Metallica’s Ride the Lightning, The 30th Anniversary: “Fade to Black”
If you don’t understand what this is or why we’re doing this, read this.
I know the term “game changer” is a bit overcooked these days, especially when it comes to something as seemingly unimportant as entertainment. But I do not exaggerate one iota when I say that Metallica’s “Fade To Black” was a complete game changer for me musically, spiritually, and psychologically.
I know the exact moment when I discovered both Metallica and Pantera. It was during my freshmen year of college at The University of Texas in Austin, second semester. I had picked up my monthly allotment of metal mags, especially ones from overseas, and was thumbing through the review section of the British rag, Metal Forces, Issue #5 – the one with King Diamond and a sexy nun on the cover. As I perused the reviews, two albums caught my attention. One was from a heavy glam band from Arlington, Texas called Pantera and the other was a thrash metal band from San Francisco by way of Los Angeles known as Metallica. The two albums that were reviewed were “Projects In The Jungle” and “Ride The Lightning.” Both albums were bestowed with perfect scores of “10”s.
I had to check them out. I headed out of my intensive study floor dorm room in Jester Center and scurried down to “The Drag.” One of my favorite places to hit was a dingy record store, Sound Exchange. They tended to carry all sorts of metal that I was into at the time – Motley Crue, Ratt, Dokken, Black ‘n Blue, Twisted Sister, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest. It was the sort of music I thought was the ultimate in “fuck you!” music. Little did I realize how much I had actually been missing out on.
I tried to find Pantera’s album (on cassette, of course), but it was released on the band’s own label and, thus, was nowhere to be found in Austin. Metallica, on the other hand, had their second album picked up by Elektra records, so it was easier to find a copy. Well, easier to find than Pantera’s cassette.
I thumbed through a few stacks of LPs with many band names I was unfamiliar with – Mercyful Fate, Venom, Slayer – until I came across that now familiar royal blue and blackened album cover with the floating electric chair and lightning bolts emanating from the three-dimensional Metallica logo that seemed to glow with a weird power. Okay, not really. It just looked like a cool album cover that was very different from what I was used to which was mainly grown men dressed in fishnet stockings and Tawny Kitaen’s luscious self crawling across a cellar floor.
I headed back to my dorm room, probably skipped class that day, and decided to throw the record on and give it a try. As the dulcet tones of Kirk Hammett’s acoustic guitar kicked in, I thought, well, this is interesting. As the crescendo built and the thrash attack truly began, I was mortified. This was not what I understood to be “heavy metal.” Where was the melody? Where were the clean, high-pitched vocals? Why was this so unrelenting? Why are they so damn angry?
I felt the same way throughout the majority of Side One. The title track was more of the same to my then untrained ears and long as hell. I was used to little 3-4 minute songs with hummable choruses and a few cheesy teen-influenced “non-conformist” slogans that were supposed to exemplify anarchy. This was, most definitely not that.
As “For Whom The Bell Tolls” rang in, I sat up a bit straighter. It was more palatable than the first two cuts, but I still wasn’t sold.
Finally, after more than fifteen minutes of thrashing cacophony, I was ready to give up. I looked at the back of the sleeve, however, and saw the words “Fade To Black.” The only thing that came to mind was the underwhelming 1980 horror film of the same name. Nonetheless, I’m a horror geek, so I figured I would give this song a try.
For the first time, I felt like there was something to grab ahold of and appreciate, whereas I had been unable to do so with the heavier songs in the beginning. I’m sure it was the soft acoustic intro that sucked me in, but it wasn’t a godforsaken “power ballad” that metalheads had been inundated with during the previous three years with the hair metal bands. This was soft, but menacing. It wasn’t trying to be evil for the sake of being evil, but you knew something very disturbing was about to happen.
Disturbing was as good as a description for where my headspace was at in those days as any. I had not transitioned well into college. While I was finally sowing my wild oats and having a blast doing so, I was also lonely, depressed, and realizing I was no longer near as smart as I thought I was when I was in high school.
Life it seems will fade away
Drifting farther everyday
Getting lost within myself
Nothing matters, no one else
I have lost the will to live
Simply nothing more to give
There is nothing more for me
Need the end to set me free…
While lyricist James Hetfield has acknowledged that “Fade To Black” was about suicidal thoughts, it went to a much deeper level for me. Not right then, but later as I became completely obsessed with Metallica. With hindsight, it’s apparent that “Fade To Black” can be now be heard as a full-blown Emo song about sadness, depression, loneliness, and being ostracized; almost more suited for fans of Bauhaus or The Smiths rather than fans of songs about cherry pies or girls, girls, girls.
