Megadeth’s second album, Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying?, released in the US on 19 September 1986, is now regarded as a milestone in the heavy metal world for several reasons. Undoubtedly, it set them on the unstoppable path that led towards the release of their latest album, the Grammy-nominated Dystopia. It also set a new benchmark for lyrical venom and musical dexterity – but perhaps its most significant achievement is that it was written, recorded and released while the members of Megadeth were at each other’s throats.
“We were living hand to mouth, and in dire straits,” remembers Megadeth’s founder, frontman and songwriter Dave Mustaine. “I remember the release party we had for that record: we were so excited because we’d actually started to get a little bit of money. Afterwards, I got in a huge fight with Chris [Poland, guitarist]. He said something smart to me, so I kicked him in the face. We were pretty primitive at the time…”
Megadeth – then Mustaine, Poland, bassist David Ellefson and drummer Gar Samuelson – had already released a debut album, Killing Is My Business… And Business Is Good!, on the Combat label the previous year, and though that album had attracted some media interest, the band were still broke and miserable.
Mustaine’s new songs were full of resentment as a result. “We were homeless and hungry and tired of being judged,” he says. “People tell you that you’re a fraud and that you’ll never amount to anything: all those happy, complimentary things that people say to you while they’re telling you what a piece of s__t you are. Those lyrics were very heartfelt.”
“Heartfelt” is right. Listen to ‘Black Friday’, a ferocious storm of soloing and high-speed riffing – plus lyrics about the killing spree of a madman – for evidence. Or there’s the black-magic mayhem of ‘The Conjuring’ and ‘Bad Omen’, which reflect Mustaine’s interest in the occult at the time.
Add to the band’s collective misery the small matter of Poland and Samuelson’s drug habits, and it’s little wonder that Peace Sells… was so vitriolic. “I was just a pot-smoker at the time when I met Gar and Chris, but those guys were well down the rabbit hole,” Mustaine sighs. “People always ask why Mike Albert [joined] the band. Mike had been in Captain Beefheart: he was a nice guy, and a good guitar player who saved our skin. We were getting ready to go on tour, but Chris had [been] arrested and ended up not being able to go on tour, so we had to get Mike to come out with us. That’s how we were living.”
Peace Sells… has an unusual history in that it was originally recorded for the Combat label by producer Randy Burns, before Capitol signed Megadeth and remixed the album. Of the songwriting sessions, Mustaine recalls, “We were living in a rehearsal room called The Loft, and we wrote the majority of Peace Sells… there and on tour. In fact, the lyrics to the song ‘Peace Sells’ were handwritten on the wall there. That was probably one of the most famous pieces of architecture in metal that I know of.”
‘Peace Sells’ quickly became – and remains – anthemic in the thrash metal community, not only for its enraged lyrics (“What do you mean, I couldn’t be the President of the United States Of America?/Tell me something – it’s still ‘We the people’, right?”) but also for its unforgettable bass guitar intro. “That lick is one of the most popular basslines in the world,” says Mustaine, “second only to [Black Sabbath’s] ‘NIB’ or [Iron Maiden’s] ‘Wrathchild’ or [Motörhead’s] ‘Ace Of Spades’. There’s only a few basslines that carry that kind of weight, that the whole song launches off of, basically.”
Used by MTV News in its opening theme for much of the 80s, the ‘Peace Sells’ intro is one of many iconic moments on this landmark album, released by Capitol after a remix by Paul Lani. Asked about the new mixes, Mustaine says, “I thought they were better, as far as maturity was concerned: when you have automation, and a nice console with the right kind of gear, things turn out way different. When we mixed Peace Sells… with Combat, they were doing the best that they could. It was a good label for us at the time, but they weren’t up to our standards. Everybody knew the writing was on the wall anyway: you find great bands, you sign them and you sell them. That’s commerce.”
Three decades and 13 albums later, Mustaine looks back at the Peace Sells… era as a time of chaos. “You see all these Hollywood bands that say, ‘Oh, they’re bad boys.’ F__k that!” he chuckles. “A bunch of guys with tattoos and really bad body odour. We were bad boys!”
Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? can be bought here.