40 Moments for 40 Years

Dave Mustaine’s troubled two-year stint in Metallica came to an end on April 11, 1983, when his ex-bandmates packed up his gear and put him on a bus home. On that same trip, Mustaine read a paper that used the word “megadeath” and his future began to take shape.

Decades later, he remained a somewhat controversial figure, often ready to say what others might not. But Mustaine also amassed a catalog of powerful thrash music – expressive, character-loaded art that illustrates the strength of personality that’s driven his determination.

Below are 40 moments that made Megadeth’s leader the metal icon he is today:

Almost immediately after his return to California, Mustaine formed a band named Fallen Angels, which featured singer Lor Caine, guitarist Robby McKinney and bassist Matt Kisselstein. He didn’t manage to recruit a drummer, so the group never performed live – but he did write two songs, “Devil’s Island” and “Megadeath.”

Two months later, Mustaine met bassist David Ellefson and found in him an artist with a shared ambition. While various other band members came and went, the lineup first known as Megadeth was completed with drummer Lee Rausch.

Mustaine, Ellefson and Rausch recorded a three-track demo tape called Last Rites in 1984, featuring the songs “Last Rites/Loved to Deth,” “The Skull Beneath the Skin” and “Mechanix.” All of them would appear on future albums.

Listen to Megadeth’s ‘Last Rites/Loved to Deth’

Slayer’s Kerry King was briefly a member of Megadeth as Mustaine struggled to find a compatible second guitarist. After a series of live appearances, jazz drummer Gar Samuelson and his guitarist bandmate Chris Poland were hired, completing the lineup.

Mustaine opted to sign with Combat Records because the independent label was willing to invest $8,000 in Megadeth’s first album. After spending half of that amount on partying, Mustaine dismissed producer Karat Faye and completed the record himself. Killing is My Business … and Business is Good! was released in June 1985, impressing with its musicianship if not its production.

Listen to Megadeth’s ‘Skull Beneath the Skin’ Demo

6. Vic Rattlehead
Mustaine created the band mascot Vic Rattlehead while thinking about the phrase “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” based on his interpretation of the line in his song “The Skull Beneath the Skin.” He explained that “Vic” was short for “victim” and “Rattlehead” came from his mother’s warning that he’d “rattle something loose” in his head if he continued to head bang. Unfortunately, Combat Records mislaid the original approved artwork for Killing is My Business … and Business is Good!, then came up with a shoddy alternative concept. Mustaine was furious, but couldn’t oversee its replacement until a 2002 reissue.

For their first major tour, the drug-addled Poland was briefly replaced by guitarist Mike Albert. Poland was back by the time Megadeth started to record their second album, Peace Sells … but Who’s Buying. Released in September 1986 after Capitol Records bought the rights from Combat, the LP sparked Megadeth’s first hit in the title track while becoming regarded as a masterpiece of the thrash genre. Both Poland and Samuelson were fired soon after the subsequent tour ended as a result of their addiction issues.

Watch Megadeth’s ‘Peace Sells’ Video

Megadeth’s third album arrived in January 1988. So Far, So Good … So What! would be the only project to feature guitarist Jeff Young and drummer Chuck Behler, who were both fired after the supporting world tour. Album highlights included a cover of “Anarchy in the U.K.,” although with different lyrics since Mustaine had misheard the original. Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones made a guest appearance on the track, which became a crowd favorite at concerts for several years.

Watch Megadeth’s ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’ Video

The historical “Troubles” that plagued Ireland for more than a century are a sensitive issue so when Dave Mustaine made a misguided comment to an audience in Northern Ireland in 1988, it led to severe consequences. He dedicated “Anarchy in the U.K.” to “the case” and then added: “Let’s give Ireland back to the Irish.” A riot ensued between audience members.

Megadeth’s fourth album was another trendsetter. Mustaine came up with the title Rust in Peace after seeing a sign that said, “May all your nuclear weapons rust in peace.” Poland came close to rejoining but backed out, opening the door for new guitarist Marty Friedman. Drummer Nick Menza was also featured on a set that delivered two hit singles in “Holy Wars … the Punishment Due” (informed by his Irish experience) and “Hangar 18.” Despite its success, Mustaine subsequently revealed that he now had drug problems: “I was so out in the open with my debauchery and the fact that if you didn’t like it, I would fight you.”

