I recently wrote a massive kind of introduction to Iron Maiden piece for http://www.alreadyheard.com, but due to editorial constraints I had to cut it down and change the format and stuff. However, having put rather a lot of time and energy into its researching and writing, I’ve decided to make the most of it to reproduce a brief history right here.
Iron Maiden was born on Christmas day 1975, but spent three years messing around with different members, before Steve Harris, Dave Murray and their then colleagues got it together to record a demo on New Year’s Eve 1978. Such was the popularity of the demo, that in under a year it had been pressed and released under the name of ‘The Soundhouse Tapes’, all 5000 copies selling out in a few short weeks based on word of mouth; had secured them a manager in the rotund form of Rod Smallwood; oh yeah, and landed them a major label record deal with E.M.I..
By April of 1980, riding high on the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, the Londoners were already delivering the goods – their eponymous debut crashing the UK album charts at number 4. Featuring Paul Di’Anno‘s rough edged vocals, it boasts a raw energy honed to perfection by five long years on the East London pub circuit. From the sinister rock riffing that opens the murderous ‘Prowler’ there is something quite daring about it; this is the sound of a band exploring its creativity, pushing themselves and the Heavy Metal genre forward, reworking classic ideas whilst incorporating new. The most startling example of their innovation is the monumental ‘Phantom of the Opera’, an epic master class in songwriting that helps make ‘Iron Maiden’ one of the finest debuts in Heavy Metal. In one fell swoop, Iron Maiden established themselves as the act to follow, not only in sound, but also in marketing, the stunning first glimpse of Eddie The Head the first step to establishing their merchandise empire.
However, Harris and Murray were still having difficulties with personnel, which led to Adrian Smith joining the band prior to the recording and release of 1981’s ‘Killers’. Although it was another quality album, there was little to set it apart from their debut, it largely consisting of left over material, plus there were more personnel problems on the horizon. Besides the excessive drug use of vocalist Paul Di’Anno, which never really fit the band’s profile, the raspiness that had initially attracted Harris to his voice would prove to be the singer’s downfall; his hard rock tropes were just too limited for the direction the songwriting would take.
Samson‘s Bruce Dickinson was seen as the perfect replacement and slipped seamlessly into the band for the recording of ‘The Number of the Beast’, the album that changed everything, providing their first UK number one. ‘Beast’ is jam packed with killer material, the songs are quite simply in a different class, whether it’s the riff fest that is ’22 Acacia Avenue’, the hook filled chorus of ‘Run to the Hills’ or the subtle complexities to the epic tale of ‘Hallowed Be Thy Name’, which is arguably the band’s finest moment in itself, the songs are quite simply in a different class. It is a genuine classic that created a template by which future Metal albums would be judged. With Nicko McBrain replacing drummer Clive Burr after the supporting tour, what would become the classic line up was in place and the Maiden machine would march on to conquer the world.
The first half of the 1980s was the band’s most prolific period and would see them produce a quite staggering album a year for five years until 1984, followed by the definitive heavy metal live album in 1985’s ‘Live After Death’. Simply put, it is one of the finest live albums ever recorded and documents the seemingly endless World Slavery Tour following 1984’s ‘Powerslave’ and the 1983 album that first broke them stateside, ‘Piece of Mind’. The tour went on so long that Dickinson actually threatened to quit if they didn’t have a few months off.
The break was short lived however, as they were soon back in the studio for ‘Somewhere In Time’, on which they controversially added some synthesised elements to their signature sound; something they further explored on 1988’s conceptual affair ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’. Even so, both albums were warmly received by critics and fans alike; the latter providing the band with their second UK number one. The supporting tour culminated in their first headline performance at Donington for the Monsters of Rock festival, which was marred by the death of two fans in the crush during Guns n Roses’ UK debut set.
