Megadeth's 1985 debut full-length, Killing Is My Business… And Business Is Good, was well-received by both fans and critics, but singer, guitarist and bandleader Dave Mustaine was barely staying afloat following its release. Thrash metal was his business, and business was not good at all. Money was scarce, and every day Mustaine found himself "scratching and clawing to find a place to sleep and food to eat," he told Classic Rock in 2017. Rather than be demoralized or defeated, Megadeth's main man was fueled by his hunger — literal as it was — to make what many would consider to be his definitive work, 1986's Peace Sells… But Who's Buying? It was a watershed record born of desperate times.
"It was very hard," Mustaine's partner in crime Megadeth bassist David Ellefson recalled. "Any money we should have saved for food or paying rent immediately went up our noses, or on cigarettes or burgers. Peace Sells… But Who's Buying? was the heroin, cigarettes and hamburgers album."
It was also an album that, like Megadeth's debut, saw Mustaine and Ellefson joined by a pair of seemingly unlikely bandmates, guitarist Chris Poland and drummer Gar Samuelson, two New York City transplants who had cut their teeth together playing jazz fusion and developed serious heroin habits along the way. With this lineup, Megadeth made a new album that was technical and virtuosic, but also loose, pissed and punky. Its lyrics were politically charged and incisive, defying the popular stereotype of metalheads as mindless miscreants. And yet, Megadeth were, in many ways, miscreants. Their time in the studio was full of hard drug use and band-member brawls; somehow, miraculously, all the chaos resulted in one of the thrash metal's greatest albums.
Peace Sells was Megadeth's breakthrough moment. With new major-label backing and some of the best songs of their career, the band had officially arrived and were poised to finally present a viable challenge to Mustaine's former group, Metallica, as thrash's reigning trailblazers. The album's title track, in particular, became inescapable, with its iconic opening bassline in constant replay as the introduction to MTV News — though Mustaine would gripe that he never saw any royalties from that usage.
Below, in continuing appreciation of a metal masterpiece, are 10 things you may not know about Peace Sells… But Who's Buying?
1. Dave Mustaine and David Ellefson were basically penniless during the making of the record and living in barely tolerable conditions
Though manning a band at the forefront of a cutting-edge style, Dave Mustaine and David Ellefson were far from living the high life as they set upon making Peace Sells. It was rock & roll debauchery, but of the most degraded and gutter-punk kind. The two musicians were constantly hustling. "I was living in a building called the complex, which is where all the bands used to rehearse," Mustaine told Revolver contributor Jon Wiederhorn in 1999. "The place was by the meat packing plants and it was a dive. David Ellefson had found some unsuspecting victim to live with. This was the singer from Détente [Dawn Crosby]. Dave and I went over to her house one time and the sink in her bathroom looked like the sink in a gas station – and the same with the toilet. And Dave would tell me nightmares of him being over there, and her making him sleep on the floor while she had sex with another girl."
"On any given day, either me or Dave was homeless," Ellefson recalled to Classic Rock. "And so it became a party place — we could invite girls down, we could hang out. It was the place to hang. But it was also a very lonely, dark, bleak existence if you ever had to stay there. You'd pass out hearing other bands rehearsing all night."
2. Megadeth put the speed in speed metal when making Peace Sells
Megadeth was made up of "four functioning heroin addicts in the band," Mustaine admitted to MSN in 2011. "We would roll up to the studio and one of the band members would be slouched in the doorway waiting for us to take him to the methadone clinic or downtown, as the case may be."
But heroin wasn't their only poison. While making Peace Sells, the band would sometimes pull 18-hour days in the studio and on those occasions, they turned to speed to give them an extra boost. "When things got to the point where we were kind of fading, [producer Randy Burns] would just give us a little speed and we'd do another five hours," then-Megadeth guitarist Chris Poland told music journalist Joel Gausten in 2016. "That's how we did it on that little tiny budget we had, which I think was like $26,000 or something. It wasn't like we were passed out on chairs or anything — we were working our asses off."
3. Mustaine thought up the album and song title while crashing with a girl "who took pity" on him
While he was homeless and squatting at the warehouse where Megadeth rehearsed, Mustaine would sometimes take advantage of a helping hand or two. It was on one such occasion that inspiration struck and metal history was changed forever. "There was a girl who took pity on me and every once in a while would call up and ask me to come over, and we would spend the night together and she'd feed me and I'd get cleaned up and stuff like that," he recalled to MSN. "And I woke up one morning and I saw a magazine on her nightstand and it said, 'Peace sells, but nobody's buying it.' And I went, 'Oh my God, I gotta write a song about that.' So I changed the words around a little bit and I started writing the song, but of course I was living at the rehearsal building like I said, so I had no paper, and I took a pen and wrote the lyrics on the wall there. To this day, I still wonder if the lady who had that rehearsal building was smart enough to cut that wall out and immortalize it."
