The Shocking Mistake That Inspired a Thrash Classic
Here’s the story of how an onstage error from Dave Mustaine inspired the all-time Megadeth classic, “Holy Wars… the Punishment Due.”
In 1988, Megadeth was touring in Northern Ireland, a country that was a powder keg of political and religious division, which some outsiders might not have been aware of. Live music was a way of bringing people together, but after a few pints of Guinness, Dave Mustaine quickly found out how quickly that can shift. One comment into the microphone turned the crowd of fun-loving metalheads into two separate camps of people defending their political beliefs. It was lesson for Dave in the power of fame.
Backstage before a show in Belfast, Northern Ireland, one of Megadeth’s crew members comes up and informs them that a kid has been busted for selling T-shirts inside the venue. Surprisingly, Dave Mustaine wasn’t mad. He actually respected the entrepreneurship, thinking that it took a lot of balls. Dave asked the member of his crew why the kid was selling shirts. The crew member said the kid was trying to support “the cause.”
“I thought, well, no religion is better than another religion. That’s prejudice, which is not cool, and if ‘the cause’ is about having equality between different religions, then great,” Mustaine described his perspective at the time, not fully understanding the long-going conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland.
Dave took a mental note, deciding he’d bring it up later onstage. So Megadeth goes up, and before covering the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.,” Dave goes to the microphone to support what he thought was a movement against religious division.
“Dave made a comment to ‘give Ireland back to Ireland, this one’s for the cause’….something like that,” former Megadeth bassist David Ellefson recalls. “[The audience split into two] and when we came off stage we were immediately whisked to the bus.”
What started out as a fun-loving gathering of heavy metal turned serious and scary really quick. It was like a bomb had been set off in the audience. People stopped paying attention to the the show, you could hear arguments being started, and the general vibe turned sour. It made an impact on Mustaine. Feeling inspired, he pulled out his notepad and started writing.
In the lyrics to what would become “Holy Wars… the Punishment Due,” Dave admits his naivety over the complicated issue:
Brother will kill brother, spilling blood across the land
Killing for religion, something I don't understand
Fools like me, who cross the sea
And come to foreign lands
Ask the sheep, for their beliefs
Do you kill on God's command?
“Holy Wars…The Punishment Due” was released as the opening track and first single off Megadeth’s fourth album, Rust in Peace. The song is regarded as one of the best from Megadeth, off of what’s regarded as one of the best and most influential thrash metal records of all time.
A valuable lesson was learned for Dave — when you have the power of being a rock god, you can mean well, and still do harm. Maybe it’s better to avoid dipping your toes into complicated waters, or as Dave later wrote in “Holy Wars” out of remorse.
My past erased, no more disgrace
No foolish naive stand
Watch the full story behind “Holy Wars” below.