29 Years Ago: Metallica Bassist Cliff Burton Dies in a Bus Accident
Metallica were on top of the metal world in 1986, having just signed their first major label deal and releasing their commercial breakthrough album. But the band’s year ended with a crushing blow after bassist Cliff Burton died in a bus accident while touring overseas.
The group had cemented their position as the kings of thrash metal with the release of Master of Puppets, their third overall LP and first for a major label, Elektra Records. The record heavily featured Burton’s signature playing style, which expanded the bass from its traditional role as an anchor rhythmic element and into melodic territory usually reserved for the lead guitar. It became Metallica’s first gold album, eventually selling more than six million copies, and the group toured extensively to promote it all over the world, including extensive dates in Europe. Those concerts would prove to be Burton’s last with Metallica.
On the night of Sept. 26, 1986, Metallica were traveling between tour dates in Sweden when Burton and guitarist Kirk Hammett drew cards to decide who would get to choose a bunk. The bassist drew the Ace of Spades, and chose the bunk Hammett had been occupying. “I said fine, take my bunk,” the guitarist recalled in VH1’s Behind the Music. “I’ll sleep up front; it’s probably better anyway.”
In the early morning hours of Sept. 27, 1986, shortly before 7 a.m., the band members were awakened abruptly when the bus began to careen from side to side. The driver later told authorities that he lost control of the bus after hitting a patch of black ice. The bus left the road and flipped over on its side, and Burton – who had been asleep in the preferred top bunk – was thrown through the window. As the bus came down, it landed on top of the 24-year-old musician. Reportedly, attempts were made to rescue him from underneath the bus by lifting it with a crane, but the crane slipped, and the bus crashed down on top of Burton a second time. Band members and onlookers have given different accounts of whether Burton died upon first impact or when the bus came down again, but the promising young star died at the scene.
Metallica front man James Hetfield has said he walked up and down the road in his socks and underwear looking for black ice and found none, and the musicians have speculated off and on over the years about whether drinking or drugs could have played a role in the accident, or whether the driver fell asleep at the wheel. An investigation cleared the driver of any wrongdoing.
Cliff Burton was cremated, and his ashes were scattered at the Maxwell Ranch in California. Metallica’s “Orion” was played at the ceremony, and lyrics from “To Live Is to Die” are engraved upon his memorial stone: “Cannot the Kingdom of Salvation take me home.” Former Metallica guitarist Dave Mustaine wrote Megadeth‘s “In My Darkest Hour” after hearing of Burton’s death, and fellow thrash pioneers Anthrax dedicated their Among the Living album to him.
Cliff Burton was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on April 4, 2009 as a member of Metallica.
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