James Hetfield And Kirk Hammett Look Back On Metallica’s “Ride The Lightning”


This weekend, Metallica will perform 1984’s Ride the Lightning and 1991’s Metallica during their Orion Music + More Festival in Atlantic City. In the spirit of reviving those albums, frontman James Hetfield and lead guitarist Kirk Hammett agreed to look back on a few tracks from both. Here’s some dirt on several of the tunes from Ride the Lightning.

“For Whom the Bell Tolls” isn’t a very complex song, structurally, compared to most of what you were doing at the time, and it’s become one of your best-known.

James Hetfield: I remember writing that song, and I was the only one that knew what the vocal pattern was going to be, everyone else just heard a bunch of open chords, and that was the song. They were thinking, “Are you sure?” and I was like, “Just wait.” I sang the words, and that really brought it all together. I think simplistic works, and obviously it worked. I’d say at least half the black album is pretty simplistic. There’s less complexity than …And Justice For All or Puppets. A song like that was probably the single that never was, a single before we were allowed to have a single. I think the song is amazing. It works great, and Cliff [Burton]’s bass playing is highlighted on it.

“Fade to Black” was a big change for the band, there’s a lot of melody in that song.

Kirk Hammett: “Fade to Black” was a song we had a good four to five months before recording. We had a lot of time to settle into it and get into the groove of it and get the arrangements down. That was a song that people accused us of selling out—that was the song we heard our first cries of sellout, which is pretty funny. It was the beginning of a long chorus of people screaming “sellouts.” Every time we’ve put out an album, there’s a contingency of people who aren’t satisfied. What can you do? You can’t drive yourself crazy to please a small pocket of people. You have to do what you do, what goes best, what feels like the right thing to do. We follow our gut instincts, and sometimes that instinct lands us in pretty weird spots. For us, it’s all part of the journey.

“Creeping Death” might be the song that involves the most crowd participation in your live shows, how did that evolve?

James Hetfield: There’s a couple songs we’ve stretched out and gotten a bit more crowd involvement going on, and there’s nothing cooler, no better moment, than you getting 20,000 to 40,000 people singing along or doing backups for your song, it’s the ultimate. You feel a part of something, you feel like you’re doing the right thing. “All right, I’m on this planet for a good reason here.” Everyone’s getting to yell and get some aggression going out, and it gets a family feel going.

Even if they’re chanting “die” over and over?

James Hetfield: It doesn’t matter the word, it’s that they’re doing it together. In Germany, it means “the.” “The, the, the!”

When I heard “Fight Fire With Fire” for the first time as a kid, I was convinced that the guitars were sped up by computers.

Kirk Hammett: I remember when James played me that riff, I was thinking, “That’s faster than anything on the last album, how is that humanly possible?” The second thing I thought about it is. “It’s a really fast riff, but it has a groove to it, a swing to it.” I was amazed at how someone could write a really, really fast riff, but have a lot of groove and emotion put into it at the same time. I was impressed by that. I remember after we recorded it, we were amazed at how much better it sounded than anything off of Kill ‘Em All, the fast stuff. When we recorded “Fight,” it was very clear-sounding, you can hear all the notes. It was a triumph for us, we’d reached the next level in recording fast songs.

It’s a pretty ballsy move to end an album with a nine-minute instrumental. How did “The Call of Ktulu” come together?

Kirk Hammett: It was always put aside with the intent of using it as an instrumental, and it was a bit precocious—or pretentious. We set our sights far and wide back then. We really just were doing things by instinct, and it just felt right to write a long instrumental using that music and call it “The Call of Ktulu,” courtesy of Cliff Burton’s infatuation with H.P. Lovecraft.

What did the narrator in the song “Ride the Lightning” do to end up on death row?

James Hetfield: It must have been pretty bad if he was in that chair. It came from living in the Bay Area, hearing about the death penalty in California. And it was kind of a big deal, being near San Quentin. There was no real character, it was fictitious. It had to be something real bad. I think he stole music online.

Check back Friday for Hetfield and Hammett’s recollections of The Black Album. Orion Music + More takes place at Bader Field in Atlantic City on June 23 and 24.