David Ellefson Looks Back on Megadeth’s ‘Killing Is My Business… and Business Is Good!” Album – 2022 – Kings of Thrash
David Ellefson: The tour Kings of Thrash “The MEGA Years” featuring David Ellefson & Jeff Young, with special guest Chris Poland has been announced! The launch of the four-show run of dates in October 2022 will kick off a celebration of these two seminal Thrash records.
Over the next two weeks Jeff Young and David Ellefson will be weighing in during a web-a-log series talking about the setting and atmosphere in which these two albums were created, as well as the music & culture (and counterculture!) that surrounded them.
Here we go!
THE KILLING CHRONICLES
Although the “Killing is My Business….and Business is Good” record was our debut album, only a few of the earliest compositions actually made their way onto that record. Albums take on a life of their own during production and the song list seems to kind of determine itself. So, many of the initial compositions from 1983-84 were held back but would appear on our sophomore release “Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying”, and one even sat patiently until the “So Far, So Good…So What” album (more on that one later…).
Of the songs which did make their way to the KIMB album were tracks such as ‘The Skull Beneath the Skin’, ‘Looking Down the Cross’ (the original working title ‘Speak No Evil’) ‘Rattlehead’, ‘Loved To Deth’ and ‘Chosen Ones’.
Other early contenders, like ‘Devil’s Island’, ‘The Conjuring’ and ‘My Last Words’ (initially titled ‘The Last Victim’) were recorded two years later in 1986 for the ‘Peace Sells’… album. And of course, ‘Mechanix’ became the controversial song which was initially recorded when Dave was in METALLICA on their “No Life ‘Til Leather” demo. The song was later renamed ‘The Four Horseman’ for their debut album “Kill ‘Em All” which was released summer of 1983. The truth is, while both songs offer the same intro, verse & solo riffs, they are performed very differently by each respective artist. The “Kill ‘Em All” version is simplified and the tempo pulled back significantly while the KIMB version retains its original and more complex note structure in the riffs, and off course the overall arrangement, tempo & lyrics revert back to its original intent as well. Also, Metallica’s double kick drumming follows the staccato verse guitar riff, while the KIMB version offers a shuffle beat which was introduced by Gar Samuelson and his more fusion style drumming methods.
Then, the cover of Nancy Sinatra’s ‘These Boots (Are Made for Walking)’ was suggested to us by our then-manager Jay Jones. Years after the KIMB release, a controversy arose by the song’s composer Lee Hazelwood over the recorded version of the lyrics on KIMB. So, we would thus create edits on the re-release in 2001, as well as a full revamp of the lyrics to its original composition for the re-release of “The Final Kill” in 2018, to avoid any further controversy.
To get some perspective of the musical culture at this time, it was 1983-84 and MTV was thriving and becoming the main driver for all musical artist’s success, even metal! At the time, we lived in Los Angeles and the city was abuzz with the Sunset Strip’s hero’s success of Motley Crue, Quiet Riot, Ratt, W.A.S.P. as well as the city’s outliers and power-metal sounds of Armored Saint & Warrior, each staking their next claims in metal music. Clearly, what we were doing with the creation of the KIMB album was very out of step with this current climate but was one which would lay an important cornerstone for the next genre of Thrash metal which would ultimately take the next crown.
FAST, LOUD & RUDE was the billing of our debut shows in the San Francisco Bay Area during February 1984, with Kerry King (Slayer) on second guitar.
Coming home from that successful launch of the band, Dave set out to write two more songs before we headed back to the Bay Area for a second round of shows two months later in April. Those two songs would become ‘Rattlehead’ and ‘Loved to Deth’. Both were blistering songs which raised the bar of speed and attack for us as the Bay Area was no place for anything less than full-on brutal assault and aggression. The riffs were cool, and the speed made them exceptionally tricky to perform with proper execution and clarity. That would become a hallmark of our music over the years….
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By this time, it was only a year since Dave’s departure from METALLICA but to me, his guitar playing had far surpassed his previous work on the ‘No Life ‘Til Leather’ demo as he was really coming into his own as an inventive and innovative player, implementing new techniques beyond what was heard at that time.
To that end, we wrote, practiced and worked on the songs every day, usually just the two of us between rehearsals in whatever housing situation we were struggling to get by in…where we would move in with friends who would let us crash at their place for a few weeks before we moved on to the next one. It was pure survival mode at this point, and we did whatever it took for us to make it day to day. But the music was always the focus and we worked on it every day trimming, refining and developing the songs until they were complete.
It’s important to note that everything in the band was thought out before it was executed. Never did we just get in a room and jam ideas. Every song was carefully crafted with vision and intention and the song was never done until it was really done!
