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Buyer's Guide: Iron Maiden

On Christmas Day, 1975 Steve Harris started Iron Maiden. Here's Classic Rock''s 2005 guide to the the band's catalogue

Take a stroll down the pedestrianised shopping centre of any English town and, among the proliferation of Burberry, faceless shops and dog eggs, you’ll find a number of youngsters sporting Iron Maiden togs. In fact, the face of Eddie – the band’s illustrated mascot – has rarely been so widespread and, with two huge festival dates set for the end of August, Maiden’s renaissance is complete. Spooling back the best part of three decades, the concept of what would become one of the biggest bands ever was born from the ashes of just one of many also-rans that litter rock’s highway. The band was Gypsy’s Kiss and their bassist had just left in order to write his own songs. His name was Steve Harris and, as current drummer Nicko McBrain succinctly states on the recent Early Days DVD release: “It’s his dream and we’re all living it with him.”

Maiden achieved success in the traditional manner as far as the late 70s goes, through sheer hard work, great live shows, better songs and dollops of that elusive X factor and, even after several significant line-up changes, Harris has never wavered in his steely determination.

From the kinetic 1980 debut onwards, Maiden’s inexorable climb to the very top was, from an outsider’s view at least, totally predictable; fans who’d see the band maybe three times every year wouldn’t really perceive that they were ever off the road – and when they were, they were recording. For any artist, regardless of medium, to produce a genuine classic each year for a decade, as Maiden did during the 80s, beggars belief. And it was no coincidence that, once guitarist Adrian Smith and, even worse, vocalist Bruce Dickinson had jumped ship, things were going to change.

With new guitarist Janick Gers and the likeable but ultimately hapless Blaze Bayley at the mic, Maiden were reduced from a great band to merely a good one, yet they still didn’t stop. Of course, with Dickinson and Smith back in the fold and Brave New World selling like cold Stella on a hot day, it was business as usual: the magic had been reinstated.

In any list of metal’s greatest hits, Iron Maiden will appear on a regular basis and, unlike the majority of their contemporaries, they are still operating at a huge level, selling out enormo-gigs in a matter of hours. As the aforementioned abundance of Maiden hoodies illustrates, they’re bigger than ever and, if a band continues to build on a base of solid gold, not even the sky is the limit.

ESSENTIAL: THE CLASSICS

The Number Of The Beast (EMI, 1982)

By the turn of the 80s Maiden stood on the brink of greatness and, with this iconic release, actually reached and then surpassed their burgeoning potential, with new vocalist Bruce Dickinson proving the final piece of the jigsaw.

Including at least four tracks that would go down as some of the best metal ever produced, the quality remains incredible and contemporary bands would have given their Marshall amps to have written even one of the so-called weaker songs.

Highlights include the anthemic title track and Run To The Hills, the atmospheric storytelling of Hallowed Be Thy Name, and the building emotion of Children Of The Damned.

Powerslave (EMI, 1984)

By the time 1984 came around, Iron Maiden were among the biggest bands in the world and, boasting artist Derek Riggs’s most ambitious sleeve to date, Powerslave proved to be as good as fans had hoped. The perfect production offered a more streamlined sound without ever reducing the intensity and the three main songwriters had matured into genuine forces of nature.

The slightly flabby nature of the middle section counteracts the album’s opening gambit of Aces High and Two Minutes To Midnight, but the culmination of the magnificent title track and Rime Of The Ancient Mariner – the first appearance of what would be called a ‘Steve Harris Epic’ – is sheer class.

SUPERIOR: THE ALBUMS THAT SECURED THEIR REPUTATION

Iron Maiden (EMI, 1980)

Opinion on Maiden’s self- titled debut remains divided to this day. Steve Harris has made no secret about his misgivings, while our own Malcolm Dome reckons it could be the best thing the band have ever done. What remains the case is that, in 1980, no one in the rock and metal fraternity had heard anything like this and it remains an almost mythical fusion of classic rock and punk.

The rough and ready sound that Harris still can’t stomach does little to lessen the impact of nine songs honed by years of relentless slog through the pubs and clubs of Blighty, and older fans can still remember where they were the first time they heard Prowler.

Piece Of Mind (EMI, 1983)

This is a genuine watershed album that perfectly represents the evolution of the style of the first three albums towards the more epic approach that persists to this day. Flight Of Icarus and The Trooper both scraped the UK singles chart’s Top 10, while lengthier songs such as Still Life and Quest For Fire reinforced the band’s lyrical and musical skills.

New drummer Nicko McBrain announced his arrival in bombastic style on opener Where Eagles Dare, while guitarist Adrian Smith really started to come into his own, effortlessly gelling his thoughtful style with Dave Murray’s more kinetic tactics. The band finally broke the US with this album.

Brave New World (EMI, 2000)

The 90s wasn’t the best decade for the band and, when news came that the errant Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith had been coaxed back to the fold, the metal world held its breath; even more unexpected was the statement that guitarist Janick Gers would remain a band member.

