September 27th is a day steeped in tragedy for any fan of Metallica as it marks the day that Cliff Burton was cruelly robbed of his life in a freak accident that would change the band forever. The bassist was only 24, but despite passing at such a young age, he’s remembered as one of the masters of the instrument when it comes to metal.
Burton wasn’t a founding member of Metallica but joined while they were nobodies in 1982 and played a critical part in their journey into superstardom. Tragically, he would never be a part of their unfathomable global success.
The band were on tour following their thrilling third album, Master of Puppets, in 1986, when suddenly their world came crashing to pieces while they were in Scandanavia. Although it didn’t immediately become a best-seller, it has since sold over six million records, and, after its release, Metallica played everywhere and anywhere to promote it. Harrowingly, it would horrifyingly be Burton’s final trip.
On the 30th anniversary of his passing in 2016, Lars Ulrich heartbreakingly said, “I’m always aware of the date. I think that, when you’ve been around for 35 years like we have, and you actually sit down and go through everything and plant flags on the calendar, there are always so many anniversaries, but obviously, September 27th, 2016, feels like a very significant date. I’m thinking about him all the time.”
Losing a friend is torturous in any circumstance, but for the rest of Metallica to have survived the incident when Burton didn’t, makes their emotions on the incident even more heightened. The band were travelling overnight through Sweden, going to the next stop of their show when Burton and Kirk Hammett drew cards to pick bunks. After the bassist won, he took Hammett’s bed, and he later said he replied, “I said fine, take my bunk,” he remembered in VH1’s Behind the Music. “I’ll sleep up front; it’s probably better anyway.”
Around 7am, the band then woke up after their bus started to drift from side to side as the driver lost control of the vehicle after sliding into an ocean of black ice. Tragically, the bus flipped on its side, and Burton went from the top through the window before it landed on him. Immediately, it became clear that he wouldn’t have survived.
They did try everything within their might to rescue Burton, but alas, it was too little too late. However, there are conflating reports on the incident and at what point exactly he lost his life remains unknown. In truth, the exact details of the tragic event don’t matter. All that’s important is that one of the most promising bassists who was spawning a thrash rock revolution lost his life devastatingly prematurely.
James Hetfield later said that after the incident, he jumped out of the car wearing just his underwear with socks in search of the black ice but failed to see any. The singer has repeatedly claimed that drink and drugs perhaps led to the driver falling asleep at the wheel. However, he was investigated, and the man in charge of the vehicle was cleared of committing any wrongdoing.
We’ll never know what caused the crash, and the loss of Burton is a tragedy that only increases in poignancy with age. He should have been with his brothers across every step of their ascendancy to iconoclast status, yet, without the magnetism of the bassist, Metallica may never have achieved such glorious feats.