“If there’s a new way, I’ll be the first in line. But it better work this time.” If thrash metal has a definitive year, it’s 1986. In the United States, Slayer and Metallica unleashed Reign in Blood and Master of Puppets. Not to mention Nuclear Assault made their mark with Game Over. Pleasure to Kill established Kreator as the forebearer of the Teutonic thrash movement. Destruction’s Eternal devastation and Sodom’s debut, Obsessed with Cruelty weren’t far behind in cementing Germany’s thrash metal legacy. As for Megadeth, the nuclear fallout resulting from the onslaught of Killing Is My Business was still being felt. For the lineup of Dave Mustaine, Chris Poland, David Ellefson, and Gar Samuelson—it seemed the world was theirs for the taking. No one could have prepared themselves for the follow up that was about to arrive.
Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying? The title alone displayed a nihilistic outlook in a decade where rock and roll was synonymous with decadence. If the artwork for Killing Is My Business had been charming with its low budget aesthetic, then the imagery for Peace Sells was a firm indication of Mustaine’s bleak outlook towards the world. Vic Rattlehead was no longer a plastic skull with shoddily constructed accessories. The skeletal being that had been thoroughly described in “The Skull Beneath the Skin” was not only alive but front and center. Behind him, the United Nations, a symbol of democracy and diplomacy, reduced to charred rubble. Bombers screeching overhead hinted at the devastation which occurred only moments before. Vic’s hand outstretched over a “For Sale” sign reinforced the implausibility of world peace.
Killing Is My Business was bursting at the seams with volatility. Peace Sells is much more refined intricate in regards to its compositions. It’s an enormous progression for a band formed out of a need for vindication. With Randy Burns handling production duties, Megadeth had become a solidified three-pronged attack. As a rhythm section, Ellefson and Samuelson laid a foundation for the twin guitars of Mustaine and Poland. Finally, it was Mustaine’s lyrics that allowed anyone listening to witness the perspective of a cerebral, and at times, pessimistic worldview. This is nowhere more apparent than on the albums’ title track. Metal has never had a shortage of anthems that speak for the disenfranchised. Peace Sells manages to champion the underachiever and the growing disillusionment for the typical American dream. At the same time, it offers a viewpoint that many shared in regards to events unfolding on the world’s stage. This is effectively where Megadeth becomes fully realized.
“What do you mean I don’t believe in God? I talk to him every day. What do you mean I don’t support your system? I go to court when I have to.” The lyrics were tapping into something relatable to almost every teenager who felt alienated. As a songwriter, Mustaine hones his craft at writing about subject matter that resonates with the listener on a personal level. Whether someone was disenfranchised with the older generation or distrustful of authority—Mustaine assumed the role of ambassador for their collective voice. Easily the most recognizable song on the album—its bass intro served as the stinger for MTV News for years.
It’s been well documented that the music video dominated the 1980s as a major breakthrough. Megadeth’s first two efforts, both in support of singles from Peace Sells proved the group was adept at utilizing this new medium. The video for Peace Sells reflected the song perfectly to a tee—right down to the now infamous exchange between a young metalhead and his establishment father. “What is this garbage you’re watching? I want to watch the news!” “This IS the news…” The other video, directed by Penelope Spheeris, marked the start of a collaboration between the two. “Wake Up Dead”, which opened up the album has the perfect attention-grabbing title, and similar to “Last Rites / Loved to Death”, tackles the darker side of human relationships. The song describing infidelity was Mustaine injecting his own personal experience into his music—something he has continued to do over the years. “I creep in my bedroom. I slip into bed. I know if I wake her, I’ll wake up dead.”
These titles showcase many elements that would later become staples in much of Megadeth’s body of work, “The Conjuring” and “Bad Omen”, while both songs which exemplify the musical prowess of the group, also show a weakness in Mustaine as a songwriter. The pulsating rhythm and frenetic speed are the noticeable qualities—as are the vapid attempts at injecting occult-based lyrics into the fold. Megadeth was never in tune or adept at writing songs of this matter. Even Slayer had begun to distance themselves from Satanic imagery by this time. Despite the lyrical shortcomings of both these songs—the music was certainly more than enough to compensate.
The technical compositions “Devil’s Island” and “Good Mourning / Black Friday” are even more impressive when one takes into account the instability of the parties involved. The orgy of substance abuse that had fueled the ‘jazz lifestyle’ of Samuelson and Poland had now afflicted the quartet as a whole. The lyric in “Black Friday” of “I’m out to destroy and I will cut you down” almost seems ironic considering the toll heroin was beginning to inflict on the band. Still, despite the addiction, Megadeth had delivered on their intent to “break all the rules of God and man.” Peace Sells further cemented Mustaine’s growing reputation as a formidable composer. Even his harshest of critics had to admit how far he had come since his unceremonious departure from Metallica. “I was a huge fan of Peace Sells” Lars Ulrich would state in an interview. “I thought it was a great heavy metal record, and even though I didn’t admit it, I was secretly proud of him because he had stepped up.”
Indeed, the band had stepped up. They’d taken their first steps towards developing a sound that was commercially friendly yet faithful to their thrash roots. Their journey would soon take an unexpected detour in the form of Samuelsson and Poland’s dismissal due to their growing issues with substance abuse. While the next year and a half would be tumultuous, for now, they had something under their belt that was nothing short of a landmark achievement.