Watch the Megadeth’s ‘Holy Wars … The Punishment Due’ Video

If there was any doubt that Megadeth was a big deal, that was dispelled during the 1990-91 Clash of the Titans road trip in North America, co-headlined by Slayer and Anthrax. The idea was “a team effort where we’d have to put our egos aside,” Ellefson later recalled. “That was probably the biggest clash of the titans – not with the outside world, but internally!” Testament also did a stint on the tour, and frontman Chuck Billy admitted that “there was definitely some butting of heads – between Kerry [King] and Dave Mustaine, myself and Dave Mustaine … Dave Mustaine and Dave Mustaine. [Laughs.] In the end, we all worked through it.”

Megadeth managed to keep the same lineup for their fifth album, which once again delivered the goods by way of three successful singles – “Symphony of Destruction,” “Sweating Bullets” and “Skin o’ My Teeth.” Countdown to Extinction attracted a Grammy nomination and a Humane Society award. All four members also contributed to the songwriting, which Mustaine subsequently recalled as a “major accomplishment.”

Watch Megadeth’s ‘Symphony of Destruction’ Video

The classic lineup continued to pursue greater success with Megadeth’s sixth album, which arrived in November 1994. Excited by technological developments, Mustaine aimed to record Youthanasia entirely to hard drives instead of tape, but the computers weren’t quite up to it. In the 2004 reissue liner notes, Mustaine said a series of “outrageous emotional interventions” were required as he tried to give the others as much creative input as they wanted, while also attempting to preserve what he believed was a successful format.

Mustaine decided to indulge his desire to explore a more punk sound in 1996, forming a side project called MD.45 with Fear singer Lee Ving, his bassist Kelly LeMieux and future Megadeth drummer Jimmy DeGrasso. Initially, Mustaine was focusing purely on guitar, leaving the vocals to someone else. MD.45 released one album, The Craving, but never played live. Then Mustaine created a remaster eight years later that featured his voice and got an angry response from Ving, who said he was never consulted.

Listen to MD.45’s ‘The Creed’

Safely back in the Megadeth fold, Mustaine led the charge into their seventh album, which was released in June 1997. The process was lengthy, Friedman later recalled, yet enjoyable. “It took around a year from note one to mixing. It was rather painless; a lot of it was written on the road and then some of it when we got home, so it wasn’t a terribly intensive year of writing. The stuff came together naturally.” Some fans expressed disappointment that Megadeth seemed to be straying ever further from their thrash roots, but the pursuit of mainstream exposure worked: All four singles – “Trust,” “Almost Honest,” “Use the Man” and “A Secret Place” – from Cryptic Writings earned rock-radio airplay.

Megadeth’s stable lineup finally gave out in 1998, when Menza was required to undergo surgery and DeGrasso was invited to stand in. Mustaine decided he preferred working with DeGrasso, and Menza claimed he received a call while hospitalized telling him his “services were no longer required.” Mustaine said the LP was inspired by a suggestion from former bandmate Lars Ulrich, who said Mustaine should take more risks with his music. The results didn’t please everyone. Risk also marked the end of the line for Freidman, who quit after a dispute over the track “Breadline.”

Listen to Megadeth’s ‘Breadline’

Responding to the disappointment of Risk, Megadeth refocused on heavier music, mainly written by Mustaine. Al Pitrelli was the new second guitarist for the band’s ninth LP, released in May 2001. Unfortunately, this middle-ground approach didn’t appear to do enough for anyone either, and The World Needs a Hero was only a moderate success.

The band’s mascot caused problems during the 2001 tour in support of The World Needs a Hero. Authorities in Malaysia decided that Vic Rattlehead was an inappropriate image for young people, had the album removed from store shelves and threatened Megadeth with arrest if they attempted to perform there. “I recognize what the Malaysian government is trying to do, and it is admirable of them trying to protect the young people in the country,” Mustaine told the Las Vegas Sun, “but it just shows the degree of ignorance and apathy that the government has toward the problem.” In the end, he argued that “most politicians are crookeder than a dog’s hind leg.”

Listen to Megadeth’s ‘Dread and the Fugitive Mind’

Mustaine surprised fans in 2002 by announcing that Megadeth was over. He’d relapsed into addiction, checked into rehab then fallen asleep on a chair, only to discover when he woke up that his arm was paralyzed. “My doctors tell me it will take about a year to make as complete a recovery as I can,” Mustaine said in an official statement, “and even then, we don’t know how complete that is going to be. I am working hard with a great team of doctors and physical therapists daily – and God willing, someday I hope to play guitar again.”

Mustaine had plenty of time to think during his recovery, and one of the results was his conversion to Christianity. “I believe in a spiritual world as much as I did when I got involved with the dark stuff, like black magic,” he told Kerrang! “If there’s a dark side, there must be a light side. I think a lot of spirituality comes from doing good things for people, like playing songs with a positive message – that’s the payoff, I think. Likewise, if you’re cutting people down, making them feel bad and demonizing them, that will deplete you and turn you into a spiritual vampire.”

