Tags: cliff-burton, commercialism, death, metallica, music, napster, video
By 1986, I was a huge Metallica fan. I had all three albums, a bunch of imports and an impressive number of bootlegs that “don’t exist” — outside of someone’s degrading collection of cassette tapes, stuffed, caseless, into a shoebox and long forgotten under a bed or at the bottom of a closet that’s never opened until guests arrive.
And it was on this day, twenty years ago, that a friend of a friend called me to tell me that Metallica’s legendary bass player, Cliff Burton, had been killed in a bus accident the day before.
If you’re not familiar with Metallica save their more recent albums like St. Anger, you’d do well to give the old stuff a listen. To illustrate what sort of influence Cliff Burton was on the band, it’d be a good idea to grab the 1981 compilation album, “Metal Massacre,” which features a terrifyingly poor version of “Hit the Lights” with original bass player, Ron McGovney, and original guitarrist, Lloyd Grant. Grant was replaced early in 1982 by Dave Mustaine (of Megadeth fame). In 1983, however, Dave — who seemed to pay more attention to alcohol and drugs than music — was ousted as Kirk Hammett (from the thrash metal band Exodus) joined the crew .
Quiet, classically trained and immensely capable, Cliff brought an edginess and raw nerve to the band. Influences like Motorhead and the Misfits are very apparent on their first release album, “Kill ’em All” from 1983. Being “the major rager on the four string motherf#&$er,” — a quote delivered by Hetfield at an early stage show — Cliff grandstands his bass guitar talents on the track, Anaesthesia (Pulling Teeth).
Cliff was quick to realize that this was a group who could define the shape of things to come. As a visionary, he noted that each of the members were talented in their own right: Kirk Hammett was an impressive and established guitarrist and songwriter, Lars Ulrich was an exceptional drummer, and the vocalist of the band, James Hetfield, was a burgeoning poet.
Under his leadership, Metallica veered slightly off of their Thrash Metal path to release “Ride the Lightning” in 1984. This marked the beginning of Metallica’s signature accoustic guitar intros (the Segovia-influenced intro to Fight Fire with Fire), and melodic intrumentals (the brilliantly arranged Call of Ktulu, titled owing to Cliff’s love of H.P. Lovecraft).
Power Metal was born.
Building on that success and using a similar formula, the 1986 release of “Master of Puppets” catapulted the band into Billboard’s top fifty. This was no minor achievement, considering Metallica had gone completely without the radio airplay granted other artists in the Billboard list.
Tragically, Cliff was killed during the Damage, Inc. World Tour (named from of the last track from Puppets album, a track clearly showing Cliff’s bass talents) with Ozzy Osbourne. While in Sweden for the tour, their bus hit some ice, and he died in the ensuing malady (being thrown from the bus window, crushed, and crushed again during the attempted rescue effort).
Shortly after, the slot was filled by Jason Newsted of Flotsam & Jetsam. Although an accomplished bass player, Newsted couldn’t fill the shoes of Cliff. Unfortunately for him, the band would never let him forget it, either.
“Garage Days Re-Revisited” was released in 1987, followed by “…And Justice For All” in 1988, and featured some of the last riffs from Cliff.
While Garage Days — featuring covers of bands like Diamond Head, Misfits and Killing Joke — was a suitable ode to the influences of Cliff Burton through the prior years, Justice fell notably short. The band released their first Top 40 Single, One, and the rest is the more recent history of an altogether different band.
Without Cliff in the role of mentor, there was no one to temper the paranoia of James Hetfield, nor the ego of Lars Ulrich. Instead of the Metallica we all knew and loved, their self-titled album, also known as the Black Album, spawned multiple Top 40 hits. As the once iconic Metal legends became more mainstream and less distinguishable from other Metal bands, it was unsurprising to see them touring with popular glam rock band, Guns ‘n’ Roses, in the early 1990’s.
The downward spiral continued through the mid-to-late 90’s with the releases of Load and Reload, which spawned a new wave of marketing the like of which had not been seen since the Kiss campaigns in the 1970’s. From action figures to zippos, Metallica’s mainstream popularity put them on equal footing with “bubble gum” artists such as New Kids on the Block and Britney Spears.
With Lars at the helm, the mainstream, sold-out Metallica became a figurehead in the Recording Industry Association’s fight against the then-reveolutionary music sharing application, Napster. In multiple interviews, Ulrich’s egomaniacal viewpoints — especially his contention that content providers should be legally liable for anything that happens on their network instead of the user who is abusing the service — turned many fans away. The battle came to a head with Lars standing before a Senate Judiciary Committee in July of 2000, standing up for Intellectual Property and Copyright Laws during the RIAA’s bid to have Congress put more teeth into the Digital Millennium Act (DMCA). Fortunately, Camp Chaos was there to lambast the RIAA and poke fun at the entire situation.
Now with their fifth bass player, Robert Trujillo (a great guy, BTW — met him plenty of times), they’ve decided they’re not going to split like they had intended, but will probably release another bad album in the near future. Of course, this won’t be any fault of Trujillo — the man who’s played Bluegrass, Classical, Funk and Metal with the ease of a concert Bassist — but it’s inevitable, given Metallica’s radical shift into mainstream “teeny-bopper” Metal.
It’s unfortunate, really. Cliff Burton was responsible for so much of what was great about the early Metallica. Besides taking Cliff’s life, the tragic accident also took with it the power and creativity that made Metallica stand out from the crowd.
Rest in Peace, Cliff Burton (10-Feb-1962 to 27-Sep-1986).
And R.I.P Metallica (Oct-1981 – 27-Sep-1986).