It’s hard to believe twenty-five years have passed since Metallica lost bassist Cliff Burton in a freak bus accident on September 27, 1986.
Although the band was able to move forward after he passed, Burton’s contribution to Metallica was immeasurable, and his spirit and attitude still looms large over them to this day.
Cliff Burton was always his own man, and didn’t give a f*ck what anyone thought of him. (You gotta admire anyone who defiantly wore bell-bottoms when metal was all about spandex and leather.)
Burton’s use of distorted bass tones from a wah-wah pedal, which almost turned his bass into a baritone guitar, was very ahead of his time, and there was certainly no band other than Metallica that would have put a bass solo on their first album.
“First of all, it was a stand-out-piece of music. And Cliff was just so out there, and he was such an original thinker that we just thought, Wow, what a cool idea,” Kirk Hammett told Guitar World. ”Instead of an open guitar solo like Eddie Van Halen’s ‘Eruption,’ we had this fantastic bass-solo that Cliff wrote, so we thought, why not put it on the album?”
Five years ago Guitar World did a special issue celebrating the 20th anniversary of Master of Puppets, and Scott Ian of Anthrax told the magazine, “Master of Puppets is when they found themselves as songwriters… They really started to understand melody, song arrangements and structures.
“You can hear Cliff so much in that record. The album’s melodic and harmonic sense was so much his. Metallica were peaking on that record, but this was also the record where Cliff pushed the songs and made them the best they could be.”
Meanwhile, former Megadeth lead guitarist Chris Poland told me he felt with the Puppets album that the band really “became Metallica.”
Losing Burton as a musician and friend was a tough punch in the head for Metallica, and Cliff’s friends to take, and the band moved on as fast as they could, like Ozzy did after losing Randy Rhoads, going back on the road six weeks after Burton’s death. But without taking the time to grieve the loss, the band would pay a terrible price for it years later.
Clearly, the baggage from Burton’s death was something it took Metallica a long time to come to terms with. Replacement bassist Jason Newsted became the band’s whipping boy following Burton’s death, and it eventually drove him from the band. Hammett was also haunted by the knowledge he was supposed to be in the bus bunk that Burton fell from. Burton won the bunk when he and Kirk drew cards, and Cliff pulled up the ace of spades.
Photographer Harald Oimoen, who was a close friend of Burton’s and took the picture of Cliff on the back of the Ride the Lightning album, says, “Cliff was one of the coolest people I’ve ever known in my life. I’d never had a close friend pass away, and when he died, it changed my whole outlook on life.”
As Lars Ulrich recently told Revolver, “I would’ve been interested to see what else he could’ve contributed, because it felt like we were just getting started. I’m so glad that I got a chance to play with him for a couple, three years. And got a chance to know him, and got a chance to drink with him…It definitely was a pretty nutty time, and at the time we certainly embraced what life was offering us…
“My fondest memories of Cliff are his total disregard for convention and his total disregard for playing things out the way you expected them. He was up to challenge the normalcy, to challenge the status quo, to just f*ck with things musically, attitude-wise – the way he dressed, the way he carried himself, his sense of humor, his relationship with the music that inspired him, the music that he played.”