In the aftermath of the split, Ellefson sued Mustaine for $18 million in 2004, claiming he’d been promised control of the band corporation. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed, but the resulting bad blood remained for years.

After long bouts of physical therapy, Dave Mustaine returned to full health and set to work on a new album. He originally saw it as a solo project but The System Has Failed was ultimately released in September 2004 as a Megadeth title for contractual reasons. Working for the first time without Ellefson, Mustaine hired session bassist Jimmie Lee Sloas and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. Chris Poland also returned to assist with guitar duties. In a statement, Mustaine called the sessions a “liberating” experience as he enjoyed more control than he’d had since Megadeth’s first two albums.

Listen to Megadeth’s ‘Of Mice and Men’

Mustaine’s former bandmates in Metallica had been going through hell in the early ‘00s, as documented in the 2004 movie Some Kind of Monster. One of the most powerful scenes is when Mustaine and Ulrich discuss what went down between them. Mustaine later told MTV that he’d been misrepresented: “If you watch the stuff linearly, it’s totally different. They filmed three hours of us together and they only used about five minutes. Why didn’t they use the part where Lars gets up and walks to the bathroom crying because I let him have it because of the shit that happened?”

Mustaine considered abandoning Megadeth in the years following The System Has Failed but eventually decided to continue with an all-new full-time lineup consisting of bassist James LoMenzo, guitarist Glen Drover and drummer Shawn Drover. He once again kept most of the songwriting duties for himself on United Abominations, released in May 2007.

Watch Metallica’s ‘Never Walk Alone … A Call to Arms’ Video

Mustaine was named global goodwill ambassador in 2007 by the World Taekwondo Federation. He said martial art was “one of the things that changed my life. It helped me to eliminate a bad lifestyle of drug and alcoholism. It helped me to believe inside of myself and find the strength inside of myself that I never knew that I possessed.”

Megadeth released Endgame in September 2008 with yet another new guitarist: Chris Broderick took over for Glen Drover. Mustaine told Rolling Stone that this 12th album was a deliberate attempt to recapture the band’s earlier energy: “I started to really push the envelope, and write songs that were really super aggressive, and had a lot of guitar playing. It was almost self-indulgent with the guitar soloing. I realized, ‘Dave, you’re not a guitar player for making songs for the radio. You had a couple of songs that you were successful with the radio, but that ain’t your style.’”

Watch Megadeth’s ‘Head Crusher’ Video

LoMenzo agreed to step back in 2010 and let David Ellefson resume his position after Megadeth’s original bassist resolved his differences with Mustaine. “Dave got to re-correct Megadeth to be what he wanted it to be and not always having to listen to advisors and managers and people he was getting frustrated with,” Ellefson later argued. “When we came back together, we came back together better friends, better artists, musicians – and I think we kind of understood the roles that we each play maybe a little better.” He said their 2002 split “turned out to be, in hindsight, probably the best thing for all of us.”

Thrash fans also saw one of their longest-standing dreams come true in 2010 when Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax performed together on the same stage. It had been a long time coming and it never happened again, but the 14 shows delivered over 17 months were convincing enough to leave followers wanting more. Mustaine reunited with his former Metallica bandmates during a key moment in Bulgaria in June that was broadcast live across the world, hugging each of them in turn.

Ellefson’s three-album studio absence ended when Thirteen was released in November 2011. The project was advanced by “Sudden Death,” a song created for the video game Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock. Mustaine was jubilant. “I know I’ve alluded to stopping at some point,” he told Guitar World, “but then it’s always gotten real good and discouraged me from wanting to hang my harps up.”

Listen to Megadeth’s ‘Sudden Death’

Mustaine dove into another side project in 2012, this time with former Anthrax guitarist Dan Spitz. He said their collaboration as Red Lamb happened after Mustaine “just fell in love with the music and as a friend offered: ‘Can I take this from you and kind of help?’” Mustaine contributed vocals and produced Red Lamb’s self-titled album, their only release to date.

Mustaine also had neck surgery in 2012, years after his mom warned him about headbanging. He damaged his back after years of repetitive action and required the insertion of a metal plate. “It’s one thing to have a bulging disc and have stuff fused together, but when they find broken pieces of bone in your spinal cord, that stuff causes pain,” he said afterward. “And I wasn’t gonna let it affect me or keep me from going on stage and playing. I probably hurt myself more by going out there like that, but you know.”

