Tales of the Unauthorized – Metallica: Bay Area Thrashers (The Early Years)

Metallica is a band that pushes my nostalgia meter into the red like few others.  Naturally, the relatively recent news of a deluxe box set reissue of their essential Master of Puppets album made me as giddy as a schoolboy.  As I already have a copy of the album, my brother (who needs it) rushed out to pre-order it, and has promised to grant me full access to all that sweet bonus content.  It made me ponder my own Metallica collection, which was lacking a copy of Kill ‘em All.  A large chunk of money later, and I decided to invest in the deluxe box set of that album, which was released a year ago.

While I’m very pleased with this bundle and it’s exploration of Metallica in their rawest incarnation, the most glaring omission from this box set is the complete absence of demo material.  It’s not as if there wasn’t enough of it available, such as their Power Metal demo, and most famously, No Life Till Leather.  This all reminded me of the placeholder CD in my collection that filled the void of teen-aged Metallica.

I was unsure what this was when I purchased this.  Was it a live album?  Was it a demo?  I couldn’t tell from the packaging, but it didn’t look like an official release.  I know that in the early 2000s, I’d see this release floating around in the CD racks at my frequent stomping grounds of HMV and CD Plus.  I got my copy (guessing) around 2010.  I was always dying to know what it was, though if you judge the album by its cover, you can tell it will be a bit of a Frankenstein job.

Why not use a band promo pic of their early days?  The only person that I’m certain is of the proper era is bassist Ron Mcgovney.  Dave Mustaine’s photo may also be faithful to the time frame (within a couple years at least), but James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich are far from it.  I’d date them around 1988 or 1989, possibly slightly later.  When you’re trying to make a quick buck, why bother striving for accuracy?

The back of the sleeve gets a little better.

It’s hard to screw up one photo, yet I’d still argue that they did.  Could they have found a photo where Hetfield’s face isn’t obscured by the microphone?  Again, it’s not the whole band, but the Ron Mcgovney sighting to his left at least guarantees that it’s authentic to the earliest days of Metallica.  Surely the inside of the booklet will give us a better taste of the beginnings of the band, right?

There’s the whole band!  James?  Check.  Lars (with age-appropriate lip fuzz)?  Check.  Two guys that had nothing to do with this recording?  Double check.  It’s clearly a Ride The Lightning promotional photo, as one could guess from the bolts of lightning in the backdrop.  We are treated to two additional Dave Mustaine photos, one of younger Dave, and another from what looks like the Rust In Peace era for no explicable reason.   If we’re going to jump nearly ten years into the future with these pictures, why not include one showing what Ron did in his post-Metallica days while we’re at it?

Photos aside, at least we finally get some technical info on the recording, though I have never heard of anybody listed as part of the production team.  In addition, you get a few sentences to finally give the listener some context about this CD.  We learn “These are the earliest known recordings by Metallica”, but I’ll explain why this is false later.   You would think at this point they would actually use this opportunity to list the musicians that were in the lineup at the time.  If you were to count up all the different people shown in the packaging, you may be lead to believe Metallica was once a six-piece.

Thankfully, any lineup questions are answered when listening to the recording, which begins with the following spoken-word intro:

The tape you are about to hear was recorded by Jimmy Rich Hardell, the CBS producer, in 1981. It was for a new series of heavy rock bands in the West Coast area, and features a little known band called Metallica. This early lineup comprised James Hetfield on rhythm guitar and vocals, Lars Ulrich on drums, Ron Mcgovney on bass, and Dave Mustaine on lead guitar and vocals. These songs later made it onto the now legendary No Life Til Leather demo, and some say precipitated the birth of thrash metal”

Of any bootleg material I’ve got my hands on, it’s this type that I truly see as a massive rip off to the fans.  The fans are being lied to straight-up in this case without having heard a single note.  Once you do get to the songs, it doesn’t take a keen ear to notice something is fishy.  I’ll attempt to fact-check the recording as well as the introduction.

First of all, I’ve never heard of Jimmy Rich Hardell, or Ardell, depending on your interpretation of the speaker’s accent.  The few references I have found to the man on the internet are in connection to this album.  The narrator announces him as if his name should resonate with us, as if he’s a man of gravitas. If this was the raw Metallica live album it claims to be, his contribution to this would likely be the pressing of the “Record” button on the tape recorder as he held it over his head Cusack-style in the back of the club.  What ever happened to the rest of those West Coast band recordings, and furthermore, shouldn’t his name have been listed among the credits in the booklet?

Also, the material was not recorded in 1981.  If anything, their recording of “Hit The Lights” for the Metal Massacre compilation may have taken place that year, but that’s likely all. The band was formed that year, but they didn’t even play their first show until the following year. Metallica’s first gig was on March 14, 1982, if we are to believe the clipping from Lars Ulrich’s personal notes shown in the Garage Inc. booklet.

After the introduction closes with a rather pointless echo effect (perhaps as a reason to further justify Richard Driscoll’s producer title), we can now put aside all hope of this living up to the hype.  You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.  This recording is certainly not as advertised.

This album is essentially the No Life Till Leather demo, but the track order is re-arranged, which helps to explain why there are hard edits between the songs rather than a continuous flow.  Who in their right mind would make hard cuts in between songs in a legitimate live recording?  That would be the best opportunity to capture the rabid nature of the Metallica fanbase.  I’d expect to hear a mess of guitar feedback, the bass being re-tuned to prep for the next song, some drunk guy yelling “Metal Up Your Ass!!!”, a scuffle in the crowd erupting over a patch torn off a denim vest, anything really.

I’m glad to have a copy of these demo songs (it’s the main reason I still own this CD), but unfortunately, the audio quality is rather faded.  I wonder how many generations of tape copying that this had been through to factor into this deteriorated sound. Thankfully, there are sharper versions of the demo on Youtube, and they even re-released it on cassette tape for Record Store Day a few years ago.  You can clearly hear the same vocal inflections and reverb of this unauthorized release when comparing it to the proper demo.

Speaking of reverb, that’s how I got a hint that this CD was not actually a live recording.  I’ve seen enough footage of Metallica to know that they rarely (if ever) used that much processing on Hetfield’s vocals in concert. The fake cheering they use to sell this as live is quite grating to the ears.  Any attempt to integrate it into the mix appropriately is seemingly nonexistent.  The recording captures some great crowd work by James Hetfield, with a hoarsely screamed “Seek… And… Destroy!!” prior to said song, a playful “What’s the matter with you people? You’re not makin’ enough fuckin’ noise!” before “Phantom Lord”, while “We fuckin’ love it!” precedes “Metal Militia”.

That’s all fine and dandy, that is, if you’re willing to overlook that these were sampled from concert footage released on their Cliff ‘Em All videotape.  Just in case you thought that Hetfield sounded like a confident front-man for such a young guy, think again. Dave Mustaine was often the one acting as front-man for much of their earliest gigs as he had more performing experience than anybody, and dealt with less stage-fright.  For a bit more accuracy, they should have considered using some Mustaine lines ripped from early Megadeth shows, though maybe a string of rants about how much Metallica sucks would only confuse fans further.

If I could do it over again, would I have purchased this album?  Probably not, at least not for what I paid (around $10 CAD).  If you have to ask yourself if an album has more or less credibility than Milli Vanilli, that’s not a good sign.  If you see this album somewhere, unless it only costs a buck or two, put it down and walk away.

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