"I could hear James down on the street, drunk. He was screaming, 'Cliff! Cliff! Where are you?'": What happened the night Metallica's Cliff Burton died

Cliff Burton in 1986
(Image credit: Icon and Image)

By the summer of 1986, Metallica were incapable of doing wrong. Buoyed by the success of Master Of Puppets, the band set off on a two-month European tour with support act Anthrax. The tour included a headline show at London’s Hammersmith Odeon on September 21. At a post-gig party, Metallica were in a jubilant mood, swigging booze like it was going out of style, throwing food around and greeting guests like old friends. Not for a second did party-goers stop to think it would be the last drink they would ever share with Cliff Burton. 

Tragedy struck just six days later when, in the early hours of a journey between Stockholm and Copenhagen, the band’s tour bus skidded – supposedly on a patch of ice – then careered off the road and overturned. Burton was killed after being thrown through a window and having the coach land on top of him. 

After that night’s show, Burton had had a friendly dispute with Hammett over who should sleep in what would turn out to be the ill-fated bunk. They decided to settle the issue by splitting cards; Burton pulled the ace of spades, and Hammett was forced to surrender and sleep at the front. 

Understandably, the band have rarely spoken about the precise circumstances of tragedy. But more than 10 years later, on an excellent VH-1 Behind The Music special, they finally spoke about the full horror of the incident. 

“I heard everyone screaming except for Cliff, and I thought: ‘Oh my God, something’s wrong’,” Hammett recalled in the documentary. “I turned around and saw Cliff’s legs sticking out from underneath the bus.” 

While the band prayed for the survival of their friend, a crane was sent for to lift the bus. But just as an inanimate Burton was about to be pulled from underneath, the chain slipped and the bus crashed back down on top of him again. If Cliff wasn’t already dead, he almost certainly was now. 

There was nothing anyone could do except head for the hotel and the bar, and proceed to try to hide the pain behind an alcoholic haze. “After that I was in such shock that I can’t even remember the next three or four hours,” Hammett said. “I remember at four in the morning I could hear James down on the street, drunk. He was screaming: ‘Cliff! Cliff! Where are you?’ I just broke into tears.”

Nobody would have blamed Metallica for a moment if they had opted to take the rest of the year off, but that was not their way. Ulrich, Hetfield and Hammett quickly decided that they should minimise the time spent wound-licking and try to find a replacement. 

“It’s what Cliff would have wanted,” Ulrich reasoned. Incredibly, they were back on stage just 43 days later, fulfilling a secret ‘special guest’ slot for their old friends Metal Church at the Country Club in Reseda, California, with the on-trial ex-Flotsam And Jetsam man Jason Newsted playing bass. 

Within two months of the accident, they headed off to tour Japan. There had been rumours of Megadeth’s David Ellefson being offered the job, and also of talks with Armored Saint’s Joey Vera. But when the group touched down in Tokyo in November ’86 it was a clearly gobsmacked Newsted who was with them. Newsted, a long-time fan of the band, had heard about Cliff’s accident, but until the last minute hadn’t even considered going to the audition. 

Metallica ended a tempestuous year with a triumphant show at the Felt Forum, the New York venue often referred to as ‘the little brother of Madison Square Garden’. Some 5,000 eager fans braved an icy December night to cheer the band and their ‘new fucker’. By now Battery was established as the opening number of their 90-minute set, and tunes like Welcome Home (Sanitarium), The Thing That Should Not Be, Damage, Inc. (included in medley form with their cover of Diamond Head’s Am I Evil?) and Master Of Puppets itself had all become firm stage favourites, and would remain so for years. 

For Metallica, an incredible year was finally over. They has been through a lot. Fortunately for them, in 1987 things would only get better.

This originally appeared in Classic Rock Presents The 80s, in February 2006.

Dave Ling

Dave Ling was a co-founder of Classic Rock magazine. His words have appeared in a variety of music publications, including RAW, Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, Prog, Rock Candy, Fireworks and Sounds. Dave’s life was shaped in 1974 through the purchase of a copy of Sweet’s album ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’, along with early gig experiences from Status Quo, Rush, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Yes and Queen. As a lifelong season ticket holder of Crystal Palace FC, he is completely incapable of uttering the word ‘Br***ton’.