Looking back on the artistry of the legendary Metallica bassist on the 35th anniversary of his tragic passing
Metallica, as I heard the sonic attack on those first three albums back in the early-mid 80s, was all about death and destruction.
These things came hurtling at you like a blitzkrieg in the form of prog-rock/thrash metal epics with a snarl of punk rock attitude.
Then, death and destruction came to the band.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
On tour in Europe, Metallica’s bus hit the icy skids on September 27, 1986 in Sweden and it flipped and rolled over several times. Cliff Burton – bassist and co- songwriter – was thrown from the window in his bunk and pinned underneath it. He was just 24 and he died just as Metallica was rising up from the metal underground toward the arena-filling status they’d soon achieve.
Singer-guitarist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich were always Metallica’s primary writers, but when they essentially head-hunted Burton for the permanent bass job, he became part of the songwriting mix, too, his influence increasing over time.
I don’t have inside songwriting scoop details on how the sausage was made. However, Loudersound reported on a 1992 interview with Ulrich, explaining Burton’s influence: “Cliff was responsible for a lot of the things that happened between Kill ’Em All and Ride The Lightning. He really exposed me and James to a whole new musical horizon of harmonies and melodies, just a whole new kind of thing, and obviously that’s something that greatly influenced our songwriting abilities on Master Of Puppets… the whole way that me and James write songs together, I mean, that was shaped when Cliff was in the band, and was very much shaped around Cliff’s musical input; the way he really taught us about harmonies and melodies and stuff.”
Added Hetfield: “Cliff brought certain melodies into our music which he’d learned at school during his classical training. He knew how those harmonies function.”
VIDEO: Metallica performing “Ride The Lightning” at the Day On The Green 1985
By the mid- ‘80s, I had pretty much moved away from heavy metal. I loved it as a teenager with Blue Oyster Cult at the top of my heap. But it lost me or I lost it. The new wave of British metal? Meh, most of it. The glam metal bands in L.A.? Worse. Punk rock had instantly shredded metal’s cliches – stuck its fingers right up metal’s nose. And the post-punk music – done by the likes of XTC, New Order, The The, Eurythmics, the Only Ones and scores more – was far more interesting. It had unexpected twists and turns, complex, ambivalent emotions seldom explored or expressed in rock. Metal left me … bereft. For me: No more demons and wizards and bare chest-beating bravado; no more stupid sexist songs about sex. No more inchoate rage against a society that just didn’t understand you. No faux rage. No more dazzling, masturbatory guitar solos that went nowhere and drum solos that were nothing more than a not-so-subtle signal to go to the loo.
But Metallica? A breed apart. There were a few reference points. Certainly, Iron Maiden, my fave post-Ozzy-era Sabbath metal band, but also, curiously, enough the Anti-Nowhere League, a bunch of scurrilous Brits I first saw in a Boston club in 1983. Lo and behold, when I saw Metallica headline the Lollapalooza tour of 1996 in western Massachusetts they opened – opened, mind you – with The League’s “So What?”
VIDEO: Metallica performing The League’s “So What?” at Lollapalooza 1996
I never saw Metallica with Burton. But I did see Metallica’s “first official” US gig without him. On bass: Jason Newsted, late of Flotsam & Jetsam. They did a couple of warmup gigs in L.A., and then kicked off their tour in Providence, Rhode Island at Veterans Memorial Stadium in front of 2200 rowdy fans. Need I say, just about entirely male and leather-clad? It was a rough crowd. It was Nov. 26, 1986 – almost two months to the day after Burton’s death.
That’s moving fast. Moving at Metallica speed.
“We all felt there was no reason to stop,” the mild-mannered guitarist Kirk Hammett told me after the show. “What Metallica has all been about is struggling.” (The surviving three did get a blessing to go on from Burton’s parents.)
They played a 90-minute set amongst six giant white crosses and in front of a graveyard scrim of many more. Uh, did they think maybe that was a trifle off, or too soon?
They did not. “The set was there first,” explained Hammett. “The accident came later. To change it would be conforming in a wimpy kind of way. We never really thought about it.”
Nor – to the best of my recollection – did they address Burton’s death from the stage. Put it this way: I wrote a review/feature for the Boston Globe and I gotta think if they said something, I’d have noted it. (If I’m wrong, Metallica fans, please correct and castigate me.)
To be fair, the stage set was simply replicating the cover of the current album, Master of Puppets. I’m not sure if the tombstones represented the OD’d and dead – “Master of Puppets,” the song deals, with that – or it was meant to represent the World War II graveyards of Allied dead in Normandy. (Soldiers as cannon fodder is a theme that surfaced, rather grandly and powerfully in the song “One,” on … And Justice for All.)
Some of what I did write – and remember this is the sound Burton fully helped hone – is that Metallica’s was “a brutal, bone-crushing sound: no pretensions, no glamour, no frills, no sweeteners, no synthesizers. … like a leaner, meaner Black Sabbath … the intensity is awe inspiring – and disturbing.”
After the show, Newsted told me, “I am the happiest kid in the world” and he knew he’d always be referred to as “the new guy.” Which I guess he was until he left in 2001 and Robert Trujillo came aboard two years later.
Metallica paid tribute to Burton in their own way, releasing the Cliff ‘Em All longform video – concert bits and more from the days he was in the band – in 1987, the title playing off Metallica’s 1983 debut album, Kill ‘Em All. You’ll see Burton, sporting highly unfashionable bell-bottom jeans, whipping his head up and down, hair flailing, playing his Rickenbacker 4001 bass, the same model Motorhead’s Lemmy used. You’ll hear his dazzling runs in and around the guitarists, Hetfield and Hammett and even Dave Mustaine way back when.
VIDEO: Metallica Cliff ‘Em All (full movie)
You’ll see a spirit whose spark had been brutally snuffed out. Another rock ‘n’ roll tragedy. As we all know, sometimes tragedy of this sort brings even more attention to the band’s music. It wasn’t as if the Metallica trajectory wasn’t on the way up, but Burton’s death cast the band in an alternative light or, maybe, another shade of dark.
There were hardcore Metallica fans who thought the first post-Burton album, … And Justice for All, a Grammy nominee (that damn mainstream!), was where the band took a wrong turn. They missed the punchy sound of Burton’s bass and whatever he contributed to the songwriting stew. I didn’t feel that way – not right away for sure, maybe down the road – but that was me and that’s a whole ‘nother essay anyway.
As is, Burton’s name gets etched in the rock and roll Stone of Premature Death and Posthumous Stardom. He’s got plenty of company, sadly enough. But many of the young rock and roll deaths are by misadventure – go back to Brian Jones or Amy Winehouse – and not too many by a travel accident. In that, Burton joins Ronnie Van Zant, Buddy Holly and Stevie Ray Vaughan. It’s good company, just not company you’d want to keep.