Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine Reflects on The World Needs a Hero and The System Has Failed

The albums marked tumultuous periods in the band's storied history

Megadeth Dave Mustaine

This Friday (February 15th), BMG is releasing remastered reissues of Megadeth’s The World Needs a Hero and The System Has Failed, a pair of albums that punctuate crucial developments in the band’s history.

The first of the two, 2001’s The World Needs a Hero, arrived following the end of the band’s deal with Capitol Records, as well as the departure of lead guitarist Marty Friedman, a mainstay of the band’s most commercially successful period. The album captured a seemingly revitalized band asserting its metal identity again after a decade’s worth of flirting with a more mainstream sound.

Below, you’ll find our full interview with frontman Dave Mustaine about both albums, but prior to that conversation, we had a chance to speak briefly with bassist David Ellefson about The World Needs a Hero.

“It was actually a fun time.” Ellefson recalled. “Al Pitrelli had come into the fold, so it was kind of a rebirth as a new lineup. Jimmy DeGrasso was [still] there, but Marty had since left. Now, Al came in, and we sort of had this new sound together as a band. I like the songs. They were heavy. They were a little bit slower tempo. It wasn’t really a thrash record, but it certainly had a lot of Diamond Head influence in it. So it was kind of this transitional time for us.”

He added, “We were coming out of this era where we had kind of gotten stuck in this radio-rock mindset. And we were attempting to re-correct the course of Megadeth and get it back to being a great metal band without having to pay so much attention to [making] radio hits. I remember it only took a couple of days to play bass on it. I used a Fender P bassist that I actually bought when I was doing the Risk album [in 1999], a ’76 Fender P bass with a maple neck. So, the album had this really good bass tone to it. It was a good experience.”

Not even a year after its release, though, The World Needs a Hero appeared to be headed for the history books as Megadeth’s final statement when, at the beginning of 2002, Mustaine caused significant damage to the radial nerve in his left arm while at a rehab facility. In April of that year, Mustaine publicly announced that he was disbanding Megadeth, and also that it was unknown whether he would regain the ability to play guitar.

When Mustaine reluctantly brought back the Megadeth brand for 2004’s The System Has Failed, he did so without the services of Ellefson, DeGrasso, or Pitrelli. Initially presented as a last hurrah before retiring the band name for good, The System Has Failed instead kicked-off a whole new life for the band — appropriately so considering that it signaled a return to thrash form.

The album opens with a barreling thrash riff in the classic Megadeth style as a mock news report announces that the U.S. President’s plane has been shot down over the Middle East. Like so much of the Megadeth catalog, The System Has Failed reflects Mustaine’s preoccupation with the unsavory machinations of politics and geopolitics.

Mustaine looks back on both albums in this exclusive interview with Heavy Consequence:

George W. Bush was the presiding president when you recorded The World Needs a Hero and The System Has Failed. How, in your view, was the system failing back then?

Well, there was a lot of stuff going on. You can [say the same for] just about any administration we’ve had. The first president in my lifetime was John F. Kennedy. I mean, I was still an infant when he was assassinated, but after that Lyndon Johnson had a lot of terrible stuff happen in his administration. Same with Nixon, Carter, Ford, Reagan, H.W., [Bush] Clinton, W. {Bush], Obama — they’ve all had stuff that’s gone very wrong. To single out any one of these guys would be inappropriate. I don’t think any one of them really, really had the intention, when they were little kids and said, “I want to the president one day” to grow up and be involved in a lot of the stuff that we’ve seen being disclosed now. Stuff like the Contras and so on — I talked about that in the song “Youthanasia” [from 1994’s album of the same name]: “Who would believe we’d spend more shipping drugs and guns / Than to educate our sons / Sorry, but that’s what they did.” I never said it was Oliver North; I never said it was Reagan; I never said it was the US. The song allowed the listener the opportunity to imagine stuff.

A lot of what you just touched on is right there on the artwork of The System Has Failed.

It certainly is. Everyone’s on that cover.

Which depicts a group of American political figures — including the Clintons and George. W. Bush — lined up to make shady deals with the band’s mascot Vic Rattlehead…

It was weird for me to put Vic in that situation where he was the bad guy, the death dealer. There was a lot of stuff on that cover that was symbolic. Like the horse-drawn carriage on the back was symbolic of death. That horse was actually [based on] one of my horses who died a tragic, bloody, gory, gory death. I was super shocked and traumatized by it. I’m not a horse owner for myself. I got them for my wife. So we had this horse who gave birth to a colt who was stillborn, and when he came out his hoofs cut her intestine completely in half so it disconnected. We got there and there was blood up all the walls as high as my head. I had been sober for about five years at that point, but I was so freaked out.

