When Cliff Burton joined Metallica in 1982, he arrived a readymade bass hero: a virtuosic soloist, furious fingerstyle player and classically savvy musician who elevated the band’s output prior to his untimely death in 1986.
Yet like all great musicians, Burton cut his teeth with a wealth of groups before hitting the big time – and those early lineups would often feature his childhood pal Jim Martin, who later achieved success of his own in ’90s alt-metal icons Faith No More.
During their teenage years in California, the pair bonded over their shared love of Black Sabbath, Rush and Thin Lizzy. They soon formed their first band, EZ-Street – named after a Bay Area strip club, no less – and took future FNM drummer Mike Bordin along for the ride. Burton would later dismiss the outfit as “pretty silly, actually. We did a lot of covers, just wimpy shit.”
Yet out of those wimpy covers, a true friendship blossomed: Burton and Martin would go on to college together, and their Hayward, California-based psychedelic power trio Agents of Misfortune became the new vehicle for their rapidly developing improvisatory abilities, not to mention ambitions.
So, the band – completed by Dave Donato on drums – were quick to pounce on the opportunity to enter the local Hayward Area Recreation Department's Battle of the Bands contest in 1981, despite a highly experimental sound that was unlikely to win over judges. And, as Martin tells it, it was never meant to.
“Me, Dave and Cliff finally did a show together, in the Bay Area at a Battle of the Bands thing – it was right around the time when Mötley Crüe were happening, so the trend was huge hair, spandex, eyeliner, all that crap,” the guitarist recalled in FNM’s 1994 biography The Real Story (via Faith No More Followers).
“So all the bands had that shit and there was us: three fuckin' slobs playing this rock music. They gave us 12 minutes to play a few songs and we just played the same one for 12 minutes. We threw things into a huge, vicious turmoil.”
He ain’t kidding. The band’s wild exploratory improvisations recall Primus at their most esoteric and nod to early Pink Floyd and Velvet Underground’s more impenetrable works. It’s no wonder Cliff’s mom, Jan Burton, said they sounded like “fucked-up weirdos”.
While the content may not be palatable to a mainstream audience, video footage shows the trio’s musicianship is undeniable. Although Martin was yet to adopt his trademark double-sunglasses look, there’s plenty of oddball energy in his Flying V licks, which traverse everything from blinding metal leads to Frank Zappa weirdness and Jimmy Page-esque violin bowing.
But Burton is clearly the star of the show: Rickenbacker 4001 in hand, his presence is undeniable, and his wah solo is a glimpse of what was to come in (Anesthesia) – Pulling Teeth, his awe-inspiring low-end showcase with Metallica. But there are glimpses at other sides of his playing, too: tapped harmonics add a Jaco-esque flair, while the omnipresent analog delay adds an altogether warped edge to proceedings.
Perhaps the wildest part of the clip is its final minute, which finds Burton jamming For Whom the Bell Tolls – one of the most headbangable basslines of all time – on the floor in what looks like a high school ampitheater. Martin, meanwhile, adds some wah pedal wacka-wackas of his own, but remove the Cry Baby and they bear a striking resemblance to his verse tracks in Faith No More’s future monster hit Epic.
As Martin notes, the band’s jam sessions – both on and offstage – would produce material that later found its way into their headline-grabbing acts.
“We'd make recordings of jams like that, and to make up a set we'd just take various portions of jams and use ’em – it was a beautiful thing,” he recalled.
“There’s some Metallica songs that were born from those jam sessions, such as For Whom the Bell Tolls, and obviously Faith No More songs such as Surprise! You’re Dead.”
After one more project – short-lived thrash band Vicious Hatred – in 1982, Burton and Martin would part musical ways: Martin would eventually rejoin drummer Mike Bordin in Faith No More the following year, while Burton was recruited by metal outfit Trauma – something his guitarist friend advised him against, telling him in no uncertain terms, “Fuck those guys, they suck.”
It wasn’t long before Trauma’s increasingly commercial slant annoyed Burton, but his mind-blowing solo spots with the group soon caught the attention of James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich, and they poached him to replace the departing Ron McGovney in their nascent thrash outfit Metallica. And the rest is history.
Following Burton’s tragic death in a 1986 bus crash, Metallica and Faith No More maintained close ties. Hetfield regularly wore FNM t-shirts at shows, later inviting the band to open the metal behemoth’s 1992 co-headlining tour with Guns N’ Roses, while Martin has jumped onstage with Papa Het for covers of the Misfits’ Last Caress on multiple occasions.
Not long after his departure from Faith No More in 1993, the guitarist became something of a recluse, but is always willing to discuss his old friend, most recently during the Cliff Burton Day 2022 livestream.
Even decades after his passing, Martin’s love for his teenage jam buddy has never dimmed. In a 2012 fan Q&A, the guitarist was asked: if he could collaborate with any musician alive or dead, who would it be? There could only be one answer – and it all harks back to the era of that wild battle of the bands performance.
“I sure miss Cliff,” he said. “We could do any song and twist it up horribly. I think if there were an opportunity to collaborate, we would write something new. Put Dave [Donato – Agents of Misfortune] in there on the drum kit and create something Cliff’s mother would call ‘Fucked Up Weirdos’.”