4. Mustaine, not Ellefson, wrote the bass line to "Peace Sells"
Though Ellefson plays the instantly recognizable bass line for Megadeth's classic single "Peace Sells," it was Mustaine who came up with it. "We were up at [Killing Is My Business co-producer] Karat Faye's house," Ellefson recalled to Classic Rock. "I had this BC Rich Eagle bass that we'd ripped the frets out of. I remember Dave picked the bass up and started playing what would become the Peace Sells bass line, just like that."
5. "Peace Sells" was originally eight-minutes long until Gar Samuelson stepped in
One of Megadeth's biggest and most definitive cuts, "Peace Sells" was originally conceived as a very different song, not a punchy single but a sprawling epic. Fortunately, Mustaine, for as much as a control freak as he could be, would listen to Samuelson when the drummer had constructive feedback, and when it came to "Peace Sells," he had some key input. "'Peace Sells...' was like an eight-minute song, and Gar refused," Poland told Joel Gausten. "He said, 'No, man. This song's too good to draw it out like that. We've gotta make this song short and sweet.' He was right."
6. Mustaine wrote the song to challenge mainstream perception of metalheads as "dumbasses"
Megadeth have been called a lot of things over the years, but one descriptor that Mustaine actually embraces is the phrase "thinking man's band," which isn't so surprising when you know that he penned "Peace Sells" explicitly to dispel the popular idea of metalheads as moronic meatheads and to showcase the intelligence that metal fans are capable of. "I wrote it because I was tired of people mocking metal in general and mocking people who are metal fans," he told Rolling Stone of the song in 2017. "It was hard for me to watch the way we were stereotyped on TV, just as dumbasses. For the most part, I think that a lot of musicians are very intelligent and very talented. It's a bummer the way people had been stereotyped."
7. "Wake Up Dead" is about Mustaine's fiancée at the time
Peace Sells' no-hold-barred opening track, "Wake Up Dead," tells the story of a man cheating on his partner with an illicit lover named Diana, knowing that if his infidelity is discovered, the woman he's two-timing will kill him. According to Mustaine, Diana was very real and served as the inspiration for more than just "Wake Up Dead." "There's so many songs written about her," he revealed to Classic Rock. "'Wake Up Dead' is about her, 'Trust' is about her, 'Loved to Death' is about her, 'Tornado of Souls' is about her. She was my fiancée. I was engaged to her for seven years. In California, if you're with somebody for seven years, you're automatically married by law. Not that she would have been a bad person to be married to, because she's a great person. But if I'd have stayed in that relationship just a couple more months, that's where I would have been."
8. Megadeth were high on "mountains of cocaine" during the filming of the "Wake Up Dead" video
"If you look back at significant landmark things in my career, looking at some of my videos, I can look at my face and say, 'Yeah, I was partying there,'" Mustaine explained to Revolver in 2010. "The video for 'Wake Up Dead', the band, Chris and Gar had some friends that had come to see us, and they brought mountains of cocaine, and no one could even speak, they were so high on blow towards the end of that night. So if you look at the video, and you watch it, the beginning is really fluid and really comfortable and towards the end we were ready to kill people."
9. Bluesman Willie Dixon dug Megadeth's cover of his classic song "I Ain't Superstitious"
One of Peace Sells' oddest cuts is Megadeth's cover of Willie Dixon's blues classic "I Ain't Superstitiuous." "That was done primarily because Jeff Beck had done it," Mustaine explained to Classic Rock. "Jeff Beck was a huge influence on Poland and Samuelson." As improbable as a thrash cover of the blues standard was, according to Megadeth's bandleader, the song's originator approved. "Willie Dixon heard our version and he goes, 'Man, I like it. I thought that was great,'" Mustaine recalled. "Willie Dixon gave us the thumbs up." It was a far cry from the extremely negative reaction that Megadeth had gotten from Lee Hazelwood, the songwriter of "These Boots," which they covered on Killing Is My Business with new sexed-up lyrics — Hazlewood hated the thrashers' version so much that even years after the album's release, he demanded that the band remove the altered lyrics from subsequent pressings.
10. Megadeth got into a brawl after their record label's launch party for Peace Sells
As Classic Rock recounted in 2017, the night of the Peace Sells launch party did not go so well. Megadeth's label had rented out a Hollywood bar, where the band members got fucked up in typical fashion. At the end of the night, two limos were dispatched — one for Mustaine and Ellefson and their girlfriends, and the other for Poland and Samuelson and their respective significant others. Unfortunately, the women ended up leaving early and taking one of the cars together, which left the other vehicle for the band members to share. "So the four of us pile into one of these limos, and almost right away we get into an argument," Mustaine recalled. "I end up kicking Chris Poland in the face. That kind of gives you an idea of what you would have seen back then."
It was a sign of things to come. By the end of the Pease Sells tour, tensions had reached a boiling point, and Poland and Samuelson were ousted from the band. (The drummer would die of liver failure in 1999 at age 41.) "There were a lot of very erratic performances," Ellefson said, looking back at the shows. "You could tell the ones where we were drinking and the ones where we were on heroin. Because we survived it, we can look back on it with amusement. But when you're in it, it's brutal. And it ultimately ripped that lineup apart."