The Popdose Guide to Megadeth, Part One
A long time ago in the comments section of a Popdose post by the legendary Dw. Dunphy, I committed to writing a Popdose Guide to Megadeth. So here I am, a few years later, to deliver on that promise.
Any metal fan worth their salt is familiar with the oft-documented firing of guitarist Dave Mustaine from Metallica in 1983. When James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich think you can’t handle your booze, you’re got problems. Just a few months later, an angry and resentful Mustaine hooked up with bassist Dave Ellefson and Megadeth was born.
Mustaine set his sights on his former band, later stating, “After getting fired from Metallica, all I remember is that I wanted blood. Theirs. I wanted to be heavier and faster than them.” So armed with an $8,000 advance (but no contract) from independent metal label Combat Records, Megadeth set about doing just that.
Killing Is My Business… and Business Is Good! (1985)
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After spending most of their modest advance money on drugs, booze, and food, Megadeth had to skimp to complete the recording of their debut record. The resulting production is raw, raw, raw. It’s also the most angry, aggressive, and concise musical statement the band ever made. What Killing Is My Business… may lack in sophisticated arrangements or songwriting it more than makes up for with pure speed and loudness. In the course of a half hour, Megadeth successfully staked their claim as one of the best bands working in speed/thrash metal.
A few missteps aside (“Skull Beneath the Skin” is a little too raw, while “Looking Down the Cross” almost collapses under its own weight), there are some prime examples of vintage ’80s thrash here. Album opener “Last Rites/Loved to Death,” with its classical piano intro and furious twin guitar attack (Mustaine and Chris Poland), showcases Mustaine’s raw songwriting ambition. “Rattlehead” is the best of the bunch, and is the group’s coming out party both musically and lyrically: “A dose of metal you need / To bang your head ’til you bleed / It’s time for snapping some necks / Slashing, thrashing to Megadeth!”.
Two other songs of note on this record are “These Boots” and “Mechanix.” The former is the first of Megadeth’s many thrashified cover songs, this one of the Lee Hazlewood composition made famous by Nancy Sinatra. Mustaine added some new lyrics for the cover, which remained on the album until Hazlewood decided that the alterations were “vile and offensive” and threatened legal action. The song was removed from later editions of the album, but put back on for the 2002 remaster (although the new lyrics are bleeped out).
“Mechanix” is instantly recognizable by Metallica fans as a modified version of “The Four Horsemen” with different lyrics. Mustaine wrote the song (originally titled “The Mechanix”) for the group circa 1982, and the original version with Mustaine on lead vocals can be heard on the well-circulated No Life ’til Leather demo bootleg. After Metallica booted him they kept the song but changed the lyrics and added a new bridge section. The Megadeth version removed the bridge, restored Mustaine’s lyrics (about a lecherous garage mechanic), and upped the speed in a big way.
Peace Sells… but Who’s Buying? (1986)
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As good as Megadeth’s first album is, it sounds absolutely primitive compared to what came next. Peace Sells… but Who’s Buying? is a towering achievement in metal, and is arguably the band’s finest hour. Despite half the band (Poland and drummer Gar Samuelson) being deep in the throes of heroin addiction, the band sounds tight and downright bloodthirsty. Mustaine, no stranger to chemicals himself during this period, pushed Megadeth’s playing to new heights of technicality and aggression, as evidenced by songs like the album opener “Wake Up Dead” and “Devil’s Island.”
Additionally, Mustaine’s songwriting took a huge leap forward on this release. “Good Mourning/Black Friday” and “My Last Words” are prime examples of the type of arrangements – quieter, classically influenced intros leading into balls-out shredding – that metal bands employed ad nauseum in the coming years. Unfortunately this and most of the songs here are bogged down somewhat by cliché lyrics about Satan, murderers and the like, but this is ’80s metal after all. To his credit, Mustaine demonstrates some growth as a lyricist on the all-time classic “Peace Sells,” the first hint of his nascent political awareness. It’s bolstered by one of the tastiest bass lines ever, one so good that MTV News used it as part of their intro for years. (Although they reportedly cut it off one second before the length that would require royalty payments. Dicks.)
