Remembering Metallica’s Shock Rock Side Project Spastik Children

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If you know much about popular Metallica lore, you know that a big part of Jason Newsted’s departure comes from a James Hetfield ultimatum regarding side projects. Fearing that Newsted’s involvement with alternative metal band Ecobrain would negatively impact his Metallica commitments, Hetfield drew a line in the sand. Newsted could be in Metallica or he could be in Ecobrain; there are no side projects.


The rest is history. Resentful of Hetfield micromanaging his non-Metallica activities, Newsted left the band. In the film Some Kind Of Monster, Newsted equates dedicating his life entirely to music to the familial responsibilities of his bandmates, commenting: “Those guys, their plate is filled with many, many things. And music is just one of the things. I chose not to have children and do those kinds of things. My music, that’s my children. But since I decided to do it with music, then that’s what I have to fill my time with.”


What Metallica developed into in the late 1990s and early 2000s can almost be viewed as an evil inversion of themselves a decade and a half prior. We can all taste the bitter irony of a band whose foundation was built on the tape trading culture of the 1980s turning around and suing their fans for file sharing. If only that was the only Metallica double standard…


The mid 1980s were busy times for Metallica. Filled with boisterous youthful energy, the band could not weather the boredom of downtime between tours. To counter the tedium of everyday life away from the road, James and Cliff joined friend and roadie Fred Cotton’s joke shock rock band, Spastik Children.


In the book To Live Is To Die: The Life And Death Of Cliff Burton, Cotton (who also played in the decidedly not-joke band, Piranha), said this about the formation of Spastik Children: “The way that Spastik Children came about was like this. In 1984, I played in a band with a bass player and two female lead-guitar players, and after a practice my buddy James ‘Flunky’ McDaniel and his buddy Rich ‘Jumbo’ Sielert would come over and we’d get drunk. We’d start screwing around with the equipment, and I’d be on the PA, just telling jokes and messing around. A gig was coming up at Ruthie’s Inn, a birthday party one Sunday afternoon, and I got me and Flunky and Jumbo on the bill. We were going to go up and be as shitty as we could and see if they’d pull the plug on us and we’d get kicked off stage.” 


When James got wind of Fred’s disastrous project, he saw an opportunity to alleviate his boredom. “Metallica came back from recording Ride The Lightning, and I told him about it – and he said, ‘Man, I can play drums!,’” says Fred. “So we did a rehearsal, and we had another gig coming up at Ruthie’s Inn.”

Cliff’s involvement would stem from a conversation backstage at a Rush concert. “James called me up one evening and asked me if we wanted to go see Rush,” says Fred. “So we did, and we went backstage. Jim Martin [of Faith No More]  and Cliff Burton were hanging out with Geddy Lee, and we all sat around talking. Geddy was really pissed off that night, because he broke a couple of strings, and Rush likes everything to be perfect. 

“James was all: ‘That’s cool man, it’s a good thing – shit happens! You don’t have to be perfect.’ And we started talking about the imperfection of Spastik Children. Cliff just looked at me and said ‘I wanna play!’ and we were telling him no, you can’t, we don’t have a bass player, and all this. But James was like no, Cliff can make noises on the bass, man. He qualifies! 

“We didn’t put anything into making the songs, we just ad-libbed it all – it was more of a comedy act than anything else. It was totally non-serious. So we agreed to let Cliff play, and it turned out pretty cool, man.”

Nervous about their first gig as a “real” band, Spastik Children guitarist James McDaniel said: “Cliff was talking to me, and he said look, just relax, we’re here to have fun – who gives a shit what people think and what we sound like? He was very intense, but with a calm and funny demeanor. We ended up playing for ourselves and having our own party up on the stage.

“I remember looking over at him and just being blown away,” continues McDaniel. “I have never heard anyone, before or after Cliff, play a bass like he could – the sounds that came out of it were absolutely amazing. A few other bands and individuals had a strong distaste for us and our brand of humor, but Cliff told me that this was what he liked about it – we were an anti-band band.”

Friend and music journalist Ron Quintana recalls Spastik Children as a debaucherous escape from the increasingly serious Metallica, saying: “James played drums and Cliff stayed on bass. They would get so drunk and be so obnoxious. James was drumming, and so – unlike SOD, which was so much better and tighter than Anthrax – they’d just have fun and be drunker. 

Spastik Children was like the opposite of Metallica. Cliff would wank on bass and make funny sounds. Fred was like [SOD singer] Billy Milano. James and Fred were best friends for a year or two, they created their own language and would entertain all of us with their talk. It was a good way of blowing off steam.”

The obscurity of Spastik Children aided in the escapism the band provided from Metallica. Friend Harald Oimoen recalls: “Their first gigs were total word-of-mouth – they had 50, maybe 75 people there at the most. All their song titles came from the point of view of a child, so it was all toilet humour: ‘I Like Farts’, ‘Pus Is Great’, ‘Dirtbag Baby, ‘Benefit Baby.’”

Good things seldom last, and the day came when the joke started to turn sour. “Paul Baloff left Exodus and started booking some shows in the city,” recalls Harald “After the first few Spastik Children shows he had big dollar signs in his eyes. He went and put a flyer out that said ‘Featuring members of Metallica, written like a kid would write it with backwards letters. I remember James was really angry with Paul for doing that, because it wasn’t a cool, small, personal thing any more.”

After the passing of Cliff Burton, the band continued to play occasional shows around the Bay area until 1990. Kirk Hammett, Jason Newsted and Jim Martin would step in to play bass from time to time. Gary Holt of Exodus was known to show up with his guitar here and there. Although the band sometimes played with bigger shock-rock acts like The Mentors, they never took themselves seriously and never stopped having fun.


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