A Look Back At IRON MAIDEN’s Formative Years and The Legacy Of Their First Two Albums
IRON MAIDEN are one of the most successful heavy metal bands of all time and are often credited with helping to create the “New Wave Of British Heavy Metal” movement along with fellow acts JUDAS PRIEST, BLACK SABBATH and MOTÖRHEAD. And a great deal of this recognition stems from the band’s eponymous debut album and it’s follow-up, “Killers“.
These early releases feature the rawness and power of a starving, yet determined heavy metal act with a slight punk influence, mostly in part due to the group’s leather-clad lead singer at the time, Paul Di’anno.
IRON MAIDEN‘s first two studio albums seem to get lost in the shuffle amidst such iconic releases as “The Number Of The Beast“, “Powerslave“, “Piece Of Mind” and “Fear Of The Dark“, which in their own right are stunning albums, yet there is just something so appealing to this writer about those first two records which still permeates to this very day. In this article, we’re going to look at not just those two albums, but that era of one of the most notorious heavy metal bands of all time, IRON MAIDEN. So let’s go back to an era before the massive world tours, the private jets, the gold albums galore and the soaring vocals of former SAMSON singer Bruce Dickinson.
In The Beginning…
IRON MAIDEN formed on Christmas Day of 1975 by bassist Steve Harris shortly after vacating his previous band, SMILER. The name IRON MAIDEN was conceived out of the bassist’s admiration for a film adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas novel ‘The Man in the Iron Mask‘ which recalled visions of the iron maiden torture device with the young musician.
The band initially went under the moniker of ASH MOUNTAIN, however most of the band members preferred the sound of the name IRON MAIDEN, thus it was made official shortly after the group’s formation.
IRON MAIDEN would make their live debut at St. Nicks Hall in Poplar on May 1, 1976 before taking up a semi-residency at the Cart and Horses Pub in Maryland, Stratford. (That very Maryland pub has since been officially named “The Birthplace of Iron Maiden” and now also acts as a museum dedicated to the legendary band’s early years).
The original line-up for the burgeoning heavy metal group was short-lived, with lead vocalist Paul Day getting the boot because, according to Harris, he lacked “energy or charisma on stage”. Day would be replaced vocalist Dennis Wilcock, who was an ardent fan of the make-up clad New York rock act KISS and would even don similar face paint and spew Gene Simmons-like fake blood for the band’s live performances. Wilcock’s friend, guitarist Dave Murray, was invited to join IRON MAIDEN soon after, much to the dismay of the band’s then current guitarists Dave Sullivan and Terry Rance. This would actually lead to Harris disbanding IRON MAIDEN briefly in 1976, however the band would return not long after with Murray as the sole six-stringer. Harris and Murray remain the band’s longest-standing members and have performed on all of the band’s releases.
Line up Changes
Several line up changes continued to happen within IRON MAIDEN all throughout 1977 and in 1978, the three remaining survivors, after the dust had settled, were Harris, Murray, and drummer Doug Sampson who would spend the summer and fall of 1978 relentlessly rehearsing while they continued their search for a lead singer.
After a chance meeting at the Red Lion pub in Leytonstone in November 1978, vocalist Paul Di’anno was brought into the fold. Steve Harris stated, “There’s sort of a quality in Paul’s voice, a raspiness in his voice, or whatever you want to call it, that just gave it this great edge.”
On New Year’s Eve of 1978, IRON MAIDEN recorded a four-track demo at Spaceward Studios in Cambridge in the hopes of using it to secure more live gigs.
IRON MAIDEN presented a copy to Neal Kay, the then manager of the heavy metal club “Bandwagon Heavy Metal Soundhouse“, located in Kingsbury Circle, northwest London. Upon his listening to the tape, Kay began playing the tracks regularly at the Bandwagon, with the song “Prowler” eventually hitting No. 1 on the Soundhouse charts, which were published weekly in Sounds magazine. A copy of the tape also found it’s way into the hands of Rod Smallwood, who would go on to become the band’s manager. IRON MAIDEN‘s popularity grew so much during this time that the group would release the demo on their own record label as “The Soundhouse Tapes“, yet featured only three of the four tracks due to the band being unimpressed with the production on the song “Strange World“.
