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

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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 4 – The Aftermath

(Back to Part 3)

What we Know

As always, after a traumatic event, it can be difficult to separate the facts from the conjecture. James Hetfield later claimed that he’d smelled alcohol on the bus driver’s breath, but that was never proved, and anyway, he would have been breath tested on the roadside by the police.

On the other hand, the bus was subjected to a full mechanical inspection, with no defects found. The press photographer who turned up on the scene considered it ‘out of the question’ that there had been ice on the road in that area, and a report by the local newspaper in Ljungby concurred with that. The temperature was about 0˚ Celsius on the night.

Under questioning, the driver denied he fell asleep at the wheel, although the police thought that a plausible explanation based on their investigation. The driver claimed to have slept during the day so as to be fully rested for an overnight drive, something confirmed by the driver of the second bus. Nobody had thought anything untoward about the driving team up until that point.

The bus was British, with the band having started their Scandinavian trip in London, meaning it was a right-hand drive, built to travel on the left of the street as per the rules in the UK. But in Sweden, vehicles drive on the right. A sweeping bend would have left the driver with reduced line of sight as a result. Could that have been a factor?

And then there was the poor quality of the bus fit-out. The type of modern, purpose-built tour bus we see today has design features that would have mitigated against serious injury in a crash of this kind.

Chance played a role. Cliff drew the Ace of Spades to win the spot on that bunk that would kill him. A cruel twist of fate.

So, the investigators had plenty to chew over, and there were rumors for a time that manslaughter charges would follow. But in the end, with insufficient evidence of wrongdoing, no charges of any variety were ever filed. The driver was released from arrest and was free to pick up his career. He has not been named in any official accounts of the accident, something that some journalists covering the story seem to regard as suspicious – but again, it’s conjecture to try and draw conclusions.

Maybe he fell asleep at the wheel. Maybe the police did him a favour by not publishing his name in their report. Maybe none of the above.

All we have is an inconclusive police report, plus the cold hard conclusion from the medical examiner who autopsied Cliff Burton’s body. Cause of death: fatal chest compression with lung damage.

A Cliff-Shaped Void

The fallout from Cliff Burton’s death caused major ructions, for Metallica of course, but also across the heavy metal community.

Dave Mustaine was devastated – despite never having shared a stage with Burton as part of Metallica, he considered him a friend. Nobody from Metallica’s management called with the news, but their old manager, Jonny Z did. Mustaine followed his chosen path at the time for difficult situations – he hit the dope and sank into a deep depression. But the end result was a new song, ‘In My Darkest Hour,’ the most profound track to appear on Megadeth’s next album, probably one of their best ever.


Kerrang! Magazine produced a Cliff Burton Tribute edition, with many words covering Cliff’s life, his career, his values, his impact on those around him.

At a packed memorial service back in San Francisco, his favourite Metallica song, ‘Orion’ was played. His funeral a few days later was another coming together, his commemorative headstone adorned by these words:


The same words would appear in ‘To Live is To Die’, an ‘unofficial’ Cliff Burton tribute song that appeared on Metallica’s subsequent album, ‘And Justice for All.’

But the impact on Metallica themselves was to reverberate the loudest. As said, when Cliff Burton joined the band, there was a sudden infusion of energy and ambition, a feeling that the sky wasn’t even the limit. Now with Burton gone, all that can-do energy went with him.

As he himself had predicted only a week before his death, Metallica would carry on. That they did, kicking off a search for a new bassist immediately. But there was now a hole. Not just a bass-player sized hole, but a Cliff Burton sized hole. Such a space would, as it turned out, be impossible for anyone to fill, at least with the wound still so raw, as it would remain for years. That’s a story for another blog post.

Cliff Burton – 2 /10/1962 – 9/27/1986

Rest in Peace.

How did you react to the news of Cliff’s death all those years ago? Is The Hawk being melodramatic about him taking Metallica’s soul with him? After all, Newstead and Trujillo are both top quality players. It’s just that…

Well, look, share your own thoughts in the comments below, or send feedback direct to The Hawk.

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