Megadeth's career has been marked by plenty of monumental achievements, and high among those many triumphs is 1992's Countdown to Extinction. The band's fifth full-length album, it stands as the band's topmost charting record — it debuted on the Billboard 200 at No. 2 — as well as their best-selling effort, certified double Platinum for more than two million units moved. It also spawned one of their best-known songs, and certainly their biggest single — the menacing but also incredibly melodic, "Symphony of Destruction."
Released on July 14th, 1992, Countdown to Extinction came at a pivotal moment in Megadeth's career. The thrash pioneers, led by former Metallica man Dave Mustaine, debuted in 1985 with the ferociously raw Killing is My Business… And Business is Good! By their fourth album, 1990's landmark Rust in Peace, they were arguably the most combustible and chops-crazed speed-metal unit around, seemingly without peer in their fiery mix of technical skill and tight-as-nails songwriting.
Rust in Peace, which had featured the debut of Megadeth's classic Nineties lineup — Mustaine, stalwart bassist David Ellefson, virtuosic guitarist Marty Friedman and drummer Nick Menza — became their first platinum-selling record, and the band started packing arenas across the U.S. and Europe on the 1990-1991 Clash of the Titans tour, co-headlined by Slayer. After Metallica hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts with their self-titled 1991 effort, Mustaine sensed that the time was ripe for Megadeth to make a similar bid for mainstream glory.
The result was Countdown to Extinction, which filtered Megadeth's trademark thrash aggression and insane instrumental acrobatics through a sharper-focused and more radio-friendly lens. The riffs were more immediate, the choruses catchier and the arrangements more direct and hard-hitting. The songs themselves were also more varied, from the straightforward hard rock of "Symphony of Destruction" and "Skin o' My Teeth," to the lush melodicism of "Foreclosure of a Dream" and the title track, to the jagged thrash-'n'-roll of "Sweating Bullets" and "Ashes in Your Mouth." Lyrically, Mustaine and Co. dug into plenty of hot-topic subject matter: the Gulf War ("Architecture of Aggression"), economic upheaval ("Foreclosure of a Dream," which featured a sound bite of President George Bush's famous "Read my lips" quip), political chicanery ("Symphony of Destruction) and the evils of canned animal hunts ("Countdown to Extinction"), among others.
Mustaine has called Countdown "a turning point" for Megadeth, and indeed it was. "With Countdown to Extinction, Megadeth went from being a flavor of the month to a bona fide supergroup," the singer wrote in his 2010 autobiography, Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir. "The album sold half a million copies very quickly, then a million, and it just … kept … going."
Today, its legacy is not only cemented, but also continues to grow. In 2012, Megadeth released a deluxe reissue of the effort to mark its 20th anniversary, and a corresponding tour saw them playing the entire album in concert, marking the first live performances of tracks like "Architecture of Aggression," "Psychotron" and "Captive Honour." What's more, the sound of Countdown to Extinction can be heard reverberating in the music of myriad modern-day metal titans like Avenged Sevenfold (compare their 2013 song "Heretic" to "Symphony of Destruction," for starters).
"I knew we had a record that could alter the landscape of heavy metal," Mustaine wrote in his book, and in small but noticeable ways, with Countdown, Megadeth did just that. Here are 10 things you might not know about the band's classic fifth LP.
1. Countdown to Extinction was the first album the notoriously addiction-prone Dave Mustaine made "stone sober"
Rust in Peace is often thought to be the record where Megadeth kicked their myriad addictions. But in reality, Dave Mustaine didn't truly embrace clean living until Countdown to Extinction, as he explained to Guitar School in 1993. "When we recorded Killing is My Business... And Business is Good!," he said, "I was doing pot, coke, and heroin. For Peace Sells... But Who's Buying?, it was speed, coke, and heroin. So Far, So Good... So What? was me on heroin and freebase. I was addicted to cigarettes for Rust in Peace. But our new album, Countdown to Extinction, is me pure. I was stone sober."
