When Megadeth unleashed their first LP, Killing Is My Business … and Business Is Good!, on June 12, 1985, they were the last of thrash metal’s Big Four — the platinum-selling pace-setters, completed by Metallica, Slayer, and Anthrax — to debut.
However, unlike other late arrivals to the thrash-metal mosh pit, such as Exodus, Overkill, and Testament, Megadeth had a secret weapon in bandleader Dave Mustaine, whose early day involvement with, and acrimonious firing from, Metallica provided a level of experience and a burning ambition that was arguably eclipsed only by Mustaine’s abundant talents.
Having learned his lesson the hard way, Mustaine later admitted to Mick Wall in the latter’s Metallica biography, Enter Night, that, “Democracy doesn’t work in a band. I had to have my own band and make music exactly the way I wanted to hear it, with no compromises to anybody else’s ego, whatsoever.”
So, Mustaine spent the better part of 1984 searching diligently for the ideal cohorts who would both support and obey his personal vision for the ultimate thrash band, a painstaking process that saw him cycling through almost a dozen candidates before settling on bassist David Ellefson, drummer Gar Samuelson, and second guitarist Chris Poland.
All the while, Mustaine had been working on new songs, which, as Ellefson later explained to Wall, had to meet the very high expectations of those fortunate enough to have witnessed Mustaine playing with his now-famous former band: “The initial stuff we were writing was slow [but] all the fans up in the Bay Area kept writing letters saying, ‘Man, I hope your stuff is faster than Metallica!’”
Uh, no pressure, then!
But as the confident Mustaine boasted to Headbanger fanzine editor (and later Shockwaves Podcast producer) Bob Nalbandian at the time: “Truthfully, I just wanted to out-metal Metallica! I thought I’d have a hell of a lot harder time coming up with something better, but this [album] is three times faster, more advanced, and a hell of a lot heavier.”
However, Megadeth first needed a record deal, which they obtained in due time from rising independent Combat Records. Then, they had to capture the songs Mustaine was hyping at a Malibu studio called Indigo Ranch, which had ironically been built by British art-rockers The Moody Blues.
In his 2010 autobiography, Mustaine would recall: “From concept to finished product, it was an adventure, during which I learned more about the music business than I ever imagined. And most of it was not particularly encouraging. Our entire budget,” he continued, “was eight thousand dollars, a figure so insultingly low that it was almost laughable.”
Even more laughable was how Mustaine and his Megadeth bandmates chose to “allocate” those funds. As Mustaine recalled, “Basically, we spent about four grand on drugs and four grand to make the record, which was just one of the many reasons why Killing is My Business did not come out the way I had hoped it would. Simply put, we ran out of money.”
Thankfully, Combat eventually forked over another $4,000 to make up the difference and the album was “completed” for release, albeit packaged inside an embarrassingly cheap cover image (plastic skull, dollar-store candles, chains, ketchup for blood, etc.) that did a serious disservice to Megadeth’s skeletal mascot, Vic Rattlehead.
Luckily, the music was another story, and not even the subpar production standards could conceal the collision of calculated technicality, metallic power, thoughtful lyrics, and – yes – sheer speed that Megadeth achieved in moshers like “Last Rites/Loved to Deth,” “The Skull Beneath the Skin,” and “Looking Down the Cross.”
All the while, Mustaine’s songwriting instincts also managed to poke through less intricate offerings like the title track, “Rattlehead,” “Chosen Ones,” and even Megadeth’s furious blitzkrieg through the early Metallica demo, “Mechanix,” which Hetfield and Ulrich had later evolved into “The Four Horsemen.”
Finally, came an eccentric cover choice in “These Boots are Made for Walkin’.” This old Nancy Sinatra hit was a song that Mustaine “connected with on a visceral level,” according to his autobiography, which suggested that nothing was out of bounds for Megadeth. But the song’s original composer, Lee Hazlewood, would later take offense to these ne’er-do-wells’ savage treatment of his tune – and some minor liberties Mustaine had taken with its lyrics – and so, “These Boots” had to be removed from various reissues and new pressings of Killing is My Business over the ensuing decades (some of these also received “new and improved” cover art, more in keeping with Mustaine’s original vision).
None of this stopped thrash-metal fans from laying their eager hands on Megadeth’s debut in the summer of 1985. The new band’s hotly-debated ties to Metallica, which until then had felt like an albatross around Mustaine’s neck, surely fueled fan curiosity.
Of course, Killing is My Business didn’t exactly storm up the pop charts (thrash albums simply didn’t do that at the time) or sell a million copies, but it paved the way for Megadeth’s fast ascension to the heavy-metal big leagues via the following year’s much-improved, major-label-funded Peace Sells … But Who’s Buying?