Metallica’s game-changing debut album Kill ‘Em All is widely hailed as thrash metal’s ground zero. But if there’s one song on the LP that crystalizes the essence of the band — and the burgeoning subgenre — it’s the aptly titled “Whiplash,” released as Kill ‘Em All’s lead single on Aug. 8, 1983.

The band first unleashed the head-banging anthem live in October 1982, when its lineup comprised singer and guitarist James Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich, guitarist Dave Mustaine and bassist Ron McGovney. The song first appeared on the Metal Up Your Ass demo tape, recorded during Metallica’s Nov. 29, 1982, show at the Old Waldorf in San Francisco.

McGovney, who would play his final show with the band the following night, described “Whiplash” as “the most ultimate head-banging song” in Mick Wall’s Enter Night biography. “Every time we played that song it totally kicked ass.”

In those days, Metallica was still getting paid peanuts to perform in dank, sweaty clubs. The lyrics to “Whiplash” are purely autobiographical and an ethnography of a nascent subculture. “Bang your head against the stage like you never did before,” Hetfield snarls. “Make it ring, make it bleed, make it really sore.” And he explicitly name-checks the budding genre in the anthemic chorus: “Adrenaline starts to flow / You’re thrashing all around / Acting like a maniac / Whiplash!

Listen to Metallica's 'Whiplash'

The song pays a debt to Motorhead, who won a 2005 Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance with their cover of the song. But Metallica also took cues from Venom, another British trio whose early albums played a huge role in the development of extreme metal at large.

“On ‘Whiplash,’ we just tried to play as fast as we could and have it make as much sense as possible,” Ulrich told Metal Hammer in 2022. “One of the bands we were listening to, who were an influence on ‘Whiplash,’ was Venom. That first record [1981’s Welcome to Hell], with songs like ‘Angel Dust’ and ‘Live Like an Angel (Die Like a Devil),’ was a big inspiration. They took the energy and speed of what Motorhead were doing and made it a little more heavy metal – Motorhead had more of a punkish attitude. Venom need to get name-checked more when people talk about Metallica’s early days.”

Listen to Motorhead's Cover of 'Whiplash'

Unlike most of their extreme metal contemporaries, Metallica had the large-scale ambitions and business savvy to take their brand of thrash to the mainstream. Their 1991 self-titled album consummated a decade-long climb to superstardom and cemented their status as the biggest metal band in the world. By 1999, Kill ‘Em All had sold 3 million copies in the United States. Even as Metallica made forays into alt-rock and Southern metal, they continued to honor their thrash roots in concert, and “Whiplash” remains one of their most-performed songs, with nearly 1,000 performances, according to setlist.fm.

“Whiplash” has also earned fans in high places, such as Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. “He came to one of our shows in Seattle, on the Black Album tour,” Kirk Hammett told Rolling Stone in 2012. “I remember at one point, we were playing ‘Whiplash,’ and he looked at me and kept punching the air with his fist, and gave me a big thumbs-up sign. I was like, ‘Cool. Kurt, I know you love this song. This one’s for you!’”

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