How Metallica Stirred Controversy on ‘Ride the Lightning’
Metallica returned with their second album on July 27, 1984, a year and two days after releasing the landmark debut Kill 'Em All.
Ride the Lightning promptly stomped all over the sophomore jinx with a set of songs that found the band broadening the scope of its thrash metal sound to incorporate sharper arrangements, more thoughtful songwriting, stronger melodies, and even a little acoustic guitar.
The four dirt-poor metalheads descended upon Ride the Lightning producer Flemming Rasmussen's studio in Copenhagen in the winter of 1984 with plenty of momentum. But there were some bumps along the way.
"It was great when we started there, but we were homesick after three or four weeks," guitarist Kirk Hammett later told Rolling Stone, with a laugh. "It was three American guys and a Danish guy. It was easy for the Danish guy to fit in, but it wasn't so easy for the three American guys to fit in. We were experiencing culture shock a little bit."
Adding that they "didn't really have anything else to do besides work on music and drink Carlsberg beer," Hammett admitted, "we totally destroyed our friend's house where we were staying. We plugged up the tub in his bathroom."
Rasmussen admitted in the Rolling Stone interview that he'd "never heard" of Metallica, "but I really liked them as people. The studio I worked at, Sweet Silence, was renowned in Denmark. My mentor was really into jazz, and he pulled me aside one day and said, 'What's going on with these guys? They can't play." And I'm like, 'Who cares? Listen to the energy.'"
The creative changes found on Ride the Lightning were also integral to moving forward after founding member Dave Mustaine was fired. Drummer Lars Ulrich said that gave Metallica an opportunity to bring in new creative voices.
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"It was the first time that the four of us wrote together and we got a chance to broaden our horizons. I don't think it was a conscious effort to break away from anything musically," Ulrich told Rolling Stone. "Listening to songs like 'Fight Fire' and 'Trapped Under Ice,' we were obviously still into the thrash type of stuff. But we were realizing you had to be careful that it didn't become too limiting or one-dimensional.
"Ride the Lightning," Ulrich added, "was the first time that both [bassist] Cliff [Burton] and Kirk got a chance to add what they were doing. They just came from a different school, especially Cliff, who came from a much more melodic approach."
This evolution was wholeheartedly deliberate, as evidenced by Ulrich's remarks in a 1984 interview with Kerrang! in which he shared his reasons for shying away from thrash: "It implies lack of arrangement, lack of ability, lack of songwriting, lack of any form of intelligence," he argued back then. "Thrash metal to me is just open E riffing for five minutes as fast as you can go."
Ride the Lightning was a sales success for the previously underground outfit, peaking at No. 100 on the Billboard chart, That ultimately attracted the interest of Elektra Records, who signed Metallica to a new deal and reissued the album later in the year.
Of course, the record's expanded musical palette wasn't without its detractors. "There was an odd reaction to 'Fade to Black' and to the variety of the record. It did surprise us a little bit, I guess," Ulrich admitted. "People started calling us sellouts and all that type of stuff. Some people were a little bit bewildered by the fact that there was a song that had acoustic guitars.
"That was kind of funny," Ulrich added, "because every great Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Mercyful Fate record, that was part of their arsenal, too. The fact that we followed down that path surely couldn't have surprised anybody."
Still, a chuckling Ulrich concluded, "obviously it holds up very well. There's kind of a youthful energy that runs through the record. A good portion of these songs are still staples of our live set. And between 'For Whom the Bell Tolls,' 'Creeping Death,' 'Fade to Black' and 'Ride the Lightning,' that's not a bad batting average."
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