"We went through everything, from homelessness to starvation.” Megadeth at 40: how Dave Mustaine's "revenge" on Metallica lay the foundations for a thrash metal dynasty

Dave Mustaine in the mid 80s
(Image credit: Niels van Iperen/Getty Images)

It has become one of the most oft-repeated legends of metal history. At 9am on April 11, 1983, Metallica woke up guitarist Dave Mustaine and told him he was out of the band. They were holed up in a divey live-in rehearsal space in Queens, New York, preparing to record their debut album, Kill ’Em All. With hardly an explanation, they handed him a one-way bus ticket back to Los Angeles, and James Hetfield drove him to the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Midtown Manhattan. Without a dime in his pockets, Dave boarded the 10am bus, which was scheduled to arrive in LA four days later.

Broke and hungry, he spent much of the ride looking out the window, stewing in rage. His drinking had become a problem with the rest of the band, though the tipping point came when he attacked James Hetfield after the latter allegedly kicked Dave’s dog. Still, Metallica were about to head into the studio to record their full-length debut without him, after he had written four songs, seven guitar leads and two sets of lyrics for the album. And that stung like hell.

Sitting on the bus, he glanced at a political postcard he had picked up along the way. It was from California Democratic Senator Alan Cranston, and it read in part: ‘The arsenal of megadeath can’t be rid,’ political speak for, ‘Now that the U.S. has ramped up its production of nuclear weapons, the genie is officially out of the bottle.’

It was like a bomb exploding inside Dave’s head. ‘Megadeth: what a cool name for a band.’ Inspired, he started scribbling new song lyrics on the back of a cupcake napkin. This was the basis of the very first Megadeth song, titled Set The World Afire, which would eventually make its way onto the band’s third album, 1988’s So Far, So Good... So What!. But on that bus heading across the middle of America, Dave was determined, driven and hungry. Failure simply wasn’t an option.

It’s 40 years since that fateful bus ride, and Dave Mustaine has lived multiple lives. He’s endured drug addiction, countless line-up changes, the death of close friends and his own throat cancer diagnosis (he got the all-clear in 2020). But the one constant throughout has been Megadeth, the entity he imagined into being while staring out at the passing landscape and seething.

“I was driven by revenge,” recalls Dave of Megadeth’s inception today, speaking to Hammer from his home in Nashville. “I was angry about what happened with Metallica, and all the way home I kept thinking, ‘I’ll just be faster, I’ll be better, and my songs will be heavier.’”

It didn’t take Dave long to get back on his feet once he returned to Los Angeles following his unceremonious dismissal from Metallica. Crashing at friends’ houses in Hollywood, he began looking for bandmembers for his new project. Word soon began to spread – the guy who got kicked out of Metallica for being too fucked-up was back. And he was pissed off.

“Somehow everything turned into this thing where we had a band ready called Fallen Angels,” says Dave. “I thought, ‘Uh, no we don’t.’ I didn’t even have a full band yet.”

Trading under the name Megadeth – after the phrase he’d seen on that political postcard - he began trying to piece together a stable line-up, something that proved easier said than done. A churn of guitarists and drummers came and went throughout the rest of 1983 and into 1984, none sticking around permanently.

Some interesting characters passed through their ranks. One drummer, Dijon Carruthers, was the son of Hollywood actor Ben Carruthers (best known for his role in the 1967 war movie The Dirty Dozen). Another drummer, Lee Rausch, claimed he’d sold his soul to Satan, something that even Dave, who had performed occult rituals, found too bizarre (Lee, who died earlier this year, later became a committed

Christian). And then there was a young guitarist named Kerry King, who briefly pulled double duty in Megadeth and his own band Slayer.

“When Kerry sat in with us [for five gigs in early 1984], he was doing us a huge favour,” Dave says. “He didn’t have any plans on being in Megadeth because he loved Slayer, and that was his band. I really didn’t want to take him away from another band. Poaching bandmembers has never been something I’ve been into.”

