History of Thrash Metal: Part 1 of 6

Diving into the thrash metal.

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History of Thrash Metal: Part 1 of 6

While the rest of the world was embracing the party-hearty, big-hair image of glam metal, a whole nest of underground styles rose up against it for fans who wanted something different. These were fans who were tired and disaffected by bands like Whitesnake and Poison - in fact, didn’t even consider it real music (shocking to hear such language on the Internet, I know).

In some ways, it was similar to Black Sabbath’s original rejection of the late-'60s flower power movement, only updated for the 1980s. Remember that at this time the Cold War was still in full swing, and it was the high-water mark of the Moral Majority and the religious right. The reaction against it went something like this:

“Sure, partying is cool and all, but that’s not what real life is like, 24/7. Most people aren’t snorting cocaine and doing body shots off of strippers on the Sunset Strip; other people are just grinding it out day after day. They aren’t concerned about where the next party is; they’re concerned about where their next paycheck is. They have different concerns: deaths in the family, the experiences of young people possibly being sent off to war, wondering what happens to those people inside that concrete building with no windows down the block, and about that feral gang that terrorizes the town when the streetlights come on.”

It made them angry, and this newfound, fast-paced aggression became the hallmarks of thrash metal, the most popular form of heavy metal music in the world. Although it started as an underground reaction to hair metal, thrash eventually boasted several of heavy metal’s leading groups, including the world’s most popular metal band, Metallica. Thrash is characterized by chugging riffs, speedy drumming, and rapid-fire guitar soloing (often making use of a dual guitar attack). At its best, it is a stripped-down, no-frills, high speed classic brew that still excites audiences today.

If a new listener was curious enough to ask a thrash fan about the key songs that defined this subgenre of metal, most likely you would be referred to this song, “Master of Puppets.” It has an anthemic quality and encapsulates everything fans love, and it has aged remarkably well since 1986 when it came out. You don’t see many audiences today getting this excited over a 31-year-old song:

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"Puppets" is truly overwhelming the first time you hear it, and to be honest you could write a thesis on all the different influences that went into it. Surely it did not just appear out of thin air. Thrash metal needed time for its influences to ferment for a while before it was ready to take on the noble mantle of metal.

Before it conquered the world and outlasted the glam metal it had passionately opposed, thrash metal developed partially from the edgy hardcore punk scene that was generating buzz, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington DC. Bands that were part of this scene had turned up the aggression (and the leftist/anarchist political views) from classic punk bands like Ramones and Dead Boys. Authenticity and attitude became the most highly prized traits in a band's sound, often as a trade-off with instrumental prowess.

The late Jeff Hanneman of Slayer, another giant of the thrash genre, was into hardcore punk much more than his bandmates.

"I was much more about the singers at the time - Rob Halford, Dio - and hardcore seemed like a dumbed-down metal to me, just with shittier singers," fellow guitarist Kerry King spoke about Slayer's early days at Hanneman's funeral. "But Jeff brought all that hardcore influence with him into the band, and turned us onto it." Safe to say that Slayer would not have become the band they are today without this stuff. Revisiting their roots in the 1990s, the band even released an entire album of hardcore punk covers, Undisputed Attitude. Seems an apt description for what it contained.

One of Jeff Hanneman's favorite bands hailed from Bay Area, Dead Kennedys - and another, Black Flag, from the southern half of the state:

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On the opposite coast of America, another major underground hardcore scene developed in Washington, D.C., where there was much politically-fueled anger, wailing and gnashing of teeth. The US was in a recession at the time, and the hardships that accompanied it helped to inspire a DIY work ethic. Bands would manage and promote themselves, find some creative ways to get studio time, and gigged relentlessly. Mainstream exposure for songs with titles like "I Kill Children" and "Pay to Cum" wasn't exactly forthcoming.

Two of the most respected D.C. hardcore bands were/are Bad Brains and Minor Threat.

The former were up for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination recently, but the committee decided to take a flyer and wait--no surprise there. Perhaps Bad Brains' combo of reggae, Rastafarianism and hardcore is just too much for those unaccountable suits.

Minor Threat's appeal has continued to the present day. Growing up on Long Island, a lot of my high school friends who were into hardcore punk were all about Minor Threat. They were stupidly pretentious about it, which seemed silly for music that's supposed to be about the everyday struggles of the little guy against the system ("There's punk rock, and there's hardcore. This is hardcore," they would sniff).

At the same time, Minor Threat and others importantly adopted the "straight-edge" ethos, which meant no drugs among other things. When a number of kids at the local public high school went down the road of substance abuse (at least one of which lost his life), I remember many kids adopted straight-edge as a source of both comfort and remembrance. Some had greater success than others. Although the thrash bands generally speaking did not follow suit (booze is just too delicious to give up entirely), they knew how hard they would have to work to get their music heard.