2. The album was recorded smack in the middle of the 1992 L.A. riots
Megadeth began tracking Countdown to Extinction at The Enterprise studios in Burbank, California, on January 6th, 1992. They were still there four months later when the Los Angeles Riots, set off in the wake of the acquittal of four LAPD officers accused in the beating of Rodney King, shook the city. The riots, which lasted six days and resulted in 63 deaths and more than 2,000 injuries, not only altered the environment around the studio — Mustaine reported seeing tanks and national guardsmen lining the streets — it also affected the band's actual working process. "A curfew was put in place, which meant suddenly I was working banker's hours, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.," the singer recounted in Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir. "Not so good for making a record, a process that typically involves nearly round-the-clock devotion."
3. "Sweating Bullets" was written about a crazy person … but that crazy person was not Dave Mustaine
Given its classic opening couplet, "Hello me/It's me again," as well as the fact that the song is matched with an iconic video featuring a plethora of Dave Mustaines, "Sweating Bullets" is commonly thought to be about Mustaine himself. And in interviews at the time of its release, the singer even said as much. But as Mustaine more recently revealed, "Sweating Bullets" was actually written about a "crazy friend" of his then girlfriend (and later wife), Pam. "They would go to parties all the time," he told Rolling Stone earlier this year. "Her friend would freak out and get in the car and drive off and then I'd get a call from my wife and she'd say, 'Eh, she left me again,' and I'd have to get in the car and come get her. And you think it'd be the other way around having a rock-star boyfriend, at the time, that he'd be calling you to come and get him. So I wrote 'Sweating Bullets' about her friend."
4. The song also inspired a particularly potent cocktail
Pantera's Dimebag Darrell was no stranger to enjoying a good drink or three (nor was he a stranger to Megadeth, whom he almost joined a few years before Countdown). And for many years, Dime's beverage of choice was his own personal concoction, the Black Tooth Grin, the name of which came from a lyric in "Sweating Bullets." Recalled Mustaine to Billboard, "There's a line … which goes, 'Some day you, too, will know my pain/And smile its black tooth grin.' And [Pantera] ended up making a drink called 'Black Tooth Grin,' which was evidently a glass full of Jack Daniels and a splash of Coke, instead of vice versa." Dime's love for the reverse Jack and Coke was so deep that he eventually had the name permanently inked on his body. Said Mustaine, "I remember when we were in Amsterdam and he came up to me in the hallway going, 'Dave! Dave! Look, man! Look at my new tattoo — it's a Black Tooth Grin!'"
5. Countdown to Extinction was kept out of the top spot on the Billboard 200 by Miley Cyrus' dad
Just a year after Metallica topped the charts with the Black Album, Mustaine was gunning for his own No. 1 record with Countdown. And he would have gotten it … had it not for Billy Ray Cyrus, whose "Achy Breaky Heart" was causing a line-dancing sensation across America, and whose debut album, Some Gave All, was firmly ensconced in the top slot. Instead, Mustaine had to settle for No. 2. "When I saw the results," he told the A.V. Club in 2011, "I was mad. I wasn't sitting back and going, 'Yep, it's good to be two.' I wanted that No. 1 spot, and we were fighting for it, and the bummer was the guy we were fighting with. It was Billy Ray Cyrus, 'Achy Breaky Heart.' And all those fat fuckin' housewives in the Midwest, and this guy with this funny haircut, and that song, it just resonated with the American people and people bought into it, and there was no shaking it."
6. Megadeth didn't want Countdown to be merely great — they wanted it to be perfect
Rust in Peace presented Megadeth as a band that played thrash metal with unmatched precision. But Mustaine's fixation on technical and sonic exactitude was pushed to even more extreme ends on Countdown to Extinction, resulting in some unusual recording techniques. "When we had the guitars patched into strobe tuners, we'd bend up until where the tuner would stop dead if we were doing any solos with bends in them," Mustaine told ARTISTdirect.com in 2012. "It was crazy stuff like that." Added Marty Friedman, writing on MartyFriedman.com: "[Countdown] was an unbelievably difficult album to make. [Producer] Max Norman, Dave Mustaine and myself are all uncompromising perfectionists and when you get the three of us together in the studio doing guitars, it turns into a 'let's make it even more perfect' competition. At the end of the day, the record was damn near perfect, but making it was tedious and painstaking."
