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On This Day in Music... March 3, 1986: Metallica Releases 'Master of Puppets'

'Master of Puppets' signaled a giant leap forward for the band, but it was also the end of an era.

Source: Robert Hoetink / Alamy

Cliff Burton, Kirk Hammett, Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield backstage during the band's early days.

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Last April, Metallica set up shop at the Hollywood Masonic Temple to play five consecutive nights on ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live. Though the group were ostensibly there to promote their new album, 72 Seasons, they soon dipped into their back catalogue. The clear highlight of the late night residency came midway through the week, when Metallica played all eight and a half minutes of their 1986 masterwork “Master of Puppets,” with the studio audience lustily screaming the song's demonic refrain — “Master! Master!” — right back at them.

On March 3, 1986, this scene would have seemed laughably inconceivable. Back then, late night TV was still the domain of Johnny Carson, whose tastes in music ran more toward Bette Midler and cabaret singer Marilyn Maye. For their part, Metallica's music had never appeared on network television…nor cable television...nor even FM radio. But they had just released their third album, Master of Puppets, and little did they know it would be the key foundation on which their subsequent superstardom would be built.

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metallica hetfield
Source: MEGA

Metallica's James Hetfield, circa 1992.

Singer-guitarist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich had gotten off to a hesitant start as teenagers in their hometown of Los Angeles, where their willfully unglamorous, massively sped-up takes on the New Wave of British Heavy Metal stylings of Judas Priest and Diamond Head could not have been more out of step with the Sunset Strip's glammed-up heavy metal scene. Relocating to San Francisco brought a welcome change in fortunes, and before long the band — now consisting of Hetfield, Ulrich, guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Cliff Burton — had developed enough of a following to record their debut full length, Kill ‘Em All, in 1983.

That album — rough, youthful, at times silly, but full of promise — hardly made a ripple in the wider rock ecosystem, but it had an immediate impact among bands in the emerging thrash metal underground. The group’s follow-up, 1984’s Ride the Lightning, improved on its predecessor in virtually every way, and thanks to nonstop touring, this increasingly sophisticated group quietly built a die-hard cult.

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Master of Puppets, however, was something else entirely. Recorded over four full months in Denmark — double the amount of time the group had spent recording their two previous albums, combined — Master was both a refinement and an expansion of all of Metallica's influences, obsessions and innovations. Gone were Hetfield and Ulrich’s occasional attempts to write straight-ahead British Steel-style headbangers, and in their place were intricate, multipart epics inspired by the novels of Ken Kesey and H.P. Lovecraft.

Songs like the title track, “Battery,” and “(Welcome Home) Sanitarium” would eventually become metal standards, but it’s the album’s two closing songs that offer perhaps the clearest illustration of Metallica’s rapidly expanding horizons. On the instrumental “Orion,” the classically-trained Burton pushed the band (and thrash metal itself) into uncharted territory, with the song’s gentle, intergalactically Baroque middle section displaying a musical complexity Metallica had only hinted at before. One track later, “Damage Inc.” presented the flip-side: the meanest, gnarliest burst of speed-demon riffery that the genre had yet produced. (A designation it would hold until Slayer’s Reign in Blood arrived in October of that same year.) Here, on back-to-back cuts, the band offered visions of thrash metal at its brutal, and its most beautiful.

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The album entered the Billboard charts at No. 29, then the group’s best commercial showing by far, but its impact was far from immediate. For every rave — like the review that appeared in Rolling Stone that year, which proclaimed the album had “taken the raw material of heavy metal and refined all the s**t…right out of it” — there were also plenty of naysayers. Nonetheless, the tide had begun to turn. As Hammett later recalled: "It seemed we were drawing in a much broader fan base, the people who liked hard rock but weren't full-on metal fans. We’d hear, 'I wasn’t sure I liked this type of music, but then I heard "Sanitarium," and you know what? I'm a fan.’ Those types of statements really started with Master of Puppets.”

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If Master of Puppets signaled a giant leap forward for the band, it was also the end of an era. Just months after the album’s release, Burton was killed in a freak bus accident while on tour in Sweden. The band carried on with new bassist Jason Newsted, but something essential had changed. The next Metallica album would see the band release — horror of horrors— a music video, which became an unexpected hit on MTV, and at the dawn of the 1990s the group fully crossed into the mainstream, selling more than 15 million copies of its self-titled fifth album. By the end of that decade, Metallica had become one of the biggest bands in the world, with all of the baggage that went along with it.

But Master of Puppets remains a milestone, a high-water mark that the band couldn't escape even if they wanted to. (According to setlist.fm data, Metallica have played “Master of Puppets” 1741 times in concert. That’s more than the Eagles have played “Hotel California.” More than the Who have played “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”) In 2015, Master became the first metal album to be selected for the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry of “historical significant” recordings. And in 2022, the title track's surprise appearance in the Netflix series Stranger Things introduced an entirely new generation to the band's magnum opus.


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