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Metal Curmudgeons: Iron Maiden - Part I

by MetalMike & Sargon the Terrible



Iron Maiden are a band that have lived on beyond what anyone could have ever expected, going from their noisy beginnings to the international institution they are now. One of the most interesting things about them is how they have managed to change so much and yet still retain their definitive sound over seventeen studio albums as well as innumerable EPs, live albums, singles, collections, boxed sets, etc., etc.

Maiden’s history can be roughly divided into four broad epochs: The Di’Anno years, the "Classic" era, the Blaze interlude, and then the later-period albums after Bruce came back that we are still in now. As we will see, these divisions are not always neat, but fuck it. Mike and I decided to pick through the early albums, starting with the debut and going all the way up to Fear of the Dark and the end of the first Dickinson era, and we intend to do what metal nerds always do: disagree.

Iron Maiden

Sargon: What surprises me is how inconsistent this one is. I mean, obviously, the overall metal sound was still not solidified, and so there are a lot of odd influences on this. I hear a lot of the ‘70s punk sound in this, as well as more than a little acid rock. Di’Anno does not impress, as his voice is similarly inconsistent. When he tries to sound tough, he just croaks, and while his smoother singing is pretty good, he doesn’t have much power.

The standout feature of this album is how much more advanced the musicianship and songwriting are that one would expect from a young band, and at the time it would have really stood out from other angry young acts of the same vintage. The bass is a lot louder than in standard rock bands, and that is a part of the Maiden sound that is still with us.

There are still good songs on here, like "Remember Tomorrow" and "Phantom of the Opera," but a lot of it is pretty disposable, like the often-lauded opener "Prowler" and the downright silly "Charlotte the Harlot." Even the classic single "Running Free" is just kind of bland and doesn’t do much to intimate this is a band that will become great.

MetalMike:Yes, I’ve always felt Iron Maiden is the less consistent of the two Di’Anno albums, which is a bit surprising considering Killers is allegedly made up of leftover material from this one, but that’s another story. I heard this one shortly after being exposed to Dickinson, so Di’Anno’s voice was initially a shock, but I quickly grew to enjoy it quite a bit. Steve Harris has been quoted a million times as hating "everything" about punk but it is clear that at the very least he allowed the energy of punk to be a part of his songwriting. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal was a rebellion against not only the chaotic amateurism of Punk but also the stuffy stodginess of hard rock so taking Harris’s ear for heavy melody learned while listening to Deep Purple, Thin Lizzy and Jethro Tull and combining it with Di’Anno’s uncaring and unbridled stage presence gave Iron Maiden a leg up on their compatriots.

As for the songs, I used to love "Prowler," but it has not stood the test of time and the lyrics are rather cringy by today’s standards. I liked the faster parts of "Remember Tomorrow" and "Strange World", but I could easily live without both as the slower parts aren’t all that interesting to me. "Charlotte the Harlot" is another one with suspect lyrics, but as a song to sing along to, it’s pretty entertaining. "Running Free" with its pummeling drum riff and galloping bass is a prototypical Maiden classic and "Iron Maiden" is another. Let’s talk about "Phantom of the Opera" next. A seven-minute song? What is this, a Rush album? No, it’s the first in what will become a long line of Iron Maiden epics and it is a beauty. You have Di’Anno’s staccato vocals, the nascent and soon to be distinctive noodling lead work of Dave Murray and, of course, Harris’ pulsing bass lines. "Transylvania" is an instrumental that has a riff better than 90% of all other NWOBHM songs. "Sanctuary," which didn’t even make it onto the original release of Iron Maiden and was only included on the North American release which came out several months after the British version is one of my top five NWOBHM songs of all time, along with songs such as Tokyo Blade’s "If Heaven Is Hell" and Weapon’s "Set the Stage Alight."

So, I will agree with you that Iron Maiden is inconsistent, though perhaps less so, but our disposable tracks are different. I also believe that while this album is probably more important in the realm of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and the movement of heavy metal out of the underground in general and less so in the Iron Maiden catalog, it does have several of the hallmarks of what will become arguably the biggest and most successful heavy metal bands of all time.

