Monday, September 19, 2016

Megadeth's "Peace Sells..." at 30: A Thrash Masterpiece Steeped in Jazz

Thirty years ago,* Megadeth brought Thrash Metal to the mainstream with the release of their second album, Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying? While the record remains a milestone in the history of Metal, perhaps the most intriguing thing about it is that it was fueled mostly by a couple of Jazz guys from New York.

Before moving to Los Angeles in the late '70s, New York-based guitarist Chris Poland and drummer Gar Samuelson were a couple of young Jazz Fusion players looking to expand their musical vocabularies. After arriving in California, they put together a Fusion band called The New Yorkers with bassist Robertino  “Pag” Pagliari and Gar’s brother Stew on guitar. 

A few years later, a young Metal guitarist named Dave Mustaine pieced together a new group called Megadeth from LA-area musicians after being tossed out of the biggest band in the scene, Metallica. After going through a series of temporary musicians including drummer Lee Rausch and Slayer guitarist Kerry King, Mustaine and bassist David “Junior” Ellefson were on the lookout for a more solid lineup. It was then that these two disparate musical camps collided to make Metal history.  

“Me and Stew wrote a lot of songs together,” says Poland of The New Yorkers. “We did it for years and years and years, then one day, we said, ‘We can’t do this anymore.’ We just weren’t getting anywhere, so we just stopped playing. Our manager, Jay Jones, was managing Dave [Mustaine], so he said, ‘Hey, I know a drummer.’ So they got Gar in Megadeth… They were a three-piece, and they desperately needed a second guitar player. I didn’t have anything to do, and Gar was in the band, and I thought, ‘Well, shit. I’ll go play with my friend Gar.’”

Despite being added to what was soon to become one of the most influential bands in Metal, Poland wasn’t about to abandon his musical roots for the sake of a gig.

“I liked Randy Rhoads a lot, but I was mostly just into my thing. I was really into weird, esoteric stuff. I was really into Jan Hammer’s solo records and his stuff with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. I was really into [Mahavishnu Orchestra guitarist] John McLaughlin, but more [for] his writing. His phrasing and all that stuff was great, but his tone wasn’t where I wanted to be, but everything else was. I wanted to try and do something like that, but I was also really heavily influenced by Jeff Beck, Leslie West, Hendrix, Trower and people like that. But as far as the Metal stuff that Dave and those guys were listening to… I wasn’t into Priest; I wasn’t into a lot of that stuff… Dave turned me onto Mercyful Fate. That was one of the bands that I actually liked of all the stuff that those guys were playing.”

Although Megadeth was more “Metal” than Poland was used to at the time, that didn’t mean that the band didn’t possess truly impressive chops. Already a fan of complex strong structures, Mustaine now had two bona fide Jazz guys in his band to bring his musical ideas into intriguing higher territories.

“Dave’s stuff was challenging,” Poland recalls. “Me and Gar were used to playing that kind of music. His music’s not that much different than what we were trying to play. If anybody reading this has Birds Of Fire by the Mahavishnu Orchestra, there’s a song that’s called ‘One Word.’ It’s starts off with a Billy Cobham drum roll. For all practical purposes, that’s a Speed Metal song. If you listen to it and you say to yourself, ‘I’m going to pretend Dave Mustaine’s playing rhythm to this,’ it wasn’t that far away from what we were into. It was challenging enough that it was never boring, ever.”

That’s not to say that musical differences didn’t cause friction in Megadeth. Although Mustaine was open-minded enough to be an Elton John fan, he was far less accepting of many of Poland’s listening choices on the road. One time, he bought a copy of Weather Report’s Mysterious Traveller and put it in the cassette player while he rode shotgun. The next day, he went to look for it before being informed by a crew member that Mustaine had thrown it out the window. 

Of course, this is just a minor example of the combustible personality issues that defined early Megadeth. It is no secret that all four band members indulged in hard drugs, with heroin being Poland and Samuelson’s substance of choice. These chemical indulgences (mixed with a fair share of testosterone and attitude) led to numerous physical and verbal blowups within the band. One such incident led to Poland being temporarily replaced on the road in 1985 by Mike Albert, former guitarist for the Frank Zappa-produced band Ruben and the Jets.