Finding a bassist was easier. Recently transplanted Minnesota native David Ellefson had moved into the apartment below Mustaine, and paid his new neighbour a visit to ask where he could buy cigarettes and beer. The two men got talking, and Mustaine played the AC/DC- and Judas Priest-loving Ellefson some of the music he’d written for his new band. The bassist liked it and threw in his lot with the guy living upstairs.

That just left the task of recruiting a singer. Dave didn’t see himself as a vocalist, so they tried out a few other people. They either looked wrong (one guy turned up to rehearsal in make-up) or sounded wrong. It didn’t help that the music he was writing was faster, angrier and more complex that any mainstream metal of the time. Eventually, someone suggested he do it himself.

“I was reluctant right up to the last minute,” he says. “And then I finally said, ‘OK, fuck it, I can’t be worse than some of these other dudes.’”

Even while the line-up was solidifying, Dave kept writing. He was determined not to produce songs that sounded like his old band, which wasn’t easy given his input into Metallica’s early material.

“When I was in Metallica, I was kind of playing at Lars’s level, because Lars was still learning to play drums back then,” he says. “But watching James play guitar for the first time was kind of shocking, because I didn’t know

he knew how to play guitar. We just got fed up one day of auditioning guitar players, just like I did with singers. And he picked up this guitar and started playing, and inside I’m going, ‘Get the fuck out of here. How can you possibly be satisfied being a singer when you play like that? Why not be both?’ I’ve always thought he was a really talented guitarist.”

The first ‘proper’ Megadeth line-up began to take shape in mid-1984. “There was a guy, Jay Jones, who managed another band and was a very scandalous person,” says Dave. “He came into the rehearsal studio when he heard me in the room playing and said, ‘Have I got a drummer for you!’” That drummer was Gar Samuelson, who had formerly been a member of a jazz/ fusion group named The New Yorkers. Dave agreed to meet Gar in his studio and, right from the start, was impressed by his jazz swing, crushing hits and jarring mannerisms.

“Gar sat down on a couch in Mars Studios, and he was smoking a cigarette,” says Dave. “He fell asleep and his cigarette burned through his hand and burned his fingers. I thought, ‘Shit, this guy is crazy. I wonder what he’s into?’”

What he was into was heroin, the reason he nodded off mid-cigarette – something Dave himself would find out soon enough. Today, the singer speaks highly of Gar’s abilities (the drummer died in 1999, reportedly of liver failure).

“We became great friends, and his jazz style complemented my riffing,” says the singer. “I gotta give credit where credit is due. He had a lot to do with the sound of that first Megadeth record. He had taste and technique for days.”

Megadeth entered Hollywood’s Hitman Studios in 1984 and recorded a three-song demo, Last Rites, which featured Last Rites/ Loved To Deth, The Skull Beneath The Skin and Mechanix, the latter a gas station sex fantasy that Dave had written when he was in his earlier band, Panic, and brought into Metallica (who would subsequently change the lyrics and rename it The Four Horsemen). Desperate for someone to help promote them and bring them dope, Megadeth hired Jay Jones as their manager/ pharmaceutical supplier.

It was Jay who helped find the final piece of the jigsaw. Guitarist Chris Poland had been a member of The New Yorkers with Gar Samuelson, and, more recently, a group named No Questions. Like Gar, he was a jazz guy – and, also like Gar, he was a heroin user. He had little interest in playing metal, but he was interested in a pay cheque to fund his own drug habit. Despite that, Chris and Dave hit it off musically, the spontaneity of the former’s playing meshing with the growing complexity of the songs the latter was writing.

Mustaine and Ellefson weren’t strangers to drugs, though they initially favoured weed and beer, but they soon gave in to temptation and started dabbling in smack as well. With time, dabbling became binging. For Mustaine, narcotics were a coping mechanism, a temporary respite from hunger and homelessness.

“I liked getting high, but it was more about escape than anything,” he says. “If there was a moment we were awake, we were looking for drugs because that’s how horrible our existence was. We were scratching and clawing to get someone to take notice of us and thank God, no matter how fucked-up I was, my first priority was making music and playing good shows.”