Sargon: I think it’s easy to overestimate the significance of this album. I mean, as a Maiden album it’s the debut and the starting point of a major band, but as an album in itself I think it is a pretty minor effort. Let’s be honest: if Maiden had broken up after this, the album would be a footnote in the NWOBHM movement, which had a lot of other bands who were putting out albums that were more polished and memorable. This album came out the same year as classics by Angel Witch, Saxon, Tygers of Pan Tang, and Diamond Head, among others. Iron Maiden, the album, was far from the best-written or best-sounding metal album of the time, and I think the later juggernaut-like status of the band has tended to cause it to be overvalued.

MetalMike:I think that is an interesting point, but I can’t agree with your classifying it as a minor effort. Iron Maiden was already a huge deal in the NWOBHM even before this album was released, with fans grabbing up copies of the Soundhouse Tapes demo and trading copies far and wide. And don’t forget, this album landed them a deal with a major record label (EMI in the U.K., freaking Capitol, the label of The Beatles and The Beach Boys, in the U.S.) Assuming the NWOBHM had the same lasting effect if Maiden hadn’t continued, a safe assumption I think considering U.S. thrash metal grew out of Diamond Head, Saxon, Venom and a bunch of bands besides Maiden, I believe we’d still be talking about Iron Maiden, just in terms of what could have been if the band had continued, gotten a better singer, etc. Other bands may have been more polished, but Iron Maiden was a breath of fresh air and a kick in the teeth all in one, so I believe it holds up regardless of the band’s subsequent releases.

Killers

Sargon: The second, and last Di’Anno album, and you can see why, as the music has become even more detailed and ambitious, and it makes Di’Anno’s limitations really stand out, even though he has improved a lot from the debut. Everything has improved, really. The songs are better, the playing is better—partly due to the addition of Adrian Smith, partly just from having an obviously bigger budget for the recording. The songs are more melodic and more complex, with much more of the definitive Iron Maiden sound.

What’s not here is the punky vibe of the first album, which is partly because they just have a better recording job, but also because they are making more use of the two guitars to add layers to the music and make it sound less bare-knuckled. But a lot of it is just that the songs are bigger, more complicated, and rely more on songwriting than on just attitude and energy.

That said, while the sound of the album is consistent, with a lot of good riffs and leads, there are not as many memorable songs, which is probably the reason this one is often passed over. "Wrathchild" is still a good song, and "Murders in the Rue Morgue" is catchy, but a lot of this is songs that have good parts, but are not really that standout as whole songs. "Genghis Khan," "Innocent Exile" and the title track all have hooks that you will remember, but the vocal parts are just kind of there. It’s obvious that the band was developing in a direction where they would need a better singer, because Di’Anno just isn’t up to the drill.

MetalMike:The second Di’Anno album (and last, not counting the Maiden Japan live EP) and my second favorite album from the band. I’ve read a lot of opinions from people online who feel the first album is better and, while personal taste is what it is, Killers is clearly the better record. What I really like about this album is it still gives you the rough and tumble excitement of the NWOBHM but also the undeniable maturity and scope in terms of songwriting that was starting to emerge. And here is where I have to disagree with you. I think this album is chock full of memorable songs. "Wrathchild," "Twilight Zone" and one of my all-time favorite Maiden songs, "Drifter" throw more hooks at you than a heavyweight fighter and spill over with the energy of a young band out to take the scene by force. On the other hand, Steve Harris’s penchant for adapting books, TV and movies, like he did with "Phantom of the Opera" on the debut, is given full rein with "Murder in the Rue Morgue," a song that evokes clear images in my mind of what is happening. The subtle change of pronouns near the end of "Killers" is a perfect thriller movie twist that pulls the rug out from under your feet and makes you glance over your shoulder. It is the best of both worlds in a lot of ways.

Harris was clearly honing his songwriting craft at this time but the addition of guitarist Adrian Smith, a better fit than Dennis Stratton, who played on Iron Maiden, in that he actually wanted to play this kind of music unlike his predecessor, and was also a talented songwriter, was the first step that would begin Iron Maiden’s rise from the confines of the NWOBHM to the height of popularity the band enjoys to this day.

