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Why the Death of Cliff Burton Is One of the Biggest Losses for the Genre of Heavy Metal

Ara is a Journalism graduate from California State University Northridge who is always looking to explore his writing opportunities.

Clifford Lee "Cliff" Burton February 10, 1962 - September 27, 1986


How Did Cliff Burton Die?

One of the most tragic events in the history of heavy metal was the untimely death of former Metallica bassist Cliff Burton. As fans of Metallica know, Cliff Burton was taken from the world far too soon when the tour bus that he was in skidded on what was thought to be an icy road in Sweden. More specifically, the bus skidded off the road 12 miles north of the city of Ljungby in Sweden. Cliff Burton was thrown out of the bus and the bus is said to have fallen on top of him killing him instantly. So why is the death of Cliff Burton one of the biggest losses for the genre of heavy metal?

Reasons 1 and 2 For Why Cliff Burton's Death is a Big Loss

  1. His age: this one is obvious but Cliff Burton passed away at the very young age of 24 during the Master of Puppets European tour when he was thrown out of the band’s tour bus as the bus fell on top of him, killing him instantly. There is no telling what Cliff could have accomplished had he lived until the present time. He may have still been with Metallica though that statement is an assumption at best.
  2. Cliff Burton's mastery of the bass guitar on the song called "Anesthesia - Pulling Teeth".

Metallica On Behind the Music Explains How Cliff Burton Died


Cliff Burton Didn't Live Long Enough to Achieve His True Potential

Here is another reason why Cliff Burton’s death is one of the biggest losses in the heavy metal genre but most likely has not ever been talked about: Burton’s mother Jan said it very simply in an interview on a Metallica fan site when she said: “He said to a couple of people, "I’m gonna be the best bassist for my brother,” (Ham, 2018). Cliff was a GREAT bassist but he never lived long enough to be able to showcase his talents to the fullest extent. 24 years of life goes by in the blink of an eye and his death remains one of the biggest losses in heavy metal to this day. Cliff’s older brother Scott died of a brain aneurysm in 1975 when he was just 16. Scott’s death motivated Cliff who was said to have started practicing for hours at a time and that’s how you really master a musical instrument.

Cliff Burton At an Interview With James Hetfield

Cliff Burton's Bass Guitar Work On Songs Such as Orion or The Call of Ktulu

His performances on songs such as "Orion" and "The Call of Ktulu" will always live on in my mind as two of his best musical performances ever. The eerie sounding start to this instrumental plus the progressive acoustic part sets the tone as the heaviness builds and the sound of the bass can be heard and Cliff does the rest. Ham mentions that “Nothing that happened after that, from the megaton success of “The Black Album” to the cringeworthy behavior on display in the documentary Some Kind of Monster would have occurred were it not for Burton’s death. Again: for good and for ill,” (Ham, 2018). Is this really the case? Metallica may have still continued to produce and write thrash metal that they did in the 1980’s had Cliff Burton lived but as was said before, this can be nothing more than speculation.

The Last Bass Solo Ever Played by Cliff Burton

The Scene Where Cliff Burton Died

Cliff Burton Describes Metallica's Future Plans

Further Perspective On the Influence and Death of Cliff Burton

As we are now past what is a very grim anniversary, we look back at the life of such a talented man that was cut so short due to tragedy and it is important to get some kind of outside perspective of the influence of Cliff Burton. Bobby Schneider who became Metallica’s tour manager in 1985 said that “Cliff was the backbone. Cliff was the guy who everybody looked to. If there was something Cliff wasn’t gonna like, it wasn’t gonna happen.”[1] This is quite a bold statement considering that Metallica was founded by James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich with Cliff Burton joining the band a little later. But this speaks to the influence that Cliff had in the band. His death still remains a huge loss for the heavy metal genre because he personified a level of creativity and excellence that even many musicians of his time probably could not match.

Since the death of Cliff Burton is indeed one of the major tragedies in the history of the heavy metal genre, it is necessary to include perspectives from the people that really knew Cliff Burton. One of those people is Scott Ian of the band Anthrax who discusses what happened during that European tour as well as the days after that tragic death in his autobiography called I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax. Loudwire contributor Jon Wiederhorn co-authored that autobiography. Scott Ian in that autobiography mentions how shocked he was to find out about Burton’s death from his tour manager Mark. Ian says: “I had never heard of anything like that before, I’d never ever heard of any band’s bus ever crashing let alone killing a member. It seemed completely unreal.”[2] This extra section might as well be reason #5 for why the death of Cliff Burton is one of the biggest losses for heavy metal. So many bands travel by tour bus in different countries and this sort of incident rarely occurs actually because if it did we would be hearing about these kinds of deaths a lot more than we do. Also, to add further to Scott Ian’s point that when you are in this sort of tour bubble being in a band you feel as if you are invincible. Rock musicians are often seen as these guys that are indestructible but like all of us they are human and they are vulnerable to injury and or death.


[2] Taken from Loudwire.com “34 Years Ago: Metallica Bassist Cliff Burton Dies In Tragic Bus Crash,” Jon Wiederhorn, September 27, 2020, https://loudwire.com/metallica-cliff-burton-dies-in-bus-crash-anniversary/

[1] Taken from Classic Rock Magazine “Cliff Burton: the story of the ultimate metalhead,” Mick Wall, November 26, 2019, https://www.loudersound.com/features/cliff-burton-the-story-of-the-ultimate-metalhead


Ham, R. (2018, September 27). 32 Years After His Death, The Legend of Metallica’s Cliff Burton Lives On. Retrieved January 27, 2019, from Consequence of Sound: https://consequenceofsound.net/2018/09/cliff-burton-death-anniversary/

Wall, Mick. (2019, November 26). Cliff Burton: the story of the ultimate metalhead. Retrieved September 14, 2020 from Classic Rock Magazine: https://www.loudersound.com/features/cliff-burton-the-story-of-the-ultimate-metalhead

Wiederhorn, Jon. (2020 September 27). 34 Years Ago: Metallica Bassist Cliff Burton Dies In Tragic Bus Crash. Retrieved January 8, 2021 from Loudwire.com: https://loudwire.com/metallica-cliff-burton-dies-in-bus-crash-anniversary/

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2019 Ara Vahanian

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