The early days of Megadeth, the road from Dave Mustaine’s departure from Metallica to his new band’s critical acclaim in the mid-1980s, are well established in thrash metal lore.
The ‘megadeath’ pamphlet that gave Mustaine his band’s name. The apartment building shaking with the one-note bass practice of David Ellefson. The singular focus on besting Metallica.
These are stories nobody would care about if didn’t add up to the origin tale of an all-time classic band. Megadeth’s debut album, Killing Is My Business…And Business Is Good!, committed the fire and fury of a spurned, raging young man to wax.
That first record was a collision of aesthetic and attitude. If the Big Four each birthed a subgenre of thrash, Megadeth’s came out fighting in 1985. In 1986, its follow-up established the band as something altogether more impressive.
Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? was, like its predecessor, recorded by the much-loved classic Megadeth line-up and co-produced by Mustaine, the band’s leader, vocalist and guitar player – its personality made flesh and hair.
Bass guitar player Ellefson was joined by drummer Gar Samuelson and guitarist Chris Poland, both of whom added their jazz-based technical qualities to Mustaine’s freakish speed metal chops. Megadeth, as early as album number two, were the metalhead’s metal band.
The craft on show was superior to the all-out aggression of the debut. Peace Sells… is fast and technical, sure, but it’s also a very well made example of heavy metal’s evolution into thrash and beyond. Killing Is My Business… does not a titan make.
Samuelson and Poland weren’t long for the band – Mustaine fired them for their destructive addictions, usually attributed to the cultural drug use in the jazz scene – but the mark they made on Megadeth and metal between ’84 and ’87 was immeasurable. Samuelson passed away in 1999.
Peace Sells… demonstrated growth but it lost nothing in aggravation and it certainly wasn’t polished. Revisiting it now, it sounds like an album that was recorded 35 years ago by some brilliant but angry dudes. I fucking love that.
The first side, as it was upon release, is otherworldly in its excellence right from the unshackled Mustainia of opener ‘Wake Up Dead’. Next, ‘The Conjuring’ gets spooky. Its atmosphere, leads, riffing and groove all sound fresh even today.
The third track, ‘Peace Sells’ is the record’s famous single, the four minutes and four seconds that still get regular play today. It is a banger first and foremost, but it also serves as as good a representation as any of Megadeth’s geopolitically charged future focuses.
It’s not, however, the jewel in the Peace Sells… crown. That honour belongs to ‘Devil’s Island’, which feels like the peak and release the first side of the album builds towards. It’s not just stomp and malevolence and a monstrous chorus – it’s also Megadeth letting fly.
Side two boasts the distilled epic 80s thrash of ‘Good Mourning/Black Friday’, the claustrophobia of ‘Bad Omen’ and the head-banging liberation of the last track, ‘My Last Words’, as well as a curious choice of cover song.
Megadeth’s snarling version of Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘I Ain’t Superstitious’, written by Willie Dixon, shouldn’t work. It does, though, and it’s Mustaine’s vocal character that stacks it up.
That’s why ‘I Ain’t Superstitious’ – not the best song on Peace Sells… or even close to it – says so much about this band. Mustaine is and has always been a performer of enormous character, even in those formative years. It’s what makes his band utterly unique.
Several of Megadeth’s line-ups down the years have been packed with personality, too. Ellefson – Junior, as he’s known by the boss – is a big part of that. But in Samuelson and Poland the band achieved explosive alchemy.
This album is technically brilliant. It’s a progression from the first. It’s bursting with fabulous individual songs. None of that makes it the icon it is. That’s a result of the rawness, righteous rage and charisma that Mustaine’s genius somehow meshes with extraordinary technical proficiency.
Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? came out in 1986 on Capitol Records.