Background and recording
Metallica released their debut album, Kill 'Em All, on the independent label Megaforce Records on July 25, 1983. The album helped to establish thrash metal, a heavy metal subgenre defined by its brisk riffs and intense percussion. After finishing its promotional tour, Metallica began composing new material, and from September, began performing the songs that were to make up Ride the Lightning at concerts. Because the band had little money, its members often ate one meal a day and stayed at fans' homes while playing at clubs across the United States. An incident occurred when part of Metallica's gear was stolen in Boston, and Anthrax lent Metallica some of its equipment to complete the remaining dates. When not gigging, the band stayed in a rented house in El Cerrito, California, called the Metallica Mansion. Frontman James Hetfield felt uneasy about performing double duty on vocals and rhythm guitar, so the band offered the job to Armored Saint singer John Bush, who turned down the offer because Armored Saint was doing well at the time. Hetfield gradually built confidence as lead vocalist and kept his original role. Metallica started recording on February 20, 1984 at Sweet Silence Studios in Copenhagen, Denmark. The album was produced by Flemming Rasmussen, the founder of Sweet Silence Studios. Drummer Lars Ulrich chose Rasmussen, because he liked his work on Rainbow's Difficult to Cure (1981), and was keen to record in Europe. Rasmussen, who had not heard of Metallica, agreed to work on the album, even though his studio employees questioned the band's talent. Rasmussen listened to Metallica's tapes before the members arrived and thought the band had great potential. Metallica rehearsed the album's material at Mercyful Fate's practice room in Copenhagen.
Before entering the studio, Metallica collected ideas on "riff tape" recordings of various jam sessions. Hetfield and Ulrich went through the tapes and selected the strongest riffs to assemble into songs. Instruments were recorded separately, with only Hetfield playing rhythm guitar. Rasmussen, with the support of drum roadie Flemming Larsen, taught the basics of timing and beat duration to Ulrich, who had a tendency to increase speed and had little knowledge of rhythm theory. Drums were recorded in an empty warehouse at the back of the studio, which was not soundproof, and caused reverberation. Although four tracks were already arranged, the band members were not used to creating songs in the studio, as they had not done so for Kill 'Em All. "For Whom the Bell Tolls", "Trapped Under Ice" and "Escape" were written mostly in Copenhagen, and the band put finishing touches on "Fight Fire with Fire", "Ride the Lightning", "Creeping Death", and "The Call of Ktulu", which were already performed live. Lead guitarist Kirk Hammett took the album's name from a passage in Stephen King's novel The Stand. The cover art, displaying an electric chair in the midst of lightning bolts, was conceived before recording began. Metallica initially had sound problems, because its gear was stolen three weeks before the band arrived in Copenhagen. The band members slept in the studio by day as they could not afford a hotel and recorded by night, because the studio was booked by other artists during the daytime. Because the group was looking for a major label deal, several A&R representatives from different labels visited the studio. At first, it seemed that Metallica was going to sign with Bronze Records, but the deal fell through, because Bronze executive Gerry Bron did not appreciate the work done at Sweet Silence Studios, and wanted the US edition to be remixed by engineer Eddie Kramer, and even considered re-recording the album in another studio. Metallica was put off by Bron's failure to share the band's artistic vision and decided to look for another label for the US release, in spite of the fact that Bronze had already advertised Metallica as one of their bands.
Metallica had to record quickly because of European shows scheduled 29 days after it entered the studio. Recording finished on March 14, and Megaforce released the album on July 27. Although the original album budget was $20,000, the final expense was above $30,000. Metallica's European label Music for Nations paid the studio costs because Megaforce owner Jon Zazula could not afford them. Metallica was unhappy with the lack of promotion by Megaforce, and decided to part ways with Zazula. Major label Elektra Records employee Michael Alago noticed Metallica at The Stone gig in San Francisco, and invited Elektra's chairman and the head of promotion to see the August show in New York. The performance at Roseland Ballroom, with Anthrax and Metallica opening for Raven, pleased the Elektra staff, and the band was offered a contract the following morning. On September 12, Metallica signed with Elektra, who re-released the album on November 19. Cliff Burnstein and Peter Mensch of Q Prime were concurrently appointed as the band's new managers. Ride the Lightning was the last Metallica album to feature co-writing contributions from former lead guitarist Dave Mustaine, who received credit on the title track and the instrumental "The Call of Ktulu". The album also represented the first time Hammett was given writing credits.