On September 27, 1986, on an icy road in southern Sweden, a bus accident tragically took the life of Metallica bassist Cliff Burton, one of the brightest young stars in the world of heavy metal and music at large.
Now, 29 years to the day of his death, Cliff Burton is still one of the most revered musicians to ever have played hard rock and metal music, and his legend looms larger than ever.
Born in Castro Valley, California, in February of 1962, Burton took to piano lessons and started a lifelong love of classical music. Cliff picked up the bass guitar in his teens, after his older brother, Scott, died, and his parents said that Burton insisted that he would be “the best bassist” in the world in Scott’s memory. After that, Cliff practiced up to six hours every day on his bass, a habit he would continue for the rest of his life.
In high school, Cliff started a band called EZ Street, (a name stolen from a topless bar in the San Francisco Bay area) along with Jim Martin on guitar and Mike Bordin on drums. (Martin and Bordin would eventually go on to form Faith No More).
After high-school, Burton and Martin went to school together at Chabot College in Hayward, California. While there, the two continued to work on music together in a band called Agents of Misfortune.
In 1982, at the age of 20, Cliff joined his first professional band, Trauma. The group released one track which Burton is featured on (“Such a Shame”) on a Metal Massacre compilation. However, Trauma is probably best remembered for a gig they played at the Whiskey-a-Go-Go in Los Angeles in late 1982.
Two men in the audience at that gig would change Cliff Burton’s life, as he would theirs. James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich watched in awe as Burton magically raged through song after song, his fingers assaulting the strings, his mop of red hair rolling and banging in time with the distorted notes he was playing.
Hetfield and Ulrich looked at each other astonished, realizing that they absolutely had to have Burton in their fledgling band, Metallica. The two approached Cliff and offered him the role of bassist. Burton is said to have thought that Trauma was “getting a little commercial,” and agreed to join Metallica, on one condition: the band had to move out of L.A. and up to San Francisco.
Hetfield and Ulrich jumped at the chance to escape to the north, and the core of what would become the biggest metal act in the world was formed.
What happened next is the stuff of legend. The “No Life til Leather” demo; signing with Johnny Z in New York; the firing of Dave Mustaine and the hiring of Kirk Hammett; the release of Kill ’em All; the release of Ride the Lightning; and the tour for Master of Puppets, where the band got the chance to open for Ozzy Osborne.
Burton, Hetfield, Ulrich, and Hammett were on top of the world. They single-handedly ruled the metal world with little to no radio airplay.
And then everything changed on September 27, 1986.
The band was traveling by bus on the European leg of the Damaged Inc. tour. At approximately seven in the morning, the band members were asleep when the bus went off the road. Cliff was killed instantly in the accident.
The driver of the bus claimed that he’d hit a patch of black ice, however, according to James Hetfield and a later investigation, the road was dry and there was no ice on the road. Despite this, the accident was found by the investigation to be just that, and no charges were filed against the driver.
The remaining members of Metallica mourned the death of Cliff Burton for decades following that fateful day in typical metal fashion. The band drank copious amounts of alcohol. It could be said that the band, especially James Hetifield, only came to grips with Burton’s death in the early 2000s, when the band was forced to endure a therapist in their midst and Hetfield finally went to rehab.
The legend of Cliff Burton will be forever intertwined with the story of Metallica. In 2009, Cliff was posthumously inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with the rest of Metallica. His father, Ray Burton, accepted the honor for him.
[Photo via Classic Rock Stars Birthdays]