Metallica Kick Off Reissue Project With ‘No Life ‘Til Leather’ Cassette
Tape will come out on Record Store Day, followed by an expanded edition this summer
Metallica will revisit their early years in a big way for the first time next month, when they put out an exact duplication of their thrashing declaration of intent — the 1982 demo tape No Life ‘Til Leather — as a limited-edition cassette on April 18th. “Twelve people will be able to play it, but everybody else will be able to hold it in their hands and, uh, have a great time with it,” drummer Lars Ulrich tells Rolling Stone with a laugh. The band will release the cassette on Record Store Day before issuing expanded CD and vinyl editions this summer, marking the first time any of their demos have been officially released.
Metallica earned their first accolades with the seven-track cassette when it arrived in the summer of 1982. At the time, the group consisted of vocalist-guitarist James Hetfield, lead guitarist Dave Mustaine (later of Megadeth), bassist Ron McGovney and drummer Ulrich, who was only 18 at the time, playing bloodthirsty thrash riffs on songs like “Jump in the Fire,” “Seek & Destroy” and “Metal Militia.” Only one of the tape’s tracks, “The Mechanix,” would not appear on the band’s debut LP, Kill ‘Em All, the following year. The cassette, which became a fixture on metal’s underground tape-trading scene, captured Metallica at their most raw, as Hetfield shredded his vocal cords and Mustaine doled out impressive, bluesy, breakneck-paced solos.
The band has remastered the original tapes for the reissue, keeping the mix intact, to show “the same innocence and, I guess, borderline ignorance, of four kids barely out of puberty, rockin’ along, doing their thing,” according to Ulrich. The artwork has been made from Ulrich’s own copy and will feature the Danish drummer’s handwriting.
The release is part of a new series of upcoming reissues, since Metallica now operate their own label (Blackened Recordings) and own the master recordings to their catalogue. “It’s time for us to put out some next-level reissues and do the song and dance of the catalog that everyone else has done; the U2s and the Led Zeppelins and the Oasises,” Ulrich says. “Instead of starting with Kill ‘Em All in 1983, we figured we’d go back another two years to when the band was formed in 1981.”
The expanded CD and LP versions of the cassette will cover what the drummer calls the “No Life ‘Til Leather era, but it’s not necessarily limited to the cassette.” Asked whether the band will include other demos from the time, such as its four-song Power Metal cassette, Ulrich requests patience and says he’s sifting through “lot of goodies that are laying around in cardboard boxes and tape vaults.”
Within a couple of months, “depending on how quick we can turn it around,” the group will announce “a big package” of reissues. “Yesterday, I found another tape and handed it to [engineer] Greg Fidelman, and there was some crazy stuff on the B-side that I didn’t even know existed,” he says. “It’s all coming. We’re doing our best.”
But the most natural starting point was No Life ‘Til Leather as a cassette. “This is the second demo that we made and circulated,” Ulrich says. “I sat in my bedroom and wrote on the J cards and went to the post office and sent it around to all the tape collectors around the world. Now, 20, 30 years later, it has become synonymous with the pre–Kill ‘Em All era.”
The drummer recalls the time around No Life ‘Til Leather as the band’s “crazy, fun first year.” At age 17, he had come to Los Angeles from Denmark and left Corona del Mar High School in favor of “continuation school” Back Bay High School where he could study at his own pace. It was around then that he dedicated himself to the band, doing his schoolwork as needed and delivering the Los Angeles Times on two routes between 4 and 6 in the morning.
“The rest of time, I would drive by to Huntington Beach and pick up Mustaine and then we would drive up to Ron’s house in Norwalk where Hetfield stayed, and then we would just play and write and sit around and drink beer and listen to metal records,” he says. “There’s a little den next to the garage with a couple of really big, American-style TV watching chairs that I wasn’t used to, growing up in Denmark.
“We drank a lot of shitty beer and had a foray into some nasty peach schnapps or some weird schnapps and liqueurs,” he continues. “We’d play gigs and see bands on the L.A. circuit and feel like we didn’t belong, like we were outcasts and misfits in our Iron Maiden T-shirts, almost like second-class citizens. But there was a unity in what we were doing, and it was a lot of fun. We were all equally outcasts, loners and metalheads. There was strength in that.”
“We were all equally outcasts, loners and metalheads. There was strength in that.”
The No Life ‘Til Leather song that might surprise Metallica fans the most is “The Mechanix,” a breakneck speed-metal banger with lurid lyrics that Mustaine had concocted during his stint in his previous band, Panic, along with ideas for “Jump in the Fire,” which contains different, Mustaine-penned lyrics on the demo. The group later rewrote the former song, with extended guitar solos, and subsequently released the track as Kill ‘Em All‘s “The Four Horseman.” “Dave was a force of energy,” Ulrich says. “He came like a hurricane, just like whirling into our world with his charm and his good looks and he had great gear, like a backline, and he had roadies. He had everything. He had some skeletons or blueprints for a couple songs, and we tweaked them. We ‘Metallica-ized’ them or whatever.”
Later, after the group kicked Mustaine out, they decided the song needed some new lyrics. “The lyrics to ‘Mechanix’ were literally – and I say this without judgment – about a sexual encounter at a gas station. There were all of these euphemisms that had sexual undertones. It wasn’t that they were particularly bad lyrics, but it was just in line with so much of the American hard rock and metal at the time. Over the subsequent year or two, we wanted to go a little darker and lock on to what was going on in England, so we decided to put the lyrics in a different direction.” (Mustaine later recorded “Mechanix” the way he wrote it on Megadeth’s 1985 debut, Killing Is My Business…and Business Is Good!)
Ulrich estimates he sent out between 50 to 100 copies of the original tape and that the recipients would then copy it and send it to their friends. “I don’t remember being particularly goal-oriented then, but I assume the intention was to get signed,” the drummer says with a laugh. “We always felt we were having so much fun and doing so much, after being loners for years, it made us feel like we belonged to something. It was just being in a gang, playing music, having fun, living and breathing hard rock and heavy metal, 24/7. We quickly realized we were the opposite of what was going on up in Hollywood at the time.”
Citing the exact day the group moved to San Francisco, Ulrich says the band’s main goal at the time was “to get the fuck out of L.A.” Eventually, the demo arrived on the East Coast where a music-shop owner named Johnny Z. got a hold of it and signed them to his Megaforce label, which issued Kill ‘Em All.
“It just sounds so fucking innocent and so instinctive.”
The group has been in touch with several friends from its early days to try to find things to put on the expanded edition. They even hired an “old-school private detective” to locate some tapes that had gone missing. “I was speaking to somebody yesterday who said another guy has all his 1982 Metallica stuff under his bed,” he says.
Ulrich is struck hardest by the sound of what the group has uncovered – especially as they work on their next album. “It just sounds so fucking innocent and so instinctive,” he says. “When we’re sitting here, writing our new songs and getting to a point now where we’re getting close to pre-production, James Hetfield will play, like, 34 ways a song could be better, and I just sit there and my head turns into Linda Blair from The Exorcist because they all sound great and at some point, we gotta pick one.
“The No Life ’til Leather stuff just sounds so effortless, like it was all put together in an afternoon, which it was,” he continues. “As a 51-year-old living, breathing human being, you just sit there and go, ‘What the fuck do I have to drink to get that back? It’s just four kids who you’re playing without thinking about it.”