Exploring the Roots of the Mid-80s Metal/Punk Crossover With Kerry King, Scott Ian, and Gary Holt

Members of Slayer, Anthrax, and Exodus take us back to the mid-Eighties, when Discharge worship, circle pits, and skinhead brawls defined the metal/punk crossover.

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Oct 9 2015, 3:45pm

Anthrax / Photo by Melissa Castro

They say that a decade usually begins three to five years in, and the mid-eighties was a great time for extreme music because of the legendary “crossover,” where metal and punk came together. While it wasn’t an easy transition, or an intentional one, it was a period that changed metal forever.

When the crossover first happened, and the lines between punk and metal started to blur, the punks were especially unhappy about it, feeling it was akin to identify theft. And indeed, with a band like Discharge, the metal bands plundered so much from their sound, you could almost mistake them for a metal band today. But eventually the metal fans and the punks realized they had more in common than they thought, and how you wore your hair didn’t matter if your heart was in the right place. In hindsight, the crossover was a natural progression for metal, and while there were some tough bumps in the road, the pros of bringing the two styles together far outweighed the cons. The music, and the fact that it still holds up very well, is proof enough of that.

Before the crossover was in full swing, the initial seeds were planted back at the beginning of the decade with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. In the late Seventies and early Eighties, punk was being hailed as the next big thing, and the metal bands of the time were having a hard time competing with it. Consciously or not, a lot of the anger, aggression and speed of punk started seeping into the music, and Iron Maiden even showed their mascot, Eddie, with punked-out, spiked red hair on the cover of the band's debut album. NWOBHM bands also adopted the DIY ethic of the punk scene, putting out their own albums and singles instead of waiting for the mainstream to catch up to their sound and give them a record deal.

It’s hard to pinpoint an exact year metal and punk started coming together in the States, but you get the impression a critical mass started building around 1983 or so. With many thrash bands, there was usually one guy who liked punk and brought it in. In Slayer, it was the late Jeff Hanneman, and in Anthrax it was Scott Ian (and it also has to be said that even though Cliff Burton was a bell-bottomed hippie, he had more of a punk attitude than anything). As Hanneman recalled in a 2004 documentary, “I was really into punk when we were getting together… I forced it on the other guys…I loved the speed and energy, but I didn’t want to go with just playing chord patterns all the time, because that’s basically what punk is. I wanted to make it fast with good, heavy riffs.”

In an interview with The Quietus, Dave Lombardo recalled Hanneman bringing a Dead Kennedys tape to rehearsal and being blown away by the energy. "The angst was just unreal.… we fed off it and we wanted to mimic that energy.”

"Forcing" punk on the band is the key term, because when Hanneman tried to cram the square peg of metal into the round hole of Slayer, Kerry King recalls, “I hated it completely. In the early days, Jeff shaved his head, and I hated that! I didn’t understand the music, I didn’t understand why Jeff was in a metal band and shaved his head. Realistically, he was a revolutionary, but I didn’t get it at first. At that point, I was all about the riffs and the singers, and punk had neither. Punk just had angst, and it took me a while to figure that out.”

Eventually there would be two hardcore bands that King, and a lot of metalheads, could dig—Suicidal Tendencies and D.R.I. D.R.I. used to bill themselves as the world’s fastest band; before Slayer could catch up to them they were blown away by the band’s velocity, and D.R.I.'s 1985 LP Dealing With It still stands as one of the most important crossover albums ever.

Many point to punk as a catalyst for metal getting faster, and when asked if punk influenced Slayer’s music to speed up, or if their music was naturally progressing that way, King says, “I think both, because we were faster than most punk songs I’d ever heard. Reign in Blood wasn’t always a 28-minute record. As we got comfortable with the songs, Dave was notorious for speeding up, so it evolved into that.” (Along with Motorhead, Slayer became one of the common denominator metal bands that the punks liked for their speed, aggression, and fuck you attitude.)

