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Cliff Burton

Interview by Harald O.
published in Thrash Metal (U.S.) and Rock Hard (Germany)

Cliff Burton/Metallica c Harald O./Artist Publications

cover photo of Cliff Burton
© Harald O./Artist Publications

A rare interview with Metallica's legendary bassist

The heavy metal world was shaken by the tragic loss of Metallica bassist Cliff Burton when their tour bus skidded on ice while the band was on tour in Scandinavia, and Cliff was thrown out the window and killed in 1987. He had been an important element in Metallica's success by contributing his virtuoso musicianship, streetwise attitude and totally over-the-top stage presence.

He helped bring the bass guitar out of the closet with his unique lead bass playing, which incorporated harmonics, classical fills, heavy distortion and thick wah­wah effects: "Anaesthesia" and "Orion" are a couple of the best examples of his incredible technique. Thank God that James, Kirk and Lars were open minded enough to let him go off totally on stuff he wanted to play. Unlike most metal mavens, Cliff had come up with his own bass lines rather than just follow along with the rhythm.

He is still a major influence on aspiring musicians and metal fans today, as shown by his Top 10 showing in the recent Thrash Metal magazine's 1990 Bassist of the Year poll. Cliff's awesome musical ability is well known, but his great personality was what made him such a uniquely genuine individual. His easygoing, laid-back offstage demeanor contrasted greatly with his wild on stage persona. Cliff was also very modest and fiercely loyal to his pals, fans and family.

If you never met Cliff, the following hopefully will give you an insight into the kind of person he was. Cliff rarely did interviews, preferring to let James and Lars handle them. This interview was conducted in February of '86 in James and Lars' old pad, the "Metallimansion," preceding a typically drunken night at the tiny Ruthie's Inn in Berkeley, California, and was later transcribed by Cliff's girlfriend, Corinne Lynn.

Cliff Burton/Metallica c Rich Likong

Cliff Burton
photo © Rich Likong/Artist Publications

Q: When did you start playing?

CLIFF: I started playing in 1976. I used to jam around with some local friends, then I got together with these guys who called themselves EZ Street, named after a strip joint in San Mateo.

Q: What kind of music?

CLIFF: Oh, it was all kinds of weird shit. It was pretty silly, actually. We did a lot of covers, just wimpy shit. But I was with them for a while, for a few years. And that slowly but surely disintegrated. Then I saw Trauma and I thought, "Well, I might as well do that." Didn't have anything better to do.

Q: What are some of your influences?

CLIFF: My influences would be... well, first off, with bass playing it would be Geddy Lee, Geezer Butler, Stanley Clarke....

Q: The gods. What about Steve Harris?

CLIFF: Um, no, I never really heard him until it was like....

Q: Till you'd already developed your own style?

CLIFF: Yeah. Lemmy [Motörhead] also had an influence in the way he uses distortion. That was different, new, and exciting. Also, certain guitar players had an influence. People like... well, everything Thin Lizzy did has had an influence.

Q: Phil was great.

Cliff Burton c Harald O./Artist Publications

Cliff Burton in Trauma
photo © Harold O./Artist Publications

CLIFF: Jimi Hendrix, Ulrich Roth, Schenker to a degree, Tony Iommi—they also had an influence.

Q: How about your top five albums? This is kind of lame....

CLIFF: Uhhh... top five albums...  Well, let's just say top five bands. Everything by Glen Danzig, which is The Misfits or Samhain, all of his shit. All of Thin Lizzy's stuff. What else? Jesus, what else....? Awww, shit!

Q: English Dogs? Credence?

CLIFF: Nah, nah. The old Black Sabbath stuff.... What else? There's a band called R.E.M. that I like a lot, strangely enough. There's also.... a lot of the old Aerosmith, the new Aerosmith shit, too. I like Aerosmith a lot.

Q: So how did you first get in contact with Metallica? [ed: see also Metallica History]

CLIFF: Trauma went down to L.A. and did some stuff. While in L.A., Lars and James saw us and decided that they would like to have me in their band. And so they started getting ahold of me and calling me, and I came to their shows here when they played Frisco [San Francisco]. And eventually Trauma started to... annoy me... a couple of different ways, so I said, "Later."

Q: Musically?

CLIFF: Musically? Yeah, yeah, it was musical. They were starting to adopt these attitudes about... well, it was starting to get a little commercial in different ways, just different general musical attitudes that I found annoying.

Q: You wanted to get heavier?

CLIFF: Definitely.

Q: So you told them—Metallica—that they would have to move up here to San Francisco if you were going to join…

CLIFF: Yeah, yeah. I told them that they would have to move up here because I wasn't about to move down to L.A., because I like it up here. So they said, "Yeah, well, we were thinking about doing that anyway." So that worked out just right. So, they came up and we got together in this room that we're sitting in now, set up the gear and blasted it out for a couple of days. It was pretty obvious straight away that it was a good thing to do, so we did it!

