40 Years Ago: James Hetfield Plays First Metallica Show on Guitar
In 1996, retired Back Bay High School English teacher Judy Schreiber fondly remembered one of her senior students from the Class of '82, telling the Los Angeles Times that she saved his essay, among others, as an inspirational writing example to share with struggling students.
“He wrote me a composition about ‘Heavy Metal Rules the World,’ or something like that,” she recalled. “I asked him how he knew so much about [heavy metal], and he said, well, he played some of it, and that’s what he was going to do.”
That student, an Orange County teenager who had moved from Denmark at age 16, was dead set on living his metal dreams. But his fledgling band did not look like global superstars. Lars Ulrich, the musician in question, had only recently learned to play the drums and struggled to keep time. Future guitarist James Hetfield tried overcoming his shyness as the frontman. An attempt at playing as a five-piece in April 1982 had ended disastrously. But the band regrouped and worked out a new lineup, with Hetfield attempting guitar and vocals, joined by Ulrich, lead guitarist Dave Mustaine and bassist Ron McGovney.
Their next gig, on May 25, was at Back Bay, Ulrich's high school.
“Metallica played a show at 11:15AM(!) for the not-very interested students at Back Bay High School during their lunch break,” Ulrich stated on Instagram years later. “This was our fifth gig ever and the first where James played Rhythm Guitar. ... We played on a small stage in one end of the cafeteria that was normally used for school plays, which explained the glamorous kitchen set backdrop.” Considering Ulrich's tour diary from that show, it was generous of him to remember anything at all. “Absolutely a day to forget!” the young drummer wrote after the performance. “Played like shit, went down like shit and sounded like shit. Really awful.” Under “Pay” he wrote “0,” and under “Crowd” he wrote “200→40.”
McGovney confirmed the setting in a Twitter conversation with Speak N' Destroy podcast host Ryan Downey. “The stage for this show was set up for a play," the bassist recalled. "There was a kitchen, a living room, a front-door entry and a couple of bedrooms. I think I was in a bedroom, James and Lars were in the living room, and Dave was in the other bedroom. Crazy gig!”
“The place was full when we started our set," he added, "and only about three headbangers were left by the time we finished!”
This disinterested crowd had no way of knowing that, within a few years, it would be hard to see Metallica perform anywhere smaller than an arena. The band's attempts to cover songs by Diamond Head, Savage, Sweet Savage and Blitzkrieg as originals didn’t leave much of an impression. Neither did Metallica songs that would end up on Kill ‘Em All and Megadeth’s Killing Is My Business ... and Business Is Good!
Hetfield's historic debut guitar performance was also lost on viewers likely more interested in checking out the school cafeteria. These days, though, Back Bay is more receptive to Metallica.
“We claim Metallica all the time as famous Back Bay alumni!” says school office manager Kelly Davis, a 20-year staffer. “We don't have anyone with us now that was here back then, but it is kind of school folklore that Lars Ulrich went to Back Bay. ... If only we could get him to come and be a speaker at Career Day!”
Davis says that the school’s “multipurpose room” where Metallica played has since been remodeled, adding, “My guess is it still has the same not-the-most-exciting-place-for-a-concert vibe that it did 40 years ago.”
But as Hetfield described of early shows in the 2016 book Metallica: Back to the Front, “Wherever we were, it was good enough.” That same year, he revisited the Back Bay campus and posted some pictures, reflecting on it among “‘famous’ Metallica spots.”
“This was Lars' senior year [of] high school,” he noted. “We played a gig in the theater there. It was the first gig where I played guitar and sang.” He didn’t comment on the performance or attendance, but he looks relaxed in the photos — and happy to be no longer 18.
Ulrich graduated on June 16, less than one month after the Back Bay performance. A little more than a year later, Kill ‘Em All hit stores.