Metallica lost bassist Cliff Burton in the early morning of Sept. 27, 1986, when their tour bus crashed during a trip across Europe. The previous evening’s show, at the Solnahallen in Stockholm, Sweden, is now marked as his final performance.

Before tragedy stuck, however, the gig would have been remembered for something else entirely.

The rising-star thrashers had recently released the groundbreaking Master of Puppets, but then began enduring some difficulties on the Damage, Inc. tour. James Hetfield had broken his wrist in a skateboarding accident, rendering him unable to play guitar. At the 17-song Stockholm show, he managed to strap on a six-string for the band’s last song of the night, “Blitzkreig.”

“We’d finished playing all the Odeons in England, which are these old, 3,000-seat movie theaters,” Lars Ulrich told Rolling Stone. “We got to Scandinavia where they were more like ice-hockey holes – smaller, colder, darker. It was a different vibe.

“We played the show in Stockholm, and it went incredibly well,” he added. “I think it may have been a rare case where we actually played an additional song that wasn’t on the set list, because the show was so good. That’s not something we did a lot then or now. So there was a good vibe.”

Listen to 'Battery' From Cliff Burton's Final Metallica Show

Kirk Hammett said they were particularly excited when Hetfield was able to take back guitar duties from roadie John Marshall, who’d been covering for him.

“I remember the five of us, including [John], being really stoked James was back and playing and looking like was gonna make a pretty healthy recovery,” he said. “I distinctly remember that show being good, and the feeling when we got offstage was really great and positive and forward looking. Like, ‘Great, James is back in and it won’t be long ’til we’re back to our old selves again.’”

The whole day had been an enjoyable one, Ulrich added. “We did a lot of press […] and we did a photo shoot for a Swedish magazine called OK, which was almost like a teenybopper magazine. We were sitting on the bus afterwards, talking about how cool it was, and Cliff and I were hanging out, having a beer. It’s a little fuzzy now, but it was a good day.”

Hammett said “right when we were about to leave in the bus, the fans started running towards us – and Cliff said, ‘Look at them. They look like zombies!’ He was way into zombies. We were all just kind of laughing. Then we started playing cards, and we had a long, long drive and everyone knows the rest of it.”

Listen to a Solo From Cliff Burton's Final Metallica Show

The sudden change in the lineup was more than just a question of finding another musician. Burton’s personality and creative flair were embedded deep into Metallica’s structure. It’s often been argued that his laid-back character presented the perfect foil to the high-energy attitudes of Hetfield and Ulrich.

Burton originally told Metallica that if they wanted him to join in 1982 they’d have to move from L.A. to San Francisco – an idea that had already occurred to them and which became a key part of their development. On Master of Puppets, Burton provided the structure and drive for the instrumental track “Orion,” a piece that underlined his contribution to their power and energy.

He was also instrumental in having Marshall appear on stage while covering for Hetfield, each night forcing the roadie to come out from behind the scenes after a few songs, until everyone agreed the concerts should begin with him already in sight.

At that point, Burton said he was basically avoiding any worries about what the future held for Metallica. “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,” Burton told Thrash Metal a few months before his death. “We try our best and we'll take it as far as we can, do what we can and see where it takes us.”

He felt “you could safely say we've matured musically, if not any other way, a bit over the past three years,” he added, “and there's a lot more at stake now.” Burton identified the Master of Puppets title track as his favorite song to date. “Everything's kind of growing a bit. It's progressing.”

Listen to 'Creeping Death' From Cliff Burton's Final Metallica Show

In the aftermath of the bus crash, Hammett said it was if Metallica had fallen into a “deep, black pit,” while Ulrich said they began work on replacing Burton partly as a means of remaining active through the grief.

“We didn’t know what was up, down or sideways, and we decided that the smartest thing we could do was to keep going,” Ulrich explained. “We laid Cliff to rest a week or two after the accident, and then there wasn’t five minutes after that because if we slowed down, we were afraid we were going to disappear into nothingness. […] So I called a few people […] and we set up auditions the week after Cliff’s funeral.”

Metallica quickly decided on Jason Newsted as Burton’s replacement and went on — with difficulty — to become the metal giants they remain today. But Burton remained part of the band’s identity and legacy, Ulrich insisted, and it comes home to him when he listens to the Stockholm recording.

“You pause, you reflect, you think, you appreciate, you’re humbled,” Ulrich said. “I move so fast through a lot of the stuff that I never slow down long enough to reflect. And occasionally, when you sit with some of the stuff at 2 o’clock in the morning, you go, ‘Wow.’ When you sit there and listen to the last two songs or look at the pictures from the last show with him, it stops you in your tracks as you deal with it.

“So with things like that, you pause for a second and think of all the craziness and ups and downs and how much we miss Cliff,” Ulrich added, “but also how fortunate we are to still be out here doing it and that people still care.”

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