How Metallica’s Master of Puppets turned rock upside down

Metallica (James Hetfield, Kirk Hammet, Lars Ulrich, and Cliff Burton) in 1985 - Getty
Metallica (James Hetfield, Kirk Hammet, Lars Ulrich, and Cliff Burton) in 1985 - Getty

On new year’s eve 1985, an acutely under-rehearsed Metallica appeared atop a four-band bill at the 8,500-capacity Civic Auditorium in their adopted hometown of San Francisco. Having returned just days earlier from a 12-week shift at Sweet Silence studios, in Copenhagen, at which they recorded their third album, the event was a kind of homecoming parade. With a sense of celebration in the air, onstage the band performed the record’s title track before a paying audience for the very first time.

Its name? Master Of Puppets.

Thirty-seven years later, the appearance of the song in the final episode of the fourth series of Stranger Things, has propelled Metallica to (at the time of writing) number 7 on Spotify’s US and UK chart. For the first time, a track that was never released as a single – in fact, the parent album featured no singles or music videos at all – has become a hit. In a phrase that didn’t exist just a few weeks ago, the band have "done a Kate Bush".

Certainly, for both artists, the exposure will prove lucrative. The placement of Running Up That Hill in an episode of Stranger Things in May is reported to have earned the English singer-songwriter, who owns the copyright on the song, a cool $2 million. Following an explosive legal battle with Elektra Records, the company to which they were signed from 1984 to 2016, Metallica themselves took full ownership of their entire catalogue. Not for these two the despicable royalty rates paid by streaming platforms to artists indentured to traditional recording contracts. Not for them the pallid sum of £0.004 per play.

For what it’s worth, I think perhaps rather too much has been made of the Netflix juggernaut’s ability to turn younger and wider audiences on to timeless oldies and goldies. For listeners who came of age in the 21st Century, the global jukebox is an all-you-can-eat online buffet open 24-hours a day at which customers dine for free. Never mind the chore of buying a record, or a CD, the only requirement for listeners to be made aware of a particular jewel among its bounty of wonders is a steer in the right direction.

Inevitably, the effects are transformative. After featuring on the soundtrack to the Marvel film Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the Spotify listening numbers for Southern Nights, by Glen Campbell, grew to dwarf even Rhinestone Cowboy and Wichita Lineman, two of his most famous songs. More spectacularly still, the appearance of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ on the TV show Glee helped turn a reasonably-sized AOR hit into a worldwide musical phenomenon. The new Marvel release Thor: Love and Thunder will no doubt give a healthy boost to both Guns N’ Roses (who have three songs on the soundtrack) and Enya (who has one). Regardless of sound, or age, the field is open.

Where Stranger Things does excel, however, is in its exceptional ability to accurately recall the excitement generated by Master Of Puppets in 1986. The scene in which the song appears is (more or less) contemporaneous with its original release; in it, the character Eddie Munson, a dedicated metalhead, plays its opening riff on his guitar while standing on the roof of the mobile home in which he lives. Critics who have claimed that Munson would not have had the time to learn the piece before playing it so well are underestimating the sheer magnetic power Metallica possessed at this time.

"It was another one of those 'it has to be this song’ moments," Stranger Things’ music supervisor Nora Felder told the trade paper Variety. "This part of the story was anticipated to be a pivotal and especially hair-raising scene in which Eddie heroically stood tall for the fight of his life. I believe [series creators] the Duffer Brothers felt that playing Master Of Puppets throughout the extended scene was the clear choice. No other song was discussed further, and we jumped in to clear it straight away. In some ways, [it] aligns with Eddie's seemingly arrogant and edgy in-your-face public persona."

'Dirty, noisy, obnoxious, ugly': the sleeve of the Master of Puppets album
'Dirty, noisy, obnoxious, ugly': the sleeve of the Master of Puppets album

Once upon a time, I imagined myself the same way. Age 15, at lunchtime on the day of its release, I ran from school in the faint hope that the small record shop a mile away might just have thought to buy in a copy of Master Of Puppets. Three hours later, business-up-top-party-out-back mullet flying wild in the wind, I sprinted home holding the town’s only copy of a record that I now recognise as being the first major musical event of my teenage life. “Smashing through the boundaries, lunacy has found me,” sang James Hetfield on the album’s berserk opening song, Battery. “F___ it all and f______ no regrets,” went Damage, Inc., the closing track. Well, quite.

