DAVID ELLEFSON Says It Was 'Illegal' For Metal Fans To Admit To Liking NIRVANA In Early 1990s

June 20, 2024

Former MEGADETH bassist David Ellefson has weighed in on the never-ending debate about how the rise of grunge in the early 1990s forced most hard rock bands off the radio and MTV, with album and tour sales plummeting. Speaking to the X5 Podcast, he said in part (as transcribed by BLABBERMOUTH.NET): "I lived in L.A. So, coming off [MEGADETH's] 'Rust In Peace' [album — this is in 1991; we're starting to write 'Countdown To Extinction', and I remember driving down the freeway, and KNAC was the big rock station. And I remember hearing — is it a song called 'Breed'? And I was, like, 'That is fucking badass. What a great song.' And then it turns out it was NIRVANA. And I liked NIRVANA. I thought they were cool. I loved their sound. I totally got it. And it was basically illegal for a metal guy to say you liked NIRVANA. I mean, you could be basically crucified and shot execution-style if you said that. So it was not allowed for any of us to say that."

He continued: "Look, they changed… It went from hair-band stuff right over to Seattle, especially, with MTV and media outlets and stuff. And I guess we got caught a little bit in it. When we put out the 'Youthanasia' record, our first single 'Train Of Consequences' was well received. 'À Tout Le Monde' was not. And then they just basically turned the channel. Of course, METALLICA cut their hair. They started altering their sound a little bit — mostly their image. They remained a metal band for the most part. METALLICA and MEGADETH, for sure, survived it. We adapted and survived it. Some of our contemporaries, they just stayed the course and, as a result, their business got smaller for another 10 years, until the 2000s came around.

"So, yeah, the '90s were rough, especially for thrash metal bands. Because there was Seattle, then came nu metal — you know, the KORN, COAL CHAMBER, LIMP BIZKIT."

Reflecting on how the "nu metal" scene affected MEGADETH's business, especially related to touring opportunities, Ellefson said: "Dude, I remember doing fuckin' Ozzfest '98. And this was the moment for me. So you talk about Seattle moment. But for me, the moment was Ozzfest '98. So our showtime was usually 6 p.m. every night. And headliners, obviously, was Ozzy [Osbourne], then it was TOOL, then MEGADETH, and then right before us was LIMP BIZKIT, and I forgot who else before us, but definitely the tides were turning. And so, LIMP BIZKIT was up there flushing [cardboard cutouts of] SPICE GIRLS down their big toilet that they had as a stage prop, everybody's got baggy clothes and they're kind of doing, kind of the KORN… The body language moved, it changed big time — kind of more gangster, hip-hop kind of thing. And then we come out in our skinny jeans and we're headbanging, and it's, like, 'This just feels very weird.' We're sandwiched between LIMP BIZKIT and TOOL. And I remember, me and [then-MEGADETH guitarist] Marty Freeman, we'd go out and watch TOOL. I loved them. I thought they were great. It was mesmerizing. To me, they were like the modern-day RUSH '2112' kind of vibe. It was very non-mainstream, kind of almost PINK FLOYD-ish. I was mesmerized by it, just how fricking cool it was. So, I got it. I've always adapted to new stuff that was coming out. So I thought it was really cool. Then, of course, Ozzy would come out. But it was just this weird cultural shift that was happening during that time.

"I think going back to the grunge thing, the band that we can all agree on, I think anybody, but especially metalheads and guitar-player kind of bands, was ALICE IN CHAINS," Ellefson added. "They were just cool no matter what. They sort of won everyone over, whereas SOUNDGARDEN, I liked them. I didn't love them. I love TEMPLE OF THE DOG. [Chris] Cornell, him and Eddie Vedder dueting on that track. And also, before PEARL JAM, MOTHER LOVE BONE. What a cool band that was. And, of course, they only had that moment, and then it was over once the singer died. But I thought PEARL JAM 'Ten' was great. I mean, that was one of those great, great albums. Top to bottom, it's just a great record. I think probably for our genre, you have to sort of take your metal hat off and just listen to it as music."

