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Despite the instant smash impact of Iron Maiden's self-titled debut, no one could say this band hadn't paid their dues. With roots all the way back to 1975, Steve Harris and a rotating cast were creating a new wave of British heavy metal long before anybody thought to stick capital letters on that term.
The slow rise through the pubs — with many of these songs in the set — resulted in the band's first bits of pre-LP product, namely the legendary long-form seven-inch indie release The Soundhouse Tapes, and marquee positioning on what is essentially NWOBHM's kickoff release, the first of the two Metal for Muthas compilations, which Iron Maiden opened with "Sanctuary" and, in fact, velvet-roped themselves as the only band with two tracks on the comp, adding the majestic "Wrathchild" to Side 2.
Metal for Muthas arrived February 15, 1980, with the self-titled debut album set to frighten the shops two months later, a rapid rise pretty much assured with the laser-focused Rod Smallwood as manager. It didn't hurt that Iron Maiden had the five-way personnel magnetism to make these anthems translate live.
However, the production values of Iron Maiden left something to be desired. Although not distractingly bad like a few tragic examples from the NWOBHM (Raven, Fist, and Tygers of Pan Tang come to mind), it was a bit thin, urgent, and punky, which nonetheless suited the high energy and even frantic music as well as the aggressive growl and nonchalant cool emanating from the man at the mic, Paul Di'Anno. The album was recorded in thirteen days and produced by an apparently disinterested and not exactly pedigreed Will Malone, which (again, silver lining) led Steve Harris to get involved in production, an invaluable asset down the line in terms of his substantial input with Martin Birch, and later self-production and co-production roles.
But no amount of subpar knob-jobbing could stop these stage-tested songs. Again, personality and high relief distinguish the record. Opener "Prowler" was surprisingly punky, as were youthful anthem "Running Free" and
"Charlotte the Harlot." "Remember Tomorrow" and "Strange World" showed that when one of these new-generation metal bands made quiet music, it was going to be morose and creepy in deference to the masters, Black Sabbath and bridge band Judas Priest. "Transylvania" tacitly suggests greatness, for only the audacious and talented would stick an instrumental on their first album. As a sort of pedal-to-the-metal deference to Harris's progressive rock roots, there was the band's first literary/ cinematic epic in "Phantom of the Opera," with title track, although brief, managing prog flourishes as well.
Comparisons with the great Black Sabbath are underscored in the title track. Here was what was to become the first-generation-defining metal band of a new decade issuing in spring 1980 an album named after themselves, with a song named after the album, named after the band — just like Black Sabbath, which issued its groundbreaking debut in spring 1970. Both albums addressed horror themes straight between the eyes — literally, with scary occult figures staring right at you from the record jackets.
But let's not get carried away. Black Sabbath invented heavy metal, while Iron Maiden was pretty much a brash version of Judas Priest circa Sad Wings of Destiny through Stained Class and, frankly, nowhere near as good or trailblazing (this is a point I will never cede: despite how awesome Iron Maiden is, innovation is not one of its ticked boxes, outside of, arguably, the cover art). Black Sabbath, by 1980, was a completely new band with Ronnie James Dio at the helm, while Judas Priest was busy dumbing themselves down with British Steel, voluntarily abdicating their throne, with Steve Harris and an equally battle-ready Paul Di'Anno all too willing to seize the jewel-encrusted mace.
And there was no question Iron Maiden was doing exactly that, with its blistering support-slot disrobings of Priest and Kiss, with its boasts on that very subject, with The Soundhouse Tapes, with the Metal for Muthas tour, with a nice flow of picture-sleeve singles that built a narrative for the band's mascot, Eddie, and most notably with the dark mystique crafted by the composition and sequencing of the tracks on Iron Maiden. And, which, let's not forget, drove a small but vocal army of headbangers insane in North America as an import for a magical four months before the record received official stateside release. That US version would add "Sanctuary," a bit of an outlier that made me prefer my copy of the original as sacrosanct, the way Eddie intended it, a record second only to Angel Witch (by Angel Witch, featuring "Angel Witch") in the canon of the finest NWOBHM records of all time.
MARTIN POPOFF: To start, I'm interested in how Iron Maiden first entered your lives. How did you find out about them?
MARTY FRIEDMAN: When the NWOBHM started, my good friend John Lackey — still friends today — could not get enough of anything remotely British metal. There were a few import record stores in the Maryland/Washington, DC, area and they had all sorts of NWOBHM albums and singles. We — especially John — would buy anything that looked metal, and that first Iron Maiden album could only be metal with that jacket.
Looking back, most of those bands sucked. Regardless, they had this sound and look we just loved. Songwriting and musicianship were not the top criteria in our minds at the time. We just ate all of it up. We spent a lot of money buying seven-inch records for one shitty bonus track, and we still loved it, because the sound was so new and so much more exciting than hard rock was back then.
Iron Maiden was different for several reasons. The cover artwork didn't look cheesy like the other bands', but it still told you the record was gonna be metal. You were proud to have that cover lying around your room, as opposed to, say, Styx.
