Lars Ulrich’s Childhood: Metallica Drummer’s First 72 Seasons
Metallica’s 11th album, 72 Seasons, arrives on April 14. Frontman James Hetfield revealed that the LP’s title and theme revolve around an individual’s formative years. "Seventy-two seasons. The first 18 years of our lives that form our true or false selves,” he explained in a statement. In anticipation of the album, UCR looks back at the respective childhoods of Metallica’s current and former members.
Before he had the chops, the songs or the bandmates to help catapult him to stardom, Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich had an unwavering desire to conquer the world.
Torben and Lone Ulrich's only child was born on Dec. 26, 1963, in Denmark. Torben, a competitive tennis player whom Sports Illustrated called the game's "most fascinating, most captivating figure" in 1969, was also a major jazz-head who wrote about music for Danish newspapers and brought some of the giants into his family's home, including Don Cherry, Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon, who was Ulrich's godfather.
At age 5, Ulrich accompanied Torben to see the Rolling Stones' headlining festival performance in Hyde Park, later released as The Stones in the Park. "I grew up in as open an upbringing as you can imagine," Ulrich recalled in 1995. "Americans would call it spoiled. But I was very independent. ... As far as my parents were concerned, I could go see Black Sabbath 12 times a day. But I had to find my own means, carrying the paper or whatever, to get the money to buy the tickets. And I had to find my own way to the concert and back."
When his father and some artist friends had an extra ticket to see Deep Purple in Copenhagen, 9-year-old Ulrich was spellbound. At home, he made a drum kit out of cardboard boxes, pretending to be drummer Ian Paice. Ulrich would publicly thank his grandmother for giving him his first drum kit as a teen, although some accounts credit his parents. He was also a top-ranked competitive tennis player in his Denmark age group. But when he relocated to Los Angeles to play high school tennis, he found himself out of his depth.
"I don't think I was one of the seven best tennis players on the street that I lived on," he told The New Yorker in 2022.
Instead, Ulrich threw his self-starter, workaholic tendencies into music, learning about dozens of New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) bands through mail-order subscription Bullet. "When it came to finding out new music, he was like Indiana Jones," friend John Kornarens remembered in Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood's Birth School Metallica Death, 1: The Inside Story of Metallica (1981-1991).
Ulrich also contacted and followed some of his favorite, more approachable bands on the road, like Motorhead tearing through California. ("He introduced himself as the guy who ran the Motorhead fan club in America — well, it turned out that this was an unofficial branch of Motorheadbangers, and he was the only member," frontman Lemmy Kilmister recalled in Mick Wall's Enter Night: A Biography of Metallica.) Likewise, he followed Diamond Head through the U.K., where Ulrich talked his way into crashing on singer Sean Harris' couch for a month and watched the band write songs. "That enthusiasm was catching, so we liked him," Diamond Head guitarist Brian Tatler told Ultimate Guitar. "He got a funny way about him and we took to him."
The drummer also placed an ad in the Los Angeles newspaper The Recycler looking for metal musicians to play with a drummer who listed NWOBHM influences: "Tygers of Pan Tang, Diamond Head, Iron Maiden." When a couple of teen guitarists from the local band Leather Charm answered the ad, they were not impressed watching the young Dane struggle to keep time while his cymbal kept falling over. "I'm going, 'Are you sure this guy's played drums before?'" guitarist Hugh Tanner recalled in Metallica: Behind the Music.
“My ability on the drums at that time was basically zero," Ulrich confessed years later. "I think they were secretly laughing at me."
"His drumming was not amazing," Metallica's James Hetfield confirmed. "But he had this drive." That drive was initially not enough to earn Ulrich another rehearsal. But he had bonded with local metalhead Brian Slagel, who had been coming over to listen to obscure metal records.
"He had a drum set in the corner, stacked up, and he was like, 'I'm going to start a band,'" Slagel recalled in Birth School Metallica Death. "And I was like, 'Sure you are, Lars, I'm going to start a band too.' Because there was no way that that was going to happen."
Slagel planned on releasing a compilation of up-and-coming Los Angeles metal bands titled The New Heavy Metal Revue Presents Metal Massacre, slated to be the debut release on Slagel's record label, Metal Blade. Ulrich asked Slagel to save a spot for his new band and called Hetfield with an idea.
On Oct. 15, 1981, Ulrich and Hetfield recorded a rewritten Leather Charm song, "Hit the Lights," for the Metal Massacre compilation. "At the very last moment of the last day when [Kornarens] and I were mastering the record with the engineer at the Hollywood Bijou Studio, Lars came running up the street with his tape," Slagel wrote in his book For the Sake of Heaviness: The History of Metal Blade Records. "They'd seemingly produced it the night before on a small four-channel machine on which you could just barely make a somewhat medieval recording." Needing $50 to transfer the tape for mastering, Ulrich borrowed the money from Kornarens. "Otherwise, I'm not sure what the hell would have happened there!" Slagel added.
Ulrich officially formed his first band, Metallica, on Oct. 28, 1981, less than two months short of his 18th birthday. To this day, it's the only band he's joined. "It did not seem to bother him or faze him," Tanner remembered in Of Metal and Man: The Definitive Biography, "that although he was nearly 18 and just learning the drums, he could not be a rock star in a short order of time."