Toward the end of 1979, IRON MAIDEN would secure a major record deal with EMI and asked Dave Murray‘s childhood friend, Adrian Smith of the band URCHIN, to join the group as their second guitarist. Smith would initially decline and guitarist Dennis Stratton was brought in instead. Soon after, drummer Doug Sampson would vacate the group due to health issues and physical limitations, and was replaced by ex-SAMSON drummer Clive Burr at Stratton’s suggestion.
IRON MAIDEN would make their first appearance on an album on the “Metal for Muthas” compilation which was released on 15 February 1980 and featured two early versions of the songs “Sanctuary” and “Wrathchild“.
The Eponymous Debut Album
Recording for IRON MAIDEN‘s debut album took place at Kingsway Studios, west London in January of 1980, with the band taking time out from the 1980 “Metal for Muthas” Tour to complete the final mixes at Morgan Studios, northwest London in February.
IRON MAIDEN made a couple of attempts to work with different producers in December 1979 to no avail. Guy Edwards, the first, was dismissed as the band were unhappy with the “muddy” quality in his production, while Andy Scott was let go after insisting Harris play his bass with a pick rather than his fingers. The band eventually decided to work with producer Wil Malone as primary songwriter Harris made the comment that they could “bypass him and [go] to the engineer” should they collide on any issues.
Producer Wil Malone
“Iron Maiden” was the band’s only album to be produced by Wil Malone (credited as Will Malone). The members of IRON MAIDEN have always made the claim that Malone lacked interest in the effort and essentially left the band on their own to produce the record themselves. Even at that point in their career, IRON MAIDEN had wanted to work with famed producer Martin Birch, known for his work with such acts as DEEP PURPLE, BLACK SABBATH and RAINBOW, yet felt he was “too famous” to approach about working on the project. Oddly enough, years later Birch would ask the band why they never considered him for the album. According to bassist Steve Harris, IRON MAIDEN‘s self-titled debut album was banged out in a mere 13 days.
Ed The Head
The famous mascot who would famously become to be known as “Eddie” (pictured within the band’s stage logo above) was initially a mask created by an art student who was friends with IRON MAIDEN lighting tech Dave “Lights” Beazley.
According to Beazley, the original mask was a papier-mâché mold of his own face, which was then integrated into the band’s backdrop. In some of the burgeoning band’s early attempts at stage effects, a fish tank pump was used to squirt fake blood out of the mask’s mouth during the performance of the song “Iron Maiden“. After this initial version, affectionately known as “Ed the Head“, Beazley constructed a larger version out of fiberglass, with flashing eyes and the ability to release red smoke from its mouth.
According to Steve Harris, the name “Eddie” comes from the fact that the mask was referred to as “The Head“, which sounded like “Ead” in a London accent. Guitarist Dave Murray has also said the name was inspired by the old joke: “A wife had a baby, but it was born with only a head and no body. ‘Don’t worry,’ says the doctor. ‘Bring him back in five years time, and we’ll probably have a body for him’. So five years go by, and there’s Eddie the ‘Ead, as his parents have called him, sitting on the mantelpiece, when in walks his dad. ‘Son,’ he says, ‘today’s a very special day. It’s your fifth birthday, and we’ve got a very special surprise for you.’ ‘Oh no,’ says Eddie. ‘Not another fucking hat!'”
After IRON MAIDEN secured their initial record contract with EMI, band manager Rod Smallwood decided that the band needed “that one figure who utterly stamped his presence and image on the band in a way that was obvious enough to make a good album cover.” Smallwood connected with artist Derek Riggs and went through a number of his illustrations. Within those works was what would become IRON MAIDEN‘s first album cover. Originally conceived as more of an idea for a punk band, IRON MAIDEN added extra hair to the illustration and simply transferred the name “Eddie” from the original masks they used onstage.
Eddie has remained the mascot or “face” of IRON MAIDEN ever since, appearing in some form on every one of the band’s album sleeves and single covers.