James Hetfield & Cliff Burton c Rich Likong

Cliff Burton & James Hetfield / Metallica
photo © Rich Likong/Artist Publications

Q: What do you have to say about the early days? You guys have obviously progressed a lot since then.

CLIFF: It was fun back then; it's fun now.

Q: You seemed to have a more "fuck it all" attitude back then.

CLIFF: Well, I think you could safely say we've matured musically, if not any other way, a bit over the past three years. And there's a lot more at stake now.

Q: Yeah, a major label and major management, right? Management's taking real good care of you guys, eh?

CLIFF: Yeah. Everyone who we've signed with is doing a great job for us. It's all going well.

Q: All right. Where do you think you guys will be a couple of years from now? You're obviously on the way up, but do you think you're gonna be up there with the Maidens and the Priests? It looks that way now.

CLIFF: Well, I don't know. I try not to, Uh… I try not to speculate about those sort of things, you know; that way, I can't be wrong if I don't make a guess about it. It's just we try our best and we'll take it as far as we can, do what we can and see where it takes us.

Q: What was your most memorable show, do you think?

CLIFF: That's the thing. Different shows have different good points and it's really great to do a big show in front of the home town. But there's also other gigs, like when things are really, really happening. There's been a few of those. There's different things that make different shows memorable. I couldn't pinpoint one as being my favorite.

Q: You had a good time at all of them, I'm sure. You always look like you're having a good time.

CLIFF: Most of them, yeah. Sometimes, it, you know, gets to you a bit, but all in all the percentages are real good for the good shows. It's hard to tell when you're on stage you know. You don't really know what's going on; you just do it and find out what happens later.

Q: What about the Donnington bottles? Tell us about Donnington (Festival, England].

Metallica c Randy Bachman/Artist Publications

(l-r) James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett
Lars Ulrich, Cliff Burton / Metallica
The Stone, San Francisco, CA

photo © Randy Bachman/Artist Publications

CLIFF: Donnington was a day of targets and projectiles. Shit was piling high on the stage all throughout the day, and freaks were flipping.

Q: And it wasn't because they didn't like you.

CLIFF: No, they just do that because they like to do that. I think they liked us, though.

Q: Yeah, I heard good reviews. What about the new album, Master of Puppets? Tell us about it. What's your favorite song?

CLIFF: My favorite song is "Master." "Master", I think, is the best Metallica song yet. The lyrics are getting a lot better.

Q: Sounds like your music's getting more technical too, eh?

CLIFF: Yeah, everything's kind of growing a bit. It's progressing.

Q: What about the thrashier ones? The heavier, faster ones—"Battery" and "Damage"?

CLIFF: They're uh... they're uh... very fast. You know, typical kinda Metallica. Fast. Then there's, you know, a bunch of other stuff.

Q: How did it go in the studio, as smooth as anticipated?

CLIFF: It took too long. We didn't manage our time all that well, but the songs were all real good and what we came out with was very good. Like I said, we could've managed our time a bit better, but all in all it was, I think, quite a success.

Q: It's a good follow-up to Ride The Lightening, then?

CLIFF: Definitely.

Metallica c Randy Bachman/Artist Publications

(l-r) Kirk Hammett, Lars Ulrich, James Hetfield, Cliff Burton
Ruthie's Inn, Berkeley, CA

photo © Randy Bachman/Artist Publications

Q: OK. What about your equipment? What do you use for amplification?

CLIFF: I'm using Mesa Boogie amps, Mesa Boogie cabinets. I got some 4x12 cabs for them and some custom-built 115 cabs.

Q: What, to your specifications?

CLIFF: Well, they're basically a 115 stuffed inside a 412 box. So, you know, you uniform the fit with the backline. I'm playing Aria basses. Aria Black & Gold is the one I prefer.

Q: What happened to the Ricky [Rickenbacker]?

CLIFF: The Ricky needs some work. I had an Alembic for a while, which I was very happy with until it was STOLEN!! If anyone out there comes across a black spoiler bass with a fair-sized chip in the back finish, up around the side of the peg head, it very well might be mine, so... just send it to me.

Q: On the new album I heard some short bass solo type thing where you're using volume pedals. What's that about?

CLIFF: On this album it's the intro to a song called "Damage," done all on bass. It's about eight or 12 tracks of bass, a lot of harmonies and volume swells and effects and stuff. I would hesitate to call it a bass solo, it's more just an intro, but it is all bass. There's also a little bass solo in "Orion," it's right next to a little guitar solo. No one will probably be able to tell that it's bass, but it is.

Interview with Cliff's parents next
History of Metallica next


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