So, when the opening chords of The Wicker Man came crashing out a collective sigh went up; not only was it a good album, it was probably the best since Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son, recorded over a decade before.

Giving the band far more freedom both in the studio and, as it turned out, on stage, there’s not a weak track here.

Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son (EMI, 1988)

Used to writing songs that told complex and gripping stories, this was an entire album dedicated to a single tale. Its release was somewhat eclipsed by that of Queensrÿche’s Operation: Mindcrime around the same time, and the huge and ultimately tragic Donington appearance that summer marked the end of Adrian Smith’s first stint with the band.

In hindsight it’s difficult to see how Maiden could have taken their style further than they did here, and Infinite Dreams, The Clairvoyant and Can I Play With Madness all rank alongside Maiden’s greatest songs.

Out went Smith, in came Gers and proceedings were irrevocably changed...

GOOD: WORTH EXPLORING

Dance Of Death (EMI, 2003)

Boasting a cherry-poppin’ writing credit for Nicko McBrain, DOD is a thick slab of contemporary metal that certainly requires a couple of spins before it settles neatly into the psyche.

The band have never rested on their laurels and the variety of the material here has rarely been more diverse. Wildest Dreams, the blindingly obvious single, romps along at a fair old pace, while acoustic guitars and – shock horror! – a full classical orchestra are utilised for Journeyman. “This is an orchestra within the band to make the songs sound bigger and stronger and I think it’s a valid thing to do,” Gers told sister mag Guitarist at the time... and he’s right.

Somewhere In Time (EMI, 1986)

This much-maligned release is the dark horse of the Maiden catalogue as it boasts a new sound courtesy of keyboards. Although this matched the futuristic vibe of the entire shebang perfectly and the material was as good as ever, the clarity wasn’t all that it could have been. Consequently complex passages from the likes of Sea Of Madness tend to get lost within the maelstrom.

Elsewhere though, Caught Somewhere In Time, arguably the band’s best-ever live set opener, Heaven Can Wait and Wasted Years remain classic examples of the Maiden style, and that year’s Somewhere On Tour trek was the final one to comprise just smaller venues.

Killers (EMI, 1981)

Although certainly a harbinger of things to come, the band’s second album is a little on the patchy side. How Steve Harris managed to write the lion’s share in between the relentless touring is anyone’s guess and, for every flaccid pub-rock filler (Prodigal Son and Twilight Zone) there are more than enough flashes of magic to keep things on fire.

Wrathchild (an early song finally committed to vinyl) has been a mainstay of the live set ever since, while it’s a challenge to identify a more efficient illustration of the classic romping Maiden style than Murders In The Rue Morgue – the latter improved once Dickinson had joined up, certainly a justification of the sacking of Paul Di’Anno...

AVOID

Virtual XI (EMI, 1998)

It’s easy to lay the blame for the malaise of the 90s on the shoulders of new vocalist Blaze Bayley, but it wasn’t just him who seemed to have lost his way at the time. Maiden have never been a band to air dirty laundry in public and hardly a bad word has surfaced concerning the former Wolfsbane man, but it’s become known that although he could do the honours in the studio his unreliability on stage had become a problem.

Both this and predecessor The X-Factor were average albums at best with far too few classics per square inch and, as it transpired, Harris was forced to take the only option available too him... the return of the Air Raid Siren was unavoidable.

THE REST

If you’re a fan of the humble live album, 1993 was the year for you: it heralded two separate ‘in the raw’ releases, Live At Donington and A Real Live/Dead One. Considering the band sold out the venue of the former with little effort, the show came on the back of a pair of disjointed albums that hinted at the troubles to come.

No Prayer For The Dying (EMI, 1990) was the first to feature new guitar player Janick Gers and although the track list features the band’s first ever chart topper (the irascible Bring Your Daughter... To The Slaughter), it also includes Holy Smoke, one of the worst songs Maiden have ever put their name to: the associated promo video was arse-puckeringly bad too.

The rousing title track from Fear Of The Dark (EMI, 1992) is one of the few classics to emerge from this era of the band and, although the merits of Be Quick Or Be Dead and From Here To Eternity are plain to hear, who on earth remembers the likes of Chains Of Misery or Judas Be My Guide? Nope, nor us.

...AND THEIR GREATEST LIVE ALBUM?

LIVE AFTER DEATH (EMI, 1985)

The only reason that we’ve placed LAD above the undeniably excellent Rock In Rio (EMI, 2002) is simply that we don’t think it’s possible for Maiden to have been any tighter when it was recorded.

Coming at the end of a gruelling 13-month world trek, various members have subsequently gone on record to say that the tour was nearly the end of the band as a creative unit. Bruce Dickinson found his writing had all but dried up, and even Steve Harris was looking forward to a complete break. Still, there’s no question that Maiden continued to go for it 100 per cent and, as the accompanying video proves, they were at their peak.

This was published in Classic Rock issue 82.

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