Throughout the year, I've been looking back at some of the best thrash metal albums of 1986 -- the year thrash hit its zenith in popularity and creativity. When possible, I've tried to interview band members, producers and others associated with the original albums. I've also tried to time the blog posts to coincide with the 25th anniversary of each album's release, although accurate release dates from 25 years ago can be hard to come by.
This installment commemorates Megadeth's sophomore release, Peace Sells... But Who's Buying?. Depending on the source, the album came out in either July (according to Encyclopædia Metallum), October (Megadeth.com) or November (Wikipedia). Being the lazy bastard that I am, I decided to go with the latest of the three.
Peace Sells was a landmark release for Megadeth and thrash metal in general. Along with Metallica's Master of Puppets and Slayer's Reign in Blood, it's part of an "unholy trinity" of seminal thrash albums released in 1986. While all of the albums I've covered in this series have devoted followings to one degree or another, there's little doubt that those three stand above the pack. I spoke with Megadeth bassist and founding member Dave "Junior" Ellefson back in July about the impact of Peace Sells and his memories of the early days of the thrash scene. Check out the interview after the break.
Interview with Megadeth bassist Dave Ellefson
Tempe Carnivore: It's been difficult coming up with an accurate release date for Peace Sells. Was it originally released by Combat alone and then re-released by Capitol?
Ellefson: We originally recorded it for Combat. We actually wrote the record [and then] we did a three-week club tour on the East Coast through January of ’86… and it might’ve even been on that tour when the A&R guy for Capitol came to the Irving Plaza show in New York City and saw the band and wanted to sign us. We went home and we recorded the record for Combat during, I believe, March and April, and mixed it and were ready to turn it in, and that’s when the bidding war started between several labels to sign Megadeth. Capitol won out on that, and they basically bought our contract from Combat Records, who was the little indie label that we were signed to. So that’s the transition that happened. Then they hired Paul Lani to remix the record. It was funny, because Dave [Mustaine] and I went to New York to have a discussion with the manager and to meet with some label people. Another label was wooing us at the time and wining and dining us. Dave and I and our booking agent at the time actually ate dinner at Wylie’s Ribs, which is a rib restaurant right across the street from the UN building, and that’s when Dave came up with the idea for the cover, with the UN building being all shot-out during war, and [band mascot] Vic [Rattlehead] out front with a “For Sale” sign for the UN building.
How seriously did Mustaine take the rivalry with Metallica back then? When you went into the studio to record Peace Sells, was there any kind of stated goal or mission to outdo them?
I can’t really speak for Dave on that. For me, Megadeth was my band, and I didn’t have the Metallica history that Dave did. I think to a large degree the press -- and even the fans – the press certainly fueled that fire big-time because, you know, the media loves a good fight, ‘cause it makes for a good story. But I think the fans weren’t so much into the fight, they actually were just really excited that Dave had his own band. They loved Dave when he was in Metallica, so they were excited to hear what he would come up with next, which, you know, was our first record, Killing is My Business. It’s interesting because I think that, to me, Peace Sells was the first record where we really got out from under the shadow of Metallica, from Dave’s past. I think that was a record where we really had our own sound and our own identity, and that’s when we really stood on our own two feet as a band.
Guitarists and singers usually get all the attention, while bassists and drummers are usually relegated to “second fiddle” status. That said, the opening riff for “Peace Sells” is one of the most recognizable bass lines of all time. I know Mustaine wrote most of the music, but did you write that riff?
No, Dave wrote the song, and in fact, that riff, as best I can remember, actually started out… I don’t know if it originally started out as a bass riff or as a guitar riff. But Dave was really big, when we first met, on getting me involved at the forefront of the sound of the band, which was great. As a kid I grew up and studied obviously a ton of metal and hard rock, but I also got into progressive bands and even studied some jazz at one point. The funny thing is, I really don’t even like jazz. It’s not a style of music that I listen to. To me, it was always about the riff and the hook, you know. But I took all that development as a bass player, so by the time I met Dave and we were starting to play progressive riff music, all of a sudden, Dave really championed my abilities and put me up in the front of the band with him as the main “holder of the riff,” so to speak. It was cool that a song like “Peace Sells” all of a sudden gets to open with this bass riff, rather than it being just a guitar riff, ‘cause later on in the song, that’s what the rest of the tune is. You only hear it as a bass riff once in the beginning and then the rest of the time it’s a guitar riff.