Sargon: I agree that this is a more consistent album than the debut, and has a lot of hooks, but what it doesn’t have is really memorable choruses or vocal melodies, by and large. "Wrathchild" holds up, simple as it is, and you remember "Murders in the Rue Morgue" even if that’s because the chorus is kind of annoying after repeated listens. But the rest of the album just blurs past and nothing really sticks out. While you are listening, the music is good, but the songwriting to hold the pieces together is just not there. The recording is a lot better, and the album has a lot of energy, just not really anything to do with it all. It sounds rushed, which it apparently was, and at this point the band needed a better singer, period. Thankfully, that was what they got.

MetalMike:Yes, definitely better in spite being rushed or containing "leftover" material, which hardly seems possible when you listen to "Killers," "Wrathchild," "Murders in the Rue Morgue" and even "Genghis Khan". But I don’t think the hooks stop there. I’ve always enjoyed the B-side of the album with songs like the hard rocking "Drifter" and "Twilight Zone" being some of my favorites. You’ve also got "Prodigal Son", an epic song clearly written with Di’Anno’s limitations in mind but in the direction Maiden would later perfect. We both agree Di’Anno was holding the band back, but I think he left on high note and Killers is one of the best albums in the band’s catalog.

Sargon: And I just have to say that calling Killers "one of the best" would be grossly overstating the matter, to put it mildly. Maiden’s discography contains so many albums light years ahead of this one that I would not put it very high above the Blaze Bayley albums in terms of quality. A formative album for the band, and a step in the right direction, but ultimately forgettable.

The Number of the Beast

Sargon: Now here we have the third album, and this is where Maiden started to really come into their own. Di’Anno is gone, replaced by the iconic Bruce Dickinson. The first two albums were hampered by Di’Anno’s clear limits as a singer, but now the band can really stretch out and they have a singer with a voice that can not only keep up, but take center stage. It is amazing to me that this came out barely a year after Killers, and that clearly shows that the band were developing fast and on a creative high.

That said, some songs here are weaker than others. The opener "Invaders" sounds like a song written for Di’Anno, with the limited range and crowded arrangements. (In fact, it was written well before Dickinson joined the band.) But the songs that made the best use of the band’s new vocal asset are the best ones here. "Children of the Damned," with its slow groove and epic style. "The Prisoner"—with what was probably the most blatantly catchy chorus the band had done to date, and then it gets topped by "Run to the Hills". I mean, yes, you get some filler cuts like "Gangland" and "Total Eclipse," but overall this album is heavy with essential songs, and even the so-so tracks have good parts. Album closer "Hallowed Be Thy Name" closes the album out on a real epic note.

The title track is what really put this one over the top, because it gave the album its name and made it one of the most iconic metal albums in history. It probably did as much as anything to cement Maiden in the wider cultural consciousness with the controversy over the satanic imagery. It hit right at the perfect moment when the occult themes in metal were deepening and the Satanic Panic was just starting to get going in the U.S., creating a perfect storm that made it so almost everyone heard about this album. And then on top of that, the song is probably the best thing Maiden had done to that point and remains a classic song that is a backbone of their live shows to this day.

The addition of Dickinson to the lineup at this exact point was like throwing gasoline on a fire, because his range and power gave the band freedom to stretch out and try things they hadn’t been able to do before, and his impulse to let songs breathe more gave him room to show off his abilities and made the music even better, because suddenly nobody was being held back by things their bandmates couldn’t do. The quality of songwriting and musicianship–especially the leads–shows a massive leap ahead of the first two albums, and Dickinson’s performance set a new standard for metal singers. This whole album sounds modern in a way other NWOBHM albums of the time just don’t, and it’s easy to see why it became and remains such a hugely influential work.

