Cliff Burton was already a legend when I discovered Metallica. Not that I knew who he was at the time. And Justice For All was a brand new album and I was taking it all in through the ears and eyes of a 6th grade boy.
Vague, half-remembered memories remain of watching the “world premier” of the “One” video just days after first hearing Justice. There was a feeling that I was witnessing a historic moment. Turns out, I was.
Metallica had just released their first record without Cliff Burton. Sure, there had been the Garage Days EP. That collection of cover songs was merely a lighthearted diversion from the tragedy of losing a brother.
Without knowing their history, I innocently listened to the new Metallica album. It was dark. Angry. Complex. I soon learned the reason why.
Shortly thereafter, I learned of Cliff Burton. His name was ushered in hallowed overtones by the older guys in my neighborhood. Without fail, the story of Cliff’s death transformed them into solemn mourners. Only a few years had passed and the tragedy was still fresh. In this time, Cliff Burton had made the leap from rising star to heavy metal icon.
Metallica first encountered Cliff Burton playing on stage with the band Trauma. Even in his pre-Metallica days, Cliff would play his unaccompanied bass solo. It was loud, brilliant and mind-blowing.
In awe of his performance, Metallica asked Cliff to join their band. Burton agreed, but under the condition that they relocate to San Francisco. Metallica promptly moved to the Bay area. With Burton, they gained not only an unparalleled bassist, but a gifted composer that would help craft many of the band’s best songs.
As a child, I doubt I had the ear to focus on the bass. My reaction to Metallica was a response to the complete package. It was loud. Fast. Their music awoke something inside myself and inspired me to dig deeper within the thrash genre.
The visual element also wasn’t lost on me. The covers of those early Metallica records had great art, as did the t-shirts, patches and posters.
There was also the human element. The four musicians that comprised Metallica just looked cool. No rock star persona of frilly men in red spandex. Metallica were just guys in jeans and t-shirts…just like my friends and I.
The coolest guy was Cliff. Hands down. He was unique with his bell-bottoms and an oversize Rickenbacker that would have dwarfed my tiny frame. But Cliff commanded that beast of an instrument with authority. His approach was primal. It was no act, but merely the unleashing of an inner intensity.
The highlight of those early Metallica shows was Cliff’s bass solo. “Anesthesia: Pulling Teeth” had sounded great on Kill ‘Em All. In a live setting, the true ferocity of his wah driven madness came to life. It had all the trappings of an unaccompanied guitar solo. Tapping, distortion, and feedback, but executed with the thick tone that can only be writhed from a bass guitar.
Cliff’s flawless technique is obvious. Yet, he was also an accomplished musician with the ear to build intelligent bass lines. For a glimpse into Cliff Burton’s compositional strengths, look no further than “Orion.”
Cliff played a major role in the creation of this cerebral instrumental. His influence is clear from the bass-heavy lead-in, but his talents truly shine in the middle section. A gentle bass solo gives way to harmony guitars. It’s an agonizing glimpse into a compositional talent that would never be fully realized.
Thirty years have passed since Cliff Burton’s untimely death. We’ll never know the contributions that Cliff would have brought to a contemporary Metallica. Fortunately, we can take comfort in the legacy he leaves behind. Anytime you find yourself missing Cliff, simply throw a copy of Kill ‘Em All on the turntable. Say to yourself, “Bass Solo: Take One,” drop the needle, and remember the genius of Cliff Burton.