It was a definite eye-opener for me. Though I still enjoyed the party metal of the Sunset Strip bands, I realized I had finally found what I had been looking for in my music and my lifestyle of choice. I had found the (cliché alert) “soundtrack to my life” and I was damn determined to completely absorb every ounce of this band, this music, and the unintended ideology behind it.
Ironically, exactly one week after I listened to “Fade To Black” and Ride The Lightning, Metallica were playing in town with W.A.S.P. and Armored Saint. I was already a fan of both of those bands so I decided to plunk down some cash, purchase a ticket, and check out this new-to-me band, Metallica, who was to be direct support for W.A.S.P. I was bummed, however, to find out when I arrived at The Coliseum in Austin on February 21, 1985, that W.A.S.P. was no longer on the bill. They had been picked up by Iron Maiden and were soon touring arenas around the United States. In their place, we got a San Antonio sleaze rock band, Prezence, including a lead singer replete in tiger striped-spandex pants. It was quite a letdown after being stoked to see W.A.S.P.
The change in line-up meant that Metallica was now going to take over as the headliner. Though slightly disappointed, I had enjoyed some of the songs on Ride The Lightning, so I decided to make the best of it. I remember grabbing a yellow flyer created by some local band called Watchtower that trumpeted the mighty Metallica. During Metallica’s set I ended up being smashed against the barricade standing next to an extremely calm longhaired gentleman named Billy White. I had no idea he was the guitar player for Watchtower and would later go on to play for Dokken. I just saw him as a helpful headbanger who was giving me fair warning as to what was about to happen. We were standing facing stage right, which was in front of Cliff Burton, most of the night. From our vantage point, we could see Metallica’s set list taped on an amp. Billy looked at the list and then looked at me, a scrawny preppy looking fool all by himself. Billy noted that the next song was “Whiplash.” He said to me, “For this next song it’s going to get crazy in here. Watch your back.” Obviously, he knew what the hell was up. The entire Coliseum erupted and a sort-of mosh pit broke out all around us. Instead of being freaked out by it I started grinning from ear to ear! I had found my calling. I didn’t give a shit about the pit, but I was completely enthralled by the energy that this music could unleash in people who just let down their guards and accepted it. It was thrilling!
From that night on, I was a metalhead for life. I had been to dozens of metal concerts by then, but this was different.
Over the next six years of my life, there wasn’t a bigger Metallica fan on the planet than me. Of course, we probably all said that back then. But I don’t think there were too many of them that wrote college term papers on Metallica or gave speeches about the business aspects of the band while playing “Orion” in the background out of a tiny boombox. I had my green Pushead-illustrated Zorlac Metallica skateboard. I sought every release the band had ever made, domestic and foreign. Not the easiest task in the pre-internet era. Hell, when Cliff Burton died it was the first time I ever cried when a celebrity died. The only other time was nearly ten years ago when “Dimebag” Darrell was murdered. In both instances, it never felt like a “celebrity” had died, but more like a long, cherished friend had passed on.
I have spent the remaining years since the Metallica glory days, an ardent supporter of all things metal. Even as my friends’ musical tastes changed and mellowed, I sought out even more heavier, bizarre, and eclectic metal. I worked as a college metal DJ for three years, have free-lanced as a metal reviewer and columnist for more than 25 years, booked concerts back in the day, managed metal bands, written for MetalSucks for more than six years, reviewed way too many albums, and am now working with a metal legend, Philip Anselmo, on his autobiography and also as partners with him in the Housecore Horror Film Festival, which also just so happens to include at least 40 top tier metal bands this year including Satyricon, Danzig, Eyehategod, Cattle Decapitation, and many more.
I have never stopped being a metal fan and never intend to do so. I will be a metalhead until I the day I die, which will hopefully be a long ass time from now.
“Fade To Black” was not the end for me, but rather the true beginning of my passion, my career, and my life. For that, I am always truly grateful to the one metal band that set me on a righteous path. Thank you James, Lars, Kirk, and Cliff for waking me up, kicking me in the ass, and giving my life a sliver of meaning.
TL; DR – I blame Metallica for my choice of career, and it all started with “Fade To Black.” Thank you, Metallica.