There were more than a few lingering questions in the air after Cliff Burton’s death in a bus accident. Although Cliff might not have been the leader of Metallica by any stretch, his sense of musicality was bound to leave a gigantic hole in the band, with the rest of the guys scrambling to get back home for the funeral before ultimately deciding to move on with someone else.
The new kid position may have gone to Jason Newsted, but there was also a chance at Metallica’s future getting a lot more funky in the next few years.
Around the time that Metallica were auditioning people, Kirk Hammett actually thought of bringing in one of his friends from high school, which turned out to be Les Claypool of Primus fame. Claypool, reflecting on their time together in school, said:
“Kirk was in my algebra class with Mr. Kelly. Kirk had this dirty white t-shirt with big thick pop bottle glasses and he sat behind me divvying up dimebags and looking at guitar magazines.
I remember, cause I would always be singing these songs and he would be, like, ‘Hey, Claypool, hey man, you want to come sing for my band?’ And I was too bashful to sing. I can barely sing now. So when it came down to it I couldn’t do it.”
While there’s a good joke to be made for Les being overqualified for the job (and how his style might’ve taken Metallica to an interesting place), both the band and Les seem to have differing accounts on why he didn’t end up as the bass player for the band.
Going back to the Behind the Music series, James Hetfield had said that “Les came in, but he was too good, so we were just like okay you’re doing your thing,” before eventually going back to their regular bass auditions.
Les tends to make light of the situation though, saying that he was joking around with them saying “You guys wanna jam on some Isley Brother tunes?,” which didn’t really go over well with the rest of the band. “They never called me, and I weeped. Weeped like a little girl.” Elaborating further on the experience, Les said:
“It was loud. It was a loud experience. Kirk [Hammett] is an old high school buddy of mine. And when Cliff [Burton] died, I was one of the guys who got the phone call. I wasn’t a big metal guy, but he had given me Ride the Lightning a year or two before that, and I would listen to that in the morning before I’d go to go to work as I’m taking a shower, it kind of woke me up. I didn’t know much about the scene. I didn’t even realize how big they were to tell you the truth. I was like, I’ll audition, maybe I can quit my carpentry job if I get this gig.
So I went and auditioned and I realized how big they were when I went to the place and they go okay so uh you know thanks for coming, I’m going to take you in to see the guys but don’t be nervous. And then I realized, these guys must be kinda big.”
With a few years of hindsight, though, Les had mentioned that the band probably thought that he was a bit too strange for the band, saying “James said, ‘we didn’t hire Les because he was too good.’ That’s probably the nice way of putting it. They thought I was just a f*cking weirdo.”
Then again, it’s not impossible to see Les fitting in with the rest of the band either, since Primus’ early days were a lot closer to metal than their own brand of weird that would come later. Jason was definitely the right man for the job in Metallica’s eyes, but fans can only imagine what would have happened hearing Les hammer (er, slap?) out the iconic bass line from “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”