“That’s it? No warning? No second chance?” And just like that, Dave Mustaine was unceremoniously dismissed as Metallica’s lead guitarist. In less than two hours, he would be on a bus heading to California from New York. On his mind was one thought—REVENGE. Mustaine has never hidden the animosity he felt in regards to being cast out by his former brothers in arms. It was on this cross-country trek where the words “The arsenal of megadeath cannot be ridden” from Senator Alan Cranston planted the seeds of vindication in his mind. Within two months they would come to fruition in the form of a chance meeting with Minnesota native and bass player David Ellefson. An early morning rendition of Van Halen’s “Running with the Devil” had awoken the fury in a hungover Mustaine. Later that day, peace was made between the two over a case of Heineken, and Megadeth was officially formed.
Ellefson and Mustaine set out to build their new band from the ground up. Fate would take an unexpected turn upon the arrival of jazz drummer Gar Samuelson. Megadeth was already fueled by its leaders’ unrelenting thirst for revenge. All it took was Samuelson’s infamous quote of “If you want to be great, you got to do heroin” to bring substance abuse into the mix. A demo tape released in 1984 gave the world its first taste of what was coming. As it turned out, it was merely the calm before the storm. Soon Megadeth would have a completed lineup with the addition of guitarist Chris Poland. Like Samuelsson, Poland shared the two attributes associated with a jazz lifestyle: technical proficiency and chemical addiction.
It didn’t take long for record executives to take notice, and soon the group found themselves signed to Combat records. The independent label was synonymous with many bands that would be influential throughout the decade. Death, Possessed, The Crumb Suckers, Nuclear Assault, Agnostic Front, The Accused, and Carcass all had dealings with the label at one time or another. When Megadeth entered the studio in 1985 to record their debut full-length, no one could have guessed what would emerge. The result was Killing Is My Business…and Business is good!. A unique combination of ambition, revenge, technical proficiency, and unrestrained debauchery in the form of substance abuse. It’s almost a miracle that anything emerged from the recording sessions. But it did, and despite half the budget being used to sustain the bands growing addiction, the end result was one of the most ferocious thrash metal releases ever recorded.
The spontaneous combustion that occurred in the studio and Mustaine’s unwavering ambition are present everywhere…except for the albums cover art. The bands mascot, Vic Rattlehead, was depicted as a plastic skull with fish hooks embedded in its mouth. While subsequent reissues feature new artwork that’s more in line with Mustaine’s original concept, there is something endearing about the low budget imagery that adorns the original release.
If the artwork incited laughter, then the material on the album silenced any lingering doubts regarding Mustaine’s new outfit. The compositions were complex as much as they were unrelenting. The opening piano bars of “Last Rites / Loved to Death”, (itself inspired by a piece by J.S. Bach), are accentuated flawlessly with Ellefson’s bass. Then, as if to signify the conglomeration of the classical and the heavy, the shrieking guitars of Mustaine and Poland pierce the air. The lyrical content of the song wasn’t typical fair for a thrash release, either. While songs depicting the darker side of romance were nothing new in 1985, “Loved to death” is a song that depicts obsession the extends to the grave and beyond. Mustaine’s lyrics of “If I can’t have you, then no one will. Since I won’t, I’ll have to kill. My only love, something I’ve never felt. Now you’ve gone to Heaven, and I’ll burn in Hell” explore the obsessive side of human nature.
There’s no better example of Mustaine straying from convention and expectation than “Looking Down the Cross.” At the time of its release, Satanic Panic was in full swing. The epidemic of unjustified paranoia was everywhere, and heavy metal was at the forefront of this cultural obsession. 1985 alone would see the release of Hell Awaits by Slayer and Possessed by Venom, two albums that sang the praises of the cloven-hooved antihero. Megadeth weren’t about to join the trend, and instead, offered something that almost serves as the antithesis to the oversaturation of Satanic imagery—a depiction of the final moments in the life of Christ.
“Though too much to live for, I owe enough to die. Ask not for salvation, my death shall mean their lives.” The song itself is fused with melancholia and atmosphere. Effective in its overall presentation, the overall mood of the song reflects the feelings one might have when called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice. While organized religion has long been the adversary of heavy metal, the song itself separates the personal experience of martyrdom from the corruption commonly associated with religion. Considering how Mustaine would eventually become a born-again Christian, “Looking Down the Cross” almost seems prophetic.
Central to the cultural persona of Megadeth is Vic Rattlehead, the groups’ macabre mascot who’s almost as recognizable as Iron Maiden’s Eddie. While his depiction on the album’s cover wasn’t the best introduction, “The Skull Beneath the Skin” was. As one of the albums most intricate compositions, the unrelenting speed and multiple time changes create a frenzy that sets the tone for the origin of Vic’s ghastly appearance. “Prepare the patients scalp to peel away. Metal caps for his ears, he’ll hear not what we say. Solid steel visor, riveted cross his eyes. Iron staples close his jaws, so no one hears his cries.”
Obsession, martyrdom, and manipulation of the flesh show a group offering up dark and serious subject matter with tenacity and poise. There’s another side of Megadeth that emerges on songs such as “Mechanix.” Fans familiar with Mustaine’s past work would have instantly recognized the song from Metallica’s No Life ‘Till Leather demo. Metallica, of course, rearranged the song with a Sabbath-esque interlude on Kill ‘em All and rechristened it “The Four Horseman.” In a sense, Mustaine reclaims his property with its inclusion on the album. The song details a sexual tryst between a car mechanic and a customer, albeit told through innuendo related to auto repair.
Mustaine and company offer a further counter attack to Metallica with “Rattlehead” and a boisterous cover of the Lee Hazelwood number “These Boots.” During Mustaine’s tenure in Metallica, one of the songs that was prominent in the band’s setlist was “Whiplash”, which would also make it to the final cut of Kill ‘em All. As one could assume from the title, it’s about headbanging. “Rattlehead” is Megadeth’s anthem of the same activity. When listening to both songs back to back, it’s more than apparent that Mustaine ups the ante as it were with faster tempos and technicality. The lyrics contain a dead giveaway as to Mustaine’s intent.
“In a frenzied madness
With your leather and your spikes
Heads are bobbing all around
It is hot as hell tonight”
“Don’t wear no leather to “fittin'”
Don’t wear no spikes to be “cool”
Don’t want no woman beside him
Just make it fast, Loud and Rude”
As for “These Boots”, a song made famous by Nancy Sinatra, it’s another move out of left field that no one would have expected. Be that as it may, it’s the perfect conclusion for an album fueled by revenge. Injecting aggression that’s practically foaming at the mouth and a few lyrical changes, the song about empowerment becomes a promise and a threat. “One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you” is a battle cry and a firm declaration of intent from Mustaine and company.
Killing Is My Business… was the opening salvo Megadeth needed to launch their career. Dave Mustaine had not only raised an army; he built an arsenal capable of unbelievable devastation. The world took notice, and hunkered down in the trenches in anticipation for the next assault. It wouldn’t take long. Megadeth would soon return with Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying? It would soon become apparent that Mustaine was no longer seeking revenge…but world domination.