It’s 1986, you have just released an album that is kicking ass commercially, you’re signed to a major label, you are one of the most favoured acts in metal, and you haven’t even hit your mid-twenties.
Sounds pretty sweet, right?
You would think at a time like that, nothing can bring you down. You are invincible, both emotionally and physically. That was once the reality for the future kings of thrash, the band that is listed as one of the ‘big four’ – Metallica.
This sense of invincibility came to an unfortunate halt when something considered as a standard part of touring went horribly wrong.
Something that would forever leave a mark on many metal heads everywhere.
“It was a night like most of the rest of them on that tour. Play the show, hang out, drink and stumble out of the bus.”
On September 26th 1986, Metallica were in Sweden travelling to Denmark for a show. Although touring can be stressful and tiring, the whole experience pays off as it is meant to be fun and full of music. This particular night was like every other.
The boys were hanging out, resting up, and having fun while in-transit to the next country. A deck of cards between them served as the decider as to who would be sleeping in which bunk for that night. Little did they know, those cards would decide who would survive and whose unforeseen death would become a painful reality.
Bassist Cliff Burton drew an Ace of Spades, resulting in him ‘winning’ the bunk initially occupied by guitarist Kirk Hammett. Hammett obliged and settled for sleeping up front.
In the early hours of September 27th, drummer Lars Ulrich recalls being woken by “loud noises” similar to an earthquake. The back wheels began jumping as the bus flipped and started rolling. “I thought we were going off a cliff,” reflects Hammett. Eventually the bus was stationary and laying on its side. Singer, James Hetfield, kicked the back window to climb out.
— Johan Ylitalo (@JohanYlitalo) September 26, 2016
Hammett could hear screaming and crying but he could not hear Burton’s voice. Everyone eventually managed to free themselves from the bus, standing outside wearing underwear in 15-degree weather wondering about the presence of the very young and talented bass player. Cliff Burton’s feet were sticking out from underneath the bus, there was no movement. Hetfield and onlookers describe the vision as one that will forever be burned in their minds.
All other members walked away free of any harsh physical wounds, minus Ulrich who received treatment for a broken toe, but the emotional wounds were ones that would scar for life. Before the accident, thrash metal band Anthrax had another 27 shows in Europe scheduled with Metallica. In his book, Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian mentions that he was in complete denial when the promoter broke the news of Burton’s passing.
Later that night, the two bands all sat in a hotel room commiserating together. Hammett and Hetfield retold the story of the horrific event that happened that morning. Hetfield was in such a severe state of distress, doctors prescribed him sedatives to help him sleep. Struggling to sleep, he continued drinking anything that was in reach. Suddenly, he broke down crying and screaming Burton’s name, “kicking lamps and throwing bottles of booze”. Frankie Bello and Charlie Benante of Anthrax escorted Hetfield out of the hotel and down the street. Fans surrounded the hotel to show support and grieve the death of Cliff Burton. This loss very quickly, and deeply, touched many.
Days later members of Metallica and Anthrax sat in Kirk Hammett’s house reminiscing about Cliff Burton. Jokes were told in an attempt to keep the tone as light as possible. They all drank and shared stories about Burton, an experience described to feel quite “surreal”.
Often seen in old footage wearing double denim on stage and head banging his long locks to Metallica’s fast paced thrashy riffs, Cliff Burton still reigns as an iconic bass player. Only 24 years old and he had perfected the ‘lead bass’ style of playing. Burton knew exactly when to sit back and let his playing add a thumping bottom end, but he also knew how to execute signature bass riffs. He will be remembered by his talent and his innovative contribution to Metallica’s music and songwriting.
— Kaden Zook (@kadenzook45) September 27, 2016
Metallica’s ‘Orion’ was played at Cliff Burton’s ceremony and is a song that pays tribute to him especially due to the notable bass interlude and solo; while lyrics from ‘To Live is To Die’ are engraved on his memorial stone. Dave Mustaine (Megadeth) wrote ‘In My Darkest Hour’ after hearing about Burton’s death, and Anthrax’s album Among The Living is dedicated to Burton. Fans have been known to remember Burton by viewing ‘Cliff ‘Em All’, a compilation of his performances, or visiting his memorial site.
In 2009, Cliff Burton was inducted into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Metallica. Burton’s very premature and unexpected passing hit Metallica, other musicians, and fans right in the heart.
Regardless of how early he may have been taken, 30 years on people are still paying tribute to this young talent. Vale Cliff Burton.
I am a bass-thundering and word-writing lover of music; especially of tunes with an old school rock and metal feel (I'll even throw in a bit of 70's disco while we are at it, can't forget about a good groove!). I spend most of my time either playing music, or writing about music. Find me on Instagram @jacintajacintajacintaView all posts by Jacinta Jaye