Cut from Diamond: how the Midlands made Metallica

“Drummer looking for other metal musicians to jam with. Tygers Of Pan Tang, Diamond Head and Iron Maiden.”

Lars Ulrich’s classified ad in a 1981 edition of The Recycler, a local newspaper in Los Angeles, was the spark that ignited metal’s greatest story.

Ulrich was a Danish teenager in California, raised in tennis but obsessed with the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM). James Hetfield and Hugh Tanner of Leather Charm responded to the ad; Hetfield and Ulrich became the nucleus of Metallica.

Quite apart from their influence on the young Metallica, Maiden’s otherworldly success elevated them beyond the NWOBHM pack. Tygers, from Whitley Bay, were more anchored to the scene.

Diamond Head were another matter altogether. Their impact on Metallica is a badge of honour for the Black Country band, and with good reason. Early Metallica bootlegs feature a number of Diamond Head covers, and several more have appeared on various releases and even became live favourites.

But the connection between Diamond Head and Metallica runs deeper than Ulrich, Hetfield and Dave Mustaine taking inspiration from their elders and playing some covers. Metallica’s revolutionary 1980s style wasn’t just laced with Diamond Head’s influence; it was the fruit of personal relationships that pre-dated Metallica’s rise to fame.

Ulrich has always been a keen explorer and a pilgrim. His wanderlust during Metallica’s ascent from thrash metal pioneers to global stars differentiated him from the rest of the group in the 1980s. And before he had Metallica, there was Diamond Head.

When the Stourbridge band – creatively driven then and now by the indomitable Brian Tatler – released their debut album, Lightning To The Nations, Copenhagen-born Ulrich was hooked. He flew from California to London to see them play at the Woolwich Odeon.

“I brown-nosed my way backstage and got a chance to meet them afterwards,” he told Triple M radio years later. “I had actually written them a couple of fan letters. I was stunned to find out that they actually knew who I was.”

The future drummer of Metallica spent most of the summer of 1981 in the West Midlands, forging friendships that endure to this day. For five weeks, Ulrich bedded down in the living rooms of the parents of Tatler and original Diamond Head singer Sean Harris.

Ulrich, described by Tatler as “likeable and enthusiastic” (and by Harris, affectionately, as a weirdo) during his Stourbridge sojourn, returned to the United States and changed the world in spite of Hetfield’s less positive first impressions.

Tatler is proud of Diamond Head’s part in the early development of Metallica, as he is of his influence on and relationship with Ulrich. But his band were a force in their own right and justify the credit they get for shaping the band that would conquer all.

It’s unlikely that Diamond Head would be disappointed by their commercial track record but they can be described as a fans’ band, even a bands’ band. Lightning To The Nations brought them critical acclaim and featured ‘The Prince’, ‘Am I Evil?’, ‘It’s Electric’ and ‘Helpless’, songs Metallica fans recognise as some of the best cover versions they’ve produced.

Even ‘Sucking My Love’, a nine-minute exercise in symbolic subtlety, got the Metallica treatment in the early days. The album has seven tracks in total.

The 1982 follow-up brought a softer and more progressive side to Diamond Head’s sound and took them into the Top 25 in the UK album charts. The reviews didn’t match up to the debut, originally intended as a demo.

The spirit of exploration and ambition that resulted in ‘In The Heat Of The Night’ and ‘Call Me’, and oozed into the divisive third album, Canterbury, resides in Ulrich too.

In the same year as Canterbury, Metallica came of age. Ulrich and Hetfield had infamously dispensed with Mustaine and replaced bass player Ron McGovney, creating the line-up that struck gold. Founding Exodus guitarist Kirk Hammett and former Trauma bassist Cliff Burton completed the band that turned out Kill ‘Em All, Ride The Lightning and Master Of Puppets, and went supersonic.

Metallica blew up on their support run with Ozzy Osbourne and followed it up with a headline tour in Europe, supported by Anthrax.

The tour ended in tragedy in September 1986 when the band’s tour bus crashed as it ferried them from Copenhagen to Stockholm, killing Burton.

It had begun in Birmingham. Metallica settled into a warehouse rehearsal space, Texserve, to prepare for the tour. In Matt Taylor’s excellent book Back To The Front, Hetfield recalls being impressed by the facilities at Texserve and sharing the place with the likes of Joe Jackson, Spandau Ballet and UB40.

When the band returned to the road they invited Tatler to play with them on their cover of Diamond Head’s ‘Am I Evil?’ – they’ve never been shy of paying it back.

Few of Metallica’s peripheral characters can hold a candle to “Big” Mick Hughes, the Birmingham-born audio engineer who’s been the beating heart of Metallica’s crew, and the mastermind behind their live sound, since 1984.

Hughes introduced the band to Texserve and enjoys huge popularity among Metallica fans. His creative, problem-solving approach to stadium-sized sound challenges makes him one of the best in the business; if there really is such a thing as genius, Big Mick’s in the reckoning.

He describes his work as “messing around with bands” but when Hughes talks about the details of his work it’s easy to be baffled by the insight and wizardry behind what he does. He’s an entertaining speaker to boot, and not one drop of his accent has escaped since he became Metallica’s man.

Metallica’s rehearsal stint in Birmingham took them to the home of their genre. Formed in 1968, Black Sabbath are credited with the creation of a sound that still defines the root of heavy metal today.

Geezer Butler and Tony Iommi were influenced not only by the psychedelic and occult rock acts that came before them, but by the sound of literal heavy metal. Iommi was a sheet metal worker and became an iconic guitar player despite losing the tips of two of his fingers in an accident on his very last day in the factory.

Iommi’s riffs have stood the test of time. They shaped the game everyone else in heavy metal tries to play, and in the early days it was competition that generated progress. Tatler says that Diamond Head’s ‘Am I Evil?’ was his attempt to write a heavier riff than Iommi.

Without that song, without that unspoken rivalry, without Iommi’s titanic riffs setting the bar in the first place, Ulrich and Hetfield would never have met.

Metallica and Diamond Head continued, through Ulrich, to be a match made in the Midlands. In 1998, Metallica’s legendary covers album, Garage Inc., boasted no fewer than four Diamond Head songs, one of them committed to wax by Metallica for the first time.

Stoke-on-Trent hardcore crew Discharge book-ended the first disc. Leicester’s Blitzkrieg had their self-titled song included, and, of course, there was room for Black Sabbath too.

Metallica have LA and San Francisco in their veins. They crossed a continent to adopt New York and sign with Jon and Marsha Zazula. They recorded two albums at Sweet Silence Studios in Copenhagen. And, like so many bands of their stature, they cemented their worth at Donington Park.

But the West Midlands is Metallica country, too. The birthplace of heavy metal adopted the biggest band of the third wave; they were forged from the very same iron that bore Sabbath and Diamond Head in the first and second.

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Chris Nee