Chinks were starting to appear in Iron Maiden‘s armour though, Dickinson was feeling creatively limited by the band’s sound and released his first solo album, the vibrant ‘Tattooed Millionaire’ in 1990, alongside guitarist Janick Gers. Gers would then find himself employed by Maiden after the departure of long time member Adrian Smith, who was distinctly unhappy (and rightly so!) with the stripped down direction the band was taking on ‘No Prayer for the Dying’, which proved to be a stinker of a record. After having produced seven classic studio albums, at some stage the creative juices had to run dry and ‘Prayer’ is the sound of band pushing the self destruct button. It looks and sounds like Maiden, but it’s like they decided to give the tribute band a shot. How ironic that the second single from the album, the stunningly awful ‘Bring Your Daughter…’, gave them their first number one single – must’ve been a quiet week on the charts.
1992’s ‘Fear of the Dark’ managed to recover some lost pride, but was the final nail in the coffin for Dickinson, who’d simply had enough, the tension of the subsequent tour signalling the end of an era. He was eventually replaced by Blaze Bayley from Wolfsbane, who had supported Maiden on their 1990 tour. Blaze’s deeper voice added a darker edge to their sound on the competent ‘X Factor’, but his limitations were starting to show by 1998’s disappointing ‘Virtual XI’ and were undisguisable in the live arena, many of Bruce’s songs proving too challenging for Bayley’s natural register. January 1999 brought the likeable front man’s five year stint to a close, and, at the suggestion of manager Rod Smallwood, Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith were both approached to rejoin the band.
From the opening chords of ‘The Wicker Man’ on 2000’s ‘Brave New World’ it is clearly the sound of a band reinvigorated, now boasting a three guitar line-up of Smith, Murray and Gers and a return to more complex compositions. Maiden were back on form and would embark on a run of quality releases through the noughties; besides the superb ‘Rock in Rio’ live album, which neatly captures the enthusiasm of Brazilian fans, both ‘Dance of Death’ and ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, from 2003 and 2007 respectively, were well received and would result in ever more ambitious touring. Not only were their songs getting longer and more complex, rarely dipping below the five minute mark, but the tours were also going to ever greater lengths, visiting more exotic locations and flying in their own plane, Ed Force One, with lead singer Dickinson at the controls. The ‘Flight 666’ movie of their 2008 ‘Somewhere Back in Time Tour’ makes for compelling viewing, giving rare insight into the logistics of a world tour and the dynamic of the band, as they play in places like India, Colombia and Costa Rica as well as the well trodden stages of previous world tours.
For a band that had weathered the turbulence of internal difficulties, coupled with the ever changing musical climate, the fact that after Dickinson and Smith returned they consolidated their creative reputation, besides cementing the popularity of their live performances, is testament to their talent and enduring appeal. For 15th studio album, ‘The Final Frontier’, which was widely expected to be their last, to then go to number one in 28 different countries was a remarkable achievement, as was the Grammy win for single ‘El Dorado’ and the fact that the supporting tour gathered audiences reportedly totalling 2 million people.
It would’ve been no surprise if Iron Maiden had decided to call it a day, but with another greatest hits album, ‘From Fear to Eternity’, and more live releases they found excuses to keep on touring. Their headline performance at Download in 2013 would be their fifth at Donington, 25 years after 1988’s infamous occasion.
The breaks between the albums may have got longer but 2016 finds Iron Maiden touring the world once again, and with another Donington headline appearance lined up. Last year’s ‘Book of Souls’ proved that despite Dickinson’s brush with cancer, Maiden marches inexorably on, the longest album of their career providing yet another UK number one. Although all the albums since the return of Smith and Dickinson have been well received and stand up in terms of quality, it is ‘Book of Souls’ that holds up when compared to the cannon of albums from the eighties. Tracks like ‘If Eternity Should Fail’ and ‘Tears of a Clown’ show that they still have a trick or two up their collective sleeves, and that’s before we get to the 18 minute piano driven epic ‘Empire of the Clouds’!
Whether or not ‘Book of Souls’ is their swan song remains to be seen, but for the moment at least, it’s business as usual as their enduring brand continues to thunder across the globe. Who would’ve thought that in the 40 plus years since that Christmas Day in Steve Harris’ living room his brainchild would go on to sell over 90 million albums and monstrous quantities of merchandise, becoming one or the most recognised brands and bands in the world, with multiple number ones, multiple awards and a legacy that makes them one of the most important forces in the history of rock music.