When Cliff Burton died in that tragic tour bus accident on Sept. 27, 1986, he left a void that the heavy metal community (never mind Metallica) has realistically never managed to fill.
Before Burton's emergence just a few years earlier as heavy metal's next, revolutionary bass guitarist, the instrument's role had already been redefined by both Black Sabbath's Geezer Butler and Iron Maiden's Steve Harris. But since Cliff's departure, can you name a single heavy metal bassist who's had a similarly broad impact? (And, no, little-known underground giants such as Steve DiGiorgio, Roger Patterson or Joe Lester don't count.)
Neither can we, but we can certainly cobble together this list of the Top 10 Cliff Burton Metallica Songs to make us feel better. Hope it makes you feel better too ...
"To Live Is to Die"From: ‘… And Justice for All’ (1988)
We begin our survey of the Top 10 Cliff Burton Metallica Songs with …And Justice for All’s 10-minute funeral march, "To Live is to Die": a song Cliff sadly didn’t live to play on, but which was built from a series of riffs and melodies he had demoed before his death. As such, its stately, epic majesty and somber mood will serve as sonic pallbearers for what lies ahead.
"The Thing That Should Not Be"From: ‘Master of Puppets’ (1986)
Master of Puppets sounded like the heaviest album ever made at the time of its release in 1986. Yet for all those tunes fueled by violent thrashing, arguably none sounded as heavy as "The Thing That Should Not Be," an uncharacteristically deliberate, doom-laden affair thrumming with low-end guitars and bass, capped with lyrics inspired by Burton’s love of H.P. Lovecraft.
"Seek & Destroy"From: ‘Kill ‘Em All’ (1983)
With its slower pace and repetitive melodic riff, "Seek & Destroy" was probably the most accessible composition on 1983’s thrash-tastic Kill ‘Em All LP. But it was also a little dull, let’s be honest. Still, it could have been a lot worse without Burton’s deft fingering and overdriven wah-wah fills keeping boredom at bay. Listen for these and you’ll see what we mean – especially after James Hetfield first states the chorus.
"Damage, Inc."From: ‘Master of Puppets’ (1986)
This popular song’s intro section is constructed entirely from Burton bass parts, stacked into a harmonic sequence inspired by, of all people, Johann Sebastian Bach. What’s more, Burton uses his volume controls to create recurring sonic swells, which lift and dip like ocean waves before crashing upon the shores of thrashdom. Then, once the mayhem ensues, one can appreciate his inimitably precise fingering technique (remember, no pick!) even at such high velocities.
"The Four Horsemen"From: ‘Kill ‘Em All’ (1983)
Kill ‘Em All's remarkable "The Four Horsemen" remains a colossal thrashing tour de force, especially coming from a group of kids who were barely out of their teens and still applying zit cream. But as the old man of the group (all of 21!), Burton’s knowledge of musical theory proved crucial in transforming Dave Mustaine’s rough and ready "The Mechanix" into this seven-minute behemoth. Burton also stole the show during this track's slower mid-section (beginning at the 3:30 mark) with a cleverly ascending bass figure that sounds oddly reminiscent of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s "Sweet Home Alabama." Listen for yourselves, if you don’t believe us.
"Creeping Death"From: ‘Ride the Lightning’ (1984)
Halfway through our list of Top 10 Cliff Burton Metallica Songs lies "Creeping Death" – pound for pound, maybe the band’s single greatest musical creation (there, we said it!), and another excellent example of Cliff Burton’s importance to the group. He coined the title for Hetfield’s Old Testament horror show and his timely counterpoints consistently offer different shadings behind the six-string riffage. To cap it all off, his three-note bass fill at the 30-second mark has often been called the greatest “here comes the pain” moment in heavy-metal history.
"For Whom the Bell Tolls"From: ‘Ride the Lightning’ (1984)
Even all these years later, many first-time listeners find it hard to believe that the head-ripping melody that introduces "For Whom the Bell Tolls" (Metallica’s first non-thrash metal song, incidentally) was performed, not on guitar, but by Cliff Burton’s trusty four-string. In fact, Cliff had been playing some variety of this sequence – with all its bluesy string bends and loads of amp distortion – since his days in pre-Metallica band, Trauma, and maybe even high school, as this cafeteria footage suggests. P.S.: That is indeed Faith no More’s Jim Martin on guitar.
‘Orion’From: ‘Master of Puppets’ (1986)
Cliff’s baby all the way, "Orion" was the requisite instrumental recorded for the Master of Puppets album, and it opens with a series of backwards-played bass parts, similar to the intro to "Damage, Inc." Then, almost exactly four minutes in, "Orion" settles into a gentle melodic pattern that has since become synonymous with posthumous tributes to Burton. And circa 6:35, Cliff takes his last recorded solo with Metallica, firing off a dexterous lead that eventually meshes perfectly with Kirk Hammett’s guitar. Goose-bumps all the way!
"The Call of Ktulu"From: ‘Ride the Lightning’ (1984)
One of the great metallic tragedies of the CD era is the way Cliff Burton’s bass got buried in the transition to digital, thus requiring one to hear vinyl mixes of "The Call of Ktulu" (yes, these lyrics too originated in the bassist’s Lovecraft-ian reading materials) in order to truly grasp one of Cliff’s greatest lifetime achievements. So whatever you're spinning music on these days, listen closely as Cliff slides into action at the one-minute mark and then simply begins to wail underneath Hetfield and Hammett’s riffs, about 90 seconds in: flying and flailing up and down the neck while periodically unleashing shockwaves of distortion with his hyperactive wah-wah pedal. Godlike!
‘(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth’From: ‘Kill ‘Em All’ (1983)
“Bass solo, take one,” mutters Cliff ahead of Kill ‘Em All’s paradigm-shifting "(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth," thereby forewarning listeners that their minds were about to be blown. Simply put, the inevitable No. 1 choice in our list of the Top 10 Cliff Burton Metallica Songs took an instrument most metal fans hardly knew they were hearing, more often than not, and shoved it down the heavy metal world’s collective throat. Here was an almost unprecedented display of daring and chops, showcasing not only Cliff’s incredible technique (and significant chutzpah!), but his eclectic musical tastes, too (check out those bluesy bends, classical scales, etc.). To our minds, there’s no better example of Burton’s crucial contributions to Metallica’s career than this living testament to his sorely missed musical talents. There’s really no telling where he might have taken heavy metal bass guitar had his time not been cut so unfairly short.