“I’m in the band, we’re rehearsing and everything’s cool,” Poland recalls. “We’re living in a studio together, me and Dave. All of a sudden, one day I hear, 'Oh yeah, we just signed a t-shirt deal.’ And it was [for] Dave and Dave. It was like, ‘Dude!” When I joined the band, Dave said, ‘I want you guys to be in this band, and we’re going to split everything down the middle.’ I said, ‘You know what? Awesome!’ I got so pissed off [over the shirt deal], I said, ‘Fuck you;’ I said, ‘Go on tour.’ Somebody told me that in his book [2011’s Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir], Dave says I got arrested for heroin possession and I couldn’t make the tour. That’s total bullshit; I was sitting at home mad because I realized that [the arrangement in the band] wasn’t like he said…When I joined the band again, it was all like, ‘No, man. It’s all cool. We just did [the t-shirt deal] because we had to get it done.’ So I said, ‘Okay,’ and took him on his word.”

With Poland firmly back on board in time to hit the studio with producer Randy Burns, Megadeth set out to create an album that eclipsed their 1985 debut, Killing Is My Business…And Business Is Good!

“I think the first record was totally a good record, but we had only been together for a month. When we did the second record, we had already toured on that record for over a year, with at least four different tours. Then, we came off the road and went right into the studio and recorded the record. We kind of felt like we knew what was strong and [what wasn’t]. We knew the parts really well, and we thought like we could try to capture that energy that we had live in the recording.”

Although much has been said about Megadeth’s various chemical indulgences around the time of Peace Sells…, Poland insists that the band was a focused, well-oiled machine in the studio.

“We had rehearsed that record for a year in front of an audience before we recorded it. As far as drug abuse during the making of that record, some days we worked 18-hour days. We were doing opiates, and Randy Burns was doing speed. When things got to the point where we were kind of fading, he would just give us a little speed and we’d do another five hours. 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.”

Poland is quick to credit Burns for being the first producer to record Megadeth’s sound in a truly representative way. 

“Randy Burns did a really good job. Not to take anything away from [Killing Is My Business... co-producer] Karat Faye, but I just don’t think [he] knew how to capture that sound, that much information. When you have that much shit going on, you need to really know about compression and EQs between kicks and bass and guitars.”

Despite Burns’ good working relationship with the band, his mixes for Peace Sells… were not featured on the original 1986 Capitol Records release. Jumping from indie label Combat to Capitol during the album’s recording, Megadeth soon experienced their first dose of major label input when producer Paul Lani was brought in to give the Peace Sells… recordings a new sheen.

“I prefer Randy Burns’ mix,” Poland says. “There was so much reverb [on the other one]… I was just bummed about how the drums got buried. There was so much reverb everywhere, man. It was like, come on! But in hindsight, I guess it gave it that darkness. Randy Burns’ mixes are a little bit more stark; everything was kind of just right there.”

Set off by an iconic bass line written by Mustaine and performed by Ellefson, the album’s title track remains one of Megadeth’s brightest moments – even if it was originally conceived as a very different song.  

“Peace Sells’ was like an eight-minute song, and Gar refused,” Poland recalls. “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.”

Looking back, Poland is ultimately pleased with how Peace Sells… came out.

“I really like all the songs; it was a real strong record, man. My only qualm was, I know we were playing a lot different style than Metallica, but the production on Master Of Puppets [released that previous March] was just so good that it just hurt every time I listened to it. Both records came out at the same time, and it was like, ‘If we could have gotten that vibe and that sound with our production…’ I’m not sure we could have, because you get what you get, you are what you are. The mic’s on; it only records what you give it. Maybe we weren’t sonically in the same cool space those guys were at the time, guitar-wise and recording technique-wise. I think honestly, Peace Sells… and Master Of Puppets are the two best records of that whole era.”

Although Metallica and Megadeth were clearly leading the genre circa 1986, the two bands weren’t exactly celebrating their achievements in the same room together. Poland recalls that considerable friction still existed between Mustaine and his former Metallica bandmates at the time.  

“I really didn’t know any of those guys. Because of this whole feud, every time they were near me or whatever, I was just like, ‘Well, I don’t know. Should I go talk to them?’ I really wanted to talk to [Metallica frontman/guitarist James] Hetfield about tubes and tone and how you do this and that, but I just never did.”

In September 1986, Metallica bassist Cliff Burton was killed in a tour bus accident at the age of 24. Despite what was going on between Mustaine and his old band at the time, Burton’s tragic passing was deeply felt within the Megadeth camp.

“Dave took that so hard,” Poland says. “That was really rough on him, because those guys drove to rehearsal together…He was out of it for days, just crying constantly.”

On a much happier note, Peace Sells... succeeded in elevating Megadeth to the next level. The album reached #76 on the U.S. Billboard charts (and was certified Platinum six years after its release). Videos for “Peace Sells” and “Wake Up Dead” hit MTV, adding new headbangers to the band’s expanding audience. Megadeth’s leap into the mainstream occurred during an era when most Metal acts were regularly accused of” selling out” for doing far less. But Poland is adamant that Megadeth maintained their integrity throughout the Peace Sells… era.

