Dave Mustaine is someone blessed with enormous talent, but unfortunately also cursed with an addictive personality that has driven him close to the edge on more than one occasion.
After being sacked as Metallica guitarist in 1983 for his excessive, confrontational lifestyle, Mustaine put together Megadeth with bassist Dave Ellefson, guitarist Chris Poland and drummer Gar Samuelson and, urged on as much by a hatred of Metallica as by anything else, released the imaginative Killing Is My Business… And Business Is Good in 1985, followed by the seminal Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? a year later.
Their first album was on the independent Combat label, but as thrash metal grew in popularity the band signed to Capitol for the follow-up. Soon they became established members of the genre’s Big Four, alongside Metallica, Slayer and Anthrax.
At this stage Mustaine sacked Poland and Samuelson, and hired Jeff Young and Chuck Behler (Samuelson’s ex- roadie) before recording 1988’s So Far, So Good… So What!. After which it was that pair’s time to get the boot, and Marty Friedman and Nick Menza entered the lair. Amazingly, that line-up lasted almost a decade, and the continuity led to a productive period for the band, with 1990’s _Rust In Peace and Countdown To Extinction_ (which came two years later) being particularly inspired.
Regular commercial success seemed to spur on Mustaine’s creativity, but by the end of the last decade – with Menza and Friedman now gone – the band had lost their way. The World Needs A Hero in 2001 (with Jimmy Degrasso on drums and Al Pitrelli on guitar) did little to halt this decline.
In January 2002 Mustaine offered a career-threatening hand injury as the reason for splitting up Megadeth, but after a period of rehabilitation he returned last year with The System Has Failed.
It’s been a long, strange trip over the past 30 years for Mustaine, who is still not at peace with either himself or his past. But, despite his own misgivings over their legacy, Megadeth are unquestionably one of the bands who have given the thrash metal genre both longevity and credibility.
ESSENTIAL Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying? Capitol, 1985
Not only the best Megadeth album, but also one of the very best thrash records ever. But this was far more than an exercise in high speed. The songs were well constructed, mixing complexity with easy tunes, and with the line-up by then voraciously feeding off each other the musicianship was of the highest order.
Every track is a gold-plated winner, with the title track, Devil’s Island and _Good Mourning/Black__ Friday_ among the truly great songs of the 80s. And covering bluesman Willie Dixon’s _I Ain’t _Superstitious was a stroke of genius.
Mustaine recently overhauled this album (and the rest of his Capitol back catalogue). But there was never any need, as the original has stood up magnificently to the ever-changing musical climate
ESSENTIAL Rust In Peace Capitol, 1990
The first album with the Mustaine/ Ellefson/Friedman/Menza line-up – the finest Megadeth have ever had – and it runs Peace Sells… very close. There’s a maturity here that never compromises the crucial energy of the band. With more of a hard rock sound than an out-and-out metal attack, the band were actually going towards the mainstream; or rather, they brought the mainstream closer to them.
There are some blazing masterpieces on Rust…, with Holy Wars…The Punishment Due** **and_ Hangar 18 _a double-act album opener that beats anything else the band ever recorded_. Five Magics, Lucretia _and Rust In Peace… Polaris have class and punch – a potent combination that ensured Megadeth entered the 90s on a real high.
SUPERIOR Killing Is My Business… And Business Is Good Combat, 1985
Nobody knew what to expect from Megadeth’s debut. The band were an unknown quantity because Mustaine kept things very much under wraps. He was still seething after being sacked from Metallica, and was determined to outstrip whatever his old pals could achieve.
The precision and power of Killing Is My Business… surprised everyone. And Megadeth’s Mechanix (a Mustaine/James Hetfield co-write) is possibly superior to Metallica’s version (as The Four Horsemen). Elsewhere, Skull Beneath The Skin and _ Last Rites/Loved To Death_ offer quality and pace.
SUPERIOR So Far, So Good… So What! Capitol, 1988
Made under possibly the most extreme conditions the band ever faced (by Mustaine’s own admission, his drug habits had reached their height), the new line-up, with guitarist Young and drummer Behler, never gelled.
But despite all the problems and the fact that the sound was a little lacking in sparkle, the record still shone. Why? The songs. In My Darkest Hour, written by Mustaine about the death of his one-time Metallica bandmate Cliff Burton, is remarkable, Liar has a nasty sting (it was aimed at the departed Chris Poland), and 502 was almost a substance-abuse confessional. It’s a shame the cover of the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy In The UK was so lousy.
