In the latter months of 1983, James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett and Cliff Burton were totally focused on the writing of their upcoming second album. Excited by the progress they were making in Hetfield’s garage and Ulrich’s El Cerrito, California home. It was Halloween night when the quartet premiered three stunning new compositions – Fight Fire With Fire, Creeping Death and Ride The Lightning at the Keystone club in Palo Alto. Amid the dozen songs played that night was a lengthy new instrumental track titled When Hell Freezes Over. Complex and melodically sophisticated, the gig served notice that the local heroes were fast outgrowing the thrash metal community they’d helped spawn.
Metallica’s debut album Kill ‘Em All was a crushing battle-cry of a mission statement and set the bar high for its follow-up, but Metallica were not intimidated. They had shat all over the concept of the “sophomore jinx” with Ride the Lightning, a sophisticated, diverse piece of musical art that gave the world timeless cuts including “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Creeping Death,” “Fade to Black” and the title track. Metallica would one-up things once again with Master of Puppets, but Lightning has its special charm and historical place.
“By the time we recorded Master of Puppets, the days of just bashing it out were much fewer than in the Ride the Lightning days,” “Just bashing it out always led to a more natural sounding performance to me.” Indeed, sometimes “bashing it out” is the way to go. In that spirit, we revisited Ride track by track and bashed out the following bits of trivia and insight. -- Guitarist Kirk Hammett
Track 1. Cliff Burton wrote the acoustic intro to “Fight Fire With Fire”.
“That acoustic piece was Cliff’s!” explained Kirk Hammett, referring to Metallica’s groundbreaking, multi-talented bass player. “Cliff wrote that on a down-tuned acoustic guitar … He had a really good grasp of playing the guitar, and a good grasp of classical modulations. That intro was his piece. We heard it and stuck it onto ‘Fight,’ and it worked fantastic. We knew that was going to be the opening track. There was no question about it.”
Track 2. Kirk Hammett came up with the title “Ride the Lightning” while reading Stephen King’s book The Stand.
Metallica have drawn on literary sources throughout their career — just on Ride the Lightning alone, they reference Ernest Hemingway (“For Whom the Bell Tolls”) and H.P. Lovecraft (“Call of Ktulu”), as well as, more indirectly, Stephen King. As the story goes, Hammett was reading the horror master’s book, when inspiration struck. “There was this one passage where this guy was on death row said he was waiting to ‘ride the lightning,’ I remember thinking, ‘Wow, what a great song title.’ I told James, and it ended up being a song and the album title.”
Hetfield · Burton · Ulrich · Mustaine
Track 3. The bell ringing intro of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” isn’t a bell at all.
The tolling bell that opens Ride the Lightning’s epic third track is actually something way heavier — a fucking anvil, which drummer Lars Ulrich banged with a metal hammer. “There was a really heavy, cast-iron anvil and a metal hammer, and we stuck them in an all-concrete room,” producer Fleming Rasmussen revealed.
Track 4. “Fade to Black” was inspired, in part, by their gear being stolen before a gig in Boston.
The bands first ballad, “Fade to Black” won Metallica new fans, but it also was met with major backlash from diehards. “That song was a pretty big step for us, iIt was pretty much our first ballad, so it was challenging and we knew it would freak people out. Band like Exodus and Slayer don’t do ballads, but they’ve stuck themselves in that position we never wanted to do. Limiting yourself to please your audience is bullshit.” -- Vocalist/Guitarist James Hetfield
The lyrics take on the voice of one contemplating suicide, words that grew out of Hetfield’s own feelings of depression and powerlessness after Metallica’s equipment was stolen in January 1984. “I wrote the song at a friend’s house in New Jersey,” James recalled. “I was pretty depressed at the time because our gear had just been stolen, and we had been thrown out of our manager’s house for breaking shit and drinking his liquor cabinet dry. It’s a suicide song , and we got a lot of flack for it — kids were killing themselves because of the song. But we also got hundreds and hundreds of letters from kids telling us how they related to the song and that made them feel better.”
Track 5. The song “Trapped Under Ice” is not a metaphor — it is literally about being trapped under ice.
Many have theorized over the meaning of “Trapped Under Ice,” a particularly concise Ride the Lightning cut, suggesting that the lyrics might tell a story about being stuck in a cryogenic state or of drug addiction. But sometimes things are exactly as they say, and such is the case for Ride’s fifth track. Inspired by a viewing of the 1983 movie Never Cry Wolf, which includes a scene in which the protagonist breaks through a frozen lake and becomes, yes, trapped under the ice, Metallica penned the straight-ahead thrasher, culling a riff or two from Hammett’s Exodus days, and the rest is history.
Track 6. “Escape” was the band’s failed attempt at writing a radio song.
Though it’s since been covered by artists such as Gojira and Hatebreed, “Escape” is a song for which Metallica have little love themselves. In fact, they didn’t play it live for 28 years, until their 2012 Orion Festival set during which they played Lightning in its entirety, in reverse order. (Hetfield minced no words when introducing “Escape”: “The song that we never wanted to play live, ever, is now on the set list.”) Written in the studio at the last second, the song “was pretty much an attempt to write something that would get radio’s attention, but it never really happened for us. They ignored that song … along with everything else!” -- Guitarist Kirk Hammett
Track 7. The chant-along bridge of “Creeping Death” was originally written for Kirk’s previous band Exodus.
Few things set the crowd into a frenzy like the bridge of “Creeping Death,” with its infectious cry of “Die, by my hand!” Credit that section to Hammett, who wrote the riff when he was 16 or 17 years old. It originally appeared in a song by his previous band, Bay Area thrashers Exodus, called — wait for it — “Die by His Hand” that the group played live and recorded as a demo, but never included on a studio album.
Track 8. James regrets that Metallica didn’t use the correct, H.P. Lovecraft spelling of “Cthulhu” in the title of “Call of Ktulu”.
As horror literature fans know, the band oddly misspelled the name of mythical god-monster Cthulhu in the title of Ride of the Lightning’s closing instrumental. Cliff Burton had brought writer H.P. Lovecraft and Cthulhu legend to the attention of his bandmates, and while on the Kill ‘Em All summer tour of 1983, they worked up a song called “Hell Freezes Over” that would become “Call of Ktulu.” The title’s infamous misspelling, it turns out, was intentional.
“James said in one of his interviews awhile back that one of the biggest regrets was that he wished we would’ve spelled Cthulhu the way Lovecraft did, It was a pretty substantial mouthful to try and pronounce that whole thing with the ‘C’ and the ‘H.’ It was like a 15-letter word or something. So we figured we would make a little easier for people to pronounce.” -- Drummer Lars Ulrich