“We never sold out…I don’t think Megadeth sold out just because we went to bigger label; that’s bullshit. Were we supposed to sleep on people’s couches for the rest of our lives? Really, listen to Peace Sells... That’s a sellout record, huh?”

The album’s unforgettable artwork was created by Ed Repka, whose vast credits include Death, The Circle Jerks, Municipal Waste, Massacre and The Misfits. His involvement in the project came at suggestion of Andy Somers, who Poland describes as Megadeth’s “agent, babysitter, big brother, father, everything.”

“I believe it was Andy and Dave’s idea. The were having lunch in New York across the street from the UN building, and that’s how that came about.”

Although Peace Sells… marked Megadeth’s arrival in the mainstream, it was also the final album to feature the legendary Mustaine/Ellefson/Poland/Samuelson lineup. After departing Megadeth and sobering up, Poland took an unexpected musical left turn and joined the Circle Jerks as a bassist.

“I actually auditioned with 200 other bass players, and I got the gig.”

Partnering up with the Punk legends at the suggestion of Somers (who also worked with them), Poland was soon given the nickname “Carl” by the other members of the band – singer Keith “Johnny” Morris, guitarist Greg “Gingles” Hetson and drummer Keith “Adolph” Clark.

“They had all these names; they asked me, ‘Which ones do you like and which ones don’t you like?’ I said, ‘Well, I don't like Carl.’ They were like, ‘Well, that’s your nickname!’”

While one would expect an accomplished player like Poland to breeze through a set of fast Punk numbers with ease, he admits that playing in the Circle Jerks was “a hard gig.” In fact, the tendons across his elbows were so beat up from playing the band’s set that he had difficulty touching anything with his arm without experiencing pain.

“I was putting all kinds of stuff on them to get them to stop hurting. Then, about halfway through the tour, I think they just got used to it.”

After roughly a year with the band, Poland moved on.

“I was really bummed out. We were in Texas, and we were going to do a live record, and [the band’s label] Relativity just totally caved in and we never got to do it. That would have been good for me financially, too. That thing would have sold forever, but it didn’t happen.”

Despite this disappointing conclusion, he looks back at his time as a Circle Jerk fondly. In fact, former drummer-turned-accountant Keith “Adolph” Clark still does the guitarist’s taxes every year.  

“I never saw a band that had their shit together more than the Circle Jerks as far as what to do, how to do it and how to make money,” Poland says. “I was in Megadeth for years, and I never had a dime to show for it. I’m out on my first tour with the Circle Jerks, and I come home with $9,000 in my pocket.”

While Poland was putting his arms to the test with The Circle Jerks, Megadeth was carrying on with a restructured lineup comprised of Mustaine, Ellefson, guitarist Jeff Young and drummer Chuck Behler. While 1988’s So Far, So Good…So What! had its moments (including the extraordinary “In My Darkest Hour,” written in part as a tribute to Cliff Burton), few would disagree that it lacked much of Peace Sells...’s energy and musical prowess.

“I thought the drums were just kind of laying there, and I thought the guitar playing was okay,” says Poland of the album. “The best thing about that record was ‘Hook In Mouth.’ It was the best song I think Dave ever wrote.”

As Poland approached the '90s, it appeared that many of the trials he faced in the previous few years had subsided. In addition to landing a solo deal with Capitol, he was succeeding in embracing sobriety. Then came an offer to rejoin Megadeth following the departure of Young and Behler and the addition of new drummer Nick Menza. Although he did turn up at the studio to record some demos for tracks that would eventually land on Megadeth’s 1990 classic Rust In Peace, Poland’s third stint in the band wasn’t meant to be.

 “My manager kept saying, ‘You’ve got to think about this. You’re sober now…Do you think this is a good idea?’… I was seriously thinking about joining the band. At the last minute, I was like, ‘No! If I join the band, I’m going to die.’”

The lead guitarist spot in Megadeth eventually went to former Cacophony member Marty Friedman. Although Poland’s return to the band was short-lived, the experience allowed him to briefly meet Menza - a man who would eventually play a major role in his life.

“Nick wasn’t there [much]; I think I said hi to him, and that was it. If Nick would have said, ‘Come on, let’s go get a soda,’ I would have joined Megadeth [again]. That’s how much I loved Nick. From the first time I met him [years later], we just became fast friends.”

