‘Murder in the Front Row’ director Adam Dubin on the rise of Bay Area thrash metal

Courtesy Of The Syndicate

Think of the great music scenes in recent history, and the first ones that come to mind are usually punk rock in late-’70s New York City, Seattle in the early-’90s, and late-’80s Madchester begetting the Britpop era of the ’90s. Mention Bay Area thrash metal in the early-’80s and most people think, “Oh yeah — Metallica.” The reality is, yeah, the long reigning titans of the genre are universally considered the band who put San Francisco, Oakland, and all parts surrounding on the headbanger’s map, but there was so much more to the Northern California metal landscape.

The documentary Murder in The Front Row: The San Francisco Bay Area Thrash Metal Story makes its Boston debut Thursday (August 29) at Arlington’s Regent Theatre, and furthers that notion. Directed by Adam Dubin, who helmed the Black Album-era doc A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica along with co-directing the early Beastie Boys videos “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)” and “No Sleep till Brooklyn,” it digs much deeper into what led a bunch of headbanging kids to start influential outfits like Exodus, Testament, and Death Angel, and how groups like Slayer and Anthrax played into the proceedings.

Impacted themselves by the likes of Iron Maiden, Motorhead, and UFO, UK acts who rarely made it all the way to the West Coast and certainly not with anything resembling regularity at the dawn of the ’80s, the fledgling local musicians decided to create their own sounds of heaviness for the region. Exodus were at the forefront, with the lyrics to the title track on their 1984 debut LP Bonded by Blood providing the name to both the film and the 2012 pictorial book that inspired it, Murder in the Front Row: Shots from the Bay Area Thrash Metal Epicenter by Brian Lew and Harald Oimoen.

Vanyaland caught up with Dubin ahead of this week’s screening of the documentary, which features all the current members of Metallica, Dave Mustaine and David Ellefson of Megadeth, Exodus and Slayer guitarist Gary Holt, Alex Skolnick from Testament, and many others. We talked about him not wanting to make just another story revolving around Metallica and how an unlikely fan of jazz and blues became a catalyst for fueling thrash metal.

Michael Christopher: I think one of the things it’s important to note is that this isn’t an adaptation of the book, but rather it’s inspired by it.

Adam Dubin: That’s a good point; I would say that the book was a jumping off point. It’s funny because today is the seven-year anniversary to the day when Brian Lew and I met backstage at a Metallica show in Vancouver and he actually gave me a copy of the book which he had just put out. He handed me that book and the book stayed with me. It’s one of those things where I was so moved by the pictures, more than the writing, and from the small amount I knew about the scene at the time, I just knew that there was much more of a story to tell than what was told in that book.

Out of all the music scenes in the past 30, 40 years, what is it about Bay Area thrash metal that drew you in?

I obviously had a connection to this through my work with Metallica, but I think a lot of this story was largely untold. Like, the story of CBGB has been told by a lot of points of view at this point, and the story of the San Francisco scene around psychedelic rock in the mid-to-late-’60s — that’s been told already. This scene was pretty much not spoken for and I felt like with this book of photographs, and what I knew about these fans, this was a new perspective and a new way to tell this story.

Even though you had worked extensively over the years with Metallica, you weren’t a thrash metal fan going into this project.

I was not. I like it, and I like the energy of it and the live shows are so energetic, and I’ve seen a lot of live thrash shows. I’m a little older; I’m more the age of the people making the thrash music. I think if I was a teenager around that time, I would’ve been more of a fan in terms of listening to everything, but I come from a little bit of the generation before.


Obviously, Metallica are a huge part of the story, but how important was it for you to not only include the other, often lesser known bands, but also not make it just another Metallica story?

It was important to both myself and to Metallica — that was one of the caveats to them doing it — was that it wasn’t “The Metallica Story,” that they could be in the story, but it wasn’t a Metallica story. That was something both of us wanted. Metallica’s great and they’ve obviously achieved the level of fame and success that is some steps above — if you’re measuring success in conventional measurements of album sales — they’ve certainly achieved the highest level. But in terms of this moment, in the scene, if you’re talking about 1982 and ’83 and ’84, Metallica’s kind of right in there with a whole group of other bands and that’s what interested me. There was a time when Metallica was just another one of this group of bands, being kind of supported by a bunch of fans. I think Metallica benefited in exactly the same way that Exodus and Slayer and Megadeth and all the other bands benefited from this group of young people that came together to enjoy this kind of music. 