A groomster said, “You need to have a cigarette and blow smoke on a picture of the horse” and I hadn’t smoked either. So that day I drank again and smoked again. I went home and I was just in tears. My wife goes, “Oh my god, what happened?” So that’s the horse on the back. Of course, there’s all the other stuff on the cover, like the list of incidents on the side of the lectern. [Editor’s note: Depicted is a menu of villainous acts with price tags listed for each, as if Vic is offering to carry them out for the right price.] There’s a lot of stuff there! [Laughs.] But that fails miserably in listing all of the things that those characters [in the artwork] have done.

There’s a lyric from 1990’s Rust in Peace where you sing, “Don’t ask what you can do for your country / Ask what your country can do for you.” Where do you stand on those lyrics now?

If you kinda reduce that song — “Take No Prisoners” — to its lowest common denominator, it was about the fact that if the military machinery wants something, it usually gets [it]. I was watching something late last night about one of our states here in the U.S. where they’d raised the age to purchase a weapon to 21. The sheriff of that territory said, “They’ll take you in the military at age 18. You can get a gun there but you can’t get one on the streets.” I’ve been on the USS George Washington, which is an amazing aircraft carrier. To think that they’ve got 18-19-20 year-old guys driving these $100 million — and even sometimes close to billion-dollar — vessels. [Laughs.] And you’re thinking, “God, this guy’s not even old enough to buy a beer. Oh my gosh!” So that’s kind of what that was. I registered for the selective service when I was 18. I had no fear whatsoever because I was living on my own and I really didn’t have much to live for at that time. So I figured, “Shoot, I’ll register.” During that time, when my best friend and I were waiting for our cards to be called up, that’s when I started thinking, “Well, they want my life, but they don’t want my hair — crazy.” [Laughs]

So I looked to JFK. I know that nobody’s without blame. We’re all human and we’re all fallible, but he was somebody that everybody really looked up to, so it was kind of like rock-legend stuff. So there was that famous line of his, “Don’t ask what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” So I was like, “Let’s see now [if I invert this]. Let’s put this out there — the yin and the yang.” Do you like a Berean in the Bible who questions everything? Do you like a skeptic in science who questions everything? Be like a typical young child who says “why?” to everything — just ask. I think a lot of people misunderstand me sometimes when I talk or sing about a subject, as if I’m taking a particular side.

As a parent, I’ve learned, when I explain something, to say, “Okay, here’s the pro; here’s the con; here’s what I would do” and just kinda let the chips fall where they may. I think that’s how my kids turned out balanced. I thought my kids were gonna end up being awful because of the whole rock thing, but I’m really blessed in that area. And I’ve got all of you guys to thank for helping us have the lifestyle that we do. Of course, I came close to f*cking it all up numerous times.

For The World Needs a Hero, you went for a heavier sound than the preceding four albums, and The System Has Failed is even thrashier. What was your headspace that you wanted to get heavy again?

Well it wasn’t that I’d ever thought about getting lighter. As a bandleader, domestic tranquility amongst the members is tantamount. There’s a joke among musicians that it’s one of “the four p’s” that’ll cause a band to break up: power, property, prestige, or p-ssy. Whenever we’ve had a problem with any of our alumni or people who’ve worked with us, there’s always been some kind of disagreement that’s led to it. With The World Needs a Hero, Marty [Friedman, lead guitarist] had just left. His body was there, but his soul was gone way before he actually left. He wanted to play different music. We’d gone to Japan and he’d fallen very much under a spell from the Japanese J-Pop bands. Cool, that’s Marty’s thing. He’s an amazing talent, and if he wants to listen to disco, that’s his trip. But it was hard to make Marty happy and make myself happy.

We were having incredible problems with [late drummer] Nick Menza, too, because of stuff that was going on between him and me. With respect to Nick, I’m not going to say anything bad about him, but we were fragmenting. [By the time] my arm got hurt in 2001, it gave me some time to really look at what I was doing and who I was playing with. And after Marty left, I figured, “You know what? I’m not happy playing stuff that’s slow. I love the fact that I’ve been one of the few metal bands that’s been able to incorporate real melodic music into the heaviness that we have, but there’s [also] twists and turns and tempo changes and all kinds of interesting things [in what we do].”

The last thing I said to Marty — before the door basically closed and his mind was made up — was when we were writing the song “The Doctor Is Calling” [from 1999’s Risk], the riff goes nah-nah-nah nah-nahh, nah nah-nah-nah nah-nahh. I was trying to make a joke out of how Marty was saying, “You need to slow the riff down.” So I was slowing it down, and I played that riff to show that, “Okay, this is soooo slow!” [Laughs.] And he goes “I love it!” And I thought, “Aw, shit.” Marty was really impressed with Dishwalla’s song “Counting Blue Cars.” I guess they got wind that I talked about this, which is cool; I liked the song [too], and they had some cool chords. But alternative music was huge at the time, so we had to make a choice: do we go underground and stay metal, or do we try and survive and use what we have and compete against alternative and nu metal and all this other crap? I’m not saying alternative was crap, but nu metal was really hard to deal with — guys going out there and playing with no solos??! The solo is my favorite part of the song! [Laughs.]

