'Even if it had been possible back in 1988, it would have passed almost unnoticed in the wider music world.'
When I was 14 we used to sit on my doorstep quizzing each other about the Big Four. Me and my mates, thrash to the core, Bermuda shorts visible under the multiple skaggy rips in our jeans, defending our devotion to Metallica, Anthrax, Slayer and Megadeth with our ultimate knowledge.
Original Metallica bassist? Ron McGovney! Anthrax Mascot? The Not Man! Kerry King’s guitar? B.C. Rich! Megadeth song about Cliff Burton? 'In My Darkest Hour'!
Live, breathe, die thrash metal. This was 1988, before iPods and torrent files and blogs crammed our ears with multiple sub-genres of chill wave, minimal techno and lo-fi. This was secular music listening at its height, when the few youth music scenes that existed – metal, indie, goth, rave, pop – put up un-scalable walls to keep outsiders out and wandering eyes in.
Now when I look back at 1988 I see the Pixies releasing ‘Surfer Rosa’, the beginning of Sub Pop, John Peel sessions and REM on Top of the Pops. But back then I only saw Bros and Big Fun and Bruno Brookes’ latest knitwear horror. This was enough to drive you further and further into the pages of Kerrang! and Metal Hammer, looking for news of the new Voivod or Nuclear Assault record. No wonder my 14-year-old self was more concerned with remembering the names of all five members of Testament and desperately wishing for the day my hair would be as long as Anthrax’s effortlessly cool bassist, Frank Bello.
Like Alice, immersed in the rabbit hole, just with a Slayer ‘Slaytanic Wehrmacht’ t-shirt and an emerging fondness for Mad Dog 20/20.
Yet 22 years later the chimes that proceeds Metallica’s ‘For Whom The Bells Toll’ still sends shiver of eager anticipation down my neck. I still beam at the stomping Scott Ian riff from ‘I Am the Law’, Anthrax’s ode to Judge Dredd (“I am the law! / You won’t fuck around no more / I am the law!”). And the piercing lead guitar and double kick-drum duet between Jeff Hanneman and Dave Lombardo that underpins Slayer’s ‘Raining Blood’ will forever break out a rush of energy and serotonin in me that no amount of Red Bull and chocolate could ever induce.
So it wasn’t just my 14-year-old self pulling cartwheels across the living room last night when Sonisphere announced they will be bringing the Big Four show to Knebworth next July. This is immense news. In 1988 those kids on my front porch would have been drooling at the thought of seeing all four together, but even if it had been possible back then (Megadeth singer Dave Mustaine was famously kicked out of Metallica before their first album, resulting in a decades old spat that has only recently been healed) it would have passed almost unnoticed in the wider music world.
The end of the 1980s saw the Big Four at their collective peak, playing the biggest shows of their careers on the back of some of their best work to date – Metallica with ‘And Justice For All’, Anthrax with ‘State Of Euphoria’, Slayer with ‘South Of Heaven’ and Megadeth with ‘So Far So Good…So What’. But heavy metal, let alone thrash, was so insular and ignored that when, in 1989, Top of the Pops gave over a mere two minutes to the video for Metallica’s anti-war epic ‘One’, it became an event on the pages of Kerrang! and for thrash kids in comprehensive school playgrounds everywhere – bar staying up late on a Friday night for Tommy Vance’s Rock Show you didn’t get to hear these bands in the mainstream media, let alone see them.
Even when Slayer and Megadeth (with Suicidal Tendencies and Testament in tow) toured in 1990 under the Clash of the Titans banner, the tour only managed three nights in UK arenas. No Knebworth, Hyde Park or Reading Festival then, not even multiple nights at Wembley. Anthrax joined the subsequent US tour, but clock the absence of Metallica – notable even before their ‘Black Album’ saw their popularity explode 18 months later.
And therein lies the real reason it took these four so long to hook up. Bitter feuds aside, Metallica became so gigantic they didn’t need to – why have the other three ride on your coat tails when you’re hoovering up platinum albums, MTV glory and stadium tours? Could it be that as well as the onset of age, it’s the lack of critical acclaim for Metallica’s last two records (‘St Anger’ and ‘Death Magnetic’) that has found them in a position where they can look their contemporaries back in the eye?
For those kids on my old front step and the thousands of new fans of these bands, none of this really matters though. The only thing important is Friday 8 July 2011. The Big Four shows that went through Eastern Europe, Turkey and Greece earlier this year received amazing reviews. Clearly, these were not four tired old bands reclaiming their glory days – Lombardo is as intense as ever on those kick drums, and I’d dare anyone to label Slayer a band keen on nostalgia.