Early days (1983–1984)
Just two months after lead guitarist Dave Mustaine was fired from Metallica due to drinking, drug use, violent behavior and personality conflicts, Mustaine, bassist David Ellefson, guitarist Greg Handevidt, and drummer Dijon Carruthers formed Megadeth in Los Angeles. Mustaine later said, “After getting fired from Metallica, all I remember is that I wanted blood. Theirs. I wanted to be faster and heavier than them”.
Fueled by the desire for revenge, Mustaine elevated the intensity of Megadeth’s music, speeding up existing songs such as “The Mechanix”, which Metallica’s new line-up adapted into the much slower paced “The Four Horsemen”. After unsuccessfully searching for a vocalist for nearly six months, Mustaine decided to handle lead vocal duties himself, while also serving as the band’s primary lyricist, main songwriter, and co-lead and rhythm guitarist.
Early in 1984 Megadeth recorded a three song demo, featuring Mustaine, Ellefson, and Rausch, which contained early versions of “Last Rites/Loved to Death”, “Skull Beneath the Skin”, and “Mechanix”. Kerry King (of Slayer fame), covered a handful of live dates while a permanent replacement was sought. After just a few shows in 1984, Lee Rausch was replaced by fusion drummer Gar Samuelson. On the strength of their three song demo, Megadeth signed with the New York based independent label Combat Records, and in December added second guitarist Chris Poland, a friend of Gar’s from the fusion scene.
Killing Is My Business… and Business Is Good! (1985–1986)
Early in 1985, the band was given $8,000 by Combat Records to record and produce their debut album. However, after spending half of the album’s budget on drugs, alcohol, and food the band was forced to fire their original producer and produce the album themselves. Despite the resulting poor production, Killing Is My Business… and Business Is Good!, released in May 1985, was a well-received effort that blended elements of thrash, and speed metal.
The album features the first of many cover songs performed by Megadeth; a speed metal version of Nancy Sinatra’s classic “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” , with lyrics altered by Mustaine. The song sparked controversy in later years when the song’s original author, Lee Hazlewood, deemed Mustaine’s changes to be “vile and offensive”, and demanded that the song be removed from the album. Under threat of legal action, the song was removed from all pressings released after 1995. In 2002, however, the album was re-released with a partial version of the song, though with the altered lyrics censored by a “beep”. In the Killing Is My Business… deluxe edition liner notes, Mustaine is strongly critical of Hazlewood, and notes he received royalties for almost 10 years before objecting to the altered version.
In the summer of 1985, the group toured the United States and Canada for the first time, supporting Killing Is My Business… with Exciter. During the tour, new guitarist Chris Poland abruptly left the band, and was replaced by touring guitarist Mike Albert. Poland later rejoined Megadeth in October 1985 however, shortly before they began work on their second album with Combat Records.
Originally completed in March 1986, Megadeth’s second album again suffered from Combat Records small recording budget, and the band was initially unhappy with the final mixed product. Frustrated by the small independent label’s financial insufficiencies, Megadeth signed to major label Capitol Records, who also bought the rights to the new album. Capitol hired producer Paul Lani to remix the recordings, and in November 1986, more than a year after recording began, Capitol released Peace Sells… but Who’s Buying?. The album marked Megadeth’s commercial and critical breakthrough, eventually selling more than a million copies in the US alone.
Considered to be a landmark thrash metal album, Allmusic cited Peace Sells… but Who’s Buying? as “One of the most influential metal albums of its decade, and certainly one of the few truly definitive thrash albums”. The album’s title track “Peace Sells” was chosen to be the band’s first music video, receiving regular airplay on MTV’s Headbangers Ball. “Peace Sells” ranked #11 on VH1’s 40 Greatest Metal Songs and the opening bass line was used for years as the theme for MTV News. Peace Sells… but Who’s Buying? was the first Megadeth album to feature art by Ed Repka, who redesigned the band’s mascot Vic Rattlehead to the current standard, and designed much of the band’s artwork in later years.
In February 1987 Megadeth was added as the opening band on Alice Cooper’s Constrictor tour, followed by a brief tour supporting Mercyful Fate in the US. Cooper, alarmed by the band’s drug habits, summoned them to his bus one night to warn against constant excessive drug use. In March of that year, Megadeth began their first world tour as a headlining act in the United Kingdom, which featured support bands Overkill and Necros.
After years of problems stemming from substance abuse, both Gar Samuelson and Chris Poland were fired from Megadeth in July 1987, following the final show of the tour in Hawaii. Mustaine claimed that Samuelson had become too much to handle when intoxicated, and even had replacement drummer Chuck Behler flown out for the last few dates of the tour, fearing that Samuelson would not be able to finish with the band’s commitments. Mustaine claimed that Poland had sold band equipment to fund his increasing drug habit, detailed in the song “Liar”, which is also dedicated to Poland. He was initially replaced by Jay Reynolds of Malice, but as the band began work on their next album, Reynolds was replaced by his own guitar teacher Jeff Young, who joined Megadeth six weeks into the recording of their third album.
So Far, So Good… So What! (1987–1989)
With a major label recording budget, and producer Paul Lani behind the desk, Megadeth spent five months recording their third album, So Far, So Good… So What! The recording process was again plagued with problems from the beginning, due in part to Mustaine’s ongoing battle with addiction. Mustaine later said: “The production (of So Far, So Good…) was horrible, mostly due to substances and the priorities we had or didn’t have at the time” . Mustaine also clashed with Lani, beginning with Lani’s insistence that the drums be recorded separate from the cymbals (an unheard of process for rock drummers). During the mixing process, Mustaine and Lani had a falling out, and Lani was replaced by producer Michael Wagener, who remixed the album.
