Megadeth has always been controversial. Like a lot of other metal bands in the 1980s, singer/guitarist Dave Mustaine and company scared parents and pissed off Tipper Gore with aggressive guitar solos, macabre album covers, and songs about war, the occult, and religious and political hypocrisy. Megadeth released its first album in 1985, the same year that Gore’s Parents Resource Music Center convinced major music labels to add warning stickers to albums with potentially offensive lyrics; the band’s second album, Peace Sells... But Who’s Buying? (1986), was among the first records stamped with the now-iconic black-and-white warning label. Mustaine, part of an early lineup of Metallica, feuded with that band for years after he was unceremoniously fired in 1983 for his outrageous consumption of booze and drugs. (When a band that refers to itself as Alcoholica kicks you out for excessive partying, you just might have a problem.) At a show in Northern Ireland in 1988, Mustaine dedicated a song to the IRA, inciting a riot.
Mustaine, now 50, is still provoking outrage these days, but from an altogether different direction. For the last decade or so, Mustaine has openly discussed his born-again religious faith, which seems to have influenced most of his increasingly off-the-wall political rants. In just the last few months, Mustaine has been a consistent source of minor headlines: In December, he complained about the lack of prayer in schools (“They’re taking God out of the schools to dumb us down,” he said on MTV); in February, he expressed support for Rick Santorum’s since-abandoned presidential campaign and suggested that poor African women “put a plug in it” to prevent unwanted pregnancies (“It’s like, you shouldn’t be having children if you can’t feed them,” he said in an interview in LA Weekly); in March, he asserted that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States (“I know he was born somewhere else than America,” he told a Canadian reporter).
It’s been a truly remarkable and notably bizarre round of promotion for the band’s new album, Thirteen, released in November. Mustaine comes off as an uninformed and unlikable clown, which is too bad—his ill-advised motormouth outbursts overshadow the fact that Thirteen is yet another solid late-career album from one of the greatest metal bands ever.
Unlike its peers in the so-called Big Four of late ’80s/early ’90s thrash metal, Megadeth has remained consistently productive. While Metallica’s once-unassailable reputation suffers every time Lars Ulrich opens his mouth and Slayer calcifies into a nostalgia act, Megadeth has recovered from a late-’90s turn toward radio hard rock to string together four consecutive albums—The System Has Failed (2004), United Abominations (2007), Endgame (2009), and Thirteen—that make O.G. thrash seem vital and relevant again. These new albums don’t match the early landmarks Peace Sells and Rust in Peace, but they do show a veteran band still working hard, with imagination, ambition, and discipline.
“After doing it this long, we pretty much know what works, and we definitely know what doesn’t work,” says bassist Dave Ellefson, a founding member of the band who rejoined in 2010 after an eight-year absence. “It’s amazing to think it’s been over two years now and we’ve done one world tour, a new record, and now we’re in the middle of a second world tour. In most ways it feels like I never left. We just kind of picked up business as usual, which is good. It’s interesting, because the band’s probably in higher demand now than it has been in many, many years, if ever.”
Besides Mustaine, the 47-year-old Ellefson was the only constant in Megadeth’s lineup between its inception in 1983—immediately after Mustaine was kicked out of Metallica—and a brief breakup in 2002. After nerve damage to his left hand, Mustaine announced his retirement that year. In 2004, after intensive therapy, he reformed the band but couldn’t reach a financial agreement with Ellefson. (The two even went to court over a royalties dispute; Ellefson’s lawsuit was dismissed.)
Ellefson’s return to the band, just in time for a tour to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Rust in Peace, was a significant boost to Megadeth’s standing in the metal world.
“Some bands have reuniting of original members—well, Dave and I are the original lineup. By and large, the fans like to see us together. Dave and I do two very different things in the band that make the band glued together. Everybody brings something different to the table and by and large it becomes bigger than the sum of its parts. That’s what makes it this cool big rock band.”