Lots of people think of Metallica as the band who ‘invented’ thrash metal in the 1980s, building on the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) they were all into, but playing it with even more speed, intensity and power, building a hub on the US west coast centred on the Bay Area.
But arguably, Exodus really got there first. They were eclipsed by their more famous Bay Area thrash colleagues of course, but they had plenty of success themselves. AND, of course, they were Kirk Hammett’s first metal band before he jumped the fence. So, let’s dig around a little into those early days of Exodus – which after all, set the wheels in motion for Hammett to become the metal guitar god he is today.
Thrash Metal In The 70s – Sort of…
Exodus was first formed in 1979, compared with 1981 for Metallica, so you might say that this already puts the argument to bed on who were the Bay Area’s first thrash band. It got going in the usual way – Kirk Hammett (at the tender age of 16), Tim Agnello (guitar), Tom Hunting (drums) and Keith Stewart (vocals) knew each other at high school, they all liked heavy metal, and decided to form a band and give it a go themselves.
For the band name, a trip to the county library in Richmond, California was planned – a place sure to offer a rich seam of ideas. And sure enough, Hammett soon stumbled across a copy of Exodus by Leon Uris on the shelves – decision made.
They weren’t that great to begin with – who is? – but quickly put together a set of covers and a few original compositions as well. A bit of lineup churn ended up with Paul Baloff on vocals and Gary Holt on guitar, replacing Stewart and Agnello respectively. A demo was recorded with 3 songs – it’s the only studio recording from those early days to feature Kirk Hammett on guitar, so is a real classic heavy metal collectors’ item. Here’s a taster.
Lousy Production, Great Vibe
It has the production values you might expect from a cash-strapped young band just starting out, with instruments sounding like they’ve been recorded from inside a tin box somewhere. But it stil sounds pretty good if you put that to one side. Not quite thrash, they are nevertheless turning up the tempo dial, and the punk influence in also easy to hear. But already, you can tell that Hammett himself is the ‘secret sauce’ – those melodies and the soloing elevating what would otherwise by quite run-of-the-mill.
Kirk Hammett – Early Resume
Hammett didn’t seem particularly cut out for greatness, not judging by his family background anyway. He was juat a run of the mill second-generation immigrant with a Filipino mother and an Irish father. It wasn’t a happy marriage – dad was a merchant sailor, and (stereotyping klaxon!!!) big drinker who regularly beat both mom and son, before eventually walking out never to be seen again. And it wasn’t a very musical family either – Kirk’s brother Richard played a bit of guitar and liked to strum along to Bob Dylan and the like. That was about it really.
Kirk himself never picked up a guitar until the age of 13, and only then to try and emulate is older bro. Growing up, he preferred horror movies and comic books to music, with Bride of Frankenstein as his all-time favorite. These leisure pursuits did not endear him to the nuns at his Catholic school, not that he cared – by 5th grade, he’d already decided that the Catholic mix of hypocrisy and hypercriticality wasn’t for him. A laid-back dude from the outset, he eventually got into Buddhism, which was always a much better fit for him spiritually.
Seriously, if he wasn’t busy with this blog, The Hawk would consider writing one about those classic horror movies instead. But anyway, let’s stick to the script here. Despite the lack of strong musical role models in his early years, the younger Hammett had application. He studied a bit of classical music and didn’t think anything about performing Back and Haydn at school. He was persistent, trying to learn and play along to rock and heavy metal records – things like Hendrix, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. He even learned the 30-minute live version of Zeppelin’s ‘Dazed and Confused’. And even in those early days, he was reaching higher as a guitar player – looking to emulate not the gloomy riffs of Black Sabbath, but rather the early shred of UFO’s Michael Schenker.
Added to this mix was a secret ingredient only available to those in the Hammett neck of the woods – guitar lessons from none other than future guitar legend Joe Satriani.
Learning from the Master
Satriani was trying to get his own career going and made a few bucks by giving guitar lessons out of a music store in Berkely, California. Kirk went over on his bike for lessons or had him mom drop him off. And in that shop, he learned from the master how to decode what he was hearing from Michael Schenker and others.
Put that together, and Hammett was evidently the senior guitarist in Exodus, even as a skinny 16-year-old kid. His musical education was the stuff dreams are made of.
Checking the Competition
Exodus was making some headway musically – they did house parties and occasional town hall shows and made a few bucks. Then in 1982 came the call to open for another new band by the name of Metallica. As said, Metallica hadn’t been going that long themselves, so might have seemed the junior partner, but they had the drive and attitude that Exodus maybe lacked – getting themselves onto the first Metal Massacre record for instance, even though they barely had a lineup.
Kirk Hammett watched them play, and thought, ‘Hmm, what would it sound like with me playing lead guitar…?’
The 2 bands got on like a house on fire during those early times in the Bay Area though. Exodus would regularly stay at Metallica HQ in El Cerrito, the house they used to rehearse and hang out in, and the parties were legendary – anything that could be swallowed or snorted was fair game. You could argue that the booze / drugs / partying was another thing holding back Exodus, though it didn’t do Metallica much harm, and they were just as enthusiastic on the intoxication front.
The general direction of travel was confirmed, though, when Metallica hauled ass to New York to record an album – what would become ‘Kill Em All’, leaving Exodus behind in San Francisco.
Coast to Coast
But y’know, one door closes, another opens. As is now famous is classic heavy metal folklore (and covered on here by The Hawk), once in New York, Dave Mustaine’s booze and drugs antics proved too much even for party animals Metallica to deal with, so they fired him and put him on a bus back to the west coast.
In New York, the remaining members listened to the Exodus demo tape, invited Kirk Hammett to join them, and the rest is history. Hammett’s laid-back vibe was the perfect fit for Metallica – he was happy for Hetfield and Ulrich to take the lead, and they appreciated the calm and stability he offered after the Mustaine turbulence. One fewer band member vying for leadership suited everybody.
Legendary Send Off
To be fair, the rest of Exodus took the news of Hammett’s departure in their stride. They wished him well and threw yet another raucous party to send him off, complete with food fights. They could see that Metallica had edged ahead of them with the offer of an album on the table, and nobody begrudged Hammett the chance to be part of that.
It also meant that Gary Holt could step up to be the new ‘senior’ guitar player in the band, and this was a move he felt ready for. He took the reins creatively and ended up with song writing credits on most of the songs on Exodus’s debut album, ‘Bonded By Blood’ (1985).
That album followed ‘Kill Em All’ by only a few months, and thrash afficionados regard it as equally influential in establishing the thrash scene. Obviously, Exodus never hit quite the heights Metallica went on to – who knows why? They probably didn’t help themselves – singer Paul Baloff was fired after the ‘Bonded by Blood’ tour because of booze and drugs issues. Again, some bands seem better able to keep the show on the road in the face of that than others.
But new singer Steve Souza was a success and follow up albums ‘Pleasures of the Flesh’ (1987) and ‘Fabulous Disaster’ (1989) were well received by the fans.
So, who knows why some bands go on to bigger things than others? And what would have happened to Exodus if they’d managed to keep hold o Kirk Hammett for a bit longer? We’ll never know, but let’s celebrate what they did do together, and end this trip down Exodus memory lane with the final track from that early demo (and in The Hawk’s view, the best) – Warlord.
Exodus – equals to Metallica in those glorious mid-1980s early thrash days? Or just one rung down the ladder in terms of quality and impact? Share your thoughts on those and any other Exodus topics in the comments below.