Cliff Burton’s Death and Metallica’s Commercial Popularity

Metallica’s Cliff Burton Died 25 Years Ago, September 27, 1986

In 1984, I already owned a 51 minute, soon to be thrash classic called Kill ‘Em All. So when I played a new cassette tape for my father and told him “this is the best heavy metal album I ever heard and one day this band will be acknowledged as great, although they will probably never be popular,” I was sure he would agree with me.

He agreed with one part- that they would never be popular and years later we would both be proven wrong. They did become very popular.  The band was Metallica and the cassette tape was Ride The Lightning.  My father couldn’t understand how I could listen to it.  Too fast, too loud, too much screaming. His hard rock tastes stopped somewhere between Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper.  Getting no radio airplay, Metallica was building a loyal following throughout the USA via relentless touring and word of mouth.

Master of Puppets, released in 1986 eventually ended up being a critical masterpiece and made a few music publications take notice of Metallica, although you still would never hear Metallica played on a radio station, except for the weekly heavy metal show after midnight. As far as print media, Metallica would never be mentioned in anything other than Kerrang! or Circus.

In 1986, Metallica secured the opening slot on Ozzy Osbourne’s tour and this would expose them to a worldwide audience and fan acclaim.

Just after the release of Master of Puppets I was offered the opportunity to interview Metallica for the radio station I was working at. I could pick any member of the band as they were all available. For some reason I thought Cliff Burton would be the most interesting interviewee, but my colleague insisted we interview lead singer James Hetfield. We interviewed James for a ten minute spot that ended up being un-airable as every sentence was peppered with four letter words. Don’t get me wrong, he was amiable, but here’s a twenty two year-old guitarist speaking about what was on his mind; which was that Metallica had not sold out as some fans were claiming! 

The decision to not interview Burton would disturb me later.  On Monday, September 29, 1986 I received a phone call, (it may have been someone from Concrete Management a hard rock marketing & management firm) to tell me that there had been an accident on September 27 in Sweden where Metallica were headlining their own tour and Cliff Burton was seriously injured.

That would turn out not to be the case. Cliff Burton was dead.

The tour bus Metallica was riding on went off the road, ejecting Burton from bus.  The bus then fell on top of Burton, killing him instantly.

It was a blip of a news story that made it on to MTV and a couple of radio stations.

It had major consequences not just to the band, but to hardcore fans like myself who saw a musical integrity in Metallica that was lacking in many other bands. After a period of grieving, Metallica quickly auditioned many musicians and recruited Jason Newsted from Flotsam and Jetsam to be the new bass player. Metallica was back on the road six weeks after the accident touring the world.

While Newsted replaced Burton as a bass player, he never replaced him as songwriter. The other members of Metallica never tapped into Newsted’s abilities, except on a rare occasion, to contribute songwriting for the band.

In this sense Cliff Burton was irreplaceable. Besides being a fan of many genres of music, Burton had classical compositional skills along with an interest in jazz. Metallica’s first album Kill ‘Em All was written before Burton joined the band and his writing contributions are not apparent, even if his playing skills are. Kill ‘Em All has more of a Dave Mustaine edge to it.  Guitarist Mustaine who was thrown out of Metallica just prior to the recording of Kill ‘Em All, wrote a fair portion of the album. After being dumped, Mustaine then formed his own band Megadeth, but his influence carries over to Metallica’s second album, Ride The Lightning, as he has a couple of songwriting credits.

But it is Burton’s influence that is most felt on Ride The Lightning and its successor album, the classic Master of Puppets.  Burton’s classically influenced song structures can be heard throughout the arrangements of most of the songs.

The result is both albums are musically well constructed similar to the way  a classical composer would write songs. They are heavy in the thrash department while maintaining a melodic undertone and drive. The albums  stand out in the crowded field of heavy metal dross.

I remember getting Master of Puppets before it was released and not expecting it to exceed Ride The Lightning. I put the needle on the vinyl and was blown away by the opening song Battery. The rest of Master of Puppets stood out as well – for originality and depth. Every song was a winner. The whole album was unlike any other heavy metal  album before it and possibly since.  Producer Fleming Rasmussen had an enormous impact on the final product. The entire band is in top form. But it is Burton’s participation in crafting the shape and sound of the songs on Master of Puppets that sets it apart from other albums.  That contribution cannot be underestimated.

Burton also played the role of the rebel in Metallica, never wanting to bend to commercial appeal. How much this influenced the rest of the band is debatable. It took until 1988, two years after Burton’s death for The New York Times music critic Jon Pareles to profile Metallica in a Times magazine piece, bringing them to the attention of the urban reader who didn’t know Majolica from Metallica. Also during MTV’s height of influence when videos were a key to insuring popularity and sales, Metallica had never made a music video until their fifth album was released in 1989, for the song One.

I’m sure it was easier for the band to collectively pursue this commercial appeal without Burton there. Metallica’s management company, Q-Prime, who also managed Def Leppard, Queensryche, Tesla and other hard rock bands, was pushing for this sort of publicity as they believed that Metallica could be acknowledged as one of the the greatest bands of all time –  if only the rest of the world knew who they were.

Burton contributed more than just integrity and musical genius, he grounded the band and was a solidifying force in maintaining camaraderie among its members.  His musical compass was pointed more towards thrash, as was Mustaine’s. With Burton gone Metallica began a shift towards commercial viability.

I lost my rabid interest in Metallica following And Justice For All. That did not stop me from owning all the Metallica albums since then, but I really think that their best work was pre-1987 with Mustaine and Burton contributing. I’ve always liked Dave Mustaine’s approach to songs and just think Megadeth has gone places musically that Metallica should have and could have gone.  It’s not like you have to choose one band over the other. I don’t understand the squabbles among fans of Metallica and fans of Megadeth, but that’s another story.

As of 2011 in North America, Metallica has sold over 61 million albums.  The question becomes, had Cliff Burton lived would Metallica have become one of the most well known, if not commercially successful bands in the world?

This is all conjecture but I believe they would have, because the talent they displayed with Burton would have solidified, and gone on through the Eighties, Nineties, and continued up until today. They delivered a great live performance with Burton and that would have continued to pick up fans and grow album sales.  The confidence in their song repertoire would have continued as well.

They would have achieved their success in a different way however, with fewer album sales, less radio airplay and harder / faster songs.  Metallica would still have gained a large international following and had a constant fan base. The nearest example for success I can think of in this fantasy based Cliff Burton post 1986 Metallica is Iron Maiden. For the past 25 years, Iron Maiden have had little US media exposure, yet still sell out arenas all over the world and sell millions of albums and band related merchandise while not being considered crass merchandisers by their fans.

The main thing that would have changed would have been a consistency in their recorded song output. The songs that Cliff Burton never got to write or be part of.

Click to listen to Metallica performing six days before Burton’s death at the Hammersmith Odeon in England. Ride the Lightning, Cliff’s Bass Solo and Whiplash.

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