Metallica – the Most Ruthless Band in Heavy Metal History?

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Metallica are legends by any measure in the world of Classic Heavy Metal. But they had to be as ruthless as they were talented to get where they did. Did they go too far in casting by the wayside some of those people who were instrumental in their early success? Or was it just the price of success that most acts pay along the way? Let’s take a look at a couple of stories from those early years and pause to reflect.

Ron McGovney

Ron McGovney was the bass player in the original Metallica line-up, before they’d done anything, written anything, recorded anything. He was an occasional classmate of James Hetfield when the pair went to the same school and would play roadie for some of Hetfield’s early cover bands. After moving to Brea, California following his mother’s death, Hetfield started a new band – basically the earliest version of Metallica – but lacking a bass player, he persuaded McGovney to step in.

McGovney didn’t really identify as a bass player, didn’t even own a bass. But he rented one from a local music store and agreed to give it a go. He could also provide a rehearsal space in the garage of a house owned by his parents. Metallica was always the property of Hetfield and Lars Ulrich – McGovney saw it as more of a hobby and had no great ambitions to dominate the music world. But the others were desperate to get the band properly started, so he answered the call, and the nascent Metallica started their career with a local gig at Radio City in Anaheim. Ron stood at the back of the stage, plugging away at the bass lines Hetfield had shown him for early numbers like ‘Hit the Lights’. He didn’t seek the limelight at all.

Just Hanging With Motley Crue!!

Ron McGovney then got the band booked for their second gig himself. A passing acquaintance of Vince Neil and Tommy Lee of up-and-coming glam outfit Motley Crue, Ron ran into them at the Whisky a Go Go club in LA, and they introduced him to the booker who organized the club’s bands. Suitably impressed by the demo tape Ron had brought down with him, she duly booked Metallica to open at a forthcoming gig by established NWOBHM act Saxon.

This garnered a review (of only their second ever gig, remember) in the LA Times. The review wasn’t particularly positive (‘Metallica had a fast, hot guitar player, but little else.’), but still was crucial early exposure.

Use and Abuse

In addition to his (limited) utility as a bass player, Ron McGovney was the only member of Metallica at the time with a credit card and used it to fund quite a bit of early spending from their HQ in that garage, including $600 for a promotional ad in a local free sheet, ‘Bay Area Music.’ He also rented a trailer for the band to move their gear around in and did the driving whilst the others drank beer in the back.

Ron put up stoically with the antics of an increasingly out of control lead guitarist Dave Mustaine. Like when Mustaine poured beer into his bass’s pickups, causing an electric shock; or when Mustaine’s dogs scratched up Ron’s car. Mustaine was very briefly fired from the band after that latter incident, but wormed his way back in.

Ron had the indignity of the band searching for more competent bass players being his back. Whilst still using his parents’ house for drunken parties and relying on him as their chauffeur / ATM – a car and a credit card kept him useful.

The End

After what would be his last ever Metallica gig, Ron drove them from San Francisco all the way back to LA, the rest of the band getting hammered in the back, periodically yelling at him to pull over so someone could take a piss by the roadside. It would be the final straw. Cliff Burton had already been lined up as a replacement, so the writing was on the wall, but the split was acrimonious. Ron quit and threw the band out of his parents’ house. Disgusted by the whole experience, he sold all his gear and quit music.

Jonny Zazula

Jonny Zazula, ably assisted by his wife Marsha, was Metallica’s first manager worthy of the name. Neither had any deep background in the industry, but were united by their passion for heavy metal music. ‘For the metal’ was a common catchphrase for the couple, representing all the sacrifices they were willing to make in its name.

The Zazulas ran ‘Rock n’ Roll Heaven,’ a record stall in a market near their home in New Jersey and had a side hustle promoting some local gigs with metal bands they thought their record stall customers would like to hear, even involving European acts like Raven and Anvil. When one of Zazula’s customers played him a bootleg copy of a Metallica live show recorded over on the west coast, he was blown away. Via his informal network of heavy metal contacts, he managed to get hold of Lars Ulrich, and made him an offer: come over to New Jersey, and I’ll put you in 12 shows alongside bands like Twisted Sister and Venom. Ulrich agreed on the condition that Zazula would pay for the trip.

Selling Up

Money was tight in the Zazula household at the time – even for mundane things like groceries, they sometimes relied on family handouts, so funding a trip from San Francisco to New Jersey for 4 people and all the equipment was no picnic, but they took the plunge. They liquidated some of their inventory from the record stall and sent a check for $1,500.

Metallica hauled themselves and their gear coast to coast, and upon arriving, penniless and with nowhere else to stay, promptly moved into the Zazulas’ basement. The band soon made themselves at home, helping themselves to drinks from the bar, and on their first visit to Rock n’ Roll Heaven, Mustaine was drunk enough to be vomiting everywhere outside of the market. Other stallholders were far from happy, ditto the neighbours at home at the prospect of the hell raising musicians’ antics.

