Metallica: 12 things you might not know about Cliff Burton

A little primer knowledge on Metallica’s legendary late bassist, Cliff Burton…

Metallica: 12 things you might not know about Cliff Burton
Ian Winwood

Sadly, the world never got to witness the full potential Cliff Burton had to offer, but even in the 24 years he was with us before his life was cut cruelly short by that tragic road accident in Sweden on September 27, 1986, the bassist left behind a legacy that few could touch.

It's a legacy that has been well documented through the years. But did you know the following tidbits?

Let's dive on in…

1He was a clever child

Clifford Lee Burton was born in Castro Valley, California, on February 10, 1962. The third child of Jan and Ray Burton, the young Cliff was a loner who preferred reading and music to playing outside. But he was a precocious child: age eight, he had the reading age of students eight years his senior.

2He was spurred by tragic circumstances

Cliff’s elder brother, Scott, died of a cerebral aneurism at age 16. Following this personal tragedy, the 13-year-old began practicing the bass for up to six hours a day. “He said to a couple of people, ‘I’m going to be the best bassist [I can be] for my brother,’” recalled Jan Burton.

3His talents were obvious from the off

…as were those in his first band, who went by the not wholly encouraging name EZ Street. Despite the lousy handle, the group was quite the breeding ground for future talent, featuring Jim Martin on guitar and Mike ‘Puffy’ Bordin as an occasional stand-in drummer, both of whom would go on to form Faith No More.

4He was essentially headhunted for Metallica

James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich first laid eyes on Cliff Burton in November 1982 at the Whisky A Go Go club on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, where the bassist was playing with his band Trauma. “We both looked at one another and said, ‘Dude, we have to get this guy in Metallica,’” said Lars. “I’d never seen anybody like him – his look, his mannerisms, his whole vibe. After we swapped numbers, I started going to work on him immediately.”

5He was instrumental in their relocation

One condition Cliff had for joining Metallica was the rest of the group relocate from Los Angeles to the San Francisco Bay Area. Not that the band minded, as they already begun to gain a fanbase from playing shows in Northern California. But “LA wasn’t showing us a lot of love,” remembered James, so no problem.

6He was the exception to Dave Mustaine’s bass rule

Dave Mustaine’s very high opinion of Cliff Burton (the song In My Darkest Hour was written in his honour) stands in stark contrast to his overall view of metal bass players. “The bass isn’t a difficult instrument to play,” he said. “It’s one step up from the kazoo, isn’t it?”

7He was wrongfully arrested while in London

On Metallica’s first visit to the UK, Cliff was approached by two cops at Tottenham Court Road tube station. “If we were to search you right now, would we find any drugs?” they asked. Despite being told no, the musician was arrested for suspected possession of a controlled substance and taken to Albany Street police station. And what was this controlled substance? It was the bassist’s phlegm expectorant. He was promptly released without charge, and with an apology from the desk sergeant.

8He carried a specific tool with him everywhere

Many musicians travel with something they never leave home without. For Cliff, this item was a hammer. You read that right. As the bassist explained to a customs officer at the French border, “Hey, you never know when you might need it.”

9He took no shit from anyone

Forty-eight hours prior to the first day of recording Master Of Puppets, in 1985 Metallica appeared at the Oakland Coliseum as part of that summer’s Day On The Green festival. Playing on a bill that included the Scorpions, Ratt, Y&T, Yngwie Malmsteen’s Rising Force, and Victory, the San Francisco quartet’s afternoon set is regarded as one of the most important of their young career. Backstage, though, not everything was quite sweetness and light. Former Kerrang! journalist Malcolm Dome remembers Cliff saying to Lars, “One more word from you and I’m gonna fucking punch you.” In the crowd that day was Mike Dirnt from Green Day, and Machine Head’s Robb Flynn.

10He didn’t enjoy being away from home

Recording Master Of Puppets at Sweet Silence Studios in Copenhagen, Cliff and guitarist Kirk Hammett would often find themselves at a loose end. They would kill the time by playing poker, swearing at Danes, or eating oysters at a favourite seafood restaurant. But as the Scandinavian winter began to bite, the bassist left Denmark early and flew home to the Bay Area. “Cliff was the biggest homebody of the four of us,” remarked Lars Ulrich.

11Things could have been so different…

On the night of the bus crash in which Cliff Burton would die, he and Kirk drew cards in order to decide which of them would sleep in the one bunk fitted with a window. “The first card Cliff picked was the ace of spades, and he looked at me and said, ‘I want your bunk,’” recalled the guitarist. “And I said, ‘Fine, take my bunk, I’ll sleep up front, that’s probably better anyway.’” Hours later, Cliff was thrown through his bunk’s window and crushed to death by the bus on which he and the band were travelling.

12He was great with kids

Cliff’s funeral took place on September 27, 1986 at the Chapel of the Valley in Castro Valley. One of the pieces of music played that day was Orion, featuring Cliff’s most famous bassline. A two-page spread in Kerrang! from Jonny and Marsha Zazula, the group’s former managers, read ‘The Ultimate Musician, The Ultimate Headbanger, The Ultimate Loss, A Friend Forever’. When the band stayed with the Zazulas, in New Jersey in 1983, the bassist would help put their young daughter, Rikki Lee, to bed before reading her a bedtime story.

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