Author Brian Lew on the Early Days of Metallica and the Bay Area Thrash Metal Scene
Brian Lew Cliff Burton playing live with Metallica for the first time at the Stone in San Francisco, 1983
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From the time when Metallica first came to the Bay Area from L.A. in 1982, Brian Lew was there -- often as a friend and a fan, but also as a photographer. Lew was present at the band's first-ever show in S.F. He was there when bassist Cliff Burton played with Metallica for the first time. And he was there when Metallica made its first appearance at the iconic Day on the Green concert series at Oakland Stadium. (He was also there on Monday night, when the band began its 30th Anniversary concert series at the Fillmore.)
Lew and his friend (and fellow metal fan) Harald Oimoen recently compiled their pictures and stories from the early days of the Bay Area metal scene into a gorgeous new book, Murder in the Front Row. As part of our exploration this week into all things Metallica, we asked Lew for some of his recollections from the band's early days. Below, he talks about seeing the band for the first time, the incredible trauma that the metal community felt after Burton died in a touring bus accident at age 24, and what made the Bay Area an especially receptive place for the kind of music played by Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, and Megadeth. Some of Lew and Oimoen's incredible early pictures of Metallica are interspersed throughout the text.
What's your backstory with the Bay Area metal scene?
Basically the whole kind of big story of the book is we were all just kids at the time. It wasn't like Metallica and Slayer and Megadeth were on tour, and we just met them. Metallica came to San Francisco to play a showcase for Metal Blade records. I arranged to meet them. I was fortunate enough to get their demo tape very early on, so I arranged to meet them in front of the Stone on Broadway, which was their first show [in S.F.]. But we were all the same age, so it wasn't like I was meeting Metallica. I was meeting a band who I wanted to meet. That was sort of the foundation of the original Bay Area metal scene.
Harald Oimoen Metallica playing at the Stone
When was that first show at the Stone?
It was Sept. 18, 1982. The story is, they played in L.A. and nobody got them, and they came up here and for whatever reason we gravitated towards them. The one thing about that first show -- that one moment where they made a connection with us -- was we'd been exposed to this underground European New Wave of British Heavy Metal ... and nobody else knew about it. And then Metallica came to town that first show. At the time, they would just play these cover songs as if they were their own. They had their own songs that were on their demo, but then they had a couple of Diamond Head songs in their set. But they wouldn't say, because nobody knew who Diamond Head were. I just remember my friends and I being shocked that this band was playing a song by this obscure band. We thought we were the only ones who knew about them. That was just one more thing that kind of set the tone and made us bond with Metallica and vice versa. They realized that we were speaking the same language.
Was there more of an interest in the NWOBHM bands here than in L.A.?
There were definitely supporters of it in L.A. Brian Slagel, who started Metal Blade records, was a big early supporter of it, and there were other people, the original fans. A guy named Patrick Scott was one of the first people to send out their demo. It wasn't like people didn't know about them, but I think in the Bay Area it was -- I don't know if it's fair to say it was more organized, but maybe we were more passionate about it. I think what set the Bay Area apart a little bit was 1) it was smaller, and so ... the sense of community was very strong. And there was a hub -- there was like this center where we would gather, you know, the Record Vault [store on Polk Street]. It was before the Internet, it was before all that kind of stuff -- there was like a gathering spot. There was this community. It wasn't just random fans and we would just see each other at shows. Then when bands like Metallica and Slayer and Megadeth started playing here, they just kind of fit right into what was going on.
What were they like at that first S.F. show?
We were just kids. It's kind of hard to explain because we were all 18 and 19 years old, maybe 20. I think [Dave] Mustaine was a couple years older than that. We were all geeky, and James [Hetfield] didn't talk a lot back then. We were all introverted to a certain extent, that's why we gravitated towards that music. But we were just teenagers, really.
Next: Metallica plays to 50,000 people at Day on the Green