[28 July 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The definitive Megadeth album is without a doubt 1990’s Rust in Peace. When it came to the songwriting of singer/guitarist Dave Mustaine, the technical proficiency of the four band members, the epic scale of the record, and the combination of the extreme and the accessible, that album got it right on every level. However, if you ask anyone who followed Megadeth during the 1980s what their sentimental favorite album is, most will mention 1986’s Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying?
Back in the fall of 1986, the band, led by former Metallica lead guitarist Dave Mustaine, was still very obscure—the 1985 debut, Killing Is My Business… and Business Is Good!, was known strictly by denizens of the heavy metal underground. Despite the charm of that first album, Megadeth had plenty of catching up to do compared to the other bands that would come to be known as the “Big Four” of American thrash metal. Metallica was at the absolute top of its game, releasing the career-defining Master of Puppets early that year. Slayer shocked everyone with the blistering, 28 minute masterpiece Reign in Blood seven months later. Anthrax had made enormous strides the previous year with Spreading the Disease and was on the cusp of becoming a top-tier act. It wouldn’t be until 1987 that Megadeth would make an impact thanks to Peace Sells, when the video for the title track made its way on to MTV, its mid-song “This is the news!” resonating with kids everywhere. A quarter century later, the original 1986 mix of Peace Sells has been given a spit and polish, reissued in expanded form, for old fans to revisit and hopefully new young listeners to discover like the rest of us did way back when.
Twenty-five years ago, Peace Sells… hit record stores with only minimal hype. Like Slayer and Metallica, there were no music videos promoting the record in advance, but Megadeth’s fan base was just a fraction of what those other two bands were. They still had a lot of work to do. What they did have, though, was an album that made a strong first impression visually, with eye-catching artwork featuring a brilliant, vivid, unforgettable image by artist Ed Repka. Best of all was that title. It was smart, it was cynical, it was appropriate for Reagan-era America, it was hilarious. For those of us who had not yet heard Megadeth that year, the brilliance of the artwork and title was enough to convince us to take that blind leap. And as we’d find out as soon as we played the album, the payoff would be massive.
Peace Sells… is always associated with its two landmark singles, and for good reason. There was nothing like “Wake Up Dead” then, and there’s been nothing since. Structurally the 3:41 track is all over the map, boasting three distinct grooves, many memorable riffs and solo after solo. While much of the credit goes to songwriter Mustaine, the efforts of the rest of the band are what make the track work so well. Guitarist Chris Poland and drummer Gar Samuelson were experienced jazz fusion players before joining Megadeth, and it shows here as the tempo shifts are graceful, the rhythm riffs and beats strangely funk-infused for a thrash metal track. The title track, meanwhile, has gone on to be the band’s most enduring song. Built around an infectious, ominous bass line by David Ellefson and a deceptively simple rhythm riff, “Peace Sells” was the kind of eloquent, angry rallying cry that young metal fans craved—it’s high time you took this generation seriously—and it was the one moment where Megadeth totally beat Metallica, Slayer, and Anthrax to the punch. When the video was released in early 1987, it became an MTV smash, instantly putting Megadeth on the mainstream metal map, proving an underground metal band could make a music video and emerge with its integrity intact. Anthrax was already making videos but had no real hit until 1987. Metallica would eventually cave in with a video in 1989, and Slayer would follow a year later.
Dig past those two central tracks, however, and Peace Sells… turns out to be just as rewarding, not to mention eclectic. The galloping “Devil’s Island” bears a striking similarity to Mustaine’s compositions from his Metallica days and is bolstered by a strong vocal performance. “Good Mourning/Black Friday” is an effective six-and-a-half-minute suite, the opening two-and-a-half-minutes highlighted by Poland’s solos at the beginning before launching into a breakneck pace. The ornate opening of “My Last Words” foreshadows the more refined, fully-realized Megadeth we hear on Rust in Peace four years later, while “Bad Omen” boasts a nasty funk groove by Samuelson that the band has never duplicated since. The best of the non-singles, though, is “The Conjuring”, which for all its simplicity turns out to be a very sinister touch of Satanic metal, very much in the vein of Mercyful Fate. Only does the awkward cover of Jeff Beck’s “I Ain’t Superstitious” fail to hold up alongside the other tracks, the one moment that keeps Peace Sells… from being a perfect album.
Fans will be pleased to know that the version we hear on this 25th anniversary reissue is the original 1986 mix by Paul Lani, but unfortunately the remaster takes things too far. Yes, it’s good to hear the cymbals and bass a little more prominently, but in keeping with the ongoing “loudness wars”, the decibel levels on each track are cranked to the hilt. While it’s tolerable on the more mid-paced songs, during the faster moments on “Devil’s Island”, “Black Friday”, and “My Last Words”, the sound clips and distorts to an annoying degree. In comparison, Mustaine’s 2004 remix of the album sounds far superior to the unacceptable version here. In addition, while it’s nice to read detailed liner notes by Mustaine and a benevolent Lars Ulrich (a nice olive branch after years of petty rivalry), leaving out the album’s lyrics was a mistake.
What is sure to interest longtime fans more is the second disc in the new reissue, which features a full live set recorded in 1987. First, the soundboard recording is very crude, with rhythm guitars and tom-toms buried deep in the mix. However, what the 12 song performance does very well is show just how potent a live act Megadeth was at the time. The songs are performed with tremendous energy and precision, and Mustaine’s voice is a much more vicious snarl compared to what we hear today. The four members might not have gotten along, but onstage they were a tight unit with something to prove. Plus, if anything, it’s a treat to hear “The Conjuring” and “Bad Omen” performed live. Mustaine, who has since become a born-again Christian, prefers not to perform those songs today. Although it’s totally within his right to refuse to play tracks he’s personally embarrassed by, for the rest of us it sure is fun to hear the 25- year-old Mustaine play those songs with absolute conviction.
After the subsequent sacking of Poland and Samuelson, bigger things would be on the horizon for Megadeth (1988’s ferocious So Far So Good… So What!, the classic Rust in Peace, 1992’s massively popular Countdown to Extinction), but the band’s core audience from the early days continue to—justifiably—hold that second album on a pedestal. While the songs on Peace Sells… hold up exceptionally well to this day, what the “special edition” fans were so looking forward to is nowhere near as special as it should have been.
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Editor’s Note: The original 1986 album rates a 9.