By 1990, Poland was not only separated from Megadeth again, but also moving forward without the support of Capitol Records. His solo record, the all-instrumental Metal-meets-Fusion masterstroke Return To Metalopolis, ended up being released on the California-based indie label Enigma.  

"Basically, Dave put the kibosh on me having a record released through Capitol, so that’s how I got dropped down to Enigma…That’s my theory.” he reveals. “Enigma was cool. You know why I liked being on Enigma? Because [Jazz Fusion legend Allan] Holdsworth was on Enigma. I was like, ‘You know what? If it’s good enough for Holdsworth, it’s good enough for me!’

Featuring Poland’s brother Mark on drums, Return To Metalopolis was a strong release that showcased Poland’s clear ability to stand on his own away from Mustaine and Co. Unfortunately, the album was barely given a chance to shine.

“David Cassidy had released a record, and one of the guys who was running Enigma took all of their money and put it all into this David Cassidy record and bankrupted the company. It turns out he was managing David Cassidy and running the company, and that’s a total conflict of interest.”

Following the Enigma debacle, the Poland brothers formed the short-lived Progressive Metal band Damn The Machine, who released an eponymous album on A&M Records in 1993. Mark later played in White Zombie, while Chris returned to his Jazz Fusion roots with the creation of his long-running band, OHM, which pairs him with former New Yorkers bassist Robertino “Pag” Pagliari.

“Some point after Damn The Machine broke up, I just called up Pag and said, ‘Hey, dude. Let’s just play together. We’re not going to try to get a deal; we’re not trying to do shit. We’re just going to have fun playing.’ That’s all we’ve done since.”

After spending close to a decade hosting a revolving door of drummers including the late David Eagle, OHM finally solidified its lineup with the addition of Nick Menza in 2015.

In 2004, Poland received an invitation to work with Megadeth again – this time as a guest guitarist on the band’s The System Has Failed album. Initially conceived as a Mustaine solo project, System showed Poland just how far his bandmate has grown as a songwriter and musician in the years since Peace Sells... 

“It was like night and day, man. When I first joined and Dave would show me and Junior songs, I would look at Junior and go, “I think he means this,’ and he’d go, ‘Yeah, that’s it!’ When I went in to do [The System Has Failed], he was like a whole different guitar player and a whole different deal. He had his shit together playing-wise and tone-wise and production-wise. I was very impressed with how far he had come.”

Although the two musicians continued to have personal ups and downs following the System sessions (including a lawsuit by Poland against Mustaine that was later settled), Poland says that his friendship with his OHM bandmate Menza (who played in Megadeth for nearly a decade) helped him overcome his ill will towards Megadeth’s notorious bandleader.

“Nick had no hatred towards Dave. He would tell me these stories that would make my hair stand up on my arms, but he just was like, ‘I don’t hate Dave. Look at all the things I did with Dave.’ I think the same way now because whether we had our stops or not, when I went in to do [The System Has Failed], it was like I never left. After four hours, it was just like we were making Peace Sells… again. I don’t have any animosity towards Dave.”

With Megadeth behind him once and for all, Poland focused his energies on OHM, working with Pag and Menza in making the group one of LA’s most popular live bands. The trio was a regular act at The Baked Potato, an intimate venue in Studio City, CA known to attract Los Angeles’ best musicians as both performers and audience members. On May 21 of this year, OHM was performing at the club when Menza suffered a heart attack and collapsed on stage. He was pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital. (Menza’s posthumous art series, Influx, was released July 23 - on what would have been his 52nd birthday). Poland is still trying to come to terms with his friend’s unexpected passing.

“[Nick] brought an energy that we had been lacking for years and an optimism that I had lost and that he gave me back. It’s just really painful that what happened happened. I know we’re not going to find somebody who’s going to fill that space as a drummer and musician the way he did… He was an amazing drummer, man. I wish we just got to record it.”

Following his time in Megadeth, Samuelson resurfaced in the early '90s as a member of Fatal Opera, a Florida-based Progressive Metal band that also featured his brother Stew. Although his playing on Killing Is My Business… and Peace Sells… is legendary, fans are encouraged to check out Fatal Opera to experience the absolute pinnacle of Gar Samuelson’s drumming skills. The band released a self-titled album in 1995 and a follow-up, the extraordinary The Eleventh Hour, two years later. The latter record featured singer Andy Freeman, a multitalented musician who had grown up with Megadeth posters on his wall.

“It was kind of funny; I just happened to live about a mile from Gar and I didn’t even know it,” he recalls. “At that time, I was in cover bands and stuff. I was doing some studio work in the next city, and I just happened to be there when Gar came in. This was right after [former Fatal Opera singer] Dave [Inman] quit. He saw me in there singing, and he came back again and gave me a tape and was like, ‘Hey, man. You want to try out?’”

