During its 35+ year career, Metallica has had four bassists. Ron McGovney in 1982, Cliff Burton from 1982 to 1986, Jason Newsted from 1986 to 2001, and then Robert Trujillo from 2003 to the present day.
In his new tell-all memoir For the Sake of Heaviness: The History of Metal Blade Records, founder and current CEO Brian Slagel recalls hooking Metallica up with both Burton and Newsted. Slagel says his suggestion that the band check out Burton stemmed from Lars Ulrich's feelings that McGovney just wasn't up to par with the band's new material.
He also recalls suggesting Newsted to Metallica after the passing of Burton, which was a little weird for Newsted considering Flotsam & Jetsam was his band back then. You can check out the full excerpt of the book via Billboard below, and pre-order a copy of the book here before its August 29 release date.
During this period of late 1982, I'd been gathering music together with the idea of releasing Metal Massacre II. One of the submissions I received was a three-song demo from a San Francisco band called Trauma. It was recorded pretty professionally, and their management told me they were coming down to play a show at the Troubadour. He suggested I come out to see them.
I went to the show and the band was OK, but certainly not amazing. The bass player, though, was f—in' out of this world. You could see there was something completely crazy happening on his side of the stage. He was wearing a blue denim vest and wide bell-bottoms, and really stood out. I discovered his name was Cliff Burton.
Cliff impressed me so much I agreed to put the Trauma song "Such a Shame" on Metal Massacre II. Shortly before it was released, I was hanging out with [Metallica drummer] Lars Ulrich one day when he said, "We need a new bass player."
As they'd started to practice more and hone their respective abilities as musicians, the Metallica guys realized that the only member who wasn't developing was bassist Ron McGovney. Ron was a great guy, super cool and totally into it, but Lars told me they felt that, for the newer material they were writing, Ron just wasn't up to it from a technical perspective. Lars asked me if I knew of anyone else who would be a good fit.
"Now that you mention it," I responded, "There's this band called Trauma from San Francisco, and their bass player is phenomenal. They're coming down again for another show, so you guys should go check them out."
I saw Lars and [Metallica singer-guitarist] James [Hetfield] at Trauma's next LA show. Maybe five minutes into the set, Lars turned to me and, with a smile, said, "That's going to be our new bass player."
…One of our main sources of finding new acts was from other Metal Blade bands. Bitch, for example, had gone out to play a show in Phoenix. When they came back they said, "Hey, the band that just opened for us was called Flotsam and Jetsam. They're amazing; you should check 'em out."
They had a demo tape at the time called Metal Shock, which I listened to and fell in love with. Then I went out to Phoenix to see them live, and they were as amazing as my friends in Bitch said they were. While I was there, I became aware of another band from the Phoenix area, Sacred Reich, that we'd also sign to the Metal Blade roster.
While we'd had a lot of proficient bands on the label by that time, the Flotsam guys seemed even more experienced than some of our existing bands. I immediately talked to them about the idea of making a record, and, because we had some money to offer, we were able to record Doomsday for the Deceiver, which was released in July of 1986.
The $12,000 we spent on that Flotsam album was the biggest budget we'd invested in any record up to that point. We really wanted it to sound good because I believed those guys had the potential for a great future. It did extremely well.
When Metallica's Cliff Burton was tragically killed later that year, I got a call from Lars Ulrich. "Well, we need a bass player," he said sadly. It was just two weeks after Cliff had died. "Do you know anybody?" I had already thought about Armored Saint's Joey Vera until I heard he said he wasn't into it. When Lars asked the question, I immediately thought of Jason Newsted, who played with Flotsam and Jetsam. "I think I know the perfect guy for you," I told him.
Around the same time, Michael Alago — the A&R guy who signed Metallica to Elektra — had heard the Flotsam record and really liked it. Michael and I both sent the Metallica guys some stuff. "Yup, he sounds interesting," they said. "Can you put us in touch?" I said, "Sure, let me talk to him first and make sure he's into it."
I knew Jason was a huge Metallica fan, and when I called him he freaked out. But I could tell he was also in a weird position. Flotsam and Jetsam was his band; he wrote the songs and ran the whole thing. Even for me, it was a little bittersweet. Here was this great band that had just put out this great record. But the Metallica guys were good friends of mine, and clearly Jason was the perfect fit for them. I wanted the best for Jason and for Metallica, but I also knew I'd be losing something to make that happen.
"Give me a night to think about it," Jason told me. The next day he called me back and said he was in. He was the second bass player I'd recruited for Metallica, but I made a point of telling him exactly how things were likely to go. After all, he was a young, twenty-three-year-old kid. Jason was really smart, but I knew that the transition wasn't going to be an easy one for him. He was going from a band where he controlled everything to Metallica, where he would have zero control over anything. I vividly remember saying, "You've got to be aware that this band belongs to James and Lars, and you will have no say in anything. You're just going to be the bass player, and you're going to have to be OK with that. You probably won't get to contribute anything, and you certainly won't have any input in terms of the band's direction. You're just going to get up on stage and play bass.”
He was fine with it at the start, but I know one of the main reasons he left fifteen years later — apart from the fact that he was a wreck, physically — was that he missed being able to write his own music and do his own thing. He wanted to control his own destiny, but what a great run and a great career the guy had.
Hooking them up with Jason signaled the end of my formal relationship with Metallica. We've always remained close friends and they've always been incredibly appreciative of the role Metal Blade played in terms of putting them on the map. Pretty much every time I see James he says, "Thank you so much for giving us the start. If it wasn't for you…"