In 1986, Metallica released their third album, Master of Puppets. It was a hard slice of thrash metal that epitomised the genre the band had created. Some would even argue it was the band’s best record. It was almost certainly their heaviest. Now the only single released from it has entered the Billboard Top 40 chart because of its placement in the finale of Stranger Things 4.
Before Stranger Things, ‘Master of Puppets’ was well-known. By 2003, the album of the same name had sold three million copies. With all that success, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the song must have hit the charts in 1986 when it was first released, slotting alongside other heavy bands. Because the 80s was all about metal, right?
Wrong. While the album would peak at 29 on the Billboard 200, the song never touched the singles charts in the 80s.
Instead, in the week following the single’s release, the Billboard charts were topped by Simply Red, Genesis and Peter Gabriel – a far cry from Metallica’s bone-crushing sound.
Sure, there was no shortage of rock in the US charts that week; Queen charted with ‘A Kind of Magic’. There was even a smattering of metal (of the backcombed, spandex-wearing variety) with Krokus’ cover of ‘School’s Out’ and Journey’s proto-glam metal ‘Be Good to Yourself’.
But Metallica was pedalling thrash metal. It wouldn’t be until their self-titled 1991 album that they leant into stadium anthems and enjoyed massive mainstream success.
No, ‘Master of Puppets’ didn’t fit in any better with the Hot 100 of 1986 as it does today. The only material genre differences between the ‘86 chart and today’s are that rock, disco and soul have been replaced by hip hop, country and R&B.
How the AI hears ‘Master of Puppets’
The song is eight-and-a-half minutes of high-energy, angry thrash metal with unimaginably bleak lyrics. It never stood a chance on mainstream radio, one of the main data sources for compiling the Billboard charts in 1986.
However, if we look beyond the music and examine other factors, we can see that Metallica’s 2022 success has more in common with acts like Kenny Loggins than any metal act.
Return of the soundtrack record
Soundtrack records were hot property in 1986. In the week following ‘Master of Puppets’ release, five songs in the Top 20 had featured in Hollywood movies. Among them was Top Gun’s ‘Danger Zone’.
Thirty-six years on, the movie tie-in record feels tired and cliché. One notable exception is Guardians of the Galaxy, which brought new life to deliciously naff 70s soft rock in 2014. And it made new audiences connect with catalogue tracks.
The trick to doing that was neatly integrating the songs into the movie’s plot. For Guardians, it was the hero Peter Quill’s Awesome Mix Vol. 1 cassette.
The Stranger Things team upped the ante by making Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ the favourite song of central character Max. It even saves her from the villain’s clutches.
Then they outdid themselves again. Metalhead Eddie Munsen lures away the show’s unpleasant creatures by shredding ‘Master of Puppets’ at full volume on his guitar.
The final factor in the renewed popularity of these tracks is the sheer reach and the cult following of Stranger Things. The Netflix original show is streaming in 190 countries, with the climactic final two episodes dropping on the same day. This is streaming event television on a scale that’s hard to comprehend. And the fact that both these songs have entered the Billboard Top 40 for the first time is a testament to the show’s cultural power.
We suspect we’ll see more and more TV shows working catalogue tracks into scripts. And if you’re a music supervisor, the Use Case classifier generated by our tagging AI can help narrow down a catalogue to show more relevant results.
For ‘Master of Puppets’, our AI gave it an ‘Extreme Sports’ Use Case. We can’t think of a more death-defying endeavour than courting beasts in the Upside Down.