With a new Iron Maiden album due out in September (their first new studio effort in five years) this fan thought it was time to take a look back at where it all begin for this legendary classic heavy metal band. Before the epic and wild classic years with Bruce Dickinson at the helm. Before The Number of the Beast. Before international heavy metal superstardom.
Prior to Bruce Dickinson becoming Iron Maiden’s vocalist, the group was considerably rawer and less refined, only to begin working towards the more “epic” heavy metal sound that they would become known for all the world round. Building a name for themselves on the British club scene, the early incarnation of Iron Maiden began winning fans over with their dual lead guitar arrangement and inventive, captivating songwriting, ranging from epic themes to more risqué and disturbing ones. Following the release of The Soundhouse Tapes, the band’s debut EP, they would be signed and enter a studio to record an album; the self-titled debut from the band was released in 1980. It was followed by the sophomore album, Killers, in 1981, which featured production from the legendary Martin Birch (Deep Purple, Whitesnake, Black Sabbath).
In their early period and prior to the studio releases with Bruce Dickinson, Paul Di’Anno fronted the band. Di’Anno had a tough, punky image which helped him make all the more of an impact on the live stage, and a distinctive voice that definitely gave the band the stage presence they needed to stand out amongst literally hundreds of other New Wave of British Heavy metal (NWOBHM) bands that were also trying to make their big break. Eventually fired from the band due to his inability and lack of desire to perform on tours, Di’Anno continued on in a number of other musical projects, though none of them approached the popularity of those first two Iron Maiden albums. To this day, there are many loyalists of the NWOBHM that prefer the pair of albums he recorded with Iron Maiden over those that Bruce Dickinson cut with the group on their ascendency.
When Iron Maiden went into the studio to record their first album in 1980, the band consisted of vocalist Paul Di’Anno, guitarists Dave Murray and Dennis Stratton, bassist Steve Harris, and drummer Clive Burr (who passed away in 2013). Of those five men, only Murray and Harris have appeared on all of the band’s studio albums. This was Dennis Stratton’s only recording with the band; he was let go from the group for creative differences following the record’s release. The package here is far rawer than later efforts and the production has been an source of contention for years, however many fans and critics alike still respect it. In fact, many of these songs are still played live by the band to this day.
The songs on Iron Maiden’s first album are very raw and more representative of the NWOBHM as a whole than the band that they would later become with Bruce Dickinson at the helm. Despite that, the talent of the band and its members becomes apparent right from day one. The album starts off with “Prowler,” a gritty, raw rocker about a sexual predator. Follow-up track “Remember Tomorrow” could not be more different, slow and eerie, melodic and gloomy. Of course the song still has its hard and heavy moments and even a lengthy, kick-ass instrumental portion. Another raw rocker follows in the form of “Running Free,” which has remained a live staple of the band’s set to this day, often used to close out concerts. The strongest song on the album is “Phantom of the Opera,” featuring the perfect mixture of heavy and melodic elements, and some of the best songwriting on the record. A lengthy instrumental section in the middle of the song stands as something of a premonition of things to come for the band down the road, and helps this track to maintain a unique feel. The instrumental “Transylvania” changes the sound once again, leading into another gloomy and melodic track in the form of “Strange World,” one of the band’s more unique and unusual songs, but one that reigns as no less excellent. A return to the raw and punky comes in the form of “Charlotte the Harlot,” the band’s first in a series of anthems about their favorite prostitute and what she does best. Closing out the debut is the band’s eponymous track, which is a brief but solid and epic cut that closes it all out in fine form. Raw as it may be compared to later outings, there is not a single weak track on the record!
Following the release of the band’s first album and the replacement of Dennis Stratton with Adrian Smith, the group recorded and released Killers in 1981. This album, while it still did not quite garner the international attention that the band would eventually gain, it did allow the band to embark upon their first tour of America, which started at the old Aladdin Hotel’s theater in Las Vegas, opening for Judas Priest. It was not long after this tour being underway that the band would part ways with Paul Di’Anno, recruiting former Samson singer Bruce Dickinson. And the rest is history.
So, how do the songs on Killers fare? This marked Iron Maiden’s first step in a more mature and epic direction, something that would be more fully realized in the era of Bruce Dickinson at the helm. In many ways, this album marked the birth of the “true” Iron Maiden sound, something that was only very loosely hinted at on the first record. And it does not waste any time getting down to business, as any fan knows. Opening instrumental “The Ides of March” builds an ominous mood, and immediately launches into “Wrathchild,” one of the best straight-up rockers that the band ever recorded, having you banging your head in no time flat! “Murders in the Rue Morgue” is a great mixture of hard rock riffs and an intriguing storyline regarding a man falsely accused of killing women. We get additional solid rockers in the form of “Another Life" and “Innocent Exile,” and even another instrumental in the form of “Genghis Khan.” The title cut features one of Paul Di’Anno’s best vocal performance and remains revered as a raw classic from his era with the band. “Prodigal Son” is one of Iron Maiden’s most unusual songs, surprisingly slow and melodic. It feels totally out of place with the rest of the songs on the album; one cannot help but wonder if it would have been better off as a track on a single (possibly a B-Side) than on this record, though. That is not to say the song is not superb in its own way, though! “Purgatory” is one of the band’s best rock songs, featuring an epic sound and packing plenty of musical excitement into its fairly limited duration. We go back to the raw and gritty for closing track “Drifter,” which again remains a favorite of many a Di’Anno-era Maiden fan, finishing things off in the best of ways.
Both of these albums were remastered and reissued in 1998, and again in 2002 (along with the rest of the Iron Maiden catalogue released to the time). For these reissues, the first album’s cover art was modified and enhanced slightly, giving mascot Eddie glowing eyes for whatever reason. Each reissue featured Enhanced CD content (remember when that was all the rage?) along with an expanded booklet, and the inclusion of one bonus track from a single release; “Sanctuary” on the first album, and “Twilight Zone” on Killers. For some strange reason these extra songs were included in the middle of the album’s running order rather than at the end where bonus cuts typically go. Earlier 1995 reissues of the albums featured a disc of rare single cuts and B-Sides, but these are long out of print and tough to come by. One cannot help but wish the record label had included more of those cuts as bonuses on the 1998 and 2002 remasters; there was certainly room to include the good majority of them.
Should you buy Iron Maiden’s first two albums, and are they worth checking out even if you are only familiar with the band’s more popular Bruce Dickinson era? The answer is YES. The band’s early formative period was vital in their growth as a musical unit, and beautifully demonstrates where it all began for them. People that see all of this for themselves come to love these albums and many of the metal anthems that they have to offer; though Di’Anno’s tenure with the band was short lived it did still manage to spawn some excellent music that fans of the band, or hard rock and heavy metal in general, definitely need to check out. Discover the beginnings of Iron Maiden; both albums are highly recommended.