Mustaine’s Metallica Exit: The When, Why, and Musical Aftermath

A look back at why Dave Mustaine was fired from Metallica, when it happened, and the unforgettable Metallica songs that carry his signature to this day.

A 1983 photo of Metallica members. From left to right: James Hetfield with wavy shoulder-length hair in a red 'Smirnoff' sleeveless top and studded belt; Lars Ulrich, bare-chested with wavy dark hair; Cliff Burton with wavy red hair wearing a denim jacket with a cross necklace; and Dave Mustaine with curly blond hair, half in a blue shirt, holding a glass. Their relaxed poses and styles reflect the heavy metal culture of the time.
James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Cliff Burton and Dave Mustaine (1983)
Key Takeaways
  • Dave Mustaine was fired from Metallica on April 11, 1983, just before recording their first album “Kill ‘Em All”, due to personal conflicts and his aggressive behavior exacerbated by substance abuse.
  • The breaking point came after a physical altercation involving Mustaine’s dog and James Hetfield, which was indicative of deeper issues within the band.
  • Mustaine’s songwriting contributions remained with Metallica, as he received credits on several tracks from “Kill ‘Em All” and “Ride the Lightning”, despite later disputes over song credits.

The Day Metallica Fired Dave Mustaine

On April 11, 1983, Dave Mustaine’s tenure with Metallica came to an abrupt end. This dismissal happened just as the band was gearing up to record their first studio album “Kill ‘Em All” in New York—a pivotal moment in their soon-to-be-stellar career. A year before this sharp turn, Mustaine had laid down tracks with the band for their demo tape “No Life ‘Til Leather”, showcasing the raw potential and sound that would soon captivate the metal scene.

However, the harmony was marred by Mustaine’s struggles with alcoholism and drug abuse, contributing to an increasingly aggressive demeanor. Bandmates James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich often bore the brunt of this aggression, leading to personal rifts within the group. One particular physical altercation with Hetfield became the catalyst for the decision that Mustaine could no longer remain in the band.

The final day of Mustaine’s chapter with Metallica was as sudden as it was decisive. With no warning, he was handed a bus ticket back to California, as Kirk Hammett of Exodus was primed to step into the void left by his departure. The transition was swift, indicating the band had already set their sights on Hammett well before the curtain fell on Mustaine’s role.

Reflecting on the incident years later, Mustaine acknowledged the part his actions played in his firing, conceding that he had “earned” the outcome due to his unruly behavior at the time. Despite the turmoil, this incident paved the way for Mustaine to channel his fire into forming Megadeth, another giant in the metal genre, while Metallica’s ascent continued with a new lead guitarist at the helm.

The Breaking Point for Mustaine and Metallica

The threadbare relationship between Dave Mustaine and his Metallica bandmates reached its snapping point over a canine-caused commotion. It was not the first time tensions ran high, but the incident involving Hetfield, Mustaine’s dog, and a car turned out to be the final act in this drama.

During a rehearsal, the dog, belonging to Mustaine, leapt onto bassist Ron McGovney’s car, leaving claw marks on the paint. Hetfield’s reaction was severe—he reportedly shouted at and kicked the animal. Mustaine saw red at the treatment of his four-legged companion and retaliated with fists.

The incident involving Hetfield, Mustaine’s dog, and a car turned out to be the final act in this drama.

The scuffle between Hetfield and Mustaine was emblematic of the deep-seated discord that had been brewing within the group. The friction had been building up over time, with this particular clash highlighting a pattern of hostility and aggression that was becoming too heavy a load for the band’s cohesion.

Remembering those days, Mustaine has since expressed contrition for his impulse to engage physically with Hetfield, labeling his reaction as “dumb”. These fraught moments are often pointed to as symptomatic of the volatile ties that ultimately led to Metallica’s decision to part ways with their lead guitarist.

Mustaine’s exit was not just the outcome of a single heated moment but a culmination of ongoing strife that could no longer be contained within the ambitious framework of Metallica’s future.

Mustaine’s Riffs and Credits

Dave Mustaine’s role in Metallica didn’t fade away with his exit from the band. His songwriting chops are etched into the band’s early anthems. He left his mark on Metallica’s first two albums, “Kill ‘Em All” and “Ride the Lightning”, where he earned writing credits for crafting the backbone of some of the tracks.

“Kill ‘Em All” features Mustaine’s hand in four songs: “The Four Horsemen” (which evolved from “Mechanix”, a track he took with him to Megadeth), “Jump in the Fire”, “Phantom Lord”, and “Metal Militia”. The follow-up album, “Ride the Lightning”, bore two more songs with his signature: the title track “Ride the Lightning” and the intricate instrumental “The Call of Ktulu”.

The tune “Leper Messiah” from “Master of Puppets” has been a battleground for claims by Mustaine, though Metallica contests them. This disagreement over songwriting credits has been a sour note in the history of Mustaine’s relationship with the band.

Mustaine’s insistence on proper credit for his work halted this project.

The tussle came to a head over the release of an expanded version of the “No Life ‘Til Leather” demo tape. Mustaine’s insistence on proper credit for his work halted this project. He has been adamant, especially in refusing to credit Lars Ulrich for contributions to songs he claims were his creations pre-Metallica.

While the debate over credits persists, what’s clear is Mustaine’s profound influence on Metallica’s sound. His intricate guitar riffs and technical prowess are the bedrock of the tracks he helped shape, and they’ve played a significant role in defining the band’s sound.

Megadeth and Beyond

The harsh exit from Metallica lit a fire in Dave Mustaine, spurring him to establish Megadeth—a band he vowed would be even more formidable. Megadeth soared to become a thrash metal titan, driven by Mustaine’s quest to best his former band.

Mustaine hasn’t shied away from voicing his past grievances over Metallica’s use of his music post-departure. While this has been a recurring theme in interviews, where he’s oscillated between frustration and acceptance, Mustaine has stressed the importance of moving forward. The co-written “Ride the Lightning” remains a particular point of mention, symbolizing his complex feelings towards his contributions being used even after his dismissal.

Despite the turmoil, recent years have seen Mustaine mend bridges with Metallica. The animosity that once clouded their relationship has dissipated, paving the way for peace. Mustaine now speaks of an absence of “beef” with his former bandmates, a stark contrast to the fraught narrative of their shared past.

In a spirit of collaboration, Mustaine has even expressed interest in joining creative forces with James Hetfield again. This openness to rekindling a working relationship is a testament to his growth and resolve to not let bygones define his present.

Mustaine’s trajectory from the pain of expulsion to establishing his own musical empire with Megadeth, and ultimately reaching a place of reconciliation, outlines a tale of redemption. It’s a storyline of transformation, where the drive for retribution becomes a journey towards creative independence and interpersonal healing.