Cliff Burton – How Metallica’s Soul Died With Him (1/4)

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Would Metallica have become the band they are today without the influence of one Clifford Lee Burton? He was with the band for only 4 years, and performed on 3 studio albums – not much, you might think, considering Metallica’s now 40-year longevity and vast discography. But it’s no exaggeration to say that Cliff was (and probably still is) the soul of the band. Never its leader as such – he would never have dreamed of challenging James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich for that role. Not necessarily it’s creative driving force either. But someone who, quietly but undeniably, was instrumental in putting Metallica on the map.

That meant that his untimely death in 1986 – and what a bolt from the blue it was – left a hole that could not be filled – certainly not at the time, and some say never. Let’s tell his story.

Part 1 – Who Was Cliff?

Destined for Greatness

Cliff Burton had a normal upbringing in the Bay Area not far from San Francisco, California. His mother was a teacher, his father a highway engineer. It was a musical family up to a point, and a young Cliff could often be found tinkling away at the family’s piano. But he never really took it very seriously – not until the catastrophic death of his older brother Scott, who passed away from a brain aneurism in the back of an ambulance on the way to hospital. The tragedy (which struck when Cliff was only 13) had a galvanizing effect. Cliff resolved to grab life by the scruff of the neck and live for the moment. If you wanted to do something, it should be done today, not tomorrow. And this applied most immediately to becoming a serious musician. He promised himself to be the best bassist ‘for my brother,’ and immediately set about achieving this goal.

Bass lessons started, with Cliff quickly outgrowing a succession of teachers – he sucked out whatever learning he could, and then moved on. A bass player and teacher at his school proved a key early influence. Steve Doherty was a talented jazz bassist, and made sure that Cliff understood the value of a rounded musical education. He listed to classical music, learned to read from a score – Bach was an early favourite.

Away from music, he was quiet, but personable, with plenty of friends.

First Band

On his steep learning curve, Burton quickly progressed to jamming with local bands even from the age of 14 – ‘EZ Street’ was the name of the first. And by the time he left high school aged 18, he’d already built up what was to become his persona. Bell-bottomed jeans, hippy length hair, into sci-fi and fantasy, loving music of all kinds, and not averse to hanging out with friends smoking pot and drinking beer all night.

He enrolled in a local music college and continued his classical music education, whilst playing in a rock band (Agents of Misfortune) with his friends – see the legendary Battle of the Bands YouTube clip of Cliff in action right back in 1981 – the sound and picture quality are terrible, but it’s him all right.


Then in 1982, he stepped up to join a local outfit, Trauma, an ideal fit for Cliff given their love of both musicality and theatre. At one point, they incorporated a scene into their show of a blonde virgin being sacrificed on an altar, with the band obscured by atmospheric dry ice. And through it all, he continued to hone his art as a bass player, practising, according to legend, for 4 or 6 hours a day.

It was at this point that Burton first came to the attention of Metallica. As already discussed on the Classic Metal Hawk blog, early Metallica bassist Ron McGovney was always seen as somewhat of a stop gap bass player due to his limited playing range and ability – the band placed at least as much value on his  car and credit card as his playing at the time. Lars Ulrich put out some early feelers in his metal network to see if anyone could suggest an upgrade.

Metallica Intro

Sure enough, Brian Slagel, the man behind the Metal Massacre compilation tape that gave Metallica their first real break, suggested they check out a Trauma gig.  From the off, Ulrich was transfixed, like ‘That is going to be out next bass player, end of story.’ It was an odd attraction in many ways. Here was Cliff Burton, sporting the bell-bottoms and hippy hair, about to be courted by a no-compromise metal act.

But Ulrich and Hetfield obviously saw plenty in him musically. He finger-picked the bass – a plectrum-free zone always being the sign of a bassist who knows their art – although someone like Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris with his machine-gun finger picking wasn’t a particular Cliff Burton influence. Burton had an almost unique ambition for his role a as bassist in a band – to play the bass in a style that emulated his guitar heroes – Hendrix, Schenker, Iommi. He used his playing style and dynamics to try and create that effect.

Anyway, Ulrich and Hetfield were blown away, and determined to tempt their new bass hero into Metallica – though that proved to be a bigger challenge than they’d imagined.  Not surprising if you think about it – Metallica were super ambitious, but had done next to nothing in the music business by that point, other than appearing on a mix tape with a hastily thrown together 4-track demo.

Ulrich and Hetfield could paint a picture, but that’s all it was at that point. In fact, it took them fully 4 months even to get Burton to jam with Metallica. He was interested – everyone could see the buzz that was forming around these LA upstarts – but he needed more persuasion, and certainly had no intention of upping sticks to move to LA for them. He was starting to tire of Trauma though – perhaps contaminated by too much LA exposure themselves, they were, in his view, becoming over-commercialized.

Moving to the Bay

In the end, Ulrich and Hetfield made the logistical problem go away by agreeing to move Metallica to San Francisco, lock, stock, and barrel. A risky move, sure, considering they were starting to make a few waves in LA. But on the other hand, McGovney had thrown them out of his house in LA, so they needed a new base. And anyway, LA was a bastion of commercialism, of glam rock, of big hair bands. Metallica were flying the flag for in-your-face authenticity and the emerging thrash genre. So maybe they’d get a bigger welcome for that in San Francisco, and get to hook up with their dream bassist into the bargain. It was a done deal.

The gamble paid off – the San Francisco metal scene welcomed them with open arms. No more the outcasts, as they had been in LA. They crashed at the house in El Cerrito of a local manager, Mark Whitaker, and immediately had a new HQ.

Burton also had an immediate impact. Finally jamming with Metallica in late 1982, he added a completely new dynamic to their songs. He educated them in different styles of music and introduced them to some music theory to plug into song writing efforts. They also clicked on a personal level. Cliff was on one side the laid-back hippy, but on the other a guy grounded in his own values who wouldn’t take a backward step from them. Don’t like my bell-bottoms? Screw you. It was the same with anything Burton held dear to his identity. Of all of them he was the ‘keeping it real’ member of the band, which maybe kept everyone’s feet on the ground, at least more that would have been the case without him.

First Metallica Show

3 months after that first jam, Burton performed his first show with Metallica, at The Stone in San Francisco, to a rapturous reception from the fans. The beefed-up bass compared to what McGovney had offered opened unbelievable possibilities. Cliff could extract an unbelievable array of sounds from his instrument. He played with all 10 fingers, to the point where Lars Ulrich – still at somewhat of a novice level himself as a drummer – struggled to keep up. Discussions turned excitedly towards the possibility of an album.

Cliff Has Arrived

Those early days in the run up to the release of the first album, ‘Kill Em All’ are documented in a different blog post. Flick over to their New York adventures here. The point for this story is that Cliff Burton had arrived. His start was already shining brightly – little did anyone know it would crash to earth like a spent meteorite only 4 years later.

Read part 2 of The Hawk’s Cliff Burton story here.

Head on to the end of the story if you want to read the whole thing before posting. Comments here are also welcome though – and what about that old Cliff video? The Hawk was speechless to stumble across it – Cliff really was destined for greatness, even if only for a short time.

Share your thoughts in the comments below, or send feedback direct to The Hawk.

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