As it turns out, the metal/hardcore crossover on the first Suicidal Tendencies album was practically an accident. The guitarist who played on the album, Grant Estes, was a fill-in guy, and he was a metalhead with long hair, playing a Les Paul through a Marshall. On the band's iconic debut, Estes played guitar solos throughout the hit song "Institutionalized," which in 1983 was strictly verboten in punk.

Nor was anyone thinking about commercial potential, because many didn’t think there was any. As Exodus-guitarist Gary Holt says, “When we were inventing this shit, nobody thought the music we were playing was worth a damn or that anybody would ever like it. Everybody thought we were crazy.” (As the early underground fans who supported Metallica during the tape trading/Kill ‘Em All days will tell you, the biggest anyone thought the band would get was Motorhead's level.)

Gary’s older brother was an OG punk rocker, “and he was the one who introduced me to all this awesome music. I had already loved Priest, Maiden, Sabbath, all my hard rock roots. Then I discovered the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, but at the same time I was also discovering Discharge and all this shit. ‘Wow, this stuff is super aggressive and heavy. We’ll do something like that, but we’ll put some solos on it and sing about Satan!’”

Discharge would of course one of the most important hardcore bands that influenced modern metal, and you can argue that their influence is still the strongest out of any punk band. “You put on Discharge’s Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing album now, and it’s still as heavy and brutal as anything out there,” Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian says. “There was just a level of brutality on that album that I had never heard before. I could list fifteen bands that if it wasn’t for that album, they possibly wouldn’t even be bands, or they wouldn’t have recorded the albums they did, including Anthrax. Without that Discharge album, I don’t know what I would have done!”

Anthrax started playing Discharge covers as early as 1983, and Ian liked hardcore so much he was willing to run the risk of getting beat up to go to CBGB’s on the weekends. “I thought, ‘The risk of getting my ass kicked because I have long hair be damned, I’m gonna go anyway, and if someone wants to kick my ass, I’ll just run!’ One of the first shows I went to was Agnostic Front and Murphy’s Law. I met Billy Milano at that show, and he brought me back to meet the guys in Agnostic and Murphy’s Law, so I was immediately in with the right people from the start [laughs]. If anyone wanted to mess with me, they were messing with them basically, and nobody wanted to mess with Billy.”

Several years later, Ian and James Hetfield went to CBGB’s to see Broken Bones, and a group of skinheads were going to beat Hetfield up. Billy Milano then lumbered over to the skins and told them, “He’s my friend. You fuck with him, you gotta come to me first.”

“These skinhead guys all ran away,” Ian recalls with a laugh. “Then the next thing you see if James on Billy’s shoulders in the pit, goin’ nuts. It was a killer day.”

By today’s standards, it may not seem that revolutionary for a band to go onstage in regular clothes, but when metal bands started dressing down considerably, it could be attributed to the influence of punk as well. This probably came unconsciously from The Ramones, who literally made it a rule that they wore nothing but t-shirts, jeans and black leather jackets onstage.

In the early eighties, metal bands of course dressed up more, and Anthrax wore red and black leather pants at the insistence of their first singer, Neil Turbin. Once he got the boot, Anthrax wore their shorts onstage, “because that’s what we wore all day long,” Ian says. “We never understood why we had to change our clothes to go onstage. I used to bring up The Ramones all the time, ‘The Ramones don’t change their clothes,’ ‘Well I don’t wanna be the Ramones, I wanna be Judas Priest.’”

Just as Suicidal unintentionally helped bridge the gap between metal and punk, another happy accident helped bring the two worlds together: the S.O.D. album, Speak English Or Die. Again, there was no master plan to fuse the two styles together and conquer the world; Ian started doing the S.O.D. project purely out of boredom. He had completed his guitar tracks for the Anthrax album Spreading the Disease, and as the band was breaking in their new lead singer, Joey Belladonna, Ian started drawing a comic strip with the Sargent D character.

