Cliff Burton was so much more than just Metallica's bass player. He was also the bell-bottomed embodiment of their early, no-fucks-given attitude. He was the Major Rager with the hammer in hand, who gave Kill 'Em All its title and inspired its brutal cover art. He was the classically trained musician who helped open up his bandmates' horizons far beyond NWOBHM. Oh yeah, and as far as bass playing goes, he was arguably the greatest in heavy-metal history. Below, Lars Ulrich remembers him.
What do you remember about the first time you saw Cliff?
LARS ULRICH I had just never really seen anything quite like it. It was just unique and so original. And there was just this incredible stage presence and this uniqueness to the whole vibe. I had just never seen anything like it. It was new, it was different. And obviously you could tell there was an incredible ability, and there was a stage presence, and all this type of stuff wrapped up in this incredible type of personality. And I think we were a little intimidated by him in the beginning because he was just so unique. But then as we got to know him a little bit, and I sort of started courting him to try and jump ship [from his band Trauma], then I started realizing he was a pretty chill dude. But he was also pretty firm on the fact that L.A. was not for him. 'Cause me and James were trying to get him to come down to L.A., and he just wasn't into that. He was really rooted up here [near San Francisco], he really was a kind of a Northern California ... almost a hillbilly like. I mean, there's a lot of different vibes up here, and there's definitely a kind of unique vibe in Castro Valley and Hayward and stuff. And he was a real, really rooted where it came from. And he was probably, certainly speaking for myself, I was much more of a gypsy. When we traveled and stuff like that, he was the first guy to want to go home. And he was the one who was probably at the strongest of roots of all of us. He had family and kind of a history. Me and James were more loners.
He seems like he was laidback.
He didn't hurt people. He didn't cross the line, but he was certainly always up for being part of stirring some shit up. But more like a rascal point of view then someone who was out to hurt people. So it was more fun and games. He would fake fight or whatever, throw some kind of fake punches, but he would never throw any real punches. I don't think I ever saw Cliff in a fight. I don't think I ever saw Cliff get into heated exchanges or anything. I mean, he was a pretty chill guy. And it never got nasty or unpleasant.
What are your fondest memories of him?
My fondest memories of Cliff are his total disregard for convention and his total disregard for playing things out the way you expected them. He was up to challenge the normalcy, to challenge the status quo, to just fuck with things musically, attitude-wise — the way he dressed, the way he carried himself, his sense of humor, his relationship with the music that inspired him, the music that he played. It was always very unconventional, and it was very unusual. You could certainly argue that me and James [Hetfield] at that time were more kind of the squarer guys, 'cause we were more like, "Motörhead, Iron Maiden!" Heavy-metal T-shirts, and long hair and bang our heads into the wall. Cliff was just so fast in his palette of things that he was into and things that were inspiring him and the things that he was doing. So it was definitely his music, and his attitude, and his approach towards life that really inspired me and James to broaden our horizons, broaden Metallica's horizons musically. So when I think of Cliff, that's what I think … that's just kind of variety and unpredictability, you know.
What are some of the bands he turned you on to?
First of all, he was classically trained and really knew his way around classical music. He actually studied classical music at college. So he's sitting there talking about Johann Sebastian Bach, talking about some of these kind of cool classical things. And I had heard some of these words thrown around when Richie Blackmore was talking about his influences, but it was not something I had ever been exposed to. Then he was also really … you know, this whole Southern thing. I mean, obviously I was aware of Skynyrd and had an appreciation for some of their heavier moments. But he was so immersed in Skynyrd and .38 Special and ZZ Top and the Allman Brothers and all of these things that kind of came in the wake of that Black Oak Arkansas. And the Outlaws and all that stuff, there was a whole kind of thing there. He was also really into a lot of kind of progressive stuff like Yes, and Peter Gabriel, and a lot of f prog rock. And he was a hardcore Rush fanatic. Certainly I had an appreciation of Rush, but not to the level that he did. So there was a whole kind of array of things. When I met Cliff in '81, I had been through a lot of different musical experiences myself. But at that time, the things that were inspiring me to play music and so on were … I can't say that Lynyrd Skynyrd was a particularly big inspiration for me to start playing drums. It was much more narrow. Iron Maiden and Deep Purple and Judas Priest and Diamond Head and Angel Witch, and the stories been told a thousand times. And the New Wave of British Heavy Metal stuff, and Cliff was just so wide in his scope. I played him Diamond Head. He liked some of their stuff, he liked some of Iron Maiden's energy. He liked Witchfinder General, some of that stuff. But he also, he was a little more selective in what he liked, where me and James were more sort of like, Dude, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, it rocks! Where some of it you can argue 20, 30 years later was not as good some of the other stuff. There were hit and misses in there. But Cliff was sort of into Peter Gabriel, the Police. Some of the stuff, I mean, it wasn't the enemy because I was aware of the fact that there was musical integrity there. But I can't tell you I knew much about what the Police were doing other then five songs I'd heard on the radio. But all of the sudden, in between the Diamond Head tapes and the Iron Maiden tapes being played on the tour buses and in the shitty vans, the fuckin' Police album Zenyattà Mondatta would come on. Or what was that Yes album? 90125 or whatever. Some of that stuff would come on. It would just be nice. He loved to play some early ZZ Top. I just didn't really know my way around Tres Hombres or the rest of those albums until Cliff started pounding them in our direction.
What do you think of him when you look back at it all now?
He was really cool. It was, obviously other than losing a brother, it would've been the more … I would've been interested to see what else he could've contributed, because it felt like we were just getting started. We just started playing "Orion" again on the last run, in the last two weeks [when Metallica were preparing for the Big Four concert in April]. So playing "Orion," I think we played it like three times in the last two weeks. You sit there and all of a sudden go, Fuck! What a, just, incredible piece of music. And just so unique. And it would've been interesting to see what else would've been in that vast well of stuff that he could've shared with the rest of us. That will forever be the curiosity element. But I'm so glad that I got a chance to play with him for a couple, three years. And got a chance to know him, and got a chance to drink with him, and all the shenanigans that probably shouldn't be printed in a nice, family publication like Revolver. But it definitely was a pretty nutty time, and at the time we certainly embraced what life was offering us. And accelerated it to a "mach 10," as James used to say on stage.