‘Murder in the Front Row’ Chronicles SF Thrash

Metallica, Slayer, Exodus, Megadeth, and fans tell the story of the Bay Area’s ’80s metal scene.

When it comes to pivotal music scenes tied to specific locales, San Francisco pales in comparison to other major American cities — from Los Angeles to Austin and Nashville to New York. And while plenty of the great acts of the late ’60s and early ’00s emerged from our city, there is little question that we only share bragging rights for the best bands of the Summer of Love and the garage rock revival.

There is, however, one genre to which our region can undoubtedly lay claim: thrash metal.

The pioneering Bay Area thrash scene of the 1980s is viewed with a mixture of nostalgic longing and well-earned reverence the world over. The stories — of success and excess, of chaotic crowds tempered by an abiding respect for the DIY ethos, of a close-knit brotherhood intermittently punctuated by messy infighting — have been told again and again.

We know, of course, about Metallica, who conquered the world with their mix of crunchy riffs and intricate guitarmony. We know too about the other bands that made up the “big four” — Slayer, Anthrax, and Megadeth. Most people, metal fans at least, know the names Exodus, Testament, Death Angel, and Possessed, even if they don’t know the tunes.

But a scene is way more than a collection of band names. Those of us who have a passion for the music but were not fortunate enough to have experienced the scene first hand — either because of our age, our geography, or both — crave knowledge. We want to feel like we at least know as much as possible about what it was like to be there, when it was happening. We want to know about the bands that didn’t make it, and get a sense of what it was like to be in the pit, as James, Kirk, Cliff, and Lars lit into a set at The Stone.

Murder in the Front Row, a new documentary by director Adam Dubin, offers exactly that.

When a scene is being built, it is simply a bunch of like-minded souls creating something together. It’s the power of hindsight that brings it into focus. This is true of Seattle grunge in the ’90s, CBGB’s punk in the ’70s and everything else. Thankfully, a couple of dedicated thrashers — Brian Lew and Harald Oimoen — had the presence of mind to take a lot of photographs during the scene’s heyday. They pooled those images in the Murder in the Front Row book, which dropped in 2012. And it was that book, which piqued Dubin’s interest.

“I’m not from the Bay Area, I’m from Brooklyn,” the director says. “But I was involved in scenes. I was in the punk and hip-hop scene in New York in the ’80s at the same time, so I understood that. That’s how I started working with the Beastie Boys. Thirty years ago, I started doing a project for Metallica, and I still work for them from time to time. During that work, I got to meet some of their very early fans. One of them, Brian Lew gave me a copy of his book, photographs, and some writing from the early Bay Area thrash metal scene. I knew Metallica had come out of this very powerful scene in the early ’80s but I didn’t know that much about it.”

Dubin contacted Lew and Oimoen with the idea of expanding their book into a movie and, while they were into it, they wanted to make sure that he was going to tell the story the right way — by focusing on the music, rather than salacious and seedy stories — and they also wanted to make sure that he captured the vital role that fans played.

Dubin agreed with the approach, and production began. He started by speaking to a number of those aforementioned fans, laying the foundations of the scene before getting to any of the musicians. Through these interviews he establishes the sights, smells, and, most importantly, the sounds of the scene.

“I had an understanding with Metallica that if I got moving, eventually I would come to them but they wouldn’t be close to first,” he says. “Brian and Harald, and another of the early fans was a guy named Ron Quintana, who is very important in this narrative, because he had a show on KUSF, the college radio station, which was the only place bands like this could get played. He also had one of the most important fanzines that ever happened, Metal Mania. Also Ray Burton who is the father of Cliff Burton, Metallica’s [deceased] bass player. A kind and gracious man. Then we were on our way.”

It all started to fall into place from there, as members of Exodus and Slayer (in guitarist Gary Holt’s case, both) were happy to speak to Dubin, and the whole thing snowballed.

“People started to find out through the network that we were telling the story the right way, being very respectful,” Dubin says. “Not about the sex and drugs, but much more about the music. We got into the hijinks — the violent aspect. But that was about kids letting off steam rather than the Nazi skinhead punks looking for trouble. Just tearing stuff up.”

It’s also notable that, while metal has traditionally been the realm of the testosterone-fueled straight white male, and that was inarguably the bulk of the audience here too, the thrash scene was more diverse than it is generally given credit for. The multitude of photographs in the book and movie show many people of color in the crowds, while promotor Wesley Robinson, who had a jazz background, played a huge part in boosting careers both at his Aquatic Park annual festival and at the legendary Ruthie’s Inn. The latter is referred to in the movie as the CBGBs of Bay Area thrash.

“It was certainly more heavily male than female,” says Dubin. “But the women were very important and they were respected. It seemed like the only card of entry was that you loved the music. I never got a sense that anybody cared what color anybody was, as long as you loved the music.”

It’s a tremendous movie, treating a subject often sneered at by contemporary music fans with the respect that it absolutely deserves. When thrash was born in the early ’80s thanks to key figures such as Kirk Hammett (Exodus founder, later Metallica) image-heavy hair metal was the big thing down in L.A. These locals took a punk approach instead, dialing up the speed and ferocity and taking off the makeup. Dubin takes us back there with relish, and it’s a welcome trip.

Murder in the Front Row is available to view on various streaming platforms.

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