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Metallica: The First Four Albums – “Hit the Lights”

Metal Typo Massacre

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Like many, I remember when I first heard Metallica’s first album. It was 1991, and I was in high school. I had heard Metallica’s second, third, and fourth albums, but for some reason I got to the first one last. (I do a lot of things backwards.) When I finally borrowed the CD from a friend and played it in my boombox, I was underwhelmed. The Metallica I knew, that of majestic compositions pondering life and death, wasn’t there. In its place were saw blade tones, songs about kicking ass, and some bass instrumental. I didn’t know what to think.

“Hit the Lights” weirded me out the most. It was punky and not heavy, and its chorus had a strange timing that seemed like a pronounced limp. I still feel that way – with music, first impressions are usually the strongest – but now I realize those traits are all good.

Punky and not heavy: Motörhead, in other words. Now, Motörhead can be plenty heavy, both musically and metaphysically. But this is the Motörhead of “The Hammer”, not “Orgasmatron”. The RPMs are high, and the feel is fast and light. In musical terms, the BPM is around 160, and the key is A – a rock ‘n’ roll key, as opposed to metal’s frequent residence in the ’80s at low E.

A pronounced limp: this, for me, is what makes “Hit the Lights”. Motörhead-like songs in A about kicking ass grow on trees, but few have choruses in 7/4. Instead of the usual multiple of four, frontman James Hetfield jams in the “hit the lights” refrain a beat earlier. Guitars and drums goose-step to match, providing a contrast to the high-octane verses. Just dropping one beat makes all the difference.

I don’t know whom to credit for this. The songwriting credits say Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich, but in a 1984 interview, ex-lead guitarist Dave Mustaine said Hugh Tanner, from Hetfield’s pre-Metallica band Leather Charm, wrote the song. Of course, Mustaine has historically not been the most credible source. Also, at that time, with his expulsion from Metallica still fresh in his mind, he literally had an axe to grind.

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In any case, “Hit the Lights” showcases Metallica’s influences more than it does Metallica. This is evident in the demos for the song. I believe there are four. The first one, featuring leads by Lloyd Grant and Mustaine, appeared on the first pressing of Metal Blade’s first Metal Massacre compilation. Then came a demo from bassist Ron McGovney’s garage (recorded March ’82) and the Power Metal demo (recorded April ’82). Both featured Mustaine on lead guitar; the version from the latter appeared on the second pressing of Metal Massacre. Then the band, still with McGovney and Mustaine in it, recorded the No Life ’til Leather demo in July ’82, a year before Kill ‘Em All came out.

Three takeaways emerge from these demos. The first is that Hetfield was very much figuring out his vocal style. According to McGovney, he emulated Sean Harris from Diamond Head at first. Evidently that meant cleaner singing and a lot of melisma. By Kill ‘Em All, Hetfield had dropped such embellishment for his trademark bark.

The second is that Hammett was the right choice for Metallica’s lead guitarist. The leads on the Metal Massacre demo are laughable, and Mustaine’s subsequent solos don’t demonstrate much other than his affinity for chromatics, which he would put to great use in Megadeth. Hammett’s leads have a nice sense of shape that tempers the sometimes undisciplined songwriting on Kill ‘Em All.

Finally, “Hit the Lights” was the perfect introduction for Metallica to the world at large. Perhaps it was always intended as such. After all, the band wrote lines like “You know our fans are insane / We are gonna blow this place away” before it had any fans! Maybe Hetfield & co. knew they were destined for greatness – or maybe they willed themselves into it.

— Cosmo Lee

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“Hit the Lights” (Metal Massacre, vol. 1)

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“Hit the Lights” (Ron McGovney’s ’82 Garage Demo, 3/82)

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“Hit the Lights” (Power Metal demo, 4/82)

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“Hit the Lights” (No Life ’til Leather demo, 7/82)

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“Hit the Lights” (album version)

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