How Metal Blade Founder Linked Metallica With Bassists: Exclusive Book Excerpt

Metallica, 1985
Fin Costello/Redferns

(L-R) Kirk Hammett, James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich and Cliff Burton of Metallica photographed in 1985.

Exclusive excerpt from "For the Sake of Heaviness" details Brian Slagel's role in shaping the band's lineup.

When Brian Slagel launched Metal Blade Records in 1982, he was motivated by one simple passion: an insatiable love for all things metal. As a member and motivator of the growing L.A. metal scene, his musical knowledge and fortuitous circumstances collided during the flash point when the genre was in its commercial ascendency, leading him to befriend and work with multiple bands like Armored Saint, Lizzy Borden, Voivod, Fates Warning and Overkill that remain active to this day.

Slagel also has the distinction of releasing Slayer's earliest recordings, including their debut album, Show No Mercy; helping death metal act Cannibal Corpse decide whether to do a cameo in 1994's Ace Ventura: Pet Detective; escorting a fully costumed Gwar to the 1993 Grammy Awards; and recommending a name change for little-known act Burn the Priest, which traded up for the moniker Lamb of God.

One of the California company's most famed achievements is releasing the first official Metallica recording, "Hit the Lights," on the 1982 compilation album Metal Massacre, a feat that was made possible by Slagel's friendship with drummer Lars Ulrich.

And the label founder/CEO's place in the band's history stretches far beyond that: He was instrumental in pairing the group not only with Cliff Burton, the now-legendary bassist who was killed in a tour bus accident in 1986, but also with Flotsam & Jetsam's Jason Newsted when Metallica faced the sad task of replacing Burton.

In an exclusive excerpt from his autobiography, For the Sake of Heaviness: The History of Metal Blade Records -- set to be published by BMG Books on Aug. 29 -- Slagel recounts how he encouraged Ulrich to check out Burton when the bassist was playing with the band Trauma and why he recommended that Newsted consider joining Metallica, even though it had the potential to negatively affect Metal Blade's roster:

During this period of late 1982, I'd been gathering music together with the idea of releasing Metal Massacre II. One of the submissions I received was a three-song demo from a San Francisco band called Trauma. It was recorded pretty professionally, and their management told me they were coming down to play a show at the Troubadour. He suggested I come out to see them.

I went to the show and the band was OK, but certainly not amazing. The bass player, though, was f---in' out of this world. You could see there was something completely crazy happening on his side of the stage. He was wearing a blue denim vest and wide bell-bottoms, and really stood out. I discovered his name was Cliff Burton.

Cliff impressed me so much I agreed to put the Trauma song "Such a Shame" on Metal Massacre II. Shortly before it was released, I was hanging out with [Metallica drummer] Lars Ulrich one day when he said, "We need a new bass player."

As they'd started to practice more and hone their respective abilities as musicians, the Metallica guys realized that the only member who wasn't developing was bassist Ron McGovney. Ron was a great guy, super cool and totally into it, but Lars told me they felt that, for the newer material they were writing, Ron just wasn't up to it from a technical perspective. Lars asked me if I knew of anyone else who would be a good fit.

"Now that you mention it," I responded, "There's this band called Trauma from San Francisco, and their bass player is phenomenal. They're coming down again for another show, so you guys should go check them out."

I saw Lars and [Metallica singer-guitarist] James [Hetfield] at Trauma's next LA show. Maybe five minutes into the set, Lars turned to me and, with a smile, said, "That's going to be our new bass player."

…One of our main sources of finding new acts was from other Metal Blade bands. Bitch, for example, had gone out to play a show in Phoenix. When they came back they said, "Hey, the band that just opened for us was called Flotsam and Jetsam. They're amazing; you should check 'em out."

They had a demo tape at the time called Metal Shock, which I listened to and fell in love with. Then I went out to Phoenix to see them live, and they were as amazing as my friends in Bitch said they were. While I was there, I became aware of another band from the Phoenix area, Sacred Reich, that we'd also sign to the Metal Blade roster.

While we'd had a lot of proficient bands on the label by that time, the Flotsam guys seemed even more experienced than some of our existing bands. I immediately talked to them about the idea of making a record, and, because we had some money to offer, we were able to record Doomsday for the Deceiver, which was released in July of 1986.

The $12,000 we spent on that Flotsam album was the biggest budget we'd invested in any record up to that point. We really wanted it to sound good because I believed those guys had the potential for a great future. It did extremely well.

When Metallica's Cliff Burton was tragically killed later that year, I got a call from Lars Ulrich. "Well, we need a bass player," he said sadly. It was just two weeks after Cliff had died. "Do you know anybody?" I had already thought about Armored Saint's Joey Vera until I heard he said he wasn't into it. When Lars asked the question, I immediately thought of Jason Newsted, who played with Flotsam and Jetsam. "I think I know the perfect guy for you," I told him.

Around the same time, Michael Alago -- the A&R guy who signed Metallica to Elektra -- had heard the Flotsam record and really liked it. Michael and I both sent the Metallica guys some stuff. "Yup, he sounds interesting," they said. "Can you put us in touch?" I said, "Sure, let me talk to him first and make sure he's into it."

I knew Jason was a huge Metallica fan, and when I called him he freaked out. But I could tell he was also in a weird position. Flotsam and Jetsam was his band; he wrote the songs and ran the whole thing. Even for me, it was a little bittersweet. Here was this great band that had just put out this great record. But the Metallica guys were good friends of mine, and clearly Jason was the perfect fit for them. I wanted the best for Jason and for Metallica, but I also knew I'd be losing something to make that happen.

"Give me a night to think about it," Jason told me. The next day he called me back and said he was in. He was the second bass player I'd recruited for Metallica, but I made a point of telling him exactly how things were likely to go. After all, he was a young, twenty-three-year-old kid. Jason was really smart, but I knew that the transition wasn't going to be an easy one for him. He was going from a band where he controlled everything to Metallica, where he would have zero control over anything. I vividly remember saying, "You've got to be aware that this band belongs to James and Lars, and you will have no say in anything. You're just going to be the bass player, and you're going to have to be OK with that. You probably won't get to contribute anything, and you certainly won't have any input in terms of the band's direction. You're just going to get up on stage and play bass.”

He was fine with it at the start, but I know one of the main reasons he left fifteen years later -- apart from the fact that he was a wreck, physically -- was that he missed being able to write his own music and do his own thing. He wanted to control his own destiny, but what a great run and a great career the guy had.

Hooking them up with Jason signaled the end of my formal relationship with Metallica. We've always remained close friends and they've always been incredibly appreciative of the role Metal Blade played in terms of putting them on the map. Pretty much every time I see James he says, "Thank you so much for giving us the start. If it wasn't for you…"

From For the Sake of Heaviness: The History of Metal Blade Records by label founder and CEO Brian Slagel with Mark Eglington, to be published by BMG Books on August 29, 2017. Copyright © 2017 by Metal Blade Records.