Challenge accepted!

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Much like the original punk rock before it, original American hardcore was astoundingly prolific for a brief period, where aficionados were treated to a classic album every other month (from 1980-1982, more or less).

"Add 'Wild In the Streets' and magically there are elbow sized holes in the dry wall." - Amazon reviewer for Circle Jerks

"New York's alright...if you like drunks in your doorway." - Fear, "New York's Alright If You Like Saxophones"

"Your Phone's Off the Hook, But You're Not" - X

All you really have to do to witness how much hardcore punk meant to the early thrash bands is see how many covers there are of thrash metal's finest giving it homage - and not just in their early garage days, either. Slayer, Overkill, and Sepultura have all famously made their favorite hardcore moments their own. Most recently on "Dystopia," Megadeth offered a cover of "Foreign Policy" by LA's Fear:

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In the United Kingdom, Motorhead was also a big influence upon thrash metal; in fact, Lemmy and company are one of the few bands that holds strong appeal between metalheads and punk rockers. It seems unusual now, but there was a time when metalheads and punk rockers did not mix. Long hair at a hardcore gig? Nope. Shaved head at a metal show? Nope.

"I don't think I can put into words how much Motorhead meant to me when I first started buying their records and going to their gigs," Lars Ulrich of Metallica praises the trio. "I remember when they supported Ozzy in the States and some friends and I followed their bus around for about six days!"

At least two other UK bands, Discharge and G.B.H., were responsible for adding the frenzied distortion that was more common in NWOBHM to hardcore music.

All of these would be major influences on the snarling, barking vocal delivery of many thrash metal bands. A frequent target of attack were the then-conservative governments in both nations: Reagan in the United States, and Thatcher in the United Kingdom (though if you were the Dead Kennedys, Jerry Brown was your favorite roast target). Themes also included war, death, mental illness, and even science fiction and horror.

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The “horror punk” image and sound was developed by a New Jersey band called The Misfits, who scored one of the most recognizable band logos ever with a famous “death head” that has sold millions of T-shirts and merchandise since then. Metallica has cited Misfits songs like “Die, Die My Darling” and “Last Caress” as early favorites and have covered them on numerous occasions, including a 30th anniversary show in 2011 with Misfits singer Glenn Danzig joining them onstage to enormous cheers.

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Kerry King has already hinted at it above, but I have to mention NWOBHM that I've covered previously. Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Angel Witch and others were as widely respected back then as they are now.

"They, more than any other band, are responsible for opening up the doors for heavy metal in the 1980s,"said Lars Ulrich back in 1987. "They've never given in, and as a result have been a big inspiration to a band like us.

When that same Lars put out an ad in Recycler magazine looking for a guitarist for a band that had no name yet, he requested somebody who knew Iron Maiden, Motorhead, and... Budgie. At some point, Lars got a phone call from the one other dude in Los Angeles who knew them: a young Dave Mustaine, who had this to say about the little-known early metal band in his autobiography:

"I was instantly blown away. The speed and power of the music, without abandoning melody--it was like nothing I'd ever heard."

Don't you agree? Made it to #15 on my Best of the 1970s countdown...

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"Fuck, dude! You know fucking Budgie?!?!" Lars shrieked at Dave later over the phone. Don't you just love reactions like that?

Black Sabbath, in addition to laying the groundwork for all of heavy metal music, had its share input for thrash metallers too. Dave Mustaine and others have cited their song "Symptom of the Universe" as one of their favorites - and potentially the Ur-example of thrash, even though it came out in 1974, well before the subgenre hit paydirt.

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But if you had to pick a truly seminal NWOBHM track that represents the blueprint for what would become the most popular form of metal ever, you would have to look at Diamond Head, who conjured up a riff-fest called “Am I Evil” that has been covered by practically every thrash band ever since it came out. The song is that influential.

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Once again Diamond Head's super-fan is Lars Ulrich, who helped compile the band's greatest "hits" for a collection and convinced them to get back together to open for Metallica when they became superstars in the early 90s. The song also played a key part in the recent Big Four reunion tour, big enough for all the bands to put aside whatever differences they had to jam out on this true metal standard.

"It wasn't so much that it was a particularly challenging solo, technically speaking--it was simply the fact that I hadn't played it in a quarter of a century," Dave Mustaine reflects on that moment in his book. And on the live DVD, you can hear the huge cheer when Dave Mustaine and James Hetfield of Metallica share a huge hug.

Coming up next, we’ll see how the four most successful thrash bands of the day took all these different influences and developed them, each in their own unique way...and why that reunion was such a huge deal in the first place!

Written by Matt P for www.headofmetal.com. Follow him on Twitter and on Google+.

