It has always been of note to me that each band in thrash metal’s Big Four seems to have their own “trinity” of classic albums. For Slayer fans, this is usually regarded as the back-to-back onslaught of Reign in Blood, South of Heaven, and Seasons in the Abyss. For Anthrax, it is most common to argue that Spreading the Disease, Among the Living, and Persistence of Time is their finest trilogy of records. Many Metallica fans would cite the “Cliff-era” (Kill ‘Em All, Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets) as their trinity. These are all examples of the genre’s most identifiable bands manifesting their finest efforts across three unique bodies–a la Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–but with more riffs. However, given the ever-shifting lineup of Megadeth, the Big Four’s loosest, most caustic cannon, things are not quite as simply broken down.
It is no secret that Peace Sells…but Who’s Buying?, Rust in Peace, and Countdown to Extinction are the band’s most critically lauded efforts – and not without reason, they are classic staples of heavy metal history. But in between the pillars of acclamation and success that those three albums provide, there is a strong foundation of studio albums often overlooked by casual fans of the band. Out of all of these albums, 1988’s So Far So Good…So What! is perhaps the most notable. (Calling a platinum-selling album “overlooked” may be too sharp of an allegation. I simply mean it is generally less revered than the record’s surrounding it in the band’s discography). So Far, So Good is the first of many records in Megadeth’s career to include a change in the band’s lineup. It would go on to spawn some of the group’s most recognizable songs (“Set the World Afire,” “In My Darkest Hour”) as well as some of their more negatively received (“502,” “Liar”). The album’s touring process that would lead to David Ellefson’s sobriety, and serve as one of the first stepping stones to Dave Mustaine’s elongated recovery from addiction. Due to all these factors and more, So Far, So Good…So What! is more than a simple collection of songs, it is an intriguing piece of Megadeth’s audial history and the hour of darkness that came before the light of the band’s golden days. Just how did it become such a distinct piece of metal history?
For starters, it is important to understand the events surrounding its release. By the late 1980’s, in the midst of glam metal’s oversaturated market and the aftermath of what would be known as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, thrash’s dominance as the face of extreme music was swiftly entering into its full swing. The 1988 Penelope Spheeris documentary The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years played a helping hand in finally putting the nail in glam metal’s coffin. The documentary used interview footage with bands from the era (Megadeth included) to show the public the reality of what Sunset Strip’s overindulgent scene brought: self-destruction. The effects of the film, and growing increase in thrash’s critical acceptance, influenced programs such as Headbanger’s Ball on MTV and publications like Kerrang! magazine to provide precious coverage of the bands America’s agitated youth were seeking.
“The fans are the ones that pay the bills, and if you start acting like you’re hot stuff and stop paying attention to the fans, that’s when it’s over, because they are the ones that control your destiny.” – Dave Mustaine, 1988, in an interview with Pure Rock Digest.
Following the woes of the Peace Sells tour in 1987 (which included being kicked off of a bill with Motörhead and members of the band pawning their gear for drug money), Mustaine would go on to fire both Chris Poland and Gar Samuelson from the band, the latter being replaced by his own drum tech, Chuck Behler. With studio time already booked and paid for, Megadeth’s search for a new lead guitarist was frantic before finally settling on Malice guitarist Jay Reynolds. In a hilarious excerpt from Mustaine, the frontman’s 2010 autobiography, the first day of recording with Jay went something like this:
“Okay, let’s hear your part,” I said.
Nothing. Jay sat there on a stool, looking off into space.
“Yeah…ummm…I’m gonna get my guitar teacher to come down here, if it’s okay with you guys.”
“What are you talking about man?”
“No, it’s cool,” Jay went on. “He’ll do the solos for now, and then I’ll have him teach me.”
Jay smiled as innocently as a child. It was like he’d been trying to hide for weeks the fact that he was in over his head, and now he’d come up with a solution. Except it wasn’t a solution at all.
I turned to Junior, whose jaw, like mine, was almost the floor.
Needless to say, Jay was replaced the moment his guitar teacher, Jeff Young, entered the room. Mustaine writes of Young in high regard (“Jeff started playing, and I’ll be damned if the guy wasn’t good. Really good. Like…totally different than anything I’d heard or seen). With a new lineup already formed, the album’s production quickly went underway, overseen by German mixing engineer Michael Wagener. Mustaine would later criticize Wagener’s mixing efforts on the album, and provide a clearer sound for the songs on the record’s 2004 remaster, although regardless of which edition of the record one is listening to, it is the songs and performances themselves that get the point of the album across.
