How Metallica Honored Cliff Burton With ‘Cliff ‘Em All’
Releasing a music video wasn't the type of thing any self-respecting metal band would do in the late '80s. It took special circumstances for Metallica to join the VHS fray with their first retrospective release, the audiovisual compilation Cliff 'Em All.
Released Nov. 17, 1987, Cliff 'Em All collected footage from 16 performances recorded during co-founding bassist Cliff Burton's tenure with the band — an era that ended tragically the year before, when Burton died in a bus crash during the group's 1986 Damage, Inc. tour. In addition to concert and behind-the-scenes footage, the film includes interviews with the members of the group, all of which combine to offer a fairly comprehensive look at the band in action before its meteoric rise to fame.
While Cliff 'Em All closes a chapter of Metallica's career, it's also of a piece with the way the band has always approached Burton's legacy, and the credit the surviving members of the group have always given him for pushing them forward at a time when they were still defining their own sound. As drummer Lars Ulrich argued on podcast years later, it may have been Burton's influence that made Metallica more than just a run-of-the-mill thrash metal band.
"His whole net was just really wide and really unencumbered by how it was supposed to be if you were in a metal band," he said. "Cliff, hands down, was the one that was the most musically varied at that time. Anybody that sits and goes, 'Cliff wouldn't have done this, Cliff wouldn't have done that,' it's just a nonstarter of a conversation, because we don't know."
Guitarist James Hetfield echoed those sentiments in a separate interview, suggesting that Burton would have been an "ally" for him during the group's drift toward a more mainstream sound in the '90s. "There’s some great, great songs on there," he said of the group's output during the decade. "But my opinion is that all of the imagery and stuff like that was not necessary. And the amount of songs that were written was … it diluted the potency of the poison of Metallica. And I think Cliff would have agreed with that."
Decades after Cliff 'Em All was released, Burton was still on Hetfield's mind, even after the lengthy tenure of his replacement, bassist Jason Newsted, and the arrival of Newsted's successor, Robert Trujillo. Without discounting anyone's contributions to Metallica's legacy, Hetfield insisted Burton was always with the band in spirit.
"He and I were pretty alike as far as things that we liked and things that we liked to do. I think I learned a lot from him, and I learned a lot after he passed," mused Hetfield. "You know, 'What would Cliff do?' But I think I’m able to be more myself. He taught me that, you know? He helped teach me that it’s okay to be different and to stand up for what you believe in. You don’t have to have all the ammo in the world to fight the war, just be you. That’s enough."
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