Like them or not, Metallica will always be one of the biggest bands in metal history. The group formed in Los Angeles in 1981, consisting of James Hetfield (vocals/guitar), Dave Mustaine (guitar), Lars Ulrich (drums), and Ron McGovney (bass), who was replaced by Cliff Burton in 1983. The quartet relocated to San Francisco at the request of Burton, who was playing in the band Trauma at the time.
The group recorded their first song, "Hit the Lights" (for the compilation Metal Massacre) in 1982 and followed it up with three demos¬—Power Metal, No Life 'til Leather, and Megaforce. The success of those demos led the group to Megaforce Records, which released their debut LP, Kill 'Em All. They recorded the album in May 1983, by which time McGovney and Mustaine were out of the band, the latter for his alcoholism and myriad personal issues. Though Mustaine was credited with writing a few of the songs, most notably "The Four Horsemen" and "Jump in the Fire," new guitarist Kirk Hammett filled in nicely, bringing with him a technically advanced style. Mustaine went on to form popular thrashers Megadeth. While Kill 'Em All didn't sell well right away, as the group built its buzz, it moved more and more units. To date, it has sold over three million copies in the US and is viewed as one of metal's most important debut albums.
From there, the boys headed to Denmark (Ulrich's home country) to work on their sophomore release, Ride the Lightning. Released on July 30, 1984, the album's eight songs make up one of the greatest thrash records of all time. Opening up with the blistering "Fight Fire with Fire," the disc moves on to the (un)holy trinity of Metallica songs, "Ride the Lightning," "For Whom the Bell Tolls," and "Fade to Black". The epic songs helped cement Metallica as one of the most exciting, technically gifted young bands in the country.
Flying high, the group hit the road and quickly gained a reputation for being one of the most captivating, hard-partying groups around. Hetfield's commanding presence and rapid-fire riffing, Burton's surprisingly-funky bass virtuosity, Ulrich's bombastic, powerful playing, and Hammett's hair-raising guitar work were instant hits around the world, as the group quickly staked their claim as the best band in metal. The crew went back into the studio in 1986 to record, arguably, their greatest achievement, Master of Puppets. The disc has sold almost seven million copies in the US, and countless more around the world. Not content to string directionless riffs together, the songs on Master of Puppets are built like classical pieces with multiple movements, directly opposed to the verse-chorus formula of most rock bands at that time.
The record was the group's biggest commercial success to date, spending 72 weeks on the Billboard Charts. Shortly after the disc's release, the group embarked on a massive American tour supporting Ozzy Osbourne, and at the end of that tour, they headed to Europe to play the biggest full-scale European headlining tour in their history, the Damage Inc. tour.
On September 27, 1986, their worst nightmare became a reality. Sleeping on their tour bus on the road from Stockholm to Copenhagen, the driver hit a patch of "black ice" (which Hetfield claims he looked for and couldn't find) and lost control of the bus. After a few violent flips, the group emerged from the wreck unharmed, except for Burton. Tragically, Burton was thrown from the vehicle, which then rolled on top of him. He was only 24 years old. After much soul-searching, the group grimly decided to press on, thinking that Cliff wouldn't have wanted them to quit. After interviewing scores of bass hopefuls, including Les Claypool (who was a friend of the band), the group hired Jason Newsted, the bassist from Arizona thrashers Flotsam and Jetsam.
The group holed up at One on One studios in Los Angeles studio to write and record the angriest, most abrasive release of their career. …And Justice for All hit shelves on August 25, 1998 and was a runaway success. It went to #6 on the Billboard Album Charts and has sold over eight million copies stateside. Featuring metal classics like the raging "Blackened" and the stirring tale about the horrors of war, "One," the album is a true classic.
The group toured relentlessly in support of the release and wouldn't head back into the studio until 1990. This time the group enlisted in big-name producer Bob Rock, who was famous for his work with more radio-friendly acts like David Lee Roth, Mötley Crüe, and the Cult. The fruit of their labor, 1991's Metallica (commonly nick-named "The Black Album") turned out to be a much more mainstream-friendly release, featuring songs with pronounced choruses, shorter track lengths, and slick, crisp production. It also was their first that did not feature an instrumental song.
While the band's new direction turned off some die-hard fans, it turned on scores of new ones, as the record sold more than 15 million copies in the US and millions more overseas. It was the group's first #1 album and contains six singles that charted in the states, notably "Enter Sandman" and "The Unforgiven." They followed it up by touring relentlessly, performing over 300 concerts over the next two and a half years. The culmination of these efforts was a spring 1992 nationwide tour with Guns N' Roses, although the ill-fated tour was plagued with cancellations due to Axl Rose's throat problems and petulant antics.
The rocky tour came to a disastrous head on August 8, 1992 at a show in Montreal's Olympic Stadium. During "Fade to Black," Hetfield walked into a pyrotechnic explosion. The 12-foot flame burned him severely, giving him third degree burns and briefly putting his future with the band in jeopardy. With Metallica obviously not able to continue, Guns N' Roses took the stage, only for Rose to storm off after a minor problem with his vocal monitor. While Hetfield was being rushed to the hospital, Rose relaxed back stage, while the furious sellout crowd rioted, destroyed property, and set fires. Hetfield says that they learned "what not to do" from Guns N' Roses, who would disband shortly thereafter.
In 1996, Metallica returned with a new album, a new sound, and a new look. 1996's Load shocked the nation, as it featured moody, alt-rock instead of their typical metal onslaught. The group's new promo photos showed them with short hair, nice suits, and make-up. Instead of touring with metal bands, they made the curious decision to headline the alternative rock festival Lollapalooza. Though they would never be able to recapture the commercial success of the late '80s and early '90s, their subsequent releases—1997's ReLoad, 2003's St. Anger, and 2008's Death Magnetic—all hit #1 and sold over a million copies. They also continue sell out stadiums and arenas whenever they tour. Newsted left the band in 2001 and was replaced by Robert Trujillo (Suicidal Tendencies, Infectious Grooves).
Throughout 25 years of highs and lows, ups and downs, Metallica has had a profound effect on rock 'n' roll, both from a music perspective and business one (see: Ulrich vs. Napster). They are undoubtedly the biggest band in metal history.