Megadeth hit the road in 1987 as openers for Alice Cooper and Mercyful Fate, a positive step in their career, but underwent the first of many lineup changes to come when the drug-addled Poland and Samuelson were booted in July. Enter new drummer Chuck Behler and guitarist Jeff Young.
So Far, So Good… So What! (1988)
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I remember listening to this album at least 75 times after it was released, but not a whole lot since then. I can’t say why, as it’s not a bad album by any stretch. It just doesn’t match up to what came before and what would come next. The first thing to note is that on the original version at least, it’s a very harsh-sounding record (and I’m not referring to the riffs). There’s not a lot of bottom to the recording, which makes it pretty painful on the ears. And holy crap, that gated drum sound is the bane of my existence.
OK, so what about the music?
The album opens with an instrumental, “Into the Lungs of Hell,” one of the better compositions Mustaine turned in. It leads right into one of the first song he wrote after Metallica, “Set the World Afire.” You can definitely hear how this song could fit in on Killing Is My Business…, but it’s performed here with more skill. It also continues the angry, political bent first heard on “Peace Sells.” Mustaine fancies himself a metal prophet of doom this time, warning of an impending nuclear holocaust.
Megadeth continue their tradition of offering cover songs, this time tackling the Sex Pistols’ punk anthem “Anarchy in the U.K.” It’s not bad really, just completely unnecessary. Other than adding a blistering solo or two, the band doesn’t add anything that wasn’t already there. It’s the first misstep on So Far, So Good… So What! but by no means the last.
Too much of this album follows the same formula as Peace Sells…, just not quite as well. “Mary Jane” and “In My Darkest Hour”, both of which Mustaine co-wrote with Dave Ellefson (his first songwriting credits for Megadeth), are workmanlike stabs at thrash ballads. Album closer “Hook in Mouth” is an open attack on censorship in general and the PMRC in particular, but falls flat musically and lyrically. Of the remaining songs, only “502″ and “Liar” stand out. The former is Mustaine’s ode to drunk driving, and the latter is an absolutely blistering lyrical attack on Chris Poland, who reportedly sold band equipment to pay for his drug habit. Mustaine regularly dedicated the song to Poland in concert. With opening lines like “You take great pride in never having lived up to anything / Lie, steal, cheat, and kill, a real bad guy / Your daddy is a wino, and your mommy is quite insane / From altar boy to sewer rat, you don’t give a damn”, I doubt very much that Poland was honored.
Megadeth hit the road again in 1988, this time in support of Dio and Iron Maiden. Once again, drug problems took a toll on the group. After an August 1988 appearance at the Monster of Rock festival, Mustaine fired Behler and Young (nice knowin’ ya, guys!). In the summer of ’89, Mustaine was arrested for DWI and narcotics possession. He emerged from rehab a sober man, and Megadeth rose their game to a whole new level.
Rust in Peace (1990)
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A lot of elements go into making a great album. In the case of Rust in Peace, the main ones were Mustaine’s newfound sobriety and his hiring of drummer Nick Menza and guitarist Marty Friedman. With a clear head and with musicians fully capable of performing at peak levels, Mustaine brought in co-producer Mike Clink and released one of the watershed albums in metal history.
Rust in Peace sounds like a whole new band. Gone are the rough and raw performances of old, and in their place are nine songs played with focused aggression and an almost clinical skill. But lest you think this is a sterile Megadeth, witness the opening cut, “Holy Wars… The Punishment Due.” This is major league metal, boys and girls, and with it Megadeth moved ahead of their thrash/speed metal brethren. I still get goosebumps when I hear it, more than 20 years after its release.
But don’t stop there, because the hits just keep on comin’. Songs like “Hangar 18,” “Rust in Peace… Polaris,” and “Tornado of Souls” are flawlessly executed metal gems, and each with an embarrassment of instrumental riches. Mustaine has never played better, and he’s matched every step of the way by Friedman. Menza and Ellefson, meanwhile, drive every song with precision and power. Remember before when I wrote that Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? was arguably the group’s finest hour? This is the other album you can use for that argument.