There was a time when you couldn’t watch MTV for more than an hour without hearing that riff in the MTV News theme. Did you have any idea how iconic it would become, just those few notes?
It’s interesting because when we did… I guess no, to answer your question, no. That’s the thing. We didn’t set out to prove anything with Peace Sells, other than we were just this young, hungry and homeless thrash metal band. We had no options, we had no backup plan. We weren’t gonna go do something else if this didn’t work. This was what we did, period. I think because of that, you can hear all of the fire and the piss and vinegar and the venomous bite of the record. That comes as a result of basically complete starvation and homelessness.
Can you share your memories of former Megadeth drummer Gar Samuelson? I think he died in ’99, right?
I don’t know exactly the cause of death. I know he was ill for a while. I don’t know if it was liver failure, ultimately, that he died from. I hadn’t been in touch with him in a while. The last time I saw him was at the end of the Rust in Peace tour. We played in Jacksonville, Florida and when we went through he came down to see us. He hadn’t been in the band since about mid- to late ’87, so it had been a few years since I’d seen him, and then I never saw him again after that.
Is it true that he and Chris Poland were kicked out of the band for selling equipment to fund their drug habits?
Yeah, I mean, one of the things about when you’re basically homeless and starving, you also pick up some other bad habits along the way. That was certainly a common thread through Megadeth for a lot of years, and it just got to certain a point… It’s interesting, ‘cause Dave and I were the rock/metal guys, and then Gar and Chris were these rock/fusion guys, and that really gave us a unique sound. That was something really different from what, say, the other members of the Big Four were doing at that time, and any other thrash band, really. I think it allowed us to play really fast and furious, but do it in a much more musical way with Gar and Chris.
It’s no secret that you guys were all partying pretty hard back then. Can you share a crazy story or two from the making of Peace Sells, or is that something you'd rather leave in the past?
Dave and I were definitely the homeless ones. Gar had a job – he worked at BC Rich Guitars. Chris had a wealthy girlfriend, so he didn’t have to work as hard at it. Chris is a phenomenal musician. Gar was a great drummer. But Dave and I were basically full-time Megadeth, all the time. We had dedicated our entire life to this, so I think for us, that began the changeover, once Gar and Chris changed out, throughout all the years, Dave and I were the two constants with two other rotating band members. It wasn’t done that way by design. It just kinda happened that way. But as far as that goes, I mean, when you’re living in Los Angeles, which is a city that’s not a lot of fun if you don’t have any money, it’s a very hard, cold city anyway. So when you’re hangin’ with the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles as a way of survival, you get hooked in with a pretty colorful cast of characters. Quite honestly, at one point, I was living in a rehearsal studio down in Vernon, which is south of downtown, and I remember joining the Holiday Health Spa for 100 bucks a month just so I’d have a place to take a shower.
I’ve read that Mustaine is uncomfortable playing a couple of the songs from Peace Sells that deal with Satanism and the occult. What are your thoughts on those songs? Now that you guys are both practicing Christians, is there any chance we’ll see the album played in its entirety, similar to last year’s Rust in Peace tour?
Well, Dave wrote the lyrics to those couple songs, so for me, I’m not attached to them from the lyrical inception, maybe, in the way that Dave is, but I certainly understand and respect his wish to not play them if he feels uncomfortable with it. We’ve talked about it. Obviously, a lot of people are asking us now if we’re going to play, like, “an evening with the Peace Sells album” kind of thing. We’re open to it, and we’re considering it, but there’s a lot of other things to think about. Plus, it’s a little different right now too, because we’re ramping up a brand new album to come out, and that’s a different trajectory than what we did recently with the Rust in Peace tour, where the last album had already been out for about six months, and then we went and did the 20th anniversary tour. But at the same time, I think at the very least, we’ll continue to play various songs off the Peace Sells album and, depending on the different settings that we may find ourselves in, we may start breaking out a few of the tunes that we haven’t played in a long time just because of the 25th anniversary this year.
From a fan’s point of view, Peace Sells is probably running neck-and-neck with Rust in Peace as Megadeth’s greatest album. Where do you think it ranks in the band’s catalog? How do you feel it stacks up against some of the other great 1986 releases from Metallica, Slayer, Kreator, Nuclear Assault, Possessed, Flotsam and Jetsam and others?
