Cliff Burton – How Metallica’s Soul Died With Him (3/4)

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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 3 – The Blackest Night

(Back to Part 2)

Hitting the road

The UK tour ended with a triumphant night at the iconic London Hammersmith Odeon. Time was short – only three nights later, Metallica were to perform in Sweden, and would be making the trip by road and ferry. But the proper priorities still had to be observed – after the gig, they signed merchandise for fans for over an hour, before partying until dawn, and only then boarding their bus for the ferry and then the road trip to Lund.

Cliff’s Final Music

Sweden was an important stop, a bona fide heavy metal country which had already racked up 45,000 sales of ‘Master of Puppets’. By the time they arrived, hangovers had cleared, a Hetfield wrist injury (the first of a few skateboard crashes over his career) had cleared up to the point he could relieve back-up guitarist John Marshall, and return Metallica to full strength on the stage.

Gigs in Lund, Oslo and Stockholm followed, with each one featuring the usual Cliff Burton bass solo as part of the show – for this part of the tour, he came up with his own version of ‘Star Spangled Banner’, moshing his way round the stage as he played. The right to perform these types of off-the-cuff sounding bass interludes at gigs had been a Burton condition for joining the band in the first place – no group he was a part of would ever confine their bass player to the shadows.

The Convoy

After Stockholm, though, there was no time to party, not even a hotel for the night – the very next evening, they were booked to play in Copenhagen and faced an overnight road trip, this time of over 650 km between the 2 cities. Everyone piled straight onto the tour buses and hit the road in a little convoy of 3 vehicles – 2 buses for the band and crew, and the equipment truck bringing up the rear by some distance.


In those days, many tour buses were somewhat rudimentary, and Metallica’s was no exception. A regular coach had had the back seats ripped out and replaced with bunks made of plywood with thin foam mattresses. Think prison levels of comfort, but without the same back-support. The band quarreled light-heartedly about who would get the best bunk by the window – Kirk Hammett and Cliff Burton eventually drawing cards to see who would claim it.

As usual, there was some dope smoking (Cliff) and boozing (everyone else) as everyone came down from the buzz of performing, but by about 2am, all was quiet.


The full facts of what happened next will likely never be completely known. But the basics are clear. On the E4, the main highway between Stockholm and Copenhagen, about three quarters of the way to its destination, the bus skidded, left the road and turned onto its side. None of the passengers were awake when the skid started, but everyone was instantly alerted by the lurching motion and the horrible noise of metal scraping the road and glass smashing. James Hetfield was scalded with coffee when the percolator overturned and hit him. Lars Ulrich suffered a broken toe. Those who could get out did so quickly, only to find the bus driver already running around shouting hysterically, the reality of what had happed starting to dawn.

Then, it crystallized into the full horror show – a moment that would stay with Hetfield forever. He saw Cliff Burton’s legs poking out from under the wreck – the rest of his body barely visible under the crumpled frame of the bus. In the force of the crash, he’d been thrown against the window, which had smashed. Half in and half out of the bus, Burton had been helpless as the bus turned over and crushed him.


Tempers quickly flared – aimed in the direction of the driver. He claimed to have hit black ice further up the road, which had caused the initial skid – the bus had overturned as he tried to regain control. Hetfield immediately set off up the road in nothing but his underwear to search for such an ice patch – finding nothing, he wanted to kill the driver where he stood. In the meantime, some crew members were still trapped in the wreckage.

The Swedish police showed up and tried to take control, whilst ambulances attended to the wounded. A crane was brought in to winch up the us, so that Cliff Burton’s body could be retrieved. The second Metallica bus arrived, the passengers reacting in horror to the unfolding scene. A major road, a few more passers-by stopped, including a doctor who helped tend the injuries, and a local newspaper photographer. The bus driver was arrested – a routine process whilst inquiries were made.

Eventually, everyone was driven to a local hotel in Ljungby to take stock, and maybe get some sleep. In the aftermath, it turned out that there were walking wounded and broken bones but other than Cliff Burton, nobody was seriously hurt.

Nobody’s supposed to die

The next few days went by in a daze. They hung out in the hotel – alcohol failed to numb the pain and bewilderment, but was tried in voluminous quantity anyway. Metallica’s manager, Peter Mensch arrived and took control, cancelling the tour and arranging travel for everyone to get home. They were soon on a flight from Copenhagen to San Francisco via New York’s JFK. And in the meantime, the awful news started to spread around the globe, as frantic attempts were made to ensure that friends and family didn’t hear about it first in the media. Cliff’s girlfriend was in San Francisco on the day of the crash at an REM gig that was cancelled because of bad weather. Unable to contact Cliff at his Copenhagen hotel, as arranged, she went to bed and only got the message the following evening. The metal community in the city was stunned as news filtered through. Nobody’s supposed to die in rock ‘n’ roll, right? Well now, somebody had.

Read Part 4 of the story here.

Head on to the end of the story if you want to read the whole thing before posting. Still, those Cliff bass solos were something, weren’t they?

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