When you injured your arm, it was widely reported that it was in doubt whether you’d ever be able to play again. Can you take us back to the moment you knew you were ready to go in and make the next Megadeth record, which turned out to be The System Has Failed?

I don’t practice very often. Guitar’s not something where I come and pick it up and sit with it all day like Kiko [Loreiro, current Megadeth guitarist]. But after my arm got hurt, it was 17 months before I picked up a guitar. I got a phone call about somebody who used to work for us. He’d overdosed and left his wife and daughter with nothing. My godfather — Alice Cooper — was doing a benefit for him, and his manager, Shep Gordon, had asked if I would be interested in coming down and playing a couple of songs. I said, “Look, I can’t play anymore! I mean, I’ll try.”

So I came down there and played for about 45 seconds. The audience knew what was was going on with me. They saw me struggling and saw that I wasn’t going to give up. They cheered, and I thought, “I can’t stop. I gotta try this.” So I contacted all the band guys, and all the answers that I got back were just really dysfunctional: “What’s the money? How much am I gonna get paid? I need to know what the marketing is. What’s my cut?” That’s how it was from everybody except for Nick [Menza]. Unfortunately, though, when Nick came out, it didn’t work very well. And within a couple of days we had to replace him with Glen Drover.

The same year that session giant Vinnie Colaiuta recorded the drum parts for The System Has Failed, he also played with James Taylor, Queen Latifah, and even Lindsay Lohan. His massive discography also includes stints with Zappa and Sting. How did he adapt to Megadeth’s style and how much did you have to guide him?

I’m gonna be careful with how I say this, because some people like to [relay] the stuff that happens in the studio and their relationship with the truth is a little strained — although I don’t think that Vinnie would be like that. All he did was smoke cigarettes. We would talk about each song; I would play him the demo; he would listen to it; he would get a legal yellow notepad and write down what I believed was drum tablature. [Laughing] There was one song, where he was playing and he f*ckin’ puts his drumsticks in one hand — both of them — keeps playing, reaches over and flips the page on the pad, takes the cigarette on his mouth; grabs the stick again and just starts wailing. I’m looking at this guy and thinking to myself, “This is such a treat to watch this guy.” That was really fun. By the same token, I thought it would be cool to close the circle and ask [Peace Sells-era lead guitarist] Chris Poland to play on the record.

I actually wanted to go solo at that time. When the band broke up, I was done with the fighting and done with people forcing their songs on me. If everybody was such great songwriters, they would’ve had massive success after leaving Megadeth. None of them have. They would’ve contributed more in the band. I don’t keep people from contributing. The labels and management have been involved in that stuff. Going back to Chris, I thought, “It’s gonna be really cool.” And it was really cool while it was going down. But I wanted to go solo, and the label said “We own you for the rest of your life until you give us that last Megadeth record.” And I went, “Uh-oh.” So I said, “Okay [laughing], this is not a solo record anymore; it’s a Megadeth record.” I didn’t want to have session guys. I wanted my band back, but we all had things we were doing — for some of us it was substance[s]; for some of us it was people; for some of us it was whatever mix of both, but we all had our vices. The bigger we got, the more it was fragmenting everything. When the time came to go to the studio, it was real weird hearing Megadeth songs played by other guys. But the bass player I used on that record, Jimmie Lee Sloas, he’d done some Megadeth songs before, when producer Dan Huff didn’t like the way David Ellefson played bass on a couple of records.

How much musical guidance did you give Chris?

I think you should probably ask Chris that question, to keep from there being another stupid story on the internet about people disputing how much I had to do with it. But needless to say, the time together was fun. If I have a song and I have an idea for something and I hear a solo, I’ve always said … “there’s their way, our way, and my way.” What that means is, when it comes to solo time, I’ll say, “Okay, go ahead [and do it your way].” If it’s great, it’s great. Marty pulled that off a lot of times. Not a lot of the players have had their very first solo be the keeper solo. I mean, in all the songs I’ve played on — almost 200 — I’ve only had one song ever — ever! — where I kept the first solo I played, and that was in “Holy Wars.” So none of us, when we went in there and thought that we had a solo that was going to be in the song [were exempt from having to make changes] here or there.

But, you know, playing with Chris again was bittersweet. It was great to play with him, but I think there was some history between the two of us that had just wrecked our relationship. I wish Chris well and wish that he… I was looking at our stats the other day and we’ve had almost a billion spins on radio — not streams, spins. I was thinking, “That’s a lot; we’ve accomplished a lot.” I don’t know if I’m softening in my old age, but I look back now on a lot of this stuff and it means so much more to me now. The fistfights that happened and stuff like that, I don’t think they were ever not gonna happen, because everybody was just so highly charged at the time. But it was really great to see him, to be with him, and to hear him play because he is a masterful guitar player.

Our thanks to Dave Mustaine for taking he time to speak with us. Pick up the new remastered reissue of The World Needs a Hero on CD or vinyl and The System Has Failed on CD or vinyl, as well. A promo video for both reissues can be seen in the clip above, with more details available at this location.


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