The San Francisco Bay Area is known for many things, but during the ’80s, a peculiar cultural phenomenon developed there when the region became the unofficial home base for the then-burgeoning thrash subgenre. Bands like Exodus, Testament and Death Angel sprang up there, while outside groups like Metallica, Anthrax, Megadeth and Slayer were met with a warm reception from hometown fans and fellow musicians — so much so that Metallica famously relocated to the area from Los Angeles not long after forming.
In his new documentary, Murder in the Front Row: The San Francisco Bay Area Thrash Metal Story, filmmaker Adam Dubin revisits the earliest days of a genre that would permanently alter the course of heavy metal. The director of the Beastie Boys videos “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)” and “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” Dubin also filmed Metallica for what would become the long-form home video A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica, a chronicle of the band’s rocket ride to global superstardom.
Back in 1983, though, no one who played this style of music had any inkling of what was to come. Dubin, who was inspired by the 2012 coffee-table book Murder in the Front Row: Shots From the Bay Area Thrash Metal Epicenter, is careful to give the early fans just as much screen time as the performers in the scene, illuminating the unique social fabric underpinning the larger story of the music’s eventual growth. He and Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick — who’s among the multiple interviewees in Murder in the Front Row — spoke to Billboard in the lead-up to the film’s San Francisco premiere on April 20 at the AMC Kabuki 8 movie theater. (After the screening, all-star collective Metal Allegiance will celebrate the event with a performance at The Fillmore.)
Billboard: Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett starts the film by making the East Bay out to be this awful place.
Can you explain that?
Skolnick: I get some pushback about that from visitors who tell me, “What do you have to complain about? You grew up in this beautiful place. It’s right by the water. It has culture.” San Francisco is like this mecca, but most people can’t afford to live there, especially now. And Berkeley has this interesting component with the university and the area surrounding it … but there was also a sense of desolation. I always felt there was a sense that many people were stuck in the ’60s. And then you get into some of the outskirts, these extended outer boroughs of the Bay Area that go on for miles. They’re suburban and pretty dull in a lot of ways. That’s what Kirk was talking about.
Adam, why did you decide to do this film now?
Dubin: About six years ago, I ran into [photobook co-author] Brian Lew, whom I knew from Metallica circles. He handed me a copy of the book and signed it to me, and I became entranced. From talking to him, I knew there was more of a story there. But there was something else that was happening, too. I’m 55 — roughly the same age as the Metallica guys and anybody who was there 35 years ago. Everybody seemed ready to talk about this, and they had enough perspective, distance and understanding to recognize how lucky they were and how rare it was to have such a vibrant scene.
Murder in the Front Row is a rock documentary, but it’s really a film about friendship.
Dubin: When Brian showed me the book, I’m looking at all these pictures, and I recognize some of the people — the Metallica guys, Exodus, Slayer — but what I also see is pictures of the fans. The photos are very … (Pauses) innocent. There was this group of fans that nurtured this music. We can see this effect all over the place. But it was very clear that there was something special happening here.
How much of a strain did success put on relationships among the bands?
Skolnick: To really go into all the details of the personal dynamics would require an HBO miniseries. (Laughs.) It was complex. Just to use one small example that isn’t really brought up in the film: When Testament started, the singer was Steve Souza. He’s a brother and we love doing shows with Exodus, and he and Chuck [Billy, Testament’s frontman] will work on lyrics together, so he’s almost part of the band still. It all seems hunky-dory, but flash back to [when Souza left Testament to join Exodus], and we were like, “Exodus poached our singer!” At the time, it was a big shock, and there was some real… not-warm feelings … Yeah, relationships were affected. There was a sense of, I would say, mild rivalry. But now that everybody’s adults, things have come full circle.
How important it was it to include people like Wes Robinson, owner of the Ruthie’s Inn venue, and Debbie Abono, who road-managed one of the bands? The film shows how instrumental both of them were to the scene.
Dubin: I approached this much more as a sociologist: “Let me make a film about process, and then you’ll [speak to] everybody” … Debbie Abono and Wes Robinson are both gone, and it’s great to remember them because they were the ones who made this all possible in a way. They were obviously older, but they saw and understood something about what was happening and they weren’t afraid of it. A lot of adults that age would’ve said, “This is noise,” and run the other way … Both of them had a huge influence on these kids’ lives in a very positive way.
Watch the trailer for Murder in the Front Row below:
They were like mother and father figures with music they weren’t initially familiar with. Wes Robinson’s background was in jazz.
Dubin: Well, if you go back far enough, jazz was the thrash [of its day] — hated by parents and thought to lead kids to bad stuff … there really is a direct line from jazz into thrash — seen most clearly by Wes Robinson. So I saw this book with these wonderful pictures, and I realized, “This is a very heartwarming scene.” It’s funny because the music is so active that it can be off-putting — scary, even — but people took care of each other … [Exodus/Slayer guitarist] Gary Holt says something really wonderful in the film: “If your own region was not welcoming of you, we would be.” I love that. I thought it was so indicative of the attitude.