Today, February 10, would have been the 52nd birthday of bass player Cliff Burton, whose “lead passages” on his instrument helped propel Metallica into a hard-crunching, heavy metal ensemble, and started them on the road to the mammoth success they would eventually have as the 1980s wore on and beyond. Burton, who had made a huge impact and looming presence on the band’s first three albums, died on September 27, 1986, in Sweden, when Metallica’s tour bus flipped over in an accident, killing him at the young age of 24.
The legacy of Cliff Burton still remains more than just a footnote in the Metallica history, it also remains a firm notch in the formative years of the band. Like Duane Allman, the ill-fated guitarist from The Allman Brothers, who also died tragically at the age of 24 and who also left a huge indelible mark on music history, Cliff Burton’s short time on this planet will always be remembered for helping Metallica steer their ship in the right direction, setting sail in the heavy metal/thrash metal genre and then in his death, casting them off to chart areas of success which elevated them into becoming one of the biggest bands of all time, transcending the genre while doing so.
He was born in 1962, in Castrol Valley, CA, and took up the bass at age 13 after his brother had died, exclaiming to his parents that he was going to become the best bassist for him. Influenced by mighty hard rock and metal musicians such as Geezer Butler (Black Sabbath), Phil Lynott (Thin Lizzy), and Geddy Lee (Rush), Burton played with a nimble sprinted, Doc Marten heavy boot approach, a soaring confidence in which enabled him to propel the bass from a bottom end instrument to one that sometimes was right in the forefront on many of Metallica’s songs. The centerpiece of such is arguably “(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth” (from Kill ‘Em All, the band’s debut release), in which Burton acts as a bass virtuoso at the beginning of the track, showing off his wild prowess (by way of a wah-wah pedal among other fanciful sonic techniques), before the song comes to a crashing head when the metal sheets of sound drum attack from Lars Ulrich comes in midway through the tune. Other highlights are his muscular intro on the song “For Whom The Bell Tolls” and his upfront approach on “The Call of Ktulu,” both on Metallica’s second album, Ride the Lightning.
By the third album, Master of Puppets (which was their first on a major label, Elektra), the band was primed and on the precipice for superstardom. Consistent touring (including opening for Ozzy Osbourne), word of mouth, and just the intrinsic individual and collective talents of the band saw the success grow with each subsequent move they made. Confirmed with the release of Master of Puppets, which became a smash hit, it all seemed like the hard work was finally going to pay off for the band. It marked the end of an era and the bridge to the dawning of a new one, when Burton was killed in the bus accident.
Replaced by Jason Newsted, who was then subsequently replaced by Robert Trujillo, Metallica did indeed become one of the most successful bands in music history, both sales wise and in adoration and fan base. But the memory and heritage of Cliff Burton will always remain, if anything, for just how much of a craftsman the young bass player was in helping shape the sounds and destiny the group was to follow and continues to do so contemporarily (even though arguably they are a rather different band in today’s musical climate than they were 30 years ago during the peaks they had with the chemistry of Burton’s involvements).
In the years since his passing, many tributes were written for him, in print and in song: Megadeth’s “In My Darkest Hour” was penned with him in mind and thrash kings Anthrax and Metal Church both dedicated albums to him as well, Among the Living and The Dark respectively. Burton was also posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, as a member of Metallica when the band got in on April 4, 2009. Burton’s father Ray was there to accept the induction, touchingly and poignantly telling the gathered crowed at the ceremony that Cliff’s mother still remained his “biggest fan.”
In recent news about Burton, at this January’s NAMM event in Anaheim, California, an Aria Pro II Cliff Burton Signature Bass was officially launched. The instrument was a year in the making and it was fully authorized by Burton’s family and has been painstakingly etched and rendered to resemble and sound like the original, genuine article the bassist used and played when he made his mark on the world with Metallica.
So get out your old vinyl copies today of those first three Metallica albums, when the band really had its grandiose poisonous, venomous bite and sonic blitzkrieg to them, and when played at its highest volumes, could clean out all ear canals and rattle one’s teeth; when music of this genre was still hungry and still mattered, still had a full horizon to explore, and still had the whole world at its feet and knew no limits. Descriptions which are much like the man who was a paramount force in sculpting that genre, the late, great, Cliff Burton.