POPOFF: How about you, Brian, on the other coast?
BRIAN SLAGEL: I was a big-time tape trader, and a friend in Sweden sent me an AC/DC live tape from somewhere, live in 1980, and said, "Hey, there's this band you might like, just put out a single called The Soundhouse Tapes, named Iron Maiden." And he put that, the three songs, on the end of the tape. And that began my lifelong obsession with Iron Maiden. I heard that and went, "This is the most amazing thing I've ever heard." So I started getting information about who they were, what was going on over in England, and became obsessed with the NWOBHM and Iron Maiden.
POPOFF: What was special about Iron Maiden versus the '70s bands you knew? Or other NWOBHM bands for that matter?
SLAGEL: Growing up, being a huge metal fan, I loved all that '70s stuff. I heard Deep Purple's Machine Head, which completely changed my life, when I was eleven, and got into all that stuff. I loved AC/DC and Priest — everybody from that period. But with Maiden, there was just something there I hadn't heard before. Because I was a big punk rock fan as well, maybe it was the mixture of metal and punk. It just seemed different, cutting edge, fresh, interesting. It immediately clicked with me.
BOBBY "BLITZ" ELLSWORTH: I was exposed to Iron Maiden and the majority of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal when Overkill started. When D. D. Verni, Rat Skates, I, and a guy named Robert Pisarek formed Overkill, these guys really exposed me to more of that. It was sometime around 1981 and my first thoughts were, this seemed to stand out on its own, above its precursors. I remember being at rehearsal and these guys were so excited about it, before I knew it the songs from Iron Maiden, and eventually Killers, were in our cover set. It was quite an influence on us and quite a slap on the side of the head for me.
FRIEDMAN: I was already in this career as a guitarist before I heard Maiden; my path was already set. But when I heard Maiden, I knew I had to up my heavy metal game. Because what I was playing up 'til then was more like punky aggressive hard rock that was kind of like metal. At that time, when you thought of metal, you thought of motorcycles and Steppenwolf and hippie stuff, really. And so Maiden was like, wow, this kind of sounds like punk, but it's pretty heavy and the guitar is pretty cool. It made the music I was making heavier. But that's not just Maiden — that's probably all the NWOBHM.
POPOFF: And maybe we had no way of knowing, but Maiden had paid their dues.
SLAGEL: Just like all the bands from that scene. That scene started out of nothing. It was really a reaction to the punk rock movement and disco and all this other nonsense at the time. And it came out of nowhere, this whole NWOBHM scene. Iron Maiden was the first thing I heard, and then I started hearing everybody else after that. But, yeah, when Maiden came up, they played pubs and clubs for years and nothing really happened. It looked like it was a fast ride, but they played for years and not a whole lot happened. They got the first album out on a major label and it went from there.
POPOFF: There are all sorts of future classics on the record, but the first big song was "Running Free," the first single coming out a couple months ahead of the album. Why do you think that was worthy enough to be the first single?
FRIEDMAN: This was probably the most mainstream song on the album, with the cool sing-along chorus. It sounded like punk rock from the mid-'70s with harmony lead guitars. It was fresh at the time.
ELLSWORTH: When you're talking about metal in general and evoking that emotion, you're talking about individualism and the celebration of it, and "Running Free" quite obviously ticks all those emotional boxes. This was a great introduction to a great new band. "I'm running free, yeah!"
One thing I always remember about that era of Iron Maiden was that the lyrics were quite often from a first-person perspective. "Running Free," you could call the song "I'm Running Free," just like it says in the lyrics. But, later, it kind of changed into more of a "we" thing. Sure, there was individualism, but I think Di'Anno sang more in terms of "I." Dickinson sang in terms of "I," but also "we," which extended it.
SLAGEL: "Running Free" had the bigger "hooks," where you could sing along and it would stick in your brain. So I get why that would be the single, although I think they put out, like, a thousand singles from that record and I have all of them [laughs]. But it's also an easy subject. A lot of the other stuff is more medieval, and this is more youthful, angsty. Again, it was that punk attitude but couched in a metal vibe.
POPOFF: Speaking of punk, the narrative was always that Maiden was different because of Paul Di'Anno — that there was something punky about him, with his short hair and leather jacket.
SLAGEL: Certainly. He definitely dressed more like a punk rocker, especially in the early days. As a guy who loved '70s metal but also punk rock, I loved the merging of those two scenes, with Paul's look and even the way he sounded. He sang more like a punk rocker. He didn't sound like Halford or Ian Gillan or any of those guys.
FRIEDMAN: He looked cool, had a manly voice, and just oozed punk and metal combined, which was how I fashioned myself back then. He had an emotional way of singing without being a sissy, which is of top importance when you are fifteen. There are very few metal voices I like. I'm not into the high tones — kept me off the Rush bandwagon because of that high voice, although I absolutely admire them to the end of the earth. But I can't hang with high tones. This also coming from a guy who, in the early '80s, had high-tone singers and shit like that, so don't kill me.
