Metal

The classic Metallica song that ripped off Lynyrd Skynyrd

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As the 1980s unfolded, the landscape of metal underwent a profound transformation. In the aftermath of the onslaught from the new wave of British heavy metal, a counterforce was quietly emerging in the Bay Area, with Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield laying the groundwork for what would become Metallica. While initially recognized for their precise thrash metal, Metallica’s early repertoire bore witness to an unexpected infusion of southern rock, shaping one of their initial classics.

Contrary to any musical snobbery, Metallica, and particularly Hetfield, exhibited an eclectic taste that transcended genre boundaries. Their musical palette encompassed classic rock just as ardently as it did heavy metal, with acts like Van Halen and Aerosmith revered alongside Black Sabbath and Judas Priest.

Among the Metallica members, bassist Cliff Burton played a pivotal role in broadening their musical horizons. In contrast to the prevailing heavy metal norms, Burton’s musical appetite embraced complexity, ranging from Kate Bush to The Police, and from King Crimson to various points in between.

Even before the band solidified its lineup, their inclination for interweaving diverse riffs began to coalesce on the track ‘The Four Horsemen.’ Originating from a bluesy shuffle rhythm initially explored by guitarist Dave Mustaine under the title ‘The Mechanix,’ Hetfield contributed to shaping the song’s structure, infusing it with lyrics themed around the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

A whimsical turn occurred during one of the band’s rehearsals when Mustaine injected a hint of southern rock by playfully incorporating Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ between takes. Unfamiliar with the song, Ulrich perceived Mustaine’s metallic rendition of the riff as a perfect fit for their composition.

Reflecting on this moment, Mustaine recalled, “We get to rehearsal, and Lars says, ‘We have to slow this song down, man.’ So I played the ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ riff, and he said, ‘Fuck, man, that’s brilliant.’ So that’s the difference between ‘The Four Horsemen’ and ‘The Mechanix’. The bastardized version of Lynyrd Skynyrd.”

Despite Ulrich’s unfamiliarity with the southern rock anthem, Lynyrd Skynyrd had already left an indelible mark on Hetfield’s musical DNA. Raised on country music, Hetfield and Burton shared a profound appreciation for Skynyrd’s discography, particularly tracks like ‘Freebird’ and ‘Tuesday’s Gone,’ the latter eventually finding its place on Metallica’s cover album, Garage Inc. However, by the time Mustaine departed from the band, ‘The Four Horsemen’ had undergone a substantial metamorphosis.

Although Mustaine had requested that Metallica refrain from using his material, ‘The Four Horsemen’ emerged as the standout track on their debut album, Kill ‘Em All, incorporating Mustaine’s riffs, albeit reshaped. The distinctive ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ riff, injected into the song, slowed its tempo, offering a respite in the tension and providing a serene interlude for Kirk Hammett to unveil his bluesy guitar embellishments. Despite no legal repercussions from Lynyrd Skynyrd, this breakdown in the song served as a harbinger for the more episodic compositions that would follow, such as ‘Master of Puppets’ and ‘Welcome Home (Sanitarium).’

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