After sending Last Rites to various LA-area indie labels, Megadeth caught the attention of New York’s Combat Records, who gave them $8,000 to record their debut album, Killing Is My Business... And Business Is Good! They stumbled into Indigo Ranch Studios in Malibu, plugged in and got by on a combination of ambition and muscle memory. One day, when Dave asked Jay where his bandmates were, his manager told him they had just spent $4,000 (half the budget for the album) on blow, smack and frozen hamburgers. Dave promptly sacked Jay, cajoled another $4,000 from Combat,hired engineer Karat Faye, and paid him $50 a day to finish co-producing the album with him.

“We did the takes quickly, with Dave, Gar and I in one room, playing together, with no click tracks,” Ellefson told Metal Hammer in the mid-2010s. “You can hear the tempos shifting around, depending on whether it was a ‘heroin take’ or a ‘cocaine take’. It’s funny now, but I wouldn’t recommend that approach.”

Since three of the songs were from the Last Rites demo, Megadeth only had to finesse another four tracks and a cover of Nancy Sinatra’s 1966 hit These Boots Are Made For Walkin’. Once the album was finished, Megadeth hit the road, though the severity of his addiction meant Chris had to sit out the first two weeks of the tour. “He was a real Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde because of his personal issues,” Dave says. “As much as I loved Chris and tried to get close to him, what he was doing just took precedence over anybody and anything. What they say is true. You become powerless over that stuff. So, when you came down to it, I didn’t mean anything to Chris, Megadeth didn’t mean anything to Chris. All he cared about was what he was doing on the side.”

On the road, Megadeth spent many nights crashing at fans’ houses, preferably apartments owned by nurturing women turned on by bad boy rockers. They spent other nights in Motel 6s and when nothing else was available they would sleep in
the van.

“The shows were out of control because hardly anyone knew what moshing was,” Dave says. “They weren’t familiar with crowdsurfing. Kids would just jump up on the stage and there was no stagediving protocol. Some of them would run over to you and grab your mic stand to get some picks off. They’d bang into your guitar or try to scream into the mic. Then someone would shove them off the stage. It was pure balls-to-the-wall metal insanity.”

The band environment was no more relaxing offstage, especially when Chris and Gar needed to score. "They’d sell a whole bunch of gear to buy drugs,” Dave says. “We’d have to drive around town to all the pawn shops and instrument shops looking for all the drum pieces, or other pieces of equipment.”

The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that their label didn’t seem to care about the band. A particularly demoralising moment came when the band ran out of money and didn’t have enough gas to get to the next gig.

“I called up the vice president of Combat and he was a real piece of work,” Dave recalls. “I told him I was at the hotel, and I needed gas money to get to the next town so we could get paid. And the guy says, ‘Get a day job.’”

Other, more weak-willed musicians probably would have quit there and then, but not Dave Mustaine. Every obstacle, every element of adversity, provided extra determination not to let getting kicked out of Metallica mark the beginning of his downfall.

Killing Is My Business... And Business Is Good! caught the attention of the thrash scene when it was released in June 1985, not least thanks to their frontman’s connection with Metallica. It was a subject was brought up in every interview, usually resulting in shit-talking from a still-bitter Dave. The vengeful drive that had given Megadeth their initial impetus hadn’t abated. Dave found time between gigs, fixes and after-show debauchery to write a bunch of new songs on the road to add to the ones he’d been stockpiling since the beginning of the band.

One day Mustaine and Ellefson were at Killing Is My Business... producer Karat Faye’s house when the frontman picked up his bandmate’s bass and began playing a rolling, strident riff. Ellesfon was blown away. It took them two hours in the rehearsal room to turn it into a song. On the car ride to that rehearsal, Mustaine had turned to the bassist and asked: “What do you think of Peace Sells... But Who’s Buying?’” Megadeth had the name of both their second album and – in the truncated form of Peace Sells – its iconic near-title track.

Lyrically, Peace Sells was a world away from metal’s traditional fascination with swords’n’sorcery and the occult, injecting a dose of politics into the Megadeth’s melodic thrash attack. ‘What do you mean, “I don’t support your system”?’ sneered the singer. ‘I go to court when I have to.’

