Cliff Burton – How Metallica’s Soul Died With Him (2/4)

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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 2 – Cliff’s Metallica Masterpiece

(Back to Part 1)

Metallica or Slayer?

1986 was certainly a year to remember for metal heads, and thrash metal heads in particular. A heated debate kicked off – were you in the Metallica / ‘Master of Puppets’ camp, or were you a Slayer / ‘Reign in Blood’ person? (Obviously, there were plenty more notable thrash releases around that time, but these 2 were widely regarded as the pacesetters, and the lead representatives of 2 different styles – Slayer for their withering, brutal speed and intensity, Metallica for their more subtle approach, with tight riffing interspersed with melody and dynamic changes.

Ironically, despite being routinely labelled as a big-4 thrash band (Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax), Metallica regarded ‘Master of Puppets’ as the album where they started to make a break from the trash scene. They wanted to opt out decisively from the obsession with speed that characterized too many bands, and explore where else they might push their own brand of heavy metal.

It’s f***ed. So you’re the fastest bad in the world? So what? Your songs suck.

James Hetfield

Of course, one Cliff Burton was a major, if quiet influence in that direction setting. He was a  guy with musical education and a wide range of tastes – definitely not someone who joined up merely to play fast, and it showed. The attitude of Metallica as a whole made ‘Master of Puppets’ somewhat of a standout in the thrash mix – an orange in a sea of apples so to speak. That appealed to some fans more than others, hence the (somewhat contrived) Metallica / Slayer loyalty split. (Classic Metal Hawk loves both, and sees no earthly reason to choose one over the other.)


The most obvious Burton influence on the album is of course ‘Orion’, a lengthy instrumental with the bass to the fore. ‘Nine minutes of ever-changing, mind-provoking weird-and-wonderfulness,’ according to Lars Ulrich. It started as two Cliff-penned bass solos and a bass interlude around which the entire song was constructed. It was one of Burton’s favourites, and his writing credit was well earned.

On The Road Again

But anyway, the ‘Master of Puppets’ approach to thrash obviously had plenty of fans and was well received as the band set out on tour. (See also a breakdown of the title track on this blog). First they were support for Ozzy Osbourne, a major coup for them, playing with someone even they still saw as a living legend.  Then it was time to kick off a headlining European tour, starting in the UK. Cardiff, Bradford, Edinburgh, Birmingham – street metal performed in medium sized clubs. No frills, just in your face brutal performance.

The Awful Prophecy

And then, in a chilling glimpse into the future, Cliff Burton got into a chat with a journalist backstage at the Birmingham show about what would happen to Metallica if a band member should die. It was triggered by a discussion of Led Zeppelin, having stagged on into the 1980s until John Bonham’s death sealed their fate. Burton had no doubts – in that event, Metallica would have a drunken party to honour lost comrades, then get a replacement and carry on. Only a week later, that theory would be put to the ultimate test – Cliff Burton would be dead.

Read Part 3 of the story here.

Head on to the end of the story if you want to read the whole thing before posting. But feel free to stick around to comment here also – especially on the subject of ‘Orion’ – surely the best ever Metallica instrumental, and a shining example of what they lost musically when he died.

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

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