Mustaine, Ellefson, Broderick and Drover aimed to go “a little darker … a little faster” with Megadeth’s 14th album, released in June 2013. Some listeners regretted a few of Mustaine’s lyrics, his vocal delivery and the hint of a turn back toward the mainstream, but Super Collider nevertheless became the band’s highest-charting LP since 1994’s Youthanasia.

Listen to Megadeth’s ‘Kingmaker’

In 2015, Metallica launched a limited-edition version of No Life ’Til Leather, the 1982 demo tape that featured Mustaine. The band also announced plans to launch an expanded general release, but the idea was shelved in a dispute over songwriting credits. “I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Mustaine told Billboard a couple of years later. “We talked about it a little bit, and there are certain things about the way Lars wants things to go down, and it’s just not going to happen. They want to say things happened one way, and it didn’t happen that way. I can’t go along with that. I can’t fabricate stuff.”

Mustaine hoped the lineup he had would continue until Megadeth reached a natural conclusion, but that wasn’t to be. Not long after he revealed plans to begin work on the group’s 15th album, Broderick and Drover announced their tandem departures. They resurfaced in the band, Act of Defiance, while Mustaine recruited Lamb of God drummer Chris Adler and Angra guitarist Kiko Loureiro.

Beyond the lineup change, Megadeth also had to deal with Ellefson losing his brother to cancer and Mustaine losing his mother to Alzheimer’s. It was also later revealed that Mustaine held talks about reuniting the Rust in Peace lineup with Friedman and Menza, but the bid failed. Despite all of these challenges, Dystopia proved to be a return to form when it arrived in January 2016, reaching No. 3 in the U.S.

Watch Megadeth’s ‘Dystopia’ Video

Megadeth finally won a Grammy in 2017 after nine nominations, earning a Best Metal Performance trophy for Dystopia. What should have been a great moment was rendered somewhat awkward, however, when the house band launched into a track by Metallica. Mustaine said he was unfazed. “They could have played any song by anybody, and it wouldn’t have mattered because that was our moment,” he told Billboard. “‘Oh, Megadeth, Metallica, we don’t know any Megadeth, but we do know this one Metallica song, so let’s play this. You think he’ll get mad? I don’t think so, let’s hope not. Hit it, Lefty!’ And then we get up there and go, ‘Boy, that was the worst fucking version of ‘Master of Puppets’ I’ve ever heard.’ But that kind of stuff, you’ve just won a Grammy and you’re going to worry about some house band doing a cover song in the background?”

Watch Megadeth’s Grammy Acceptance Speech

Mustaine announced he’d been diagnosed with throat cancer in 2019, and went on to undergo nine chemotherapy sessions and 51 radiation treatments. Later the same year, he confirmed he’d been given the all-clear. “It sounds bizarre, but I kind of knew,” Mustaine told Metal Hammer. “I took good care of myself. I’d done everything my doctors told me to do. I had tons of support from family and friends. And I had lots of prayer. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I expected it. I had faith that I was going to be healed.”

Ellefson got caught up in a sex scandal in 2021 after images circulated of him engaging in “adult interactions” with a fan, and Mustaine moved quickly to dismiss him. He called it a “hard decision,” but “when you’re the leader, you’re the one that has to suck it up and face the music. I have made mistakes myself and so I know what it feels like to have people gunning for you. But what we had to remember is that Megadeth has a lot of moving parts to it. There are four band members, you’ve got their families, their management companies, the agencies, all of their technicians and on and on and on.”

Ellefson already tracked his contributions to Megadeth’s 16th album, but to make a clean break Mustaine opted to hire a replacement in the form of Testament bassist Steve Di Giorgio. Adler had already bowed out, to be replaced by new drummer Dirk Verbeuren. The resulting 12-track The Sick, The Dying … and the Dead! was hailed as another career high, with six singles released to support visibility. “For the first time in a long time,” Mustaine said in a statement, “everything that we needed on this record is right in its place.”

Watch Megadeth’s ‘We’ll Be Back’ Video

Mustaine hinted in 2022 that discussions were held concerning a musical project with James Hetfield, but that they stalled amid the No Life ’Til Leather dispute. “We were talking about getting back together and doing a project,” he told Guitar.com. “Something had come up about the publishing discrepancy that we have been arguing about for years and years and years, and I told James, ‘I’ll do it but we’ve got to get this stuff sorted out first’ – and he said, ‘Oh yeah, sure.’” Then Mustaine told Hetfield that there were “three sides” to every story, consisting of one person’s perspective and a second person’s perspective with the truth somewhere in between. Mustaine said the idea “blew his mind, and we haven’t talked since.”

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