SUPERIOR Countdown To Extinction Capitol, 1992
Some people saw this as Megadeth’s answer to the previous year’s Black Album from Metallica. In fact it was the natural successor to Rust In Peace.
While Countdown… alienated a section of the die-hards, it’s difficult to believe now that anyone could cry ‘sell-out’ at Megadeth over a record that included the breathtaking _Symphony__ _Of Destruction, a track equal to anything on Metallica’s mega-shifting 91 classic. And although nothing else here quite matched that standard, Skin O’ My Teeth and Sweating Bullets are certainly not shabby, and the rest offer a consistent value.
Countdown… also moved Megadeth up to arena status in America.
GOOD Youthanasia Capitol, 1994
By the time this was released it seemed that Megadeth were stagnating badly. But the problem with Youthanasia is that the production (mostly by Max Norman) had no bite or energy. Mustaine blames himself for giving Norman too much control: “He co- produced Countdown… with me,” he says, “and I was happy with what we got. But he was secondary to me on that project. When he got to be the main man on Youthanasia, it went wrong.”
Nevertheless there are still some winning moments here, with Train Of Consequences and the oddball A Tout Le Monde working well and showing the band in the best possible light. But the lack of bite from too many of the tracks lets the record down too often.
GOOD Risk Capitol, 1999
AOR giant Dann Huff was a strange choice to produce this album and 1997’s Cryptic Writings. Mustaine himself now lays a lot of the blame for both records’ failure squarely at Huff’s door. However, although Cryptic Writings is definitely a failure, Risk has its moments – and more than many would think.
The single Crush ‘Em was a real crowd-pleasing, fist-flailing show stopper with an unmistakable chorus, while Insomnia and Wanderlust don’t mess around. But the pretentious Time: The Beginning and Time: The End are just dreadful and there’s a feeling that Megadeth were becoming too formulaic in their dotage. Risk certainly isn’t the disaster many reckon, but it isn’t even close to the glories of the 80s.
THE BEST (AND WORST) OF THE REST
One thing about Megadeth is that they have never been a consistently inspiring live band, and all too often they failed to live up to the very highest standards demanded of a band of their stature. So a live album was never going to be very high on the agenda.
When one did arrive, in the shape of 2002’s Rude Awakening (Sanctuary), it showcased their weaknesses just as much as it did any of their strengths.
The same year saw Still Alive… And Well? (Sanctuary), which was part live and part a selection of tracks from The World Needs A Hero, with the live material having been recorded in November 2001 at what was Megadeth’s last show before the split. It’s clearly a cash-in concept, but the live performance is impressive nevertheless.
As for The World Needs A Hero (Sanctuary, 2001), that was to be the sole album recorded by the Megadeth line-up of Mustaine Ellefson, Pitrelli and Degrasso. That album is often derided, but it had more in common with the classic spirit of the band than did a lot of the records churned out under the Megadeth banner in the 90s
AVOID The System Has Failed Sanctuary, 2004
It’s a close-run thing between this and Cryptic Writings for the distinction of being the worst Megadeth album of the lot. But The System… wins, not only because it’s tired and clichéd, but also Mustaine’s own production values are dated and tiresome.
This is effectively his solo project, assisted by hired hands, and it comes across as a pointless exercise. The whole thing reeks of being done for the wrong reasons – more financial than artistic – and does no service to the distinguished career of a once great band. If, as Mustaine insists, this is Megadeth’s last album, then it’s a sad note on which to end (it wasn’t the end, thankfully).
THE ALBUM WE’D LIKE TO SEE RELEASED Happy Days Are Here Again
In which Dave Mustaine records an album full of upbeat, happy songs that reflect the bright side of life. And to prove just what a lovely chap he is these days, Dave invites some of his best pals to help him out: Dave Ellefson, Lars Ulrich, Kerry King, with Dann Huff doing all the production.
What’s that? You thought Mustaine had no time for any of these people? Nah, that was his old, embittered self. Now he’s a completely changed man, at peace with the world (oddly, that’s closer to the truth now than ever before!}.
It’s also great to hear that he allowed everyone free rein to record their parts as they see fit. Whoever said he was a control freak?
This was published in Classic Rock issue 77.