Nostalgia often leads to idle speculation.
J. Paul Getty
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This question has been bothering minds of Metallica fans for 30 years. And everybody’s got own answers. I resisted to raise this topic because I don’t really like speculating on death. There’s a video of mine ‘What if Cliff recorded And Justice for All‘, but it’s just a fun bass medley, not claiming he’d really play like that. But now I want to make it clear from my perspective, since you’ve asked this question a lot.
This is my opinion, actual for now. And it may change over time, just like James’. In 90’s he said that Metallica might’ve recorded Load and Reload much earlier with Cliff. And in a recent interview James’ supposes quite the opposite: Cliff would resist going that direction. So, even the closest friends of Burton aren’t sure about what could happened.
Cliff was an extremely creative and curious person. He listened to different music and wrote different music. What I can say with a bit more confidence is that this type of people are in the state of constant growth. They absorb ideas and hate stagnation. They think ‘What have I learned over the last year? Have I become better?’ The kind of artists are always in their mind, thinking and creating something new.
I’m leading to this: Cliff would change, explore new territories, and challenge himself again and again. Just listen to his bass: it’s different from record to record, as well as his arrangement style and overall creative impact.
The peak of Cliff’s contribution to Metallica music was on Ride the Lightning: 6 song credits out of 8. Partly that’s because he had accumulated all the ideas over previous years, and Kill Em All had been pretty much done before he joined the band (nevertheless, they allowed a bass solo).
And on Master of Puppets – only 3 songs out of 8. But those ideas were epic: Orion in its entirety, Damage Inc intro, and Master of Puppets (I am still not sure which part he wrote). Notice that Cliff ideas on this album were farther from the style of Metallica, but they found a way to incorporate them naturally into the compositions.
Actually, all he had left wasn’t really metal, but mostly melodic licks and harmonies. So, there’s quite a chance that he would keep on coming up with more non-metal melodies. It’s a common thing for the genre’s artists to get softer with time, because it’s a natural thing and it’s how they keep their creative spark.
Why didn’t Cliff propose more ideas? Orion interlude and Damage Inc intro were a kind of Cliff’s personal stuff that he didn’t see realized in Metallica, and even resisted to give up those harmonies for guitars. He was musically stubborn, which the band admitted themselves.
Finding the balance in a group of people working together is critical for its survival. And when the balance is broken, it may lead to a break up.
But there’re other things that could affect the situation: drinking, drugs, family, fame, ambitions, etc. We are all human, and we can say or do something rushly or while being drunk. We may regret that afterwards, but the damage is still there anyways. So, tensions inside the band might come from different directions, eventually carrying to contention.
Cliff’s could grow father than the rest of Metallica, and if the creative balance was kept, they all could be playing together to this day.
In my video ‘5 misbeliefs about Cliff Burton‘ I supposed that Cliff had witnessed the beginnings of ‘And Justice for All’. What the album would’ve been like with him? More simple? More complex?
The extreme complexity and intensity of ‘Justice’ might be caused by two reasons: a desire to make even a bigger record and instinctive anger for the loss of Cliff. Which one was dominating? I don’t know. But Justice would’ve happened anyway, and simpler albums such as The Black Album, Load and Reload either. Not exactly them, but definitely simpler.
In that famous interview from 1985 James admitted that heavy metal might be going for quite a while, not saying they would keep thrashing forever. And seemed like Cliff didn’t mind that.
I also suppose that Cliff might want to learn new instruments. He already played guitar a bit, so he could write more stuff using it. He also had a wish to learn double-bass on day. Plus piano was an instrument in his arsenal. Perhaps, jazz could eventually take over Cliff.
So, considering all said above, here are a few scenarios:
1) Cliff resists the direction Metallica takes in 90s, but they try to use his crazy ideas, and he stays in the band;
2) Metallica maintain the creative balance, and Cliff still is an active contributor to the softer albums. Everybody is ok about the new style;
3) Cliff loses his passion to metal, leaves the band, and begins a solo career/or forms another band to play something extraordinary;
4) Metallica keep playing thrash metal even in 90s. Which is, of course the least possible scenario. Everybody changed their sound in 90: Iron Maiden, Megadeth, even Slayer! And Metallica was always ahead of everyone to try something different. Remember that the first “sell-out” song of Metallica was written yet with Cliff (which is Fade to Black)
The bottom line is that artists change, they have ambitions and strive to grow. It’s all about how people get along with one another. And from here everything can go unexpected ways. Rest in piece, our teacher \m/
P.S. Another (ton of) scenario(s) could happen if Cliff survived, but was seriously injured, so he couldn’t play bass anymore or even became a disabled…
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