37 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Overall a cool article and I would love to see more thought out work like this on this site. Not sure I agree with the first few paragraphs that seem to indicate thrash metal was a reaction to glam metal.  The two genres really began at the same time in the early 80s.  It seems better described later where thrash is the progression of combining influences from punk and heavy metal. The rise and popularity of thrash throughout the 80s might be a backlash against glam, but the beginning of the article makes it sound like the entire thrash genre is in reaction to glam.  Like Lars and James decided Poison and Motley Cure suck and thrash metal was their answer.
    Right. It was probably more like a regional thing where what you liked came from what you heard locally. Glam was an LA thing. Thrash came from San Francisco and New York. Although, ironically Mustaine who was pretty vocal about "Gay L.A. Music" started Megadeth in L.A.
    Slayer is also from the LA area
    The early days of Slayer are interesting. I think Kerry king once said they had the costumes and make up just to try to attract some of a the glam crowd in LA. Show no mercy is more a straight up heavy metal record like Judas priest or even a bit savatage like - power metalish. They definitely evolved over time up to reign in blood.
    To me, thrash is a direct line out of punk and glam was something that BOTH rebelled against.
    Head of Metal
    I suppose that from watching a lot of interviews over the years about the early days of thrash, they really DID think the local glam stuff wasn't very good. How much that fueled their songwriting is on a case by case basis. "Thrash was a reaction to glam" from my perspective is the subgenre-level height, rather than just saying each individual band hated glam.
    Metal kind of was a reaction to glam though. The hairstyles and over the top appearance are vestiges, look at Pantera. Literally went from glam to metal in days.
    The greatest metal genre .. the most aggressive and powerful in my opinion.
    I was gonna comment something like, "This old story again?! Who doesn't know this shit already? It's been covered like 8 million times!" ...then I realized I'm now approaching my mid-30's and this whole genre has been an obsession of mine for the last 20 years! Now there's whole new group of young kids who are just now discovering this stuff, and to them it's basically the same way that Classic Rock was to my generation. So I guess I'm OFFICIALLY old now lol. But I'll still see you young fucks in the pit! Except I'll see you from the barstool cuz my back & neck won't let me headbang & thrash around all night :/ haha. Get it in while you're young guys, cuz one day you too will be the old man yelling at clouds!
    Head of Metal
    Always good to have well wishes from older fans   When you said your back and neck are bothering you, that kinda makes me think you're Jon Schaffer from Iced Earth!
    Dude, if I was Jon I'd be busy writing an awesome power balled right now! Haha. Also, Jon is well past his mid 30's. My back & neck don't really hurt me, I was just joking about being old. I still do weight lifting 5 days a week, I just don't want to be like my idols & have to go under the knife & get addicted to pain pills. Maintenence is always better than repair dude.
    "Kerry King has already hinted at it above, but I have to mention NWOBHM that I've covered previously. Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Angel Witch and others were as widely respected back then as they are now. "They, more than any other band, are responsible for opening up the doors for heavy metal in the 1980s,"said Lars Ulrich back in 1987. "They've never given in, and as a result have been a big inspiration to a band like us." So which of those bands was Lars talking about?
    Diamond Head, Budgie, Motorhead, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Queen(maybe), Misfits, Deep Purple
    Why Queen(maybe)? Metallica recorded a cover of Stone Cold Crazy, a total prototype thrash song. 
    Ye but the influences which Queen gave to the Thrash scene are not that big than the others like Motorhead or Judas
    Head of Metal
    Iron Maiden!
    Good! (I'm just about to leave the pub and go see Maiden 😁 - Shinedown just started and not a fan)
    Head of Metal
    How was the gig?
    Amazing! They never disappoint - unbelievable energy. 5th time I've seen them, going back to 1990 and they just get better with age!
    Head of Metal
    Hail and up the irons from the USA! I hope to catch them in New Jersey in June. \m/
    Have a blast! I've now an them twice in Liverpool (1990 and Saturday) and the times headlining at Donington (Monsters of Rock 1992 and Download Festival 2013 and 2016). Up the Irons!
    ""Puppets" is truly overwhelming the first time you hear it" Amen. I was quite young when I heard it the first time and it didn't really click. I had to work my way backwards from Garage Inc. But it made it all the better when I finally got into MoP. 
    Yep, now the dialectic glam-thrash is pretty popular. What about the political break of thrash and punk?
    Kurt Cobain thinks it's the grossest music in history.  xD No point to it, i just remember that from an interview. Made me laugh.
    Head of Metal
    I've never heard that interview! What a strange and unusual thing for him to say.
    Well, it's right in the beginning here. He doesn't SAY Thrash, probably doesn't know that's what it's called, but it's obviously what he's talking about.