Their lives and livelihoods suddenly turned upside down, the Zazulas wondered whether they’d done the right thing. But they believed in the talent the Metallica boys possessed, so pressed ahead. Besides, Ulrich would often hang out at the record stall (he was an avid record collector himself), and customers loved the Metallica demo tape. Gigs soon followed in front of some decent crowds, and though raw, and mistake-prone on stage, real progress was in evidence.

Shipping out

The fly in the ointment was the constant boozing, especially from Mustaine. There’s an irony in getting kicked out of a band for drinking too much when collectively, they were already attracting the nickname ‘Alcoholica’, but that’s what happened.

Jonny helped replacement guitarist Kirk Hammett (poached from fellow thrashers Testament) to slot in and advised him on beefing up his stage presence at subsequent gigs. He had the idea for the band to walk on stage to music and chose the legendary theme from the spaghetti western movie ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’ composed by Ennio Morricone.

Jonny also found a better living space for the band. (Better for all concerned – Jonny Zazula hit the roof when he found out that Metallica had helped themselves to champagne that had been a wedding gift for him and Marsha. Realizing that everyone needed a little personal space before they reached the end of their tether, he hooked them up with fellow newbies Anthrax. Metallica moved into their grotty rehearsal space and slept in the loft.)

Moving On Up

As manager, Jonny’s key mission was to get the band into a studio to record their first album. But despite packing in impressive crowds at gigs, there was little interest in America from the mainstream record labels. This was in 1983, so the NWOBHM was well underway, and British bands were being signed at home. But no such joy across the pond. Bands like Def Leppard were selling in the states, but Metallica, heavier and faster by several orders of magnitude, were a completely different proposition.

Admitting defeat on attracting record label investment, Jonny Zazula decided to fund the album himself. Budgeting $8000, he ended up forking out $15000 of his own money and pushed his family to the brink of bankruptcy, such was his faith in Metallica’s prospects. Lacking record company heft, he also had to arrange the distribution of the album himself, via a label he set up himself, ‘Megaforce’. A second mortgage on the family home funded that side of the operation. Jonny and Marsha pretty much did everything – recording, distribution, even the artwork for the album cover.

Finally, Jonny Zazula had the unenviable task of persuading Metallica to change the name of the album from their preferred ‘Metal Up Your Ass’ to the more family-record-store-friendly ‘Kill Em All’.

Eventually released in July 1983, ‘Kill Em All’ was no great commercial success, selling only 17000 copies by the end of the year. But it did register in the Billboard album charts – not bad after the mainstream press basically ignored it. Metal fanzines were on board, though, and Jonny (naturally) made sure that a follow up tour was ready to go in the US.

With little success in the way of sales, Jonny had run dry financially, and couldn’t fund another album. But indefatigable, he negotiated a licensing deal with a European label, Music for Nations (MFN), who would pay for that recording in return for the profits from European sales. ‘Ride the Lightning’ was the result. 

Jonny’s Reward

The Metallica juggernaut would now gather momentum, ready to move closer to its ‘world domination’ phase, after the Zazulas had risked everything to put it on track.

The band promptly dumped them and their Megaforce label to sign up with new management.

The Human Cost of Success

Bands grow – that’s the whole point of them. They move on. Sometimes, changes need to be made for that to happen, and it’s true that many bands have shown that kind of ruthless streak down the years. Dumping a lower league manager, or an underperforming member makes plenty of sense.

Classic Metal Hawk recognizes that. But the human cost for those left behind can be immense. Heavy metal family? Maybe so, but nasty divorces happen even here.

‘It shattered me to lose them, for years. Because I thought we would have proved to everyone that we could have taken it all the way. Our prize for breaking Metallica was losing them.’

Jonny Zazula

At least the ice thawed a little over the years – both with McGovney, who was always invited to their shows, and with the Zazulas. Following the deaths of Jonny and Marsha Zazula in quick succession in 2021 and 2022 (aged only 68 and 69), Metallica members paid generous tributes.

And the Zazulas did have the satisfaction of proving people wrong, building Megaforce records into an established label in the world of heavy metal music, with many household name artists (among Classic Heavy Metal fans). It kinda sucks the way it worked out with Metallica, that’s all The Hawk is saying. Hopefully they felt all the sacrifices were worthwhile in the end – they’re part of the Metallica legend now.

Thoughts? As said, lots of bands have fired people on their way up. Were Metallica particularly brutal, or just the most obvious success story after having done it. Do the ends justify the means?

Share your thoughts in the comments below, or send feedback direct to The Hawk.

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