam with. And so, the seed was planted for what would become one of the most influential bands in metal music history.

Guitarists James Hetfield and Hugh Tanner from Leather Charm answered the call. They joined forces with Ulrich, marking the official formation of the band on October 28, 1981, a mere five months after Ulrich and Hetfield first met. A friend of Ulrich’s, Ron Quintana, was in the midst of deciding on a name for his fanzine, juggling between MetalMania and Metallica. Ulrich, seizing the opportunity, suggested Quintana go with MetalMania, leaving Metallica for his new band.

The First Beats of Metallica

In 1982, Metallica was already making waves in the music scene. The band recorded its first original song, “Hit the Lights,” for the Metal Massacre I compilation. Interestingly, this song was a carryover from Hetfield’s first band, Leather Charm. Hetfield at the time had the responsibility of both singing and playing the bass and rhythm guitar, while Ulrich held down the fort on the drums. Lloyd Grant was credited with a guitar solo, marking the band’s first brush with original music.

Not long after, Metallica made its stage debut. On March 14, 1982, the band played its first live performance at Radio City in Anaheim, California. This performance featured the newly recruited bassist Ron McGovney, adding a new dynamic to the band. Their first taste of live success came when they opened for the British heavy metal band Saxon on their 1982 U.S. tour.

Power Metal and Personnel Changes

The band’s musical journey continued with the recording of their first demo, Power Metal, in early 1982. This was a significant step in their development and a sign of bigger things to come. But as with all bands, Metallica also experienced some shifts in its line-up.

Bassist Cliff Burton joined the band in late 1982, replacing McGovney. Burton’s first live performance with Metallica took place at The Stone nightclub in March 1983. But the band’s line-up was not yet stable. Dave Mustaine, who had joined as a lead guitarist, was ejected from the band due to his struggles with drug and alcohol abuse and violent behavior. His departure came just before the recording sessions on April 11, 1983. In a twist of fate, Exodus guitarist Kirk Hammett replaced Mustaine that very afternoon.

The Hammer Falls – Metallica with Hammett

Metallica’s first live performance with Hammett took place a few days later, on April 16, 1983, at a nightclub in Dover, New Jersey. It was a new era for the band, an era that would see them soar to incredible heights.

Their debut album, initially titled Metal Up Your Ass, was renamed Kill ‘Em All due to conflicts with the record label. Despite initial financial struggles, the album earned Metallica a growing fan base in the underground metal scene. This debut album was just a stepping stone to what would become a revolutionary career in the metal genre.

Thrashing Through the 80s

In support of their debut album, Metallica embarked on the Kill ‘Em All for Onetour with Raven. The band continued to gain momentum and recognition, leading to an opportunity to support Venom on the Seven Dates of Hell tour. This tour featured a performance in front of 7,000 people at the Aardschok Festival in Zwolle, Netherlands, in February 1984.

Metallica’s rise was further cemented with their third LP, Master of Puppets, their first gold album which ultimately sold six million copies and was the first LP released through a major record label, Elektra Records.

Tragedy, Triumph, and Tenacity

The journey of Metallica has not been without its share of trials and tribulations. The departure of Mustaine, who later founded Megadeth and achieved significant success in his own right, was a major event. Following the tragic death of Cliff Burton, Metallica welcomed a new bassist, Jason Newsted. Newsted was a key player in the creation of their fourth album, 1988’s …And Justice for All. However, he left Metallica in 2001, citing the band’s preoccupation with fighting Napster and his need to heal from injuries sustained from headbanging.

Despite these challenges, Metallica has remained a force to be reckoned with in the world of heavy metal music. They set a Guinness World Record for becoming the first musical act to perform on every continent, even heading to Antarctica in 2013 to perform at Carlini Base. Drummer Lars Ulrich has remained a constant force in the band and is officially the world’s richest metal drummer, with a net worth of around $300 million.

The Legacy Continues

Today, Metallica stands as a monument in the landscape of metal music, considered by many as the “Big One” of the “Big Four” of thrash metal, which also includes Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax. From their humble beginnings, the band has evolved into a global sensation, leaving an indelible mark on the genre.