The Departure Of Dennis Stratton
“Iron Maiden” would be the only studio album to feature guitarist Dennis Stratton, who, having been brought in as a last-minute placement, was dismissed due to “musical differences” after the band’s European tour with New York make-up clad rockers KISS. Concern initially came about during the album’s recording, when Stratton attempted to add “WISHBONE ASH” type harmony guitars and “QUEEN” style backing vocals to the song “Phantom of the Opera“. The rest of the band simply weren’t having it and had it removed. Although the guitarist stated that he was not “trying to push the band in a new direction”, Harris commented that it “really pointed up the difference between Den and us”, after which he began to notice that “Dennis was so much more into playing stuff like “Strange World” than he was “Iron Maiden“, “Running Free” or “Prowler“, because it was more slow and melodic.
Enter Adrian Smith
Guitarist Adrian Smith was finally brought in, creating what would become one of heavy metal’s most revered and iconic guitar duos with fellow six-stringer Dave Murray.
IRON MAIDEN‘s already completed self-titled debut album was released on April 14, 1980. The sound of the record is one that is definitely more “raw” than future IRON MAIDEN releases and it still remains a favorite of the band’s massive catalog to numerous fans of the group.
“Iron Maiden” peaked at number four on the UK Albums Chart and would eventually be certified Platinum by the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) in 1998 making it an initial success. In 2005, IRON MAIDEN‘s self-titled debut album was ranked number 349 in Rock Hard magazine‘s book of The 500 Greatest Rock & Metal Albums of All Time. Not bad for a debut album essentially banged out in just under two weeks.
Despite being praised by critics and IRON MAIDEN fans alike for its raw sound and heavy metal edge, some have criticized the production values of the album, saying that it sounds “muddy” and “unpolished”. Nonetheless, “Iron Maiden” is still considered a revered classic within the heavy metal genre.
The band hit the road in support of the release, playing their first concerts in mainland Europe, where they were surprised to discover how successful IRON MAIDEN had been outside the UK. Steve Harris commented, “The prestige of doing so well in the UK had turned into a sort of word-of-mouth thing, and we’d turn up in places like Leiden, in Holland, places we’d never even heard of, and they’d have these massive banners waiting for us with ‘Iron Maiden Go Over The Top‘ written on them and all this. It was unreal.”
Keeping the growing momentum going, IRON MAIDEN unleashed the follow-up, “Killers“, on February 2, 1981, via EMI Records in the UK and Harvest and Capitol Records in the US. It was also the first IRON MAIDEN album to feature the dual guitar attack of Adrian Smith and Dave Murray. It would also mark the first time IRON MAIDEN would be produced by Martin Birch who would continue in that role within the band for another eight studio records.
Upon it’s release, “Killers” received positive reviews from music critics and IRON MAIDEN fans, hitting number 4 on the UK albums chart, in part due to television support and word of mouth. The album’s praise largely centered around Paul Di’Anno‘s powerful vocal performance and the quality of songwriting which seemed to have improved since their debut.
Despite it’s more polished sound, “Killers” is very much a product of it’s time. It captures the energy and attitude of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal perfectly. The songs are fast, aggressive and full of hooks which would go on to influence countless heavy metal bands in the years to come.
The bass driven “Wrathchild” was the first single released from “Killers” – a re-worked IRON MAIDEN song which featured faster tempos and better production values courtesy of Birch. It was a moderate success, reaching number 31 in the UK charts in March of 1981.
The album also features the ominous track, “Murders in the Rue Morgue“, inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s short story of the same name as well as the record’s second single “Purgatory” which was a remake of one of the band’s earlier songs, entitled “Floating“, of which “Purgatory” is a faster re-arrangement of the track. It was not only the band’s least successful single, failing to break into the Top 50 in the UK charts, but also their last to feature singer Paul Di’Anno. Another notable fact about “Purgatory” was it’s original cover artwork, which was withdrawn for use on the band’s next studio album, “The Number of the Beast“. According to band manager Rod Smallwood, on being presented with the original cover, “we said, ‘No, that’s much too good,’ so we kept it for the album. We had the artwork months before we had the music.”
Overall, “Killers” was considered a success, cementing IRON MAIDEN in their place as one of the leaders of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.
Disappointment did linger however with its initial chart placing. Where “Iron Maiden” had reached No.4 in the UK, “Killers” only reached No.