Metallica - The $5.98 EP: Garage Days Re-Revisited
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
September 27, 1986: the darkest day in Metallica's history. In Sweden during the Master of Puppets tour, the band's bus skids off the road and flips over, killing bassist Cliff Burton. If drummer Lars Ulrich and frontman/guitarist James Hetfield are the brain and liver of Metallica, Burton is its heart. Eviscerated, the band carries on. Auditioning over 40 bassists, Metallica picks Jason Newsted, of Arizona's Flotsam and Jetsam. Newsted finishes out the tour; the Garage Days Re-Revisited EP, a collection of covers which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, follows.
I knew little of this when I first heard Garage Days Re-Revisited, also known as The $5.98 EP and The $9.98 CD. The cover carried the price in a primitive hand scrawl to prevent retail overcharging; this was the main reason why I bought it. I was a teenager, on a teenager's allowance. Sure, Metallica was not unfamiliar to me, as Metallica artist Pushead's designs smeared shirts and jackets all over my Midwestern hometown. But, really, I was just cheap. To this day, I recall the cassette's location on the racks of long-gone Musicland in the mall.
Knowing virtually nothing of Metallica then and almost too much of them now, I still love The $5.98 EP as much as ever. It's that kind of recording. One doesn't need to know Metallica nor the bands they covered to appreciate it. In way, the band was subverting its own fame by highlighting its influences, obscure NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal) and punk bands. These were simply good performances of good songs. More importantly, The $5.98 EP was Metallica's most human moment on record.
This was, and is, crucial to my enjoyment of it. The recording bristles with the ambient noises of an off-the-cuff jam session—vocal ad-libs, vocal count-ins, stick click-ins, the crackle of cords plugged into guitars. The liner notes betray that this spontaneity was somewhat of a construct. Sure, the band had jammed in Ulrich's garage, just like its salad days (the original Garage Days Revisited was 1984's "Creeping Death" single, which contained two ripping NWOBHM covers). Once ready, however, the band recorded and mixed the EP in six days at two very professional LA studios. The tracks weren't "Not Very Produced by Metallica," as the liner notes claim. On the contrary, subtle production touches color the recording; in particular, Hetfield's vocals go through well-timed flange, reverb, and delay.
But though the EP isn't a sweaty garage jam, it sounds like one. It recaptures the feral energy of the band's first full-length, Kill 'Em All, but without the furrowed brows; Kill 'Em All is a fire-and-brimstone metal manifesto, while The $5.98 EP is shit-eating grins for miles. The Misfits medley sounds especially joyous, as the band adds raucous gang vocals to Danzig's howl in "Green Hell"; how liberating "Last Caress" ("I've got something to say / I killed your baby today / Doesn't matter much to me / As long as it's dead") must have been after the mammoth Master of Puppets! The band even riffs on Iron Maiden's "Run to the Hills" as a goofy, out-of-tune coda. Perhaps Metallica were most comfortable not in their own skins.
The $5.98 EP also housed some of Metallica's heaviest moments, even though they were refracting others' riffs. In the band's hands, songs took on new focus. Holocaust's "The Small Hours" became brawnier, yet teased with eerily naked, tick-tock clean tones. Diamond Head's "Helpless," originally a bluesy '70s rocker, upgraded to razor-sharp speed-metal riffing. Killing Joke's "The Wait" underwent the most radical makeover. Metallica stripped away the original's Joy Division-meets-The-Cure-in-hell buzz, and gave the riffs massive, metallic definition. Kirk Hammett's ferocious soloing on The $5.98 EP is easily his best on any Metallica recording. Again, perhaps he's better when he's not trying so hard.
Avoid 1998's Garage Inc. compilation, which runs the five tracks of The $5.98 EP through soulless, steroid-fueled compression. The original recording, which is admittedly tough to find, is how these songs should be heard. After all, the whole point is naturalness—a raw mix capturing four guys jamming in a smelly room. Some Kind of Monster showed Metallica to be human, but only as fallen gods. The $5.98 EP had my teenage self actually wanting to hang out with them.