In 1983 and 1984, as hard rock bands were starting to dominate record sales, such as Mötley Crüe, Ratt, Twisted Sister, Def Leppard, and Quiet Riot, the seeds for what would eventually form the core of true American heavy metal music were being sown underground. Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, and Megadeth would go on to greatly influence the genre for the next two decades. Listening to all four of the bands’ debut albums today, it’s clear that they were all on the verge of something massive.
Metallica’s legendary Kill ‘Em All took the New Wave of British Heavy Metal influence of Diamond Head and Motorhead (to name but a few) to the next level, this time with an American streetpunk aesthetic. Slayer’s Show No Mercy continued where the macabre Mercyful Fate and Venom left off, only this time with stunning speed, intensity, and musicianship. Anthrax’s Fistful of Metal was pure, old school Judas Priest-styled metal, with New York attitude. Finally, there was Megadeth’s Killing is My Business . . . and Business is Good!, which, in retrospect, turned out to be several years ahead of its time, and the best album of the lot.
Back in the 1980s, Megadeth’s first album just didn’t do it for me, and I had good reason to blow it off. To put it simply, the production stunk. The sound was muddy, the drums drowned out the guitars, and the vocals were lost somewhere in the thick aural fog that was the mix. Also, back then, cassettes didn’t come with lyrics, so we had no idea what vocalist/guitarist Dave Mustaine was saying. Granted, it was very good, but it paled in comparison to Megadeth’s sophomore effort, Peace Sells . . . but Who’s Buying?, the first Megadeth album I fell in love with back in late 1986.
Now, thanks to Loud Records, Killing is My Business . . . has been remixed and rereleased, and the result is astounding. When longtime Megadeth fans put this new CD into their stereos, press play, and hear the crystalline piano intro of “Last Rites” segue with a roar into the frenetic “Loved to Deth”, it’ll send chills down their thirtysomething necks, and they’ll be headbanging and air-guitaring like it’s 1985 all over again.
Megadeth got off to a slower start than the other three bands, due mainly to Mustaine’s now infamous firing from Metallica. As the story goes, right before they were about to start recording Kill ‘Em All in New York, Mustaine was woken up by the other three members, and told he was fired. When he asked when his plane left, the band handed him a bus ticket to the West Coast. As Mustaine writes in the album’s excellent new liner notes, “When I left New York, after getting fired from Metallica, all I remembered is that I wanted blood. Theirs.” Spurred on by visions of revenge that would eventually dominate his early years in Megadeth, Mustaine spent 1984 developing his new band, featuring teenaged Minnesotan Dave Ellefson on bass, jazz guitarist Chris Poland, and jazz-influenced drummer Gar Samuelson.
Released in 1985, Killing is My Business . . . came out a little over a year after the other three bands debuts, but compared to those three albums, Megadeth sounds more confident, more intricate, more musically diverse, and tight as hell. Just listen to the opening bars of the title track: Mustaine and Poland pull off a mesmerizing, descending guitar riff more influenced by boogie-woogie than anything else, as Ellefson bass and Samuelson’s jazz-influenced drum punctuations back it up perfectly. Suddenly there’s a tempo change, and the guitar work gets even more intricate, a repeating riff that’s as fast as most guitar solos, and Samuelson’s drumming kicks it up several notches, proof that, at the time, he could easily drum circles around someone like Lars Ulrich. With its speed and musical dexterity, Killing is My Business . . . predated the soon-to-be popular form of thrash metal by at least two years.
The album blazes on at a furious pace, and being a 1985 metal album, the subject matter, though now a bit dated, is such a refreshing change from the suburban angst that dominates today’s nu-metal. Instead, we’re treated to fun scenarios like a song based on The Punisher comic book (“Killing is My Business . . .”), the occult (“The Skull Beneath the Skin”), and the deliriously bombastic Christ point-of-view on “Looking Down the Cross”. In the liner notes, Mustaine confirms longtime speculation that “Chosen Ones” was partially inspired by Tim the Enchanter from Monty Python & the Holy Grail, adding some sly humor to a usually dour genre.
“Rattlehead” was to Megadeth as “Whiplash” was to Metallica, the typical “bang yer head” song that we kids loved way back when. Of course, the most intriguing song on the album has always been “Mechanix”, Mustaine’s angry response to Metallica using his song on Kill ‘Em All, only to rename it “The Four Horsemen”. Metallica’s version went on to become legendary, but Mustaine’s “Mechanix” holds its own. Although Mustaine’s idiotic lyrics about sex in a garage pale in comparison to Metallica’s apocalyptic vision, Megadeth’s version is much tighter and much faster, brilliantly played by all four members.
The one big change on this rerelease is the band’s phenomenal cover of “These Boots”, originally made famous by Nancy Sinatra. After its release, songwriter Lee Hazelwood was offended by Mustaine’s hilarious reworking of the lyrics, and eventually forced the band to issue later prints of the album without the song. It appears for the first time on CD here, but in a surreally censored fashion, since Hazelwood still has yet to grant permission to Mustaine to release the cover in its complete version. So instead of hearing all the lyrics, all the naughty bits are “bleeped” out. For new young listeners, it will sound very funny, as stupid and bizarre as anything the Stormtroopers of Death ever did, but for those of us who spent their teen years listening to the complete version, it’s very distracting, and will have us reaching for our old tapes.
Drug problems would eventually force Poland and Samuelson out of the band, but not before Megadeth would record what many consider to be one of their best albums, Peace Sells . . . but Who’s Buying?, the following year. Megadeth would go on to use six different members to fill in those two spots over the next 15 years, with Mustaine and Ellefson forming the core of the band. Since their debut came out, it’s been an up-and-down career for them, with enough dirt piled up to fuel one of the better Behind the Music episodes in recent memories (including how they were flat broke in 1988, at a time when fans considered them to be at their creative peak). Gar Samuelson has since passed away (this album is touchingly dedicated to him), and just recently Mustaine was forced to disband the group, following an accident that caused severe damage to his left arm and hand.
With the long-term future of Megadeth up in the air, it’s as good a time as any to revisit those great early albums, and when longtime fans hear this rerelease of Killing is My Business . . ., they’ll realize it has indeed improved with age.