I think it’s definitely one of the forerunners. I think because of the connection between Megadeth and Metallica and both of us being on major labels, I don’t know what the sales stats are, but I know Peace Sells sold very, very well. Those sales are just a result of the gravity that we got off of that, that so many people gravitated toward the record after all these years. Even Metallica didn’t do a video until several years later on their following record, but for us, “Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying?” was our first video that we did and it was the first single. I remember when “Headbangers Ball” was only 30 minutes at 12 noon during the day. It was this little test show that they were putting on, and then it took off to the point where, a couple years later, it was a two-hour show on Saturday night. It was cool that, in those days, there was only a Twisted Sister, a Quiet Riot and maybe an Iron Maiden and a Van Halen video. That was “Headbangers Ball.” There wasn’t a lot of videos. “Peace Sells” was one of the very first videos that got on there very early on.
I just remember watching “Headbangers Ball” back in the day and wishing they’d put all the thrash metal in one block, like a half-hour block. It would’ve been great to have a DVR back then so you could fast-forward through all the White Lion and shit.
Well, it’s interesting, ‘cause you mentioned all those other records. Certainly our contemporaries in Kreator, Overkill, obviously Metallica, Slayer and Anthrax, we were all out working, but we were definitely the underbelly of metal, which was thrash metal. It was a moment in time where thrash… there were a few of us -- namely Metallica, Megadeth and Anthrax – who actually had songs that could kinda break into the mainstream a little bit, especially with MTV. That was kinda the first time that thrash metal ever really reared its head into the mainstream, was, for us, with “Peace Sells.” It was cool for us because we realized that we had all this ferocious musical ability within the band. There was this really intriguing songwriting ability within the band, and these very tongue-in-cheek, captivating lyrics and concepts that we had, but we also realized that we could write a really simple, heavy hook, like the song “Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying?” We realized that we’ve got an ability to take our music into the mainstream by being able to write songs like that. It wasn’t like we had to try to do it. It was something that was inherently natural in how we were as a band.
So where do you think Peace Sells stacks up in your own catalog? Or are they like your children, where you can’t rank them or play favorites?
It’s kinda like that. They are like our children, and it is hard, because every one of them was a different moment in time. There was a different set of band members in certain cases. There were different things going on musically, politically, even just personally in our own lives. Every album kind of hinged on a transition point personally for us, so they all, to me, hold significance. It’s funny with Megadeth, ‘cause we kind of went every other album. Killing is My Business was rough and raw, and then by Peace Sells, that was one where we got to go ring the bell. So Far, So Good… So What was another transition album with a different lineup, but by the time we did Rust in Peace, it was solid again. I think that’s why Peace Sells and Rust in Peace are heralded as these two classic Megadeth albums and two of the staples in the, say, Top 20 or Top 50 thrash records. Those were records that were really stable for Megadeth too.
You’ve lived here in the Valley for several years now and even started a church here, MegaLife Ministries. The website looks like it hasn’t been updated in couple years. Are you still involved with that?
Yeah, in fact there’s a different website for it now. It’s just MegaLifeAZ.org. I helped get that started four, almost five years ago. Obviously, I attend it. I’m still there, but I’m not active with it week-to-week now that I’m back out on tour all the time again. That’s just something that became a passion for me, especially as a parent with little kids and everything. That’s something that’s kind of a different transition of my life, which I guess is kind of funny when you look back at songs like “The Conjuring” and “Bad Omen,” and now I end up being active in ministry work. [laughs]
That’s pretty much all I’ve got for you. Thanks for taking the time to talk. Is there anything else you wanted to add?
Nope. That’s it, man. I appreciate you giving the album the attention. It’s definitely a dark, ominous and scary sounding record, and that’s part of its charm.
Read about the other great thrash albums of 1986:
Part 1: Metallica - Master of Puppets
Part 2: Destruction - Eternal Devastation
Part 3: Flotsam and Jetsam - Doomsday for the Deceiver
Part 4: Slayer - Reign in Blood
Part 5: Nuclear Assault - Game Over
Part 6: Possessed - Beyond the Gates
Part 7: Dark Angel - Darkness Descends