Auditioning to play bass guitar in Metallica after the tragic death of Cliff Burton was like auditioning to take the mic from Sinatra. Burton was unique among bass players, and he epitomised the band’s spirit, helping to steer their material towards ever more ambitious arrangements.
His death in a in a bush crash in Sweden on 27 September 1986, stopped Metallica in its tracks, but the surviving three members – guitarist/vocalist James Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich and lead guitarist Kirk Hammett – vowed to carry on. The question was who could step up?
History proved Jason Newsted the perfect choice. The bass player from Phoenix, Arizona thrashers Flotsam And Jetsam had the chops. He was kinetic. The right man at the right time. Burton’s mother agreed. In her words, he was “the one”.
With Metallica celebrating their 40th anniversary this year, Newsted sat down with Metal Hammer to discuss his memories of that audition, and revealed how his final try-out saw him perform an intimate set of Metallica standards to an audience of the band’s inner circle, using Burton’s bass amp and meeting his mother, Jan Burton, for the first time.
Newsted says he was “totally prepared and confident” when Ulrich invited him back to San Francisco. As well he might. Audio from his first two auditions [which you can hear above] has been circulating around the internet for years, and with Newsted in two, Metallica tore into the Burton-era material with gusto. But, as Newsted explains, that third one was heavy.
“That third night, they had ‘the elders’ come in for their blessing,” recalled Newsted. “Torben Ulrich, the Burtons, a couple of the crew guys, people that had been there from the get-go… We got through about six tunes: Master [Of Puppets], [Fade] To Black, [For Whom The] Bell Tolls, the masterpieces!”
They were not long in giving him their blessing, but it was Burton’s mother who reached out to him immediately after he finished playing.
“So I am just composing myself for a second, putting my bass down, turning off Cliff’s amp – I’m playing fucking Cliff’s amp dude!” said Newsted. “Jan comes walking in the room by herself, and she grabs me, and gets my attention. She says, ‘Great job, son’ and I’m like, ‘Oh fuck!’
“She embraced me, and it seemed like it was quite a while, and she said, ‘You’re the one, you must be the one. Please be safe, we love you,’ and she gave me a kiss. That was 35 years ago, and I'll never, ever forget it.”
The rest is history. Newsted came onboard, Metallica continued on their upward trajectory, tracking the expansive, inhospitable masterpiece …And Justice For All, before changing everything upon the release of The Black Album in 1991. Things were never the same again; in Metallica land, the heavy metal concert would become a stadium-filling event
The latest issue of Metal Hammer features another 39 interviews about Metallica, with the likes of Slayers’ Kerry King, super-producer Bob Rock, Ozzy Osbourne and more weighing in on the metal titans’ career so far. Pick up a copy here.