The Nerdy, Pimply Birth of Bay Area Thrash Metal
When I saw this photo, I knew the guy on the left was the one to talk to. His name is Brian Lew, and the photo was taken on in San Francisco on October 18, 1982, at his 19th birthday party. The three other people in the photo are named Dave Mustaine, Lars Ulrich, and Ron McGovney, and at that point they were all in Metallica.
For some context, Metallica's mind-blowing debut Kill 'Em All came out in 1983, when Brian was still underage. That record is currently triple platinum, but in 1982 Metallica was a bunch of ratty dorks from Los Angeles nerding out over Tygers of Pan Tang and Diamond Head. Brian was in high school at the time, snapping concert photos and contributing to metal fanzines. He just happened to fall in with Metallica, Venom, Slayer, and a bunch of other bands, and just happened to take what are probably the best photographs of thrash metal's mythic birthing that have ever existed.
Dave Mustaine and James Hetfield backstage at the Old Waldorf, November 29, 1982, the night Metallica recorded the Metal Up Your Ass live demo tape
What stands out about the photos is how candid they are, and also how young everyone is. It's just a bunch of underage kids partying at shows, which isn't anything special in its own right. What's special is that the bands have names like Slayer, Megadeth, Metallica, Exodus, Testament, Possessed, and Death Angel. Lew helped to captured the scene in its nascency, either reigning onstage or raging behind it, and looking back on these photos helps you remember that titans with names like Ulrich, Mustaine, and Lombardo were once pimply-faced fantasy nerds looking for an escape.
Brian is currently in LA working for Global Merchandising Services, handling merch for some of the bands he grew up with (his clients include Iron Maiden, Slayer, and Anthrax, among others). He recently dug through all his old photos and put together Murder in the Front Row, a newish book he made with longtime friend and photographer Harald Oimoen. Brian and Harald met met in the Bay Area thrash metal tape-trading scene of the early 1980s.
Last week, I called up Brian to talk about the birth of thrash, heavy metal pen pals, and his storied 19th birthday party.
Metallica's first show as a hometown San Francisco band, March 5, 1983
Noisey: The first thing I want to talk to you about is the photograph from your 19th birthday party.
Brian Lew: Haha, yeah, that was October 1982, Metallica's second visit to San Francisco. It's me with Dave, Lars, and Ron McGovney, Metallica's first bass player. All of us are underage in that photo. Maybe Mustaine was 21, and we were so happy to get that beer. The club probably could have busted us, but they didn't. There weren't so many rules back then. They dedicated "Metal Militia" to me that night.
Metallica dedicating "Metal Militia" to Brian at his 19th birthday party, October 18th 1982
How did you end up getting into metal?
I grew up maybe 50 minutes south of San Francisco. On weekends I would come up to San Francisco to visit this record store called the Record Vault. That was pretty much ground zero for the underground thrash scene. I was meeting people my own age, or people who had just graduated. The whole thing had a high school experience to it. This was all pre-internet, and I was really into magazines like Sounds and Kerrang!, and after Sounds folded, Kerrang! started hosting a pen pal section in the back. You would put up your information and meet people to trade tapes with and stuff like that. I started doing it, and ended up getting letters from people in Germany, Belgium, Holland, England, France—it totally blew my mind. That's actually how I met Ron Quintana, who came up with the name Metallica.
Cliff Burton brings down the hammer on Lars Ulrich, Keystone Palo Alto, Halloween 1983
How did you end up meeting the guys in Metallica?
We were just all friends. Even as Metallica started to get big, they were always just friends, an extension of this whole pre-internet pen pal world. Back then, in the Bay Area, there were only about three dozen people who were really hardcore into metal, so we developed pen pals with likeminded people really quickly. When I met Lars, it was a kindred spirit connection, and we bonded over underground metal and British stuff. Metallica was from Los Angeles and when they came to San Francisco for the first time they played a Diamond Head cover in their set without announcing that it was a cover. I was like "Holy fuck, these guys know Diamond Head?" I immediately bonded with them.
Cool. In your introduction, you talk a bit about getting older, and how your real life began to interrupt your "metal path." What was the metal path you were following in high school?
Well, it wasn't really a "path." We were just dorks, nerdy kids who were into sorcery and fantasy, science fiction, Star Wars, all that. Metal gave me an identity. I was growing up in the suburbs and I had friends, but it was the sort of thing where I felt isolated. Music gave me an identity, and ultimately I met like-minded people my age who were into these bands. It was amazing, and life affirming. It wasn't even a path, it was a part of growing up.
Cliff Burton's first Metallica rehearsal, December 28, 1982
I got into metal through punk—did you ever listen to punk rock music back then?
One thing I realized as i was putting this book together was the relationship between punk and metal. I got into punk a little but, but the thing was, I never really tried to be a punk, because punks talk about real life, and how much it sucks. I didn't want that. Metal gave me an escape. When a band like Venom would sing about sacrificing babies to Satan, I gravitated towards it—not because I wanted to sacrifice babies, but because it was a mythic fantasy thing that tapped into the epic things that fascinated my as a history geek, a science fiction geek, you name it. Iron Maiden sang about this stuff, and it gave me an identity, not an agenda.
Speaking of metal and mythology, your photographs have an incredibly mythic quality to them. It seems like you were capturing a creation myth, but did it feel like that at the time?
No. There was no way we could have ever known, because we were all kids—the bands, and the fans were all underage at that time. I think this is something that's hard for people to dip their heads around. People look at the photos, especially the photos of the Day in the Dirt in 1984 with Exodus and Slayer, and view them as documenting a watershed moment. But we were all kids, and some of us happened to be in bands. It wasn't until much later that I started to hear Metallica on the radio. It's been 30 years and it's still hard for me to believe where some of these bands went.
You should do yourself a favor and pick up Murder In the Front Row immediately. You can do so right here.