Hendrix, Lennon, Presley, Cobain, Joplin, Van Zant, Allman, Jones, Scott, Bonham – –
All changed the world. All gone too soon.
Thousands of rock stars have died young, but for the names above, their deaths were enormous, paradigm-shifting tragedies, shots heard round the world, felt deeply by fans and non-fans alike for generations to follow. Most mainstream outlets and mundanes won’t include Cliff Burton in the same pantheon as Elvis or John Lennon, but his death has been every bit as impactful on music history. In his case, the headlines were not as high-profile or immediate, but its after-effects have reverberated for decades across the entire modern musical landscape. Simply put: Metallica have achieved levels of fame and influence to surpass or at least equal the artists mentioned above; they’re arguably the biggest band in the 21st Century world – – of any genre. Cliff wasn’t there for their days of supercelebrity, but he, along with Dave Mustaine, Lars Ulrich, James Hetfield, and Kirk Hammett, built the Metallica that would eventually rise and conquer the loud side of pop culture.
Cliff Burton’s approach to bass guitar was groundbreaking, innovative, inventive, skillful, strong, emotive, intelligent, and powerful, drawn from his own far-reaching, diverse influences. With his use of the wah pedal, distortion levels, chords, phrasings, fills and leads, he redefined the template for what Rock n’ Roll bass could be. While he’s influenced countless players across generations, no one since has ever sounded or played quite like him – – not even the talented bassists who’d follow in his own band. By all accounts, Cliff was also a thoughtful, gentle, intelligent soul, simultaneously possessed of a wild, ferocious, anger-fueled side. All of it came out in his songwriting, playing, and stage presence, earning him the nickname, “The Major Rager on the Four-String Motherfucker.”
September 27, 1986. Metallica’s tour bus skidded on black ice and lost control on a Swedish mountain road, causing the vehicle to crash. Cliff Burton was pinned underneath and killed instantly. He was 24 years old, in the prime of life and career. The pain and shock for his family, friends, bandmates, and – – to a lesser but still profound extent – – his fans, were beyond measure.
I recall the brief period of time when Metallica weren’t sure if they’d continue. There was an overwhelming sense of relief in Metal fandom, amidst our grief, when they held auditions and then announced Jason Newstead as Cliff’s replacement bassist. It was the beginning of a new era, but no one could know just how radically everything would change for the band and the Metal genre.
By most accounts, everything Metallica has done since September 1986 has, to some extent, been in reaction to Cliff Burton’s death. The Cliff’s Notes (no pun intended): after one more full-length in their original template (1988’s “. . . And Justice For All”), their 1990s albums contained shorter, more radio-friendly songs, they sold fazillions of records, played to the largest crowds on every continent, became as household a name as Tom Cruise, etc., etc. The band grew to become some kind of monster.
These changes – – plus the heightened media presence and MTV popularity, plus the legions of new fans and t-shirts – – turned a number of old-school supporters into detractors. But even in the backlash, no one could deny their pop culture ubiquity. Metallica are never not in the conversation – – including this article. From tormenting Jason to getting haircuts to the sound production on “St. Anger” to whatever happened on “Lulu,” their career decisions have been analyzed and debated ad nauseum in books, articles, and reddit screeds.
Cliff Burton played a crucial role in building the Metallica legend. Before conquering the mainstreams and mundanes, they were the kings of the late 80s Metal underground. Cliff may have missed their guyliner days, but he had his fleeting time on the throne of Thrash kings. He was there when Jon Zazula signed them to Megaforce, and subsequently when Michael Alago signed them to Elektra Records. He was one of the four horsemen on “Kill ‘Em All,” “Ride the Lightning,” and “Master of Puppets.” Even among the Metallica naysayers, Cliff’s mystique is unimpeachable. The love for him is universal. Countless bios, autobiographies, and histories of Heavy Music have sections dedicated to that fateful bus crash, and to the musical titan it claimed.
I don’t want to dwell on his death. I only wish to state this: Cliff Burton must be revered in the highest pantheon of our fallen Rock n’ Roll gods. He’s worthy.
I implore you to bask in the glory of his legacy. Listen to the brilliance of his playing in the concert and studio recordings. Immerse in the beauty of “Orion.” Bang your head to “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Am I Evil?,” “Creeping Death,“ “Battery.” Thrill to those Lovecraftian bass squelches in “The Call of Ktulu” and “The Thing That Should Not Be.” Be awed at the musicianship and ingenuity in “Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth).” Try to imagine how much lesser Metallica would have been with a pedestrian bassist involved, i.e.: someone just rumbling along in lockstep with the rhythm guitars.
Honor the Cliff Burton legend. We’ll not see his like again.
“When a man lies he murders some part of the world
These are the pale deaths which men miscall their lives
All this I cannot bear to witness any longer
Cannot the kingdom of salvation take me home?”
February 10, 1962 – September 27, 1986.
February 10 is now officially recognized as Cliff Burton Day in his hometown of Castro Valley, CA.
Jack Mangan is best known in the Metal world as the co-host of the popular Metal Hall of Fame and MetalAsylum.net livestreams with Rich Catino, but in this space, he’s also the lead author/project runner for the “Am I Evil?” graphic novel and a journalist with MetalAsylum.net and the official Metal Hall of Fame. In an adjacent life, he was a podcast pioneer, with numerous appearances on Technorama, Dragon Page, Escape Pod/Pseudopod, and many others, including his own productions: Jack Mangan’s Deadpan, and the Podcast novel, “Spherical Tomi.” Friend him on Facebook if you can find him, but be warned: he’s not great about checking Facebook Messenger.