September 27th marks a rather dark anniversary in the metal world, because on this day in 1986, we lost one of our greatest minds, former Metallica bassist Mr. Clifford Lee Burton. Although I never knew Mr. Burton personally (after all, he passed away before I was even born), his recordings with Metallica were the first legitimate metal songs I ever heard, and had they never existed, I wouldn’t be writing this column (and for that matter, would never have picked up a bass guitar). While this writer did bear witness to Metallica in San Antonio at the AT&T Center, the lucky ones were the ones who saw Metallica with Burton on the “Ride the Lightning” tour at the Cameo Theater downtown. The idea of witnessing Metallica in their purest form is enough to induce salivating in Metallica fans who were “born too late”, largely because of the idea of Cliff Burton’s presence on bass guitar.
One of Cliff’s biggest strengths as a musician was his diversity, and this appreciation for different styles (namely, classical music) showed up rather often in Metallica’s music. The most obvious example is “Orion“, from 1986’s “Master of Puppets”, an album that just about everyone who identifies themselves as a metal fan has owned in at least one point in their life. The bass solo at around the six-and-a-half minute mark is jaw-dropping, and a listen to the studio bass track shows the multiple overdubbings to enhance the feel of the solo. Furthermore, the mellow, high-end melody at the song’s midpoint is a far cry from, say, “Hit the Lights”, or “Trapped Under Ice”, but it’s an incredibly beautiful piece of music that compliments the harmonized guitar parts perfectly, and is instantly recognizable. While “thrashing like a maniac” is perfectly fine, it takes real talent to be able to slow things down and remain interesting, and even awe-inspiring.
There were so many bands who tried to experiment with more melodic sounds in the wake of “Master of Puppets”, and so many bands failed at capturing the essence of the gentler elements of that album, partially because they didn’t have minds like Cliff Burton at the helm. Although (as common knowledge dictates) Hetfield and Ulrich wrote the vast majority of Metallica’s material, Burton would contribute parts, and chances are, if you’re listening to an unexpectedly “trippy” moment on a Metallica record pre-”Justice”, it was Cliff’s doing, as heard in the intro to “Damage Inc.” Even on straightforward songs like “Seek and Destroy”, Cliff would still spice up the composition with unexpected fills and licks that, while difficult to hear at times, added another dimension to the songs in terms of texture and quite frankly, made them more interesting. However, while Cliff knew how to improvise and experiment, he also knew when not to improvise and simply go along with the guitars, as heard in much of Metallica’s (relatively) faster output.
It couldn’t be a Cliff Burton tribute without mentioning his magnum opus, “(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth”. Although the track begins with “bass solo, take one”, this was no improvised, spur-of-the-moment solo, but rather the result of years of different segments glued together to make an absolute masterpiece. A quick glance at videos from Burton’s early band, Trauma, shows sections from live solos that would turn up on “(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth”, as well as solos from Burton’s early days in Metallica. Oddly enough, the melodic tapping outro seems to be one of the first sections composed, with the other segments falling into place at a chronologically-later date. The intro brings Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear The Reaper” (surely one of Cliff’s favorite tracks by the group) to mind before going in to section after section of melodic composition. While a lesser man’s attempt at such a song would come out as a disjointed “riff salad”, Cliff ties every section in with every other section, and there are no random riff changes to be had throughout the song.
One of the most endearing traits about “(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth” is that it’s a legitimate song, not four mere minutes of self-indulgence that one might think of whenever they hear the phrase “four minute bass solo”. The melodies that make up the song could easily have lyrics, vocals or guitar parts put to them, but the fact that the bass in “(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth” stands on its own (with a little help from the drums) is nothing short of astounding, especially when one factors in Burton’s age when composing the track (roughly 21 at the time it was recording). Cliff would go on to produce several other works like “(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth”, and a quick glance at “The Call of Ktulu” and “Orion” showed that his creative energy wasn’t even close to being used up, which almost seems inhuman when one thinks about it.
For all the praise heaped on Cliff, however, calling him “the greatest” or “the best” seems as if it would contradict his humble nature. Cliff was never boastful or a braggart, and would reportedly get angry if you referred to him as a “rock star”. So instead, we will say that he was a brilliant musician who was stolen from us far before his time. No one knows where Metallica would end up had Cliff survived that tragic accident, but if one thing is for certain, it’s that they wouldn’t have gotten where they did without Cliff’s initial guidance and inspiration, whether it was by way of direct composition, or by sharing his knowledge in musical theory with the group to allow for a whole new level of songwriting. Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to go turn it up and blast some “Orion” to pay some tribute to this phenomenal musician, and I recommend you do the same.
For more info: If for some reason you don’t own at least one Burton-era Metallica album, you need to rectify that immediately by visiting any music store in the San Antonio area and picking up a copy of “Kill ‘Em All”, “Ride the Lightning”, and/or “Master of Puppets”. Also of interest to the Cliff Burton devotee, is “To Live Is To Die: The Life and Death of Metallica's Cliff Burton”, by Joel McIver, a biography written by a writer far more talented than I. The book is available at the Barnes and Noble at the La Cantera mall (and likely anywhere where music books are sold). Also, a thousand thanks to D.R.I.’s Harald Oimoen for contributing a (previously unpublished!) photo of Cliff Burton for this article.