MetalMike:The Number of the Beast is the album where Iron Maiden starts to truly sound like the Iron Maiden we have all come to know. Paul Di’Anno is gone, replaced by the infinitely more talented Bruce Dickinson. It is almost like a completely new band even though only one member has changed. Sure, they were better than most of their peers in the NWOBHM even with Di’Anno, but with Dickinson they left those peers in the dust. However, despite leaps in songwriting, playing, singing, etc. The Number of the Beast is an uneven album. There are highs, some of the most glorious highs in all of heavy metal, but there are also songs that just aren’t that great. Take "Invaders," the album opener, a serviceable song with straightforward lyrics and run-of-the-mill lead work or "22, Acacia Avenue (The Continuing Story of Charlotte the Harlot)" a track brought to the band by guitarist Adrian Smith from his former band and reworked into a sequel to "Charlotte the Harlot" from the debut. Once again, an OK song but one that has the directness of something that would have been more at home on Iron Maiden or Killers. "Gangland" is a weird song, thanks to drummer Clive Burr’s jazz leanings and even the usually lauded "Children of the Damned" is a song that I think takes too long to get going and the payoff at the end is underwhelming. I think it points to the overindulgent songwriting that now hangs like an albatross around the necks of otherwise decent songs on recent albums like Book of Souls and Senjutsu which are full of overly lengthy compositions.

Once you get past these songs, and honestly, they are fine just nothing to get excited about, you have gems like "Prisoner", which has just the right amount of slow lead in before it lets loose with some classic Maiden galloping bass work and that amazing chorus. "Hallowed Be Thy Name" is epic metal done right and illustrates where "Children of the Damned" could have been improved. That leaves "Run to the Hills" and "The Number of the Beast" two of the best songs Iron Maiden has ever written. I had Piece of Mind before The Number of the Beast, but when I heard these songs on a VHS tape of Iron Maiden music videos I bought back in ‘83 or ‘84, that was it. Has there ever been a more memorable drum into than Burr’s at the outset of "Run to the Hills"? Has a scream like Dickinson’s at the end of the first verse of "The Number of the Beast" ever sent more chills up and down spines? I played these songs over and over throughout the ‘80s because they are catchy, exciting, powerful, and just plain awesome.

The Number of the Beast is absolutely the point where Iron Maiden started to take off and it is easy to see why with some of their best and, to this day, most popular songs. It also has songs I can just as easily skip and that holds it back in my view. All the same, it is a must-own album despite its deficiencies.

Sargon: I think this album shows the band kind of going in a lot of different directions. You have the more pugilistic numbers like "Gangland" or "Invaders," you have the more epic songs like the title track, "Children of the Damned" and "Hallowed..." But then you have the "catchy" songs like "Prisoner" and "Run to the Hills" which are, frankly, a bit too catchy for my taste. The key changes in "Prisoner" especially are just too major and happy-sounding, and they reflect an impulse toward more commercial sounds that took the band a long time to shed, but I am glad did not become the dominant style in their future albums. Still, it seems like every album up through Fear of the Dark had a few of these glossier, more poppy numbers the band maybe hoped would be a crossover hit.

MetalMike:And I will always love the uber-catchy songs. I can listen to "Run to the Hills" and "The Number of the Beast" over and over and they never once get stale or boring for me. I, too, tend to shy away from the attempts at commercial acceptance of later albums now, though at the time they were admittedly responsible in part for me getting into Maiden in the first place. From what we’ve discussed thus far, I think The Number of the Beast might be a good one for us to listen to if we were on a road trip together, with you headbanging to "Children of the Damned" and me shouting the chorus of "The Prisoner."

Sargon: I actually never listen to Maiden in the car, because I have gotten pulled over too many times with Maiden on the stereo, and now it’s like a jinx for me. Anyway, something I have noticed about the addition of Dickinson is that the verses got better. A good chorus can carry a short song, but with the more epic songs you need more heft. The real strength of "Number of the Beast" as a song is that all of it is catchy–the intro, the verses, the chorus, the break–it’s all good. It’s not a song where you just wait for the chorus to hit, as every part of it is memorable. It’s a more intensive style of writing, and it took them a while to get a real grip on it, but it’s part of what makes their classic albums so good from this point on.




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