“I tried to keep up with what was going on in the world and I still do,” Dave says. “I mean, it’s not especially deep or anything. It’s kind of like the credo of Al Bundy from the [late 80s/early 90s] TV show Married... With Children if he was a metal fan. That’s a silly comparison, but it’s what was in my head at the time. And I wrote all the lyrics on the wall of the practice room. When you’re writing on a wall there’s not much room to come back with an eraser. I don’t know if they painted over the wall, but they probably should have excavated it and sent it to some kind of museum.”

Despite their tensions with Combat, the label stumped up a budget of $25,000 for Megadeth to enter Malibu’s Indigo Ranch studio with producer Randy Burns to record their second album. Even before the album was released, major labels had begun sniffing around the band. One person who was interested was Michael Alago, the A&R hotshot who had recently signed Metallica, but Dave had no interest in being on the same label as his former bandmates-turned-antagonists: “I didn’t want to play second fiddle to them,” he says. 

In the end, they signed with Capitol, who opted to buy Megadeth out of their contract with Combat and bring in producer Paul Lani to remix it and give it a slicker sound. Along with the deal came a noticeable improvement in the band’s financial situation – as Capitol’s shiny new thrash metal band, Megadeth received more tour support and bigger royalty cheques than they’d ever got on Combat. But much of the money they were now making went into their expensive pharmaceutical habits. Even though he was deep in his own addiction, Dave knew that providing some sense of leadership was important, now more than ever before.

“I quickly realised that when stuff goes wrong – and it does go wrong – that if you’re the leader, you need to take responsibility for shit even when it’s not your fault,” he says. “You need to step up and make it right. I look at stuff and say, ‘I’ve got to do whatever I can to make this right. We’ve come too far for everything to go sideways.’”

For Dave Mustaine, righting the ship has also meant knowing when it’s time to make changes. In June 1987, Megadeth wrapped up the tour in support of Peace Sells... But Who’s Buying? with two shows in Honolulu, Hawaii. When the band got back to LA, Gar Samuelson and Chris Poland were jonesing for a fix. According to the frontman, they ended up selling band equipment again to buy more drugs. It was the final straw.

“I was totally fed up,” Mustaine says. “I guess it was just one too many times driving around Los Angeles trying to find everybody’s band gear. I told Ellefson, ‘Well, that’s it. I’m breaking up the band and I’m getting rid of those guys. If you want to stay with me that’s fine.’”

David Ellefson did stay, though Chris and Gar were history. They’d eventually be replaced by guitarist Jeff Young and drummer Chuck Behler, whose one-album tenure – they appeared on 1988’s chaotic So Far, So Good... So What! – proved to be no less volatile.

Forty years after Dave Mustaine formed Megadeth in the wake of his firing from Metallica, much has changed about both the band and their leader. Today, he’s the sole remaining original member and the only one who has played on every album (after leaving and rejoining the band in the 2000s, David Ellefson was ousted for a second and seemingly final time in 2021 following an online sex scandal). The singer himself cleaned up long ago, embracing his Christian faith in the process.

But at the same time, the single-mindedness and stubborn streak that saw him pick himself up post-Metallica and build an entirely new band remains intact. Lesser musicians would have folded a long time ago, but not Dave Mustaine. And it all dates back to those early years when he had so much to prove and nothing to lose.

“We went through everything, man, from what happened on the road, to homelessness, to starvation,” he says. “The panhandling, the sleeping on people’s floors. The destitution, the desperation and poverty. We survived it all.”

Originally published in Metal Hammer #379

Jon Wiederhorn

Jon Wiederhorn is a veteran author, music journalist and host of the Backstaged: The Devil in Metal podcast. He is the co-author of the books Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax, Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen, My Riot: Agnostic Front, Grit, Guts & Glory, and author of Raising Hell: Backstage Tales From the Lives of Metal Legends. He has worked on staff at Rolling Stone, MTV, VH1, Guitar Magazine, Guitar.com, Musician.com and Musicplayer.com, while his writing has appeared in TV Guide, Blender, SPIN, Classic Rock, Revolver, Metal Hammer, Stuff, Inked, Loudwire and Melody Maker.