I began to view Dave as to what I’d read about Eddie Van Halen in the guitar magazines, in that he was always hearing something in his head before he played it on his guitar and he used any method of overhand, tapping, playing up above his fingerboard on his Bill Lawrence pickups (the solo to ‘The Skull Beneath The Skin’) or other methods to achieve what he was hearing & visualizing. That same approach was applied to me on bass as well, as he would often compose a part and then say, “Hey Junior, play this on the bass”, or “Let’s have you do a bass break during this part here”, etc. A couple of those bass features can be found in ‘Chosen Ones’ and ‘The Skull Beneath the Skin’. I was experimenting with lighter gauge strings, Marshall bass amps even a medium scale Gibson Flying V bass (to be able to play faster and capture the European sounds from bands like Mercyful Fate who were a key influence on the early Mega sound). I actually ruined two of my B.C Rich basses by putting a Kahler tremolo bar on my NJ Eagle and I shaved the neck on my coveted Mockingbird I brought to LA with me from Minnesota but hit the truss rod in the process, thus destroying the stability of the neck and pretty much rendering the bass useless since it was a neck-through instrument. All were attempts to play faster and with new ideas & sounds not heard yet in that day.
As a saxophonist in my middle & high school orchestra bands, this approach to composing and utilizing the strengths of each member was akin to what the great composers like Bach & Mozart would do in their symphonic movements, too. Everyone was featured at some point in the composition. In fact, we began to incorporate the forbidden DEVIL’s TRIAD (or Devil’s Tritone) into many of the chord changes and single note passages. The solo of ‘Mechanix’ is a perfect example of this but it can also be heard in riffs like ‘Skull…’, too. It creates a chilling and haunting sound by flatting the fifth note of the scale. Also incorporated was the use of diminished chords which is a staple of the chord movements in ‘Looking Down the Cross’.
Transitions would inevitably come and following those first five shows in the Bay Area, Kerry went back to Slayer and then-drummer Lee Rausch departed the group. Within a few weeks our manager Jay Jones introduced us to drummer Gar Samuelson who brought a fresh approach to the band due to his jazz fusion style. In fact, in many ways Gar’s drumming set us apart from the other bands in THE BIG 4.
Soon after Dave, Gar and I went into Hitman Studios in Hollywood with manager Jay Jones to record a three-song demo which consisted of ‘Last Rites/Loved To Deth’, ‘Mechanix’ and ‘The Skull Beneath The Skin’. Samantha Fox, who hosted the Los Angeles KMET FM weekend metal hour debuted ‘Mechanix’ on the airwaves in the fall of 1984. All of which helped us finally ink our deal with Combat Records that year.
Shortly thereafter, guitarist Chris Poland was brought into the band as we headed to the studio to cut the KIMB album in December 1984.
It’s widely known that the KIMB album is one of the fastest Thrash albums ever to descend upon mankind. However, rapid fire tempos in the band was not always the case. When we formed the group and first batch of songs were being composed in mid to late 1983, the tempos were much, much slower. In fact, almost at a Black Sabbath tempo. I recall ‘The Skull Beneath the Skin’ being almost half the tempo as it was finally recorded, which gave it this monstrous groove and weight. The same was true with ‘Chosen Ones’ which allowed me to play the bass lines with my fingers in a more Geezer-esque manner.
However, one day a fan letter showed up to our mailbox addressed to Dave which pleaded, “I hope your new band is faster than Metallica” and BOOM that was it…game over! That night at rehearsal, all the tempos were increased dramatically (20-40 beats per minute minimum!) and thus the KIMB LP represents a true turning point in the trajectory of speed being the primary calling card of cool factor with the founding fathers of the Thrash genre. EXODUS was already fast as hell and once Kerry King had seen them live, SLAYER would follow suit.
In early 1984 discussions began between record labels to sign the band. Among its earliest suitors were Road Racer Records (later renamed Roadrunner), Metal Blade, Shrapnel and Combat. I recall Walter O’Brien at Combat (who later became Pantera’s manager) seemed to have the right instincts to make that label our new home. After several discussions a deal was tendered, and the rest is history.
With the modest recording budget of only $8000 from Combat we went into Indigo Ranch studios in Malibu (formerly owned by The Moody Blues) to cut the drum, bass and guitar tracks, with Karat Faye engineering and co-producing. All songs were recorded live in one take with me, Dave and Gar Samuelson in the main room together. The only effects I used on bass was a chorus pedal on the break in ‘The Skull Beneath the Skin’.
The ‘Last Rites’ piano introduction to ‘Loved To Deth’ was something Dave composed on guitar and best I recall was played with an overhand two-hand approach. Once in Indigo Ranch, the studio’s piano served as the perfect instrument for Dave to play the part in a more classical setting, yet still performing the two-handed guitar piece as an accompaniment. I was literally standing behind him with my bass as we recorded the track together with no click track. There is one bass note at :19 which still bugs me to this day, as I played it ever so slightly early.
In all three versions of the releases, we’ve never set out to correct it, so I guess it remains as part of the performance forever. In the same way, when mixing the song, the jet engine ramp-up which served as a segue from ‘Last Rites’ into ‘Loved to Deth’ was always just slightly too loud, and in my opinion left the intro guitar of ‘Loved To Deth’ a bit faint. Fortunately, this was corrected on the remix of KIMB “The Final Kill”.
On the Kings of Thrash tour we’re excited to highlight these finer details of the songs without losing any of the “teeth” which made the album a staple in thrash metal all these years later.
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Megadeth w/ Slayer’s Kerry King 1984