7. The album's success caused Marty Friedman to take a flying leap.
Mustaine and Ellefson collaborated on the lyrics to the sinewy hard rocker "High Speed Dirt," which took its title from a phrase for what happens when a sky diver's parachute fails to deploy, resulting in the unfortunate jumper hitting the ground at high velocity and potentially causing death. A skydiving enthusiast (he demonstrated his skills on a memorable 1992 episode of MTV's Headbangers Ball), Mustaine had remarked in an interview that year that parachuting had "replaced a lot of the addictive feelings I used to have." He added that Marty Friedman remained the only member of the band who had yet to complete a jump, but that the guitarist pledged that "when the album goes platinum, he'll do it." As Friedman later wrote on his website, "The damn thing went double platinum!!" And so he fulfilled his promise. "When I hit the ground, I remember saying that I wanted to do it again," the guitarist reported of the experience, "but after about a day or so I realized that once was enough."
8. The Ellefson family farm inspired the words to "Foreclosure of a Dream"
David Ellefson was the primary writer behind the lyrics to "Foreclosure of a Dream," which addressed the impact of Reagan-era agricultural policies on family farms. The bassist, whose parents had had their farm in Minnesota foreclosed upon, told Songfacts.com, "It was speaking specifically about the hardships that the farmers were having, that started when I left home in 1983 when I went to California. So it was a three-year time when we saw Farm Aid and really the implosion of the farming community that was largely based on Ronald Reagan's policies." The song's title, meanwhile, had come years earlier. "[It] was a title that we saw back in 1986 when Dave [Mustaine] and I went back to my mom and dad's farm in Minnesota," Ellefson explained. "And we saw on TV, there was a title that said 'Foreclosure of a Dream' or 'Foreclosure of the Dream' — something like that." He continued, "Fast-forward to 1991, we're writing what would become Countdown to Extinction, and Dave says, 'Let's use that title.'"
9. Megadeth's 1993 tour was briefly interrupted when Dave Mustaine required treatment at a rehabilitation facility
Mustaine may have been sober when Megadeth began recording Countdown, but as the band got deeper into their tour in support of the album, he was, as he recounted in his autobiography, "well on my way to becoming a mess." In time, Mustaine began drinking again, and soon cultivated a daily Valium habit. A Japanese tour in the spring of 1993 was cancelled when Mustaine entered a rehab facility in Arizona, where he underwent seven weeks of intensive impatient treatment and counseling. After the band resumed the Countdown tour, Megadeth's management instituted a strict policy that required the band members to pledge to abstain from all drugs and alcohol on the road, as well as sign a confidentiality clause forbidding any discussion of events that occurred on tour or in the studio. It was, Mustaine explained in his autobiography, "extreme measures to deal with an extreme problem."
10. Countdown to Extinction gave Megadeth their biggest hit … and also led to an identity crisis.
Countdown to Extinction's mainstream success, combined with changing trends in hard rock and heavy metal in the Nineties, led to several years where Megadeth found themselves somewhat adrift. "It basically started after Countdown to Extinction where the logo changed, our look changed," Mustaine told Bonfire Shows in 2016. "We were supposed to start growing facial hair, [and were told], 'Take the points off your 'M' letter on your logo, get rid of your mascot and stuff.'"
Mustaine continued, "You've gotta remember, Countdown came in at No. 2. So we thought, Wow! This feels great. Now we're starting to get some direction. This is how you'll be great. You listen to people who have some credibility. And we did, but it didn't work. So it took a little while for us to sort stuff out and for me to figure out where it is that we went off-roading, so to speak. And I think we're there right now. We're happy. Everybody's jamming."