Amid the fury, though, lay Metallica’s genius for musicality and control. At Sweet Silence studio, such was the remarkable precision of Hetfield’s rhythm guitar playing that he was able to overdub his parts on Master Of Puppets at least six times with individual takes. “It took forever,” the album’s producer, Flemming Rasmussen, once told me. “But I’ve never seen anything like it since. And neither do I expect to.”

It sounded amazing. It looked amazing, too. Feral and troubling, the photograph printed on the record’s inner sleeve was of a group that appeared to have emerged from a plane crash. Seated behind a coffee table at the ‘Metallica Mansion’ – in reality a modest bungalow at 3132 Carlson Boulevard in the East Bay town of El Cerrito - the musicians snarled at the camera in ripped clothing. In a room filled with detritus, a strewn copy of the San Francisco Examiner announced that ‘[Rock] Hudson has AIDS’.

Metallica in 1992 - Getty
Metallica in 1992 - Getty

In Metallica’s world, everything seemed unruly and oppositional. Hetfield’s Gibson Explorer guitar was adorned with the words ‘More Beer’ and, later, ‘Kill Bon Jovi’. Seeing the band live for the first time, at the Hammersmith Odeon on September 21 1986, I remember gazing in wonder at the deliberate conjoining of image and words in an eight quid tour programme. A double-page spread showed the four musicians bearing devilish grins beneath a pull-quote from a vividly irritated American journalist. "They’re dirty, noisy, obnoxious, ugly, and I hate them," he’d written. "But you can’t deny their success".

On some level, I knew that a revolution was in train. Faster and better than anything that had come before, Metallica appeared to pose a clear and present danger to the stuffy and reactionary world of mainstream metal. In London, the (literally and figuratively) underground record shop Shades knocked out a 1,000 copies of Master Of Puppets in a single day. Despite receiving no airplay outside of the late night confines of the Friday Rock Show, the album entered the UK chart at number 41 (its highest position to date); without media support, it sold a million records in the United States. On a six-month US tour supporting Ozzy Osbourne, its authors were received like headliners.

“One of the biggest misconceptions about Metallica is this whole thing of, ‘We’re doing it for the fans,’” the band’s drummer, Lars Ulrich, would later say. ‘No, we’re not f______ doing it for the f______ fans, we’re doing it for ourselves. The reason fans relate to what we’re doing is because our music… isn’t [compromised by] what somebody else expects or wants from us. That’s been the f______ party line from the start.”

Despite Metallica’s very public drunkenness – their nickname during this time was ‘Alcoholica’ – it’s unusual for a musician to be this prescient about the nature of their own appeal. In the group’s first decade, certainly, a hostility to established norms became the very reason they were able to justly issue a t-shirt bearing the outrageous claim ‘Birth School Metallica Death’. The strength of the connection with their audience was such that people who gave them money in exchange for music believed they were part of a rebellion. It’s the way Eddie Munson feels in the final episode of Stranger Things. It’s the way I felt, too. Sometimes I still do.

In time, of course, Metallica would be crushed by the weight of their own creation. By eventually becoming one of the most popular groups in the world – their eponymous fifth LP, known to all as The Black Album, would remain on US Billboard Hot 200 for more than 10 years – and by winning every battle, the only people they had left to fight were themselves. Such was the state of pitiful disrepair to which they sank that in 2004’s remarkably courageous documentary film Some Of Kind Of Monster, Lars Ulrich told James Hetfield that “I don’t understand who you are”. As if this weren’t quite enough, he then issued a sentence of such quiet devastation that it barely ripped the waters. “I realise now that I barely knew you before.”

Finding peace, of sorts, these days Metallica are an astonishing force who exist to play old songs in arenas and stadiums for audiences willing to pay a £100 and more for a ticket. With this came a softening of their previously impenetrable core; where once the group refused all entreaties to use their music in films and television series, in 2022 they’re able to ‘do a Kate Bush’ with a song that never really went away.

Inevitably, of course, there are those who wish that things were as they once were. "I’m sorry Metallica for all the fake Stranger Things fans love ya," wrote one constituent on their Instagram page. To which the band replied, "Don’t be sorry. Everyone is welcome in the Metallica family."