Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Cliff's Notes...

(Photo: Ross Halfin)
Readers of this fine blog will know there are not many things higher on my Metal-Ladder than Cliff Burton, i.e. Cliff Burton era Metallica. You’d think in the 23 years since his passing it would be all old hand by now, it’s not. In fact, since the release of the Guitar Hero Metallica game it’s probably grown even more.

There’s something so moving to think about the millions of homes Cliff’s work already occupies, but with this game it’s taking it to a whole new level. We’re talking about his master bass tracks loud and proud and what an experimental and brain expanding trip they are! It’s amazing really, all these years of listening to those first three records you think you’ve heard it all. Wrong. Those recordings are only the tip of the iceberg because what lies beneath is mind blowing.

Reason for today’s thoughts is two new books available now.

The first one is a photographic diary of sorts based on several of the earliest Bay Area shows (the then LA based) Metallica ever played. ‘Metallica: Club Dayz 1982-1984’ is the work of former Metal Rendezvous Chief Photographer Bill Hale where he is front and center for this metallic time machine like journey.

What he captures is the first few (and very important) stones and flakes of the worldwide avalanche that was soon to follow. Sure, at the time Metallica were just another band but it wasn’t a status they’d hold for long.

The line-up of Hetfield, Ulrich, Mustaine and McGovney wasn’t together all that long and in retrospect their first San Francisco shows in 1982 were small steps towards Heavy Metal immortality. Of course those early Bay Area gigs later to be followed by the ultimatum of relocating there to ensure the services of one Clifford Lee Burton, would change their lives forever.

The photographs in this book are vibrant, historic and electric. The youthful energy and “all or nothing” attitude of the band at that time comes across loud and clear. The highlight for most is the first Cliff era shows which took place at The Stone in 1983.

From that point on the Metallica machine was on a continual upward climb so to have documental evidence such as this is priceless. To me any photo book that conjures up a soundtrack in your head while looking at it is a sure fire success, this is what you can expect when you travel back to the club dayz.

'To Live Is to Die: The Life and Death of Metallica's Cliff Burton' is a new book by Writer Joel McIver, whom some of you will know as the author of the book "Justice For All: The Truth About Metallica", one of his 14 books written since 1999.

I just ordered this book yesterday, so I hope to have a full review up and running very soon. Here’s an excerpt I came across, I cannot wait for this to arrive.

‘Orion’ remains a superb song, and is beloved by bassists to this day for its range of expertise, from that iconic intro, via the solo figure at the start of the second movement, to the devastating solo at the end. Alex Webster of Cannibal Corpse says: “My favorite Cliff Burton recording is ‘Orion’ from 'Master Of Puppets' because it showcases several different aspects of Cliff’s playing.

There is the beautiful melodic section that starts about halfway through the song – one of my favorite bass lines ever – and excellent unison playing with the main riffs, as well as a couple of spotlight sections that show off Cliff’s unique distorted lead bass style, most notably the short but brilliant solo that happens towards the end of the song."

‘Orion’ shows that Cliff was a master of both the supporting and leading roles that a bass can take on.

Interestingly, it emerges that this solo wasn’t composed by Cliff. As Kirk told me, “The bass solo in ‘Orion’ after my solo at the end of the song, that was the second part of the guitar solo – but at that point I had left to go back to the States, and Cliff was there for maybe three days longer in Copenhagen. And so what he did was, he put a bass solo in there and he played like half my guitar solo but on the bass! So he kind of appropriated half of my guitar solo into his bass solo, and made it his own thing. Which was totally fine with me.”

Asked if there was a bass solo on 'Puppets' as there had been on 'Kill ‘Em All' (and to an extent on 'Ride The Lightning', if you include the introduction to ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’), Cliff nominated the album’s last song. “On this album it’s the intro to a song called ‘Damage, Inc.’ done all on bass,” he said. “It’s about eight or 12 tracks of bass, a lot of harmonies and volume swells and effects and stuff. I would hesitate to call it a bass solo, it’s more just an intro, but it is all bass.”

A blisteringly violent song, ‘Damage, Inc.’s sole concession to melody on bass is that introduction, a menacing cluster of notes that fades in before introducing the harsh main riff. “The intro to ‘Damage, Inc.’ is the same thing as ‘Orion’ – a lot of bass, reversed,” confirms Rasmussen.

“It was another one of his ideas…”

By now James and Lars had come a long way towards equaling the musical skills of their colleagues – who, effectively, two lead instrumentalist s at times. However, Cliff and Kirk shared a genuine love of the intricacies of music theory that the others never shared.

As Kirk remembers today: “I was into the whole Euro-metal thing, and I used a few different scales. The Phrygian dominant was the one that Cliff showed a lot of interest in. He used to watch me playing lead guitar all the time, trying to learn guitar licks and trying to snag little bits and pieces of information here and there.

We would talk about theory and how it worked: just casual conversations about it. He loved theory and he loved classical music: he was a big fan of Bach. He told me that the intro to ‘Damage, Inc.’ is actually based on a Bach piece called ‘Come Sweet Death’ or something or other, which was a little bit ironic in the wake of what would happen to him”.

Kirk reveals that sometimes the band had to restrain Cliff a little. As he says, laughing: “Sometimes it was like, ‘You know, Cliff, you have to play the part – that particular part is meant to be played in unison, not in a fragmented form with you soloing in the corner!’ There were instances where he would overplay, but you know that’s to be expected from anyone who’s a great musician. All great musicians overplay.”

Millions of fans wish to this day that they could have seen Cliff recording the 'Master Of Puppets' bass parts, hallowed as they have become over the years. The only real way into the sessions that we have in Cliff’s absence is via the words of co-producer Flemming Rasmussen, whose recall of the album’s recording is perfect.

“Cliff was a pretty quiet guy,” begins Rasmussen. “He kept a lot to himself and I think he was a little shy. In 1985, when we recorded the album, he was still wearing bell-bottom pants, which were totally out of fashion at the time. He attracted a lot of attention to himself because of them, but I think he was used to it. He just kept saying, ‘Well, they’re gonna come back into fashion one day and I like them, so I’m just gonna keep them’.”

Flemming confirms the idea that Metallica basically comprised two loud musicians and two quiet ones, explaining “There were the two noisy guys and the two quiet guys. Lars and James stuck together because they composed all the stuff, except for Cliff’s songs which he did all by himself,” but also that Burton’s influence was apparent despite his less extrovert nature. “Cliff was really great, because he let me be in charge,” he says, “and in turn I would respect what he’d done.

Metallica never went into the studio without having all the songs and the arrangements ready beforehand. They had really good demos of all their songs. Everything was composed and, for the most part, also arranged. We changed bits, but they were always really well-prepared when they came into the studio.”

A more in-depth press release on the book can be found here.