So Far, So Good’s intro, “Into the Lungs of Hell.” is a scathing instrumental the likes of which Megadeth wouldn’t recreate until Endgame‘s “Dialectic Chaos.” Complete with a horn section, booming double bass, and a truly manic chord progression, it offers Megadeth’s signature flavor (all out war) in a tight package and could not be any more perfectly paired with the following, “Set the World Afire.” If “Into the Lungs of Hell” is where the album starts, this song is where the album truly begins. Catching the listener off guard with a sample from The Ink Spots “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire,” followed by the sound of a nuclear explosion, “Set the World Afire” is one of the most instantly recognizable and definitive Megadeth tracks. “Distorted figures walk the street, it’s 1999/Weeds once underneath your feet have grown to vines/Bodies melted like a candle, a land without a face/No time to change your fate, no time left, it’s too late.” Mustaine’s drug addiction was at an infamous tipping point during the making of this album, but lines like this still prove his lyrical capability and paint a vivid picture for the listener to cling to. The apocalyptic feeling of universal armageddon is something Megadeth has always specialized in dishing out, and songs like this are the reason why.
The record continues with a fast paced cover of the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” which – as an avid fan of both the Pistols and Megadeth – stands as one of my favorite covers of all time. I believe it captures the feeling of the band at that point in their history, complete anarchy and pissed off snark rolled together. Steve Jones himself plays one of the solos on the track, and famously showed up sporting a broken arm to play it (as if the man needed any more credentials). “Mary Jane” is one of Megadeth’s more glossed over songs, but does a good job reflecting the state of the band as it rolls through various rhythm changes and paranoia-fueled lyrics (“If I know I’m going crazy, I must not be insane”). “502” is strongly regarded as one of the worst songs to come out of Megadeth’s early years, and while musically the track has few redeeming qualities, including the all but legendary line “Driving fast makes me feel good/Speed of light trapped under my hood,” it is worth the listen just to hear Dave Mustaine’s impression of a police siren alone.
The final half of the album features, “In My Darkest Hour,” a beautiful anthem written the day Dave Mustaine heard of Cliff Burton’s death that has become a staple of the band’s work, “Liar,” which was allegedly written about Chris Poland, and the fast-paced closer, “Hook in Mouth,” a lyrically critical track aimed at the PMRC.
After the album was released to mostly positive reviews, Megadeth proceeded to embark on another extensive touring cycle, including a stint on the Monsters of Rock tour in the United Kingdom alongside KISS, Iron Maiden, David Lee Roth, and Guns N’ Roses. It was here that the band was playing in front of the biggest audiences at this point in their career, yet also here that an abrupt wrench would be thrown into their plans as David Ellefson, the band’s bassist and co-founding member, exited the tour to immediately enter rehabilitation for his heroin addiction. As the band not only had to drop out of that leg of the tour, but also cancel their planned shows in Australia, tensions would continue to escalate until Mustaine eventually fired both Behler and Young from the band over alcohol and drug-related disputes. Behler would be replaced by his drum tech, a young upstart by the name of Nick Menza, and while undergoing an extensive search for a new lead guitarist, Mustaine would find himself arrested and placed in court ordered rehabilitation for his rampant drug use. For his first time being consistently sober in years, Mustaine would continue working on new music (which later went on to become the definitive thrash metal classic, Rust in Peace).
Throughout all of the constant drug usage, all of the canceled show dates, fired band members and recording mishaps, thirty years later So Far, So Good…So What! still manages to propel its own grim atmosphere with each listen. Though it is sandwiched between two thrash metal masterpieces, and though the lineup that recorded it would fail to last even a year, I firmly believe that the album stands on its own as a window into a unique, turmoiled time in Megadeth’s history. The demons haunting Mustaine during and after its recording would remain for some time, but not forever, and in some places on the recordings you can still hear them calling to you through the wind. The singer’s furious spit on “In My Darkest Hour” and “Hook in Mouth” is genuine. The lead guitar work across the album shows both the continuation of a unique sound introduced on Peace Sells, as well as the traces of what it would become on albums like Youthanasia and Countdown to Extinction. The air of death feels present as the band’s arsenal is unleashed, and for a moment, you can imagine that on this day thirty years ago, the band knew their creation was lethal.