Rust in Peace became Megadeth’s most successful album to date, entering the U.S. Top 200 at #23 and the U.K. chart at #8. It was nominated for a Grammy, as was “Hangar 18″, only to lose to Metallica twice. With a stable lineup finally in place and a killer album behind them, the band was poised to make some real noise in the metal world.
Countdown to Extinction (1992)
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Under the direction of co-producer Max Norman (who was the mixing engineer for Rust in Peace), Megadeth refined their new style even further for Countdown to Extinction. It’s no less of a musically accomplished album than Rust in Peace, just with much more emphasis on melody and accessibility. This is still metal of a very high caliber, but the aggression is dialed down a notch or two.
Luckily for the group and their fans, Countdown to Extinction is another uniformly strong batch of songs. “Symphony of Destruction,” while vaguely reminiscent of “Peace Sells,” is clearly the work of an older and more mature Megadeth. There’s even a bit of string section in the intro. Classy! “Sweating Bullets” could be considered the band’s stab at dark humor, with Mustaine reciting the inner monologue of a man on the brink of a schizophrenic breakdown.
But lest you think Mustaine has gone soft here, feast your ears on Megadeth classics like “Architecture of Aggression” and the face-melting final two tracks, “Captive Honour” and “Ashes in Your Mouth.” For those who like their metal with a slightly more commercial edge, this is an excellent starting point.
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Buoyed by the commercial success of Countdown to Extinction, Megadeth (once again with Max Norman) moved further away from their thrash roots on Youthanasia. At times the band’s broadened horizons are rewarding, however. “Train of Consequences” is a sort of heavy metal boogie and one of the best cuts on the record. Elsewhere, more traditional metal cuts like “The Killing Road” and “Victory” have plenty of teeth to go with their slickness. In the end, this is really as much of a hard rock album as a metal one.
But too much of Youthanasia is weighed down by mediocre numbers like the plodding “Addicted to Chaos” and Elysian Fields.” Further hampering things is the man behind the mic. Mustaine, a limited vocalist to the say the least, tried his best to keep up with the most melodic arrangements to date but had only limited success. A more accomplished singer could have elevated a softer number like “À Tout le Monde” or a harder song with a potentially memorable chorus like “Family Tree” to something more than ordinary, but instead he makes them stand out like turds in a punch bowl.
Fans and critics love to trot out terms like Golden Age as shorthand for the best years of a band’s output. Using that as a navigational tool, Youthanasia clearly signals the end of Megadeth’s Golden Age. But there’s one last release to savor before we move on.
Hidden Treasures (1995)
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Normally an EP compiled from soundtracks and tribute albums wouldn’t be worth mentioning to anyone other than diehards, but Hidden Treasures has some of Megadeth’s best songs and needs to be included. The group’s cover of the Alice Cooper classic “No More Mr. Nice Guy” is lighter than you’d expect but is historically interesting as it features Megadeth as a trio (it was recorded in the summer of ’89, prior to Marty Friedman joining).
There are three essential songs on this EP that any fan must own. “Breakpoint,” despite being used in the soundtrack to the awful Super Mario Bros. movie of all things, could have fit in nicely on Countdown to Extinction. It’s one of the Megadeth’s fastest songs, and damn angry to boot. “Go to Hell,” originally from the Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey soundtrack, is cut from the same cloth as Rust in Peace and has one of the coolest bridges in any metal song I’ve ever heard. Finally, fans of Beavis and Butt-head will remember and enjoy the furious “99 Ways to Die,” which first popped up 1993′s The Beavis and Butt-head Experience.
It would be more than two-and-a-half years before the next Megadeth studio album, the longest gap between releases yet. As the band reconvened for the followup to Youthanasia, Mustaine had another goal in his sights – to achieve the band’s first #1 album. But we’ll get to that in Part Two of this guide.