“I didn’t know how to get a comic published, so I started writing songs out of these stupid comic strip ideas I had,” Ian says. “That’s literally where it came from, I was bored out of mind, doodling in the studio, and I thought I had something really funny. I also figured this would be a great way for (bassist) Danny Lilker and I to reconnect, because I’d always hated the way things ended with him when he got fired from Anthrax. We were doing stuff like D.R.I. and Suicidal were doing, but just completely ridiculous. We were just trying to be as dumb and as stupid as we could be because the whole thing was making us laugh.”

Even though Billy Milano protested that he couldn’t sing, Ian wanted him to sing for S.O.D. because Ian felt he would be the perfect embodiment of the Sargent D character. As legendary thrash producer Alex Perialas recalls, “I heard these riffs that Scott was messing around with, and I said, ‘Man, those are sick.’ I told (Megaforce Records founder) Jonny Z, ‘This is crazy, we need to make this record.’ He said go ahead, but he also told me, ‘You gotta do it in three days though, that’s all I’m gonna pay for.’”

Speak English or Die was indeed recorded in three days. It cost just under $5,000, and as Ian marvels today, “Never, ever did we think it a million years that it was going to take on the life it’s taken on. It’s amazing to me that so many people got the joke, I love that.” As Suicidal and S.O.D. proved, the merger of metal and punk more of a happy accident than anything, which is why the early crossover music was great: it wasn’t forced or contrived. As King says, “There was never any big master plan by any means.”

By 1985, mosh pits and stage dives were a regular occurrence at metal gigs; it was a physical manifestation of the anger and the intensity of the music, and an accepted part of the scene. Yet one of the biggest stumbling blocks of the metal/punk crossover period, especially down in Los Angeles, was concert violence, and a lot of bands had a hard time getting gigs because of the insurance problems. The LA scene also had to deal with gangs like the Suicidals, who ruined countless gigs by beating the shit out of everybody, and it scared a lot of fans away from shows.

Bringing the gangs, skinheads, punks and longhairs to shows was always a volatile Molotov cocktail, like the Anthrax time played at the Olympic Auditorium in Downtown L.A. in early 1986. Also on the bill were Suidical Tendencies vocalist Mike Muir’s side band, No Mercy, death/thrash hybrid Possessed, and D.R.I., and many who were there will tell you it was one of the most violent gigs in the city’s history.

“It was a great idea on paper, because we were trying to put all these different scenes together, and let’s hope everybody comes out,” Ian recalls. “And they did come out—but they all came out to beat the crap out of each other. You had roving gangs of skinheads, Suicidals, punks, so it was a constant battle in the crowd, and all these long-haired metal kids were trying to stay out of the way. I remembered looking out at the floor during D.R.I.’s set, there was a big circle pit in the middle, then there was a sea of fifty brawls going on at once.”

Billy Milano was also at this gig, and when he came on to Anthrax’s bus at the end of the night, “his shirt was ripped like The Hulk,” Ian recalls. “There’s blood all over him, and he said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s not my blood! Every asshole in Los Angeles thought they were gonna take on a New York skinhead, so I showed ‘em where it was at!’”

The peak of thrash metal would come in 1986 with Metallica’s Master of Puppets, Megadeth’s Peace Sells...But Who's Buying?, and of course, Slayer’s Reign in Blood. The violent, aggressive sound that people had once thought had no commercial potential was now selling out stadiums and shifting thousands of copies—and it was all done without compromise, making the victory even sweeter. While there would always be people who didn’t like the merging of metal and punk, it’s obvious that the metal/punk crossover built a strong foundation for the extreme music of today. It’s nearly impossible to imagine what heavy music would be like now if the two styles hadn't come together thirty years ago.

“It did change everything,” says Ian. “It affected all of our records that we made in the Eighties. If we weren’t listening to bands like D.R.I., Discharge and Agnostic Front, we wouldn’t have made the albums we made. We wouldn’t have become the bands that created thrash metal. Then there was a whole generation of kids grew up on those thrash albums and formed bands, whether it’s Pantera to Lamb of God to System of a Down, you can just go on and on. I feel great about it, because it proves to me that we were doing the right thing.”