How Metallica turned their stolen gear into a classic song

Before Metallica had taken over the radio, they were at less than nothing. Driving across the country to snag a record deal for their debut Kill Em All, the thrash legends recorded their first songs on a shoestring budget, limiting themselves to only a few days in the studio so they could hammer things out as quickly as possible without paying too much. Once they started to take to the road, they were dealt a body blow that no one could have predicted.

Metallica had already been through their fair share of shake-ups before they had even played a single note on their debut. On their way over the East Coast, Dave Mustaine’s erratic behaviour led to him being ousted from the band a few weeks after they arrived in New York, being replaced with guitarist Kirk Hammett from the band Exodus.

While Mustaine would take his own route to success with Megadeth, Metallica would continue with some of his musical remains. Across their debut, songs like ‘The Four Horsemen’ and ‘Jump in the Fire’ were Mustaine-led compositions, taking the basis of their former guitarists’ riffs and utilising them for their original songs.

As they started to cut material for the follow-up, though, time on the road led to most of their gear getting stolen. After a long night of trying to pack away their instruments, someone broke into their storage room and stole a bunch of their guitars, including a few that the band used heavily on the road.

While the band would rebound, James Hetfield had thought they had reached the end of the line in the coming weeks. Reaching into the depths of his soul, Hetfield turned his grief and sorrow into the song ‘Fade to Black’, which marked a turning point for the band. As opposed to the non-stop action of their main discography, this was a soft ballad in the vein of their metal heroes like Black Sabbath and The Scorpions.

Considering their financial situation, the band didn’t even have the resources to perform the song correctly in the studio. Having no acoustic guitars to work with, Hetfield borrowed an acoustic from a friend the day the album was to be recorded, turning up to his house in the middle of the night to make sure he got it.

Wary to even record the song, the band eventually turned the back half of the track into a thrash metal spectacle, pairing one phenomenal riff after another to tell a grim story of one man’s choice to end his life. While a handful of Metallica fans may have felt betrayed by the song at first, it would become the seed for future Metallica ballads, from the sullen man trapped in a mental institution on ‘Welcome Home (Sanitarium)’ to the soldier beaten down by war on ‘One’.

Amid the massive metal journeys that Metallica was known for making at the time, ‘Fade to Black’ would also stretch the band’s capabilities as composers, from Hammett laying down bluesy leads for his solo to Hetfield crooning through the vocals instead of the usual bark. This may have been considered the first moment that Metallica sold out, but the fact that the song exists is a testament to the band not giving in even when times were looking dire.

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