When he answered Lars Ulrich’s classified ad in the spring of 1981, little did James Hetfield know that he was laying the foundations for what would become the most popular heavy metal band in history. Nonetheless, the founding duo of Metallica were strong-willed right from the beginning, and intuition told them they were on the road to success from the start. Just one year earlier, a 17-year-old Lars Ulrich still believed he would have a tennis career, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. Having just arrived from Denspan, however, he was soon to discover Newport beach, the Los Angeles sun and above all, the level of competition between the young American tennis players. His dream was short-lived as he didn’t make it onto either his high school’s or the local community’s tennis teams.
A bit of a “loner”, as he described his teenage self, he began to focus increasingly on his other hobby – music – and playing it as violently as possible, inspired as he was by bands like Motörhead, Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden at the time. As Ulrich had always had the urge to hit something, it had to be the drums. “I was living in Newport Beach, but my head was in England and Europe, which was home for this new wave of metal. I’d get all the music magazines sent over airmail. In ‘81, I went to England and spent six months there, researching everything I had read about, hanging out with Mötorhead and stuff. As corny as it sounds, I saw the light. Those bands gave me the inspiration to go back to L.A. and call James (Hetfield) and say that we’ve got to get a band together and capture some of this attitude”.
James Hetfield, who was also living in southern LA, had put together a few small groups with high school friends that were also fans of Black Sabbath and Diamond Head, playing in a garage. But he soon dropped them for Lars Ulrich, who already had links with Metal Blade Records, and the promise of appearing on the Metal Massacre CD. The two men didn’t have much in common (one was raised in Scandinavia, the other came from a family of devoted Christian Scientists), but they put all their efforts into this new endeavour with the goal of “never working again”. “We’re pretty much the opposite at everything – except when we play music together (…) That’s the beauty of it”, said Hetfield.
To become rock stars... was this their ambition right from the very beginning? They were certainly set on leaving their small-town Californian lives behind them, by any means necessary. While so many teenage bands get caught up in their emotions, Hetfield and Ulrich always displayed ice-cold professionalism when it came to cutting ties with those who were holding them back. The band’s first line-up was put together in October 1981 and was short-lived. Their bassist Ron McGovney, who would borrow his father’s truck to take the band to their concerts, was replaced after just a year by Cliff Burton after he impressed the band on their trip to San Francisco, where they would eventually move. This was despite the fact that it was McGovney who had paid the $600 (a hefty sum for the time) for a full-page advertisement in BAM magazine – which, once again, revealed the band’s tunnel vision for success. Six months later, in May 1983, when Metallica’s name was on the lips of everyone in the local music scene, their first guitarist, Dave Mustaine, was sent packing. He had joined the band just before they recorded their first album, but had a serious drug habit and was prone to violence. After leaving, he went on to form Megadeth. Meanwhile, he was quickly replaced by Kirk Hammett after a successful audition in New York, who had been taking private lessons from Joe Satriani at the time. Ulrich and Hetfield added him to the band’s line-up just days before entering the recording studio, but it was an adjustment that proved critical for Metallica’s future, as Hammett would go on to write the riff for Enter Sandman, one of the band’s most popular songs.