Freeman remembers Fatal Opera as an opportunity for Samuelson and the other musicians to push sonic boundaries.

“It was constantly changing. I think early on, Stew did a lot of the writing. A lot of the earlier Fatal Opera stuff was what you could [call] ‘Speed Metal’…Stew was the best Speed Metal guitar player I’ve ever seen, but then Gar had some strange influences when it came to Jazz, Blues and stuff like that. I think he put a lot of those into his songwriting and came out with some weird music. With some of the stuff, we sat around debating whether we should even play it or not. We’d write this song, and we’d think to each other, ‘This isn’t Fatal Opera. This is some kind of Blues song or something.’ Towards the end, it was kind of morphing, and everybody was having more say, even myself. If we would have continued, who knows what would have happened.”

Unfortunately, Samuelson’s years of addiction and hard living had finally caught up with him by the time Fatal Opera started demoing tracks for a third album.

“Gar was sick, and we didn’t necessarily know how sick. I think Gar was making decisions about which way the band was going depending on his health. We were just oblivious to the whole thing; we were just in a band wanting to do this and wanting to do that. It did cause a little bit of pulling back and forth between the members.”

The severity of the situation was made clear when a planned European tour with Queensryche was scrapped.

“We all had got our passports and all of that, and then we go to practice, and Gar cancels it and kind of didn’t tell us why,” Freeman remembers. “He knew he was sick; I didn’t know if he knew he was going to die.”

On July 14, 1999, Gar Samuelson died at the age of 41.

At the time of this writing, Freeman, Stew Samuelson and former Fatal Opera guitarist Billy Brehme were participating in an extensive reissue project for the band’s two album. The Fatal Opera re-release will include bonus tracks, while The Eleventh Hour will boast a complete remix based off tapes of individual tracks that had been saved in Stew Samuelson’s attic. In addition to featuring an added crispness to the drums, the remix almost completely reimagines the record in places.

“To some extent, it almost sounds like a whole new album,” Freeman says. “We found guitar parts that were buried and not even on the album. There are even some vocal tracks [that weren’t there on the first release]; I listened to [the tapes] and went, ‘Wow! I like that vocal track better!’ so we stuck it on there…I think we did [the remix] to today’s standard. As far as Progressive Metal goes, I think it’s right where it needs to be production-wise.”

According to Freeman, both reissues are slated to be released by Divebomb Records within the next six months. In the meantime, he has completed an album under the name Berean Mind Project. Awaiting an official release, the CD features a guest appearance on five tracks by none other than Chris Poland.

Also on the horizon is a third Fatal Opera album built from demo recordings made prior to Samuelson’s passing. The release will feature around 12 songs and represent where the band was going musically before their drummer’s health took a turn for the worse.

“I talked with Bill and Stew, and we went back in and cleaned [the recordings] up. A lot of the tracks we’re using were the ones we recorded back then, but we’re going in and recording new tracks because there might be, like, a guitar track that stops halfway through a song. I found a lot of that, but all of the drum tracks were there… It was really exciting to know that we had these songs and we can finally finish them.”

Looking back at his time with Samuelson, Freeman believes that the drummer’s talents added a new dimension to what could be accomplished by a Metal player.

“I think the biggest thing he brought was intelligence. When you look at the early '80s when Thrash Metal and all that was just starting, Metal bands were more like just hyped-up Punk bands. Gar kind of crossed the bridge to where you can say, ‘We can write a heavy song and do it in an intelligent way so that it’s not a free-for-all.’”

Three decades after Peace Sells…,  Megadeth continues to thrive as a recording and international touring act. After numerous lineup changes, the band is currently comprised of Mustaine, Ellefson, guitarist Kiko Loureiro and drummer Dirk Verbeuren. The group’s latest album, Dystopia, was released in January. Nearly 35 years after forming in Los Angeles, Megadeth remains one of the most popular Metal acts in the world and will forever be known and honored as one of the core creators of American Thrash.  

In the words of Chris Poland: “The fact that Dave is still doing it? Jesus. That’s just a testament to his art, man.”

*Author's Note: Although Peace Sells... came out in 1986, the exact release date is unclear. Lars Ulrich's liner notes for the 25th Anniversary Edition of the album say that it was released in October, which contradicts Megadeth's own website (November). I have decided to post this feature today - September 19 - to coincide with the most common release date referenced online.

**This piece is dedicated to the memory of my dog and faithful office companion, Wampa Roky Erickson. This article is the first thing I've written for this site since his passing on September 9.


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