In January 1988 Megadeth released So Far, So Good… So What!, and while the album was eventually certified platinum in the US, it was initially panned by critics, with Allmusic complaining that the album “lacked conceptual unity and musical bite”, and that it “wants to sound threatening but mostly comes off as forced and somewhat juvenile”.
So Far, So Good… featured the single “In My Darkest Hour”, with music written by Mustaine as a tribute to fallen Metallica bassist Cliff Burton. The song remains a fan favorite, and has been performed at nearly every Megadeth show since. So Far, So Good… also featured a cover version of the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK”, with lyrics altered by Mustaine (who later admitted to hearing them wrong).
In June 1988, Megadeth appeared in Penelope Spheeris’ documentary film The Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years, which chronicled the Los Angeles heavy metal scene of the late 1980s, mostly focusing on glam metal. The video for In My Darkest Hour was filmed by Spheeris (who also directed the “Wake Up Dead” and “Anarchy in the UK” videos), and appears in the final scene of the movie. In Megadeth’s 1991 Rusted Pieces VHS, Mustaine recalls the movie as a disappointment, which aligned Megadeth with “a bunch of shit bands”.
Megadeth began their world tour in support of So Far, So Good… opening for Dio in Europe in February 1988, later joining Iron Maiden’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son summer tour in the US. Noticing problems developing with drummer Chuck Behler, Mustaine brought drummer Nick Menza in to act as Behler’s drum technician. As with Gar Samuelson before him, Menza was to be ready to take over for Behler in the event that he could not continue with the tour.
In August 1988, Megadeth appeared at the Monsters of Rock festival at Castle Donnington in the UK, alongside Kiss, Iron Maiden, Helloween, Guns N’ Roses, and David Lee Roth, performing to an audience of more than 300,000 people. The band was soon added to the “Monsters of Rock” European tour, but dropped out after the first show. Shortly after that appearance, Mustaine fired both Chuck Behler and guitarist Jeff Young, and canceled their scheduled 1988 Australian tour. “On the road, things escalated from a small border skirmish into a full-on raging war” he later recalled, “I think a lot of us were inconsistent (on the 1988 tour) because of the guy we were waiting for after the show”.
In July 1989, Nick Menza was hired to replace Behler on the drums. Unable to find a suitable lead guitarist in time, Megadeth recorded a cover version of Alice Cooper’s “No More Mr. Nice Guy” as a three piece band. The version later appeared on the soundtrack to the 1989 Wes Craven horror movie Shocker. While the band was holding auditions for the new lead guitarist in the summer of 1989, Mustaine was arrested for driving while intoxicated and possession of narcotics, having crashed into a parked vehicle occupied by an off-duty police officer. He entered court ordered rehab soon after, and got sober for the first time in ten years.
Rust in Peace (1990–1991)
Following Mustaine’s new found sobriety, Megadeth began a lengthy search for a new lead guitarist. Lee Altus of Heathen was among those who auditioned, as was Eric Meyer of Dark Angel fame. Meyer had been invited to join the band following Chris Poland’s departure, but had declined to remain in Dark Angel.
Dimebag Darrell Abbott of then-obscure Pantera also auditioned, and was initially offered the spot. Darrell, however, would not join without his brother, Pantera drummer Vinnie Paul Abbott, and, having already hired Nick Menza, the band was forced to turn Darrell down.
In 1987, a 16-year-old Jeff Loomis (of Sanctuary, and later Nevermore) auditioned. Afterwards, Mustaine complimented Loomis on his playing, but rejected him because of his age. Loomis later saw Cacophony with Marty Friedman and Jason Becker on tour, and told Friedman, who had just released his first solo effort, Dragon’s Kiss in 1988, of the experience. Friedman eventually auditioned for the spot, but was initially rejected by Mustaine for having multicolored hair. However, after undergoing what Mustaine called “Rock Star 101,” Friedman officially joined Megadeth in February 1990.
A revitalized Megadeth entered Rumbo Studios in March 1990 with co-producer Mike Clink to begin work on what would become their most critically acclaimed album to date, Rust In Peace. For the first time in their career, the band worked sober in the studio, alleviating many of the problems faced recording previous albums. Clink was also the first producer to successfully produce a Megadeth album from start to finish, without being fired.
Released worldwide on September 24, 1990, Rust In Peace was a hit with fans and critics alike, debuting at #23 on the Billboard Top 200 in the US, and #8 in the UK. The album showcased a much tighter sound, with Mustaine’s writing style adopting a rhythmically complex progressive edge, prompting Allmusic to cite Rust in Peace as “Megadeth’s strongest musical effort”. The album featured the singles “Holy Wars… The Punishment Due”, and “Hangar 18”, both of which received music videos, and remain live staples. Rust in Peace went on to sell more than a million copies in the US, and received Grammy nominations in 1991 and 1992 for Best Metal Performance.
In September 1990, Megadeth joined Slayer, Testament and Suicidal Tendencies for the European “Clash of the Titans” tour, and in October, they were added as the opening band on Judas Priest’s Painkiller tour, culminating with a performance to 140,000 people in January 1991 at Rock in Rio 2 festival in Brazil. Following the success of the European tour, a “Clash of the Titans” US tour began in May 1991, featuring Megadeth, Slayer, Anthrax and opener Alice in Chains. In July, Megadeth’s “Go to Hell” was featured on the Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey soundtrack, and shortly after “Breakpoint” was featured on the Super Mario Bros soundtrack. In 1991, Megadeth also released their first home video, Rusted Pieces, which contained six of the band’s music videos, along with a video interview with the band.