Last month, Ellefson was asked by Greg Prato of Ultimate Guitar how he and the rest of MEGADETH were affected by the downfall of the 1980s heavy metal scene during the grunge era. He said: "I loved grunge music. And I know that was not cool for a heavy metal guy to say that, especially a thrash metal guy. Because a lot of careers were pretty much upended because of Seattle music. And look, MEGADETH, we had to make some transitions. 'Cryptic Writings', in particular, was an album that was designed to reinvent the band at American Active Rock radio. Or we'd just go tour, tour, tour, and, like some of our contemporaries, took us back down to clubs and theaters. Whereas with 'Cryptic Writings', it kept us as an arena rock band. We got to headline radio station events, which were big festivals at that time. So I'm glad we did what we did, because I liked the direction that we went in, as opposed to, 'We're just going to stay true to the old school.' We kept the old school and then did what we did, which was add all the other flavors and layers that our band was capable of doing."

He continued: "So, MEGADETH, along with METALLICA for sure, not only survived it, but we thrived in it. And it still kept us at the top of the charts and the top of the bill, as young bands like CREED, GODSMACK, DISTURBED, and the new generation of nu metal stuff was coming up. Because I think that was as much of it for us. It wasn't just grunge."

"Grunge may have affected MTV, but I think overall as a hard rock, heavy metal genre, the grunge thing didn't affect us as much as you had to be aware of what was coming up behind us. And we saw it because we took KORN on tour with us on the 'Youthanasia' tour in 1995. We saw first-hand on stage that KORN, this was either going to go away tomorrow or it was going to change the world. And it changed the world. Just like when we took ALICE IN CHAINS out, when we took STONE TEMPLE PILOTS out. We took bands out with us in the '90s that were 'tomorrow's music.' We took a chance on those and we probably ushered them into their careers, which I thought was great. Because they weren't really 'heavy metal bands.' They were bands of a different flavor. I think, for us — we were able to see it coming, so we sort of adapted a bit. But we also weren't a band that was a one-trick pony. We weren't really threatened by grunge, to be honest with you."

Upon release in September 1991, NIRVANA's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" wreaked confusion upon the hair metal vanguard, putting an end to an era dominated by glamorous, androgynous and sparkly rock stars who absolutely saturated the radio waves and were almost exclusively what aired on MTV.

In a 2023 interview with Guitar World, MEGADETH leader Dave Mustaine reflected on the band's fifth album, "Countdown To Extinction", which arrived just months after a series of landmark alt-rock releases from NIRVANA, PEARL JAM, SOUNDGARDEN and more effectively transformed the music landscape. He said: "It was our biggest record. That's pretty much the way I measure it. A lot of it was because of the timing; it came out in '92, and '92 was when everything was imploding because of alternative music. You had PEARL JAM, NIRVANA, SOUNDGARDEN, MOTHER LOVE BONE and BLIND MELON fucking things up, and radio gravitated toward that. They thought the yuppies would listen to alternative music while drinking their Stella Artois. [Laughs] The types who don't drink Miller High Life and definitely don't listen to metal. And the advertisers who handled brands like Lexus, BMW and shit like that would advertise on alternative stations, which fucked metal. So, as these metal stations went the way of the great white buffalo, we had to decide, 'Are we going to be alternative? Are we going to change like every other band?' METALLICA cut their hair off, put makeup on and all that stuff, and I got little haircuts during that time, but I never chopped it off. We decided we wouldn't change to fit the trend and would tough it out. Sure, we made some minor changes at the behest of the record label, but that was as far as it went. The fact that 'Countdown' succeeded despite the shifts in popular music showed that the music was more potent than any trend. We didn't sell out like other bands. We didn't change who we were. I think that's the greatest measure of 'Countdown''s importance."

Ellefson was fired from MEGADETH in May 2021, days after sexually tinged messages and explicit video footage involving the bassist were posted on Twitter.

David was in MEGADETH from the band's inception in 1983 to 2002, and again from 2010 until his latest exit.

Photo credit: Maciej Pieloch

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