The Day Metallica Died

September 28th, 2006 at 11:06 pm by Mark
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     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).


11 Responses to “The Day Metallica Died”

  1. Jon Says:

    Indeed, Cliff was a genius, we all mourn the loss of him.
    Just one tiny thing. That was Mustaine that called him the major rager 🙂

    nice blog!

  2. Scot Says:

    Just pointing out a couple of historical errors here…
    1: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 guitarist, Lloyd Grant.

    Hetfield played bass on this track, not Ron McGovney.

    2:Being “the major rager on the four string motherf#&$er,” — a quote delivered by Hetfield at an early stage show …

    Dave Mustaine actually said that, not James Hetfield. Hetfield had massive stage fright in the early days, and Mustaine supplied most of the between song stage banter.

  3. Mark Says:

    “Errors” … Or …

    While it’s true that James played Bass to Lars drums during their “garage” jams, this was before Ron “MaGubKnee” McGovney joined the band as the bass player. And yes, I have the album. I bought it new back when it was released. As a matter of fact, I have a whole studio demo with the original four, along with that horrid track…

    I also clearly remember Hetfield delivering the “major rager” line plenty, as he was the one who most always announced Cliff. Mustaine had some pretty severe anger issues, and rarely addressed the crowd. That said, however, in a 1983/4 clip (they were never sure) included on the 1987-released video, “Cliff ‘Em All,” Mustaine delivers the line, which may provide evidence for your misconception.

    I didn’t rely on websites and reference material for a single bit of that post… But certainly, after all of these years, my memory could be a little cloudy, too. *shrug*

  4. JB Flinn Says:

    Abso-fukn-lutely Man!!! I sooooo miss the psychedelic edge that was obviously all Burton. I fantasize about how different it all would of been if Hammett had gotten the Ace of Spades. Too sad:(

  5. Mark Says:

    I do hope you meant Ulrich.

  6. Metalfan Says:

    I disagree that Metallica was killed after Cliff’s death:

    When Jason came in 1986 he was a tallented bass player and a better singer than Cliff (just hear his Seek and Destroy and Whiplash versions!).
    The once bad thing was: Metallica didn’t let Jason speak or be creative.

    The Justice album was part of the hazing of Jason: no bass guitar. But still Justice is a verry raw metal album and one of their best (live for sure!)
    The Black Album I think wasn’t truly bad at all, considering the fact that they play the Black-tracks live faster and heavier. It was just a way to get Metallica to more people with turned-down songs like Enter Sandman.

    I think they wen’t just crazy when they saw all that money floating in and made Load and ReLoad (written in the same period). It was a huge mistake, but I do like “Untill it Sleeps”, “Fuel” and “The Memory Remains”.
    I think the Old Good Metallica died not in 1986, but in 1996 after Load and came back to live in 2007 with Death Magnetic.

  7. Dave Glynn Says:

    I totally agree with the premise of your post.

    I always felt that the album AJFA was the final spurt of dynamism created by Burton’s influence in Metallica.

    Soon after that James lost his fire and allowed Lars Ulrich to take over and live out his ugly and shallow fantasy of being a big rock star.
    With Burton gone the stage was set for Ulrich to dominate backstage proceedings and transform Metallica into a bland rock band forever living on the glory that Burton helped to create.

    It’s heartbreaking really, They surely would have written a few more classic metal albums with Cliff instead of the Bob Rock tripe of Enter Sandman and Load etc which displays NOTHING of the early Metallica spirit.

    Just look at how prolific they were in the 1980’s. 4 studio albums recorded in 5 years between 1983 and 1988. It took them the next 20 years to record the next 5 albums including Death Magnetic! What more proof does one need that the sting was taken out of their creative tail by Burton’s death?

    Burton helped Hetfield solidify, develop and focus his talent. I would have loved to see what Hetfield would have created in the years after MOP. Sure they would have changed over the years but not in the way that they did.

    I can clearly remember that Enter Sandman was a horrific SHOCK when it was released. The younger fans just don’t understand the impact of that at the time or just exactly how Metallica were perceived in the early days and the impact of Enter Sandman on that image.

  8. Michael Says:

    I’d like to point out that Guns n’ Roses are not a glam metal band. They may look like one, but their musical style is more blues-rock oriented. They were the deterrent to tools like Motley Crue, Poison, Warrant, etc. and got people chucking out their synth-pop records.

    Apart from that, a good post 🙂 Admittedly, I have only listened to the first four ‘tallica albums. :/ IMO, the first 3 kick ass, and being a huge fan of the bass guitar myself (I am hoping to learn someday) I always try to pick out Cliff’s bass playing when I listen. Call of Ktulu, Anaesthesia, Orion…awesome! But on AJFA, Jason Newsteds’ playing is almost non-existent and barely audible (Wtf?) and the song are less thrashy and not very exciting for me. But I will be checking out the Black Album soon…

    Btw, what do you now think of Death Magnetic? Is it any good? 🙂

  9. Mark Says:

    Guns? The way they acted wasn’t any different than the Bullet Boys or Badlands, or even Poison. Regardless of what people thought about their music, their style, or anything else, you’d still see those guys hitting on 15-year-old girls. That was Glam — all the glitz, and none of the tits. And it was wrong, but for some reason, it was accepted.

    I still say, Newsted was a *hell* of a bass player. Check out Flotsam & Jetsam, “Doomsday for the Deceiver” if you have any doubt. It’s like I said, “…And Justice for All” suffered due to the hazing process — mostly Lars and James, thanks to Lars in a larger part. And it never quite ended.

    To be honest, I haven’t even listened to Death Magnetic. The bullshit of “everything since” … ruined me on it. But, hey … Thanks for the comment. About time someone wrote something besides Abuse.

  10. Michael Says:

    Thank you Mark 🙂 Don’t worry, I wasn’t knocking Jason, its just that I find I have to listen really closely to catch the bass parts on AJFA. Thank you for referencing F & A, I heard he was on fire in that band, and I’ll be sure to check it out! And I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings, I wasn’t trying to be an annoying know-it-all. Sorry if I came off like that. I’ve checked out the Black Album, and although it isn’t my favourite ‘tallica release so far (that honour goes to Ride The Lightning, IMO!) it is still a rock solid album, IMO. Listening to Master of Puppets right now! Welcome Home (Sanitarium)! Although its very sad that Cliff is no longer with us:'( at least he went out on a high. Thank you for replying, Mark! Take care. 🙂

  11. Mark Says:

    Nah, ya didn’t. All good.

    My favorites on that album are still … Disposable Heroes and Damage, Inc. And yep — “Ride the Lightning” was definitely the best. 😉