Loud Moments in Metal Law History: The Four Horsemen v. Mechanix

by Raizel Liebler

Aw, look, a new metalhead figured it out! Mechanix and The Four Horsemen sound almost the same!

The Metallica/Megadeth feud has kept metalheads in fine debate form for thirty years. The heart of the debate revolves around songs that Dave Mustaine wrote/co-wrote while in Metallica — and how much he actually wrote of those songs. While Dave was in Metallica, they recorded a demo version of Mechanix. After the split, Metallica recorded The Four Horsemen — and Mustaine’s Megadeth recorded Mechanix.

The two songs sound very similar, except that The Four Horsemen has a bridge and a guitar solo and Mechanix is way faster. The lyrics are entirely different, with Mechanix about … AC/DC-level double entendres based around the art of motor vehicle maintenance, while The Four Horsemen is based on … the four horsemen of Armageddon. The demo version of the song has the lyrics of Mechanix played at Four Horsemen speed.

This fan argument was even the focus of a April Fool’s story on Metalsucks, fake-quoting President Obama with saying:

Dave Mustaine has a lot of questions about me? Well I have a lot of questions about him! How do we know he really had anything to do with those songs on [Metallica’s] Kill ‘Em All and Ride the Lightning? I didn’t see him write them, did you? I’m not questioning it, I just… I know he didn’t write any of those riffs.

So how is possible that there can be legal versions of the same songs? Copyright! There are three different possibilities under U.S. copyright law to reasonably explain how two bands, Metallica and Megadeth, can record these super-similar songs.

First, the song was originally written (still disputed!) as a joint work, under 17 USC § 101 and 17 USC § 201. This means that because the song was co-written by Dave *and* James *and* Lars, each co-author has a copyright in the song — and can therefore grant a non-exclusive right to perform, reproduce, and license the song. What this means is that *neither* Dave nor Metallica can prevent the others from performing or recording the song. Both known versions are different from the original, though Megadeth’s version does have the original lyrics and Metallica has the original speed.

Second, there is the compulsory cover license right, from 17 USC § 115. Compulsory licenses do not require the permission of the original composer, but do require that there is a released recorded version first, here Metallica’s original version on No Life ’til Leather demo when Dave was still in Metallica. However, considering that the demo version was not “distributed” for sale to the public, it is possible to argue that the right to do a compulsory license by either Megadeth or Metallica didn’t exist. Additionally, the cover version can’t be too dissimilar from the original — “the basic melody or fundamental character of the work” needs to stay the same, unlike say a remix or a derivative work. One could make a strong argument that neither modern version could  actually be considered a cover, considering that they vary, with completely different lyrics, though the music — is mostly the same.

The third possibility under copyright is that The Four Horsemen is a parody of Mechanix! This would mean that the purpose of the Metallica version is to poke fun at the original — and that it should not be taken seriously as a song. Though Metallica ended things badly with Dave, the possibility of James and Lars specifically make fun of Dave’s cheeseball sexist lyrics by making their version about the deathly serious end of the world seems beyond them.

And the fourth horseman in figuring out this puzzle of the two songs that sound the same is a very lawyerly answer: Mechanix exists because lawyers made it possible, through contract negotiations between Megadeth and Metallica. This one is definitely the least satisfying!

Below are three embedded versions of the songs — the original demo version live, the Megadeth version, and the Metallica version. The last video is the first time The Four Horsemen/Mechanix was played live by both Metallica and Megadeth together. Guess Dave finally made up with his little Danish friend!