Saturday, January 5, 2013

Metallica's "Four Horsemen" VS. Megadeth's "Mechanix"

Intractable debates are such because they typically involve worthy sides, have complex inter-relations, and inspire passionate allegiances. For these reasons, in thrash metal, some of the most famous, interesting, and controversial debates have to do with Metallica and Megadeth. And one such argument between these two metal titans is over which band did a single song, written by Dave Mustaine when he was in Metallica, the best. 
That song is called "The Four Horsemen" by Metallica and "The Mechanix" (its original title) by Megadeth. To complicate matters, Dave Mustaine has also written a song about the four horsemen of the apocalypse, entitled "Blessed Are The Dead" from their United Abominations (2007) album. But originally Mustaine had penned the song "The Mechanix" prior to joining Metallica, when he was in a band called Panic. Upon joining Metallica, this song was among those Mustaine brought to James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich and which ended up on Metallica's 1983 debut Kill 'Em All.
When Mustaine got kicked out of Metallica just prior to going into the studio, Metallica changed the lyrics of "The Mechanix", which focused on Mustaine checking out women who came into the gas station he was working at when he wrote the song, to those of "The Four Horsemen" of the apocalypse from the book of Revelation. Metallica did, however, play "The Mechanix" as it originally sounded both in concert and on their famous No Life 'Til Leather demo.
Mustaine decided to record "The Mechanix" for Megadeth's 1985 debut Killing Is My Business...And Business Is Good!. However, since Megadeth's mission statement at that time was to be the fastest and heaviest band in the world, they increased the speed of the song considerably. What we ended up with are two very different songs. Metallica's slower version is closer to how Mustaine originally intended the song to be heard, but the lyrics are different. Megadeth's quicker, more raw delivery seems deliberately rushed - but the lyrical content remains in its original form.

So which version is better? Like any interesting question, it is very difficult to decide. Both are excellent versions of early 80's thrash, and Mustaine can lay claim to both versions since each are essentially his songs. So when we ask "who did it better?" we must first point out that this question has more to do with the song than the people involved. For the correct answer will, of course, be: Mustaine wins (in each version).
Once we put that issue aside, I'd have to argue that the Kill 'Em All version is better. First, let's give credit to James and Lars for writing far more interesting lyrics for the song - while admitting that they copied in form and style of vocal delivery the original (Mustaine wrote that too). Second, the song is musically very interesting...and this is made less so by Mustaine's decision to speed it up for Megadeth's debut. Megadeth's solo work and overall musicianship is better, indeed much better, which makes the speed increase all the more tragic as it rushes through some true technical virtuosity.
That's my take anyway.  Check out the links below and decide for yourself! 
Metallica's "Four Horsemen"

Megadeth's "Mechanix"


  1. I actually prefer the Megadeth version, since the faster speed allows the song to sit in a nice groove, whilst Metallica's version is so slow that it sounds laboured.

    The drumming in particular in The Four Horsemen just labours and drags on and doesn't allow the song to gain any momentum at all.

  2. I know what you mean Stimmy. When I mentioned the much better musicianship in the Megadeth camp I had Gar in mind, who was a far better drummer than Lars.

  3. Here's what I'd say. The article doesn't actually ask "Which do you prefer?" It asks "Which did it best?" So this implies some sort of objective or agreed-upon standard by which we can properly arrive at the conclusion.

    I think an objective way to do this is to look at other examples of similar artwork. For example, the 1986 movie "The Color of Money" was a remake of the 1961 film "The Hustler", both starring Paul Newman but in different roles. To say that the remake was better is to say that it appeals to you more, perhaps because it stars Tom Cruise whom you may identify more with as he was a star when you began watching movies as a teenager. So the remake is the favorite for you on those grounds. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that at all. However, it's still a remake. And remakes are only done for movies like "The Hustler" that made a significant impact to a previous generation of moviegoers, and the studios want to try to repeat the impact again. But one is always dependent upon the other, and the remake never really stands on its own legs.

    However, this example kind of breaks down when it comes to The Four Horsemen and The Mechanix in a way. While Mustaine wrote them both, except the lyrics for The Four Horsemen, they actually came out around the same time, only the "remake" actually came out BEFORE the original.

    (As a side note, notice how it's only movies and songs that get remade? Notice how books aren't rewritten, poems aren't redone or sculptures tried again? What is distinct about songs and movies that makes this completely okay? Maybe the generational thing?)

    Anyways, The Four Horsemen and The Mechanix came out at around the same time, yet the Four Horsemen (the remake) was actually released first. What makes this odd is that the average public thrash listener at the time would have had no way to know this. So The Four Horsemen effectively misrepresented itself as the original. And I think this can be objectively scorned, as we would expect a great thrash band to simply reject it from their catalog once the creator of the piece was summarily kicked to the curb. Yet instead we have even more songs on this album and others with Mustaine's music on it from Metallica. (I mean come on guys, just write another song for God's sake)

    So while I may prefer the lyrics of The Four Horsemen, or the production quality, objectively The Mechanix is the greater of the two since it is the original, authentic version of the author, and since Metallica's version carries with it ethical concerns since it portended to be something it wasn't, even though their lawyers told them they had to put Mustaine's name in the credits, even if they personally would fire the guy, use his music and not even ask him whether or not they had permission to.

    1. Mike,

      The question you raised about why it is that music can be redone while other forms of art (novels, poems, etc.) is an interesting one.

      Regarding the Four Horsemen debate, several facts speak against your view. First of all, you claim that the "average public thrash listener at the time" would have had no way to know that Metallica's version was the remake. In the early 80's thrash was a completely underground scene with a group of dedicated word-of-mouth fans creating fanzines, tape trading, and attending live shows.

      Mechanix was well-known to thrash audiences since it's introduction to them in Metallica's so-called "Power Metal" demo (April 1982), and in-particular their widely known "No Life 'Til Leather" demo (1982). But they also released it again in their 1983 demos (Metal Up Your Ass, Megaforce demo). So I'd just disagree with your point; metal audiences would have considered Four Horsemen as "Mechanix with new lyrics" - which is what it was.

      At that time, the comings and goings of band members, particularly in a group like Metallica, really DID get around - as documented in "Get Thrashed". People knew Mustaine and many people, see the Vio-lence interview in "Get Thrashed", saw him as the band's leader since it was Mustaine, not the shy (at the time) Hetfield, who interacted with the crowd in-between songs.

      Another point to make is that Metallica probably wasn't being dishonest or sneaky with Mustaine's music. I know that in VH1's "Behind The Music: Megadeth" Mustaine claimed (and 'Tallica denied) that he asked them not to use his music. But the fact that they gave him credit (and did it again on a couple songs off Ride The Lightning) and thanked both Dave and Ron McGovney (their original bassist) in the album liner/jacket notes signals their honest appreciation. I guess only Mustaine and 'Tallica know the truth, but my guess is they simply parted ways and then later Dave started thinking about property rights.

  4. I don't know. Kill 'em All sold a lot of copies. I would think the vast majority of them weren't sold to underground thrash followers who all had copies of No Life 'till Leather...and that's why it's still a salient topic decades later. If it were so widely known, it wouldn't still be that interesting today.