Do you think there’s any… not resentment, I don’t want to call it that, but maybe irritation on some level that Metallica is recognized as the band from the Bay Area, the group that ruled the scene and put it on the map? I mean, Brian Lew mentions in there how they moved to the region in January 1983 but were away on tour for the majority of what was arguably the most important year for the scene.

I wouldn’t say resentment because I don’t even think Brian is resentful. Brian is just trying to state a case; in other words, if anything, Brian is like me in trying to present it the way we see it, and oftentimes it’s misunderstood. He’s saying that Metallica moved to the Bay Area — they did move to the Bay Area. I think it’s very significant that by 1983, Metallica is 50 percent a Bay Area band in terms of its players. Brian was pointing out that they really weren’t around that much. They were off, as we all know in the Metallica story, they got strong in Europe first. What that did, it almost created room for Exodus to be the hometown band, and then Exodus was very welcoming to everybody. Gary Holt puts it so nicely in the film, he says that if your own area wasn’t welcoming to you, we would be — the Bay Area would be happy to host your band.

There’s the part where Brian Lew says that within the scene, Bonded by Blood was more anticipated than Kill ‘Em All in many ways, and it seems like for many – there – Exodus was the preeminent band.

I think that’s a great point. Interestingly Metallica, this supposedly I guess “Bay Area” band, they drove all the way across the country to make their record and wound up making it in Upstate New York of all places. Then they wound up touring it in Europe. Exodus, their route was entirely different to making Bonded by Blood. First thing they did — and this is a very strong thing if any band can do this — they were playing all those songs before they were ever laid down on record. It’s weird, in the day of the internet, I don’t think it happens as much because right away someone would film it and it would be up on the web.

Back then, bands played their songs out well before they were recorded, and I think that helps develop the song, you get to see how it works. When they recorded Bonded by Blood, they did it north of the Bay Area, but it was still Bay Area enough, so they were staying around the Bay Area to create (the record). I think when people in the film attest to the fact that Bonded by Blood is really a Bay Area thrash record, I think it is in all senses of what that means.   

Scenes are interesting because in a lot of ways, as a band within it you want it to thrive, but you’re also striving for your own individual success. Do you get the sense that it was more familial and self-supportive vs. competitive or a bit of both?

It’s a funny thing. One of the words that kept coming up was “camaraderie.” You see it in the early part of the scene; they were lending each other players, they were lending each other’s equipment and, in the case of Exodus, hosting other bands in the Bay Area. I found it to be competitive, but it was healthy competitive. I think all that changed later when money, fame and all this stuff comes into it and you have a lot more…everything changes.

Many people had a hand in sustaining the scene in the Bay Area, but one of the most fascinating to me was Wes Robinson, who is one of the most unlikely heroes. He founded Ruthie’s, which was primarily a jazz club, and made it basically a home-base for thrash, so much so that Gary Holt says the venue was just as important as CBGB was to the punk scene in New York.

I think it’s great that Gary pointed that out, because to me, it seemed like Ruthie’s was something personal to everyone involved, which is something you would say about CBGB. Alex Skolnick talks about that a little bit, that maybe Wes Robinson saw something in the young people of this scene that he saw in the young jazz scene. We know that in its earliest days, even before Wes Robinson would’ve been listening to it, it was looked at it as, “jazz music will lead to ruination, to drugs, to a wasted life…”

Just look at the history of jazz in the ’20s, that’s what parents were worried about. And, wow, doesn’t that sound familiar? It sounds just like heavy metal in the ’80s. So Wes seems unlikely, but the more you look at it, maybe he was just that deep of a jazz fan that he saw something else on the cutting edge that was what jazz in its day was. What he definitely did was he gave a voice to this music, he gave a place to it, a location, an opportunity and he’s roundly thanked by everybody who came in contact with him.

MURDER IN THE FRONT ROW: THE SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA THRASH METAL STORY :: Thursday, August 29 at The Regent Theatre, 7 Medford St. in Arlington, MA :: 7:30 p.m., $12 in advance and $7 students and seniors :: Advance tickets :: Facebook event page