Revisit 1986 CREEM Interview With Metallica’s Lars Ulrich: ‘We Never Stop Learning’
On March 3, 1986, Metallica changed the course of heavy metal history with the release of their third studio album, Master of Puppets.
That may sound like a grandiose statement that's easy to make 37 years later, but even a few months following the release of Master, it was clear how transformative the record would be.
"I think all of us have really progressed as musicians over the last couple of years," Lars Ulrich told Sylvie Simmons in the October 1986 issue of CREEM. "We always take the attitude that we can never stop learning, and we’re always interested in soaking up as many influences and learning as much about our instruments as we can."
Simmons and Ulrich covered a lot of ground in their conversation—dubbed "the serious Metallica interview"—but no matter how varied the discussion may have gotten, it was crystal clear that Ulrich and his bandmates were no longer simply the crazy Alcoholica guys.
Well, they were still those guys, but they were more than just that.
"I think there are two aspects to what we do: the whole thing around the music and the songwriting—if some of the people who are into what we’re doing could spend four days with Metallica in the studio, they’d be surprised at how seriously we take what we do," he told Simmons.
"And then there’s the other side, which is Metallica on tour, which is like: we’ve done the recording, we’ve done the songwriting, all that shit is behind us now, we’re going to play the same songs every night for the next six months and just have a lot of obnoxious fun! I hope with [Master of Puppets,] people will start taking the whole musical side of us a lot more seriously than they have in the past."
Momentum of Master of Puppets
When Rolling Stone reviewed Master of Puppets in the June 5, 1986, issue, Tim Holmes was already taking the new musical side of Metallica quite seriously.
"Metallica has taken the raw material of heavy metal and refined all the shit—the swaggering cock-rock braggadocio and the medieval dungeons and dragons imagery—right out of it," Holmes said as he opened his review. He was so convinced of Metallica's musical maturation that he claimed the record was powerful enough to create its own genre of heavy metal, simply stating, "Master of Puppets is the real thing."
Robert Christgau wasn't quite as impressed as Holmes, but he did note the album's significance and relevance as he wrote in the January 1987 issue of CREEM, "This band's momentum can be pretty impressive...they seem to have acceptable political motivations—antiwar, anticonformity, even anticoke." But he went on to bemoan the band for stirring images of "male chauvinists" who "have hair like Samson and pecs like Arnold Schwarzenegger." Christgau gave Master of Puppets a B-.
Metallica's momentum that even Christgau could see continues on nearly four decades following the release of Master of Puppets. While there are many reasons for that momentum and the band's astronomical and inimitable success, Ulrich made a statement in that serious interview with Simmons that seems to hold true to this day:
One thing with this band, which is probably why it works, is there are four people who are very, very different from each other and have very, very different outlooks on things. Four strong, individual characters. We just take all our different influences and ideas and characters and somehow, somewhere, it all just sort of comes together and creates this whole Metallica thing!
Surprising the Band, Surprising the Fans
For Master-era Metallica, the "whole Metallica thing" included the unmistakable influence of bassist Cliff Burton—who died in a bus accident in Europe while touring in support of Master–which is all over the record but most clearly heard on "Orion," a song described by Simmons as "nine minutes of ever-changing, mind-provoking weird-and-wonderfulness."
Ulrich knew the song was different and that it would surprise listeners, because it surprised him, too.
"Cliff came up with a very different-sounding piece to anything we’d done before," he said. "We really liked listening to it and playing it, so we just based the whole song around that middle part."
Listen to Metallica's "Orion" From Master of Puppets
Doing Their Bit For Metal
In 1986, though Metallica were only a few years old, Ulrich was very aware of not only the current impact the band had on metal, but the lasting and future impact it would have, too.
"In heavy metal, you have all the different aspects, from the AC/DC steady blues-metal to Iron Maiden, sort of semi-progressive, metal, to Rush, full-progressive, to Judas Priest, all leather and stuff," he remarked in that CREEM chat with Simmons.
"And Metallica, when we first started, it was like a new branch of the tree. There had never been anything like we were doing in America. The closest was we had obvious ties with Motorhead back then, with the energy and the sort of obnoxiousness, but we were playing fast, I think, in a different way. We were adding aspects of Diamond Head and how they wrote their songs, how they looked at each song as being completely different from the next one, and they had really long songs. We fused it together, threw in the odd 'X' factor, and it's Metallica. I think we've done our bit for metal!"
In 2003, after selling more than 6 million copies in the United States, Master of Puppets was certified six-times Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America. In addition to its commercial success, the album's cultural and societal impact will forever be celebrated and preserved as it was inducted into the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry in 2016.