But Paul Di'Anno had a manly voice, and heavy metal is manly music. Plus I just thought he had a lot of emotion. It wasn't about technique and it wasn't operatic. That high-voice stuff just sounds so cheesy to me, even when it's done well. On the first two albums, the vocals were just so manly, and it didn't seem contrived. It didn't seem like they cared about even making it! It seemed like they were just doing it. It was so cool.
ELLSWORTH: I was learning to sing at the time, so Paul was not necessarily someone who was groundbreaking. But I always liked his punky presentation, and I always thought that presentation was more important than, say, musically correct performance. This was metal — we were trying to evoke emotion. And that's what I got out of Paul Di'Anno — that it wasn't about being musically correct. Because what was happening around him seemed musically correct, he became kind of the counterpart to that Steve Harris/Clive Burr, where those two seemed like they were charging forward. It was almost like Di'Anno brought the storm, the dark cloud over the top of that musical perfection.
POPOFF: What did you think of "Sanctuary" being added to the US edition of the album?
ELLSWORTH: I didn't know there were two versions at that time. But, yeah, to this day, that song has impact for Overkill — we just released our eighteenth record and covered "Sanctuary" as a bonus track. We're still carrying those beginnings with us so many decades later. "Sanctuary" is just this simple, emotional song, and that emotion was evoked through the riff and through the vocals. I agree with you it's really the odd one among the group. But it's probably the one with the most energy, or at least punk or rock 'n' roll energy. That's probably why someone like Paul shines on a song like that.
SLAGEL: It was a great song, number one, and, growing up in the '70s and being a huge AC/DC fan, I was not unaccustomed to albums coming out in the US that had different songs on them. Great song — the more the merrier for me.
POPOFF: At the opposite end of the spectrum from "Running Free" and "Sanctuary" is the longest song on the album, "Phantom of the Opera."
SLAGEL: Definitely my favorite song by far on that record. I love long, epic songs. The subject matter was amazing amid this progressive, Rush-meets-Jethro Tull, all-overtheplace sort of stuff. That song completely blew me away. Everything I ever wanted in a metal band was on that record. It was fast, it was heavy, it had medieval lyrics, and it had that medieval look — with the album cover. Everything was just kind of perfect.
FRIEDMAN: What an arrangement, and so progressive. The drumless intro is classic, and it really sets things up in a great way. To me, this was the heavy metal equivalent to "Free Bird," with lots of repeating guitar clichés, which are absolutely fantastic when used in an inspired context — "Hotel California," "Layla," and "Free Bird" come to mind, right? As far as I was concerned, "Phantom of the Opera" was the first time this many guitar clichés were repeated so many times. Repetition is key when making memorable music, and this was the most impressive metal guitar song out there at the time.
POPOFF: And of course there's an instrumental, "Transylvania."
FRIEDMAN: At the time there were practically no triplet-based heavy rock instrumentals. This was probably one of the earliest cases of that whole "widdly widdly" syndrome as the English press often called it. That's the sound of triplets being played rapidly on lead guitar. At the time this was super impressive, especially to a young teen. But it hasn't really aged that well, if only because it inspired so many poor replicas over the years.
SLAGEL: Definitely, "Transylvania" was cool. An instrumental wasn't something we normally heard back then. There were, maybe, a couple I remember. And I didn't miss that there were no vocals. And then there's "Iron Maiden," which I've heard a billion times now. But when it first came out, it was more like, "Wow, this song is really great." "Prowler," the first song, doesn't get a lot of love these days, but that opening riff is so unique. It kind of transitions into this heavy punk-meets-metal thing. If I was going to invent and create the perfect heavy metal band, this is what it would sound like. But I'll stick with "Phantom." It's always fun hearing that song live. They play it every time, but I don't get bored of it, so the riff must be pretty good.
POPOFF: Are the roots of thrash buried somewhere in a song like "Phantom of the Opera"?
ELLSWORTH: I think so, in regard to the ferocity it's played at. Thrash metal is about evoking an emotion, but there's still got to be that element of musical perfection. Ultimately, when you press play or put the needle down, the emotion was what mattered. And that was the success of a song like that. It's not really about deciphering it or pulling it apart.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Iron Maiden"
Copyright © 2018 Martin Popoff.
Excerpted by permission of The Quarto Group.
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Table of Contents
Introduction and Discographic Notes, 6,
1 Iron Maiden, 8,
2 Killers, 24,
3 The Number of the Beast, 40,
4 Piece of Mind, 56,
5 Powerslave, 70,
6 Somewhere in Time, 84,
7 Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, 98,
8 No Prayer for the Dying, 114,
9 Fear of the Dark, 128,
10 The X Factor, 142,
11 Virtual XI, 156,
12 Brave New World, 170,
13 Dance of Death, 184,
14 A Matter of Life and Death, 200,
15 The Final Frontier, 214,
16 The Book of Souls, 230,
About the Author, 246,
About the Contributors, 246,
Author Bibliography, 250,
Photo Credits, 255,