It’s funny, isn’t it, how performers in Classic Heavy Metal bands often come from such ‘normal’ backgrounds. No special education, no big connections. Just a love of the music, big dreams, and plenty of elbow grease.
Take Slayer – their original line-up is made up of 4 regular dudes who happened to live in the same locality, Huntington Park in California. They started jamming, formed a band, and went on to define and then conquer the entire thrash metal genre. Let’s take a look at those ordinary dudes one by one, and how they came together to make an inaugural classic in the form of Slayer – Show No Mercy.
Introducing Tom Araya on Bass…
Singer and bassist Tom Array (or to be precise Tomas Enrique Araya Diaz) is a first-generation immigrant who moved to California with his family from Chile at the age of 5. His brother played guitar, so he started noodling on the bass at the age of 8 – they jammed together on rock and roll covers, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, that sort of thing. Going through high school, he had no particular career ambitions, so when his sister suggested a training program to become a respiratory therapist, he thought, ‘Why not?’ Plus he was on an ultimatum from his father to start doing something useful with his life – basically start the course, or get a job. He chose the latter, eventually qualifying and getting a job as a respiratory therapist at a local hospital.
(If you want to know more about respiratory therapy, think about those medical dramas on the TV like ‘House’ – those scenes where someone yells ‘INTUBATE‘, and everyone gets to work getting a big plastic tube down the patient’s throat. The Hawk is simplifying here, obviously, so apologies to all you Respiratory Therapists out there for skating over it, but you get the idea.)
Like many South American migrants, Araya was and is a practising Catholic, with a strong Christian belief system. Some people find this surprising given the common themes of Slayer songs – Satanism, horror, serial killers and so on. But that just shows (yet again) how the knee-jerk accusations of heavy metal bands being devil worshippers just because they write songs on the subject are so often nonsense.
Araya has his Christian beliefs, but he doesn’t let them get in ethe way of good songs, or the style of music Slayer wanted to play. It’s entertainment at the end of the day. (It’s notable that despite writing ‘serial killer’ songs like ‘Room 213’ about the notorious Jeffrey Dahmer, nobody has ever accused Slayer of being serial killers themselves. Duh. This only really happens with Satanism, finger pointing which is as lazy as it is inaccurate.
…Kerry King On Guitar…
What about guitarist Kerry Ray King? His mother worked at the phone company and his dad inspected aircraft parts. They made a decent living, but nothing flash. Guitar was just a teenage hobby. (His dad had encouraged it to give the young Kerry something constructive to focus on outside of potentially more destructive teenage pursuits – though King had a solid high school record and was even an award-winning maths prodigy at one point.)
King and Araya were the first 2 members of Slayer to meet up, being introduced by a guitar teacher they both knew. When it turned out they were conveniently only living only a block or two away from each other, they started jamming.
…Jeff Hanneman Also on Guitar…
Jeff Hanneman was next on the scene, meeting King by chance when they were both at an audition for another band. Jeffrey John Hanneman (as his surname suggests) is German American, and his family had strong military ties. His father served in the French campaign in the Second World War, and his brothers in Vietnam, so there was a constant stream of military consciousness running through Hanneman’s upbringing – war movies, memorabilia, you name it. Great material for song writing as it turned out – he used war themes to inspire the writing for Slayer classics like ‘Angel of Death.’
(It’s this or Telemarketing!!)
Before going full time as a musician, Hanneman had a dead-end job as a telemarketer, which he wasn’t wild about. By the time he met King, he’d only been playing guitar for a year or so, but the two of them clicked instantly over a shared passion for CLASSIC HEAVY METAL!! Both loved Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Def Leppard and many of the other bands you read about on Classic Metal Hawk’s blog. So the idea to form their own band was natural enough. ‘Hell Yeah!’ said Hanneman when King suggested it. Hanneman also loved punk, which would be another strong influence once Slayer got going.
…and Dave Lombardo on Drums.
They just needed a drummer now. David Lombardo was born in Cuba, but moved to California himself, along with his family at the age of just 2. In Cuba, the family were comparatively middle class, owning 3 meat markets, but California was calling, and upon arriving, the young Dave quickly demonstrated his natural calling as a performer (and specifically a drummer), playing the bongos in a school show at the age of 8. At 10, he got his first ‘proper’ kit, a five-piece Pearl Maxwin, and immediately became obsessed with improving his skills.
He’d work on songs until they were perfect, and quickly got bored in drum lessons, because they didn’t stretch him enough as a player. Music was everything – as a teenager at high school, he did a stint as a DJ for a mobile disco – that stopped when Dave’s parents threatened to send him to military school if he didn’t quit the 4am finishes and focus on his school studies more. He promised to focus, and did graduate high school, after which he got a job as a trainee technical draftsman at a diesel engine company. But his heart was never in it. At 16, he met Araya, King and Hanneman, and Slayer was born. Lombardo even designed the famous logo that looks as though it was first carved with a razor blade.
(There’s a story that they started out under the moniker of ‘Dragonslayer’ which was later shortened to Slayer. But according to King, that’s just an urban myth, and they were Slayer from the start.
Metal Massacre Does it Again
Like most bands starting out, and especially with members from regular-joe backgrounds, Slayer led a hand to mouth existence to begin with. They managed to get a gig at the Woodstock Club in LA, opening for Bitch, and as luck would have it, Brian Slagel was in the audience. He of the famous Metal Massacre compilation that had helped launch Metallica’s career only a couple of years earlier, who was always on the lookout for new talent.
At the gig, Slayer did 75% covers – stuff like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest that had brought the bad together to begin with. But they were busily writing away in the background – Hanneman and King especially – trying to come up with a musical identity and a set of original songs for Slayer. That meant they could contribute a song, ‘Aggressive Perfector’ to Metal Massacre III that Slagel was by now putting together. It got re-released later on the ‘Haunting the Chapel’ EP, and that’s a better quality version, but you can’t beat the original when telling this story.
Record Deal Klaxen
By this time, Slagel had also founded a small record label, Metal Blade, and offered Slayer a recording deal – but only a very limited one. The label would handle the distribution and sales side of any new album, but it couldn’t afford to pay for any studio time to actually record one. The band had to fork out the cost themselves – Araya chipped in some money from his hospital work, and King’s father advanced a loan. Together, it was enough to pay for a studio and an engineer, and the result was ‘Show No Mercy’, Slayer’s first album released in 1983.
It didn’t fully establish Slayer’s musical identity – it’s heavy, with nice riffing, and early evidence of those trademark chromatic, discordant solos. Araya rolls out his famous scream for the first time in the intro to the first track. But overall, you’re left with the feeling that they had the brakes on the whole time – that they wanted the recording to sound ‘right’ without pushing the boundaries of their capabilities to the limit. Even Kerry King thought it musically limited, called it a bit
‘…f***ing Iron Maiden here and there.’K. King!!
Lyrically though, it’s very Slayer, with those horror and satanic themes already coming out in songs like ‘The Antichrist’, ‘Black Magic’ and ‘Evil Has No Boundaries.’ On that last one, they at least got someone to perform backing vocals for free, with local drummer Gene Hoglan yelling ‘EVIL’ in the chorus.
Making Gas Money
A new album demanded a North American tour – which turned out to be another masterpiece of thrift. There was no full-time crew. Araya’s brother Johnny came along as a roadie, and ‘tour manager’ Doug Goodman took time off from his day job at a grocery store to help out. They went round in an old Camaro owned by Araya, with the gear in a U-Haul following behind. Everyone was delighted if they made enough money to buy food and gas for the next day.
Critics were a little sniffy about ‘Show No Mercy’ overall – a few liked it, but there was plenty of hate as well – it was ‘pure, unadulterated junk’ according to Kerrang! But obviously, the birth of thrash in the early 1980s wasn’t in any way driven by the critics or the mainstream industry. It was a fan-led revolution, and the fans had the final say. With the tour, the previous Metal Massacre III publicity, and general buzz on the west coast, ‘Show No Mercy’ went on to sell a whopping 20,000 copies, to the delight of everyone concerned.
According to Slagel, 5,000 was a good sales return for most of his Metal Blade acts at the time, so 20,000 seemed enormous, and the band were on their way. They’d continue their journey on the next releases, ‘Haunting the Chapel’ and ‘Hell Awaits’, which of course was all a kind of leadup to 1986’s ‘Reign in Blood,’ one of the all-time great records in the history of thrash (and all heavy metal come to that.) Read more about that moment of history on The Hawk’s blog.
So there you have it – 4 normal guys, all living a few blocks apart. They loved heavy metal and wanted to play some themselves. They formed a band and did the hard yards. And they became legendary for their unique output. Listening back to ‘Aggressive Perfector’, where their recording career basically started, you wouldn’t necessarily have guessed what was to come, but there it is.
It’s a story that should encourage anyone to grab a few instruments and head to their garage. Let’s play out with The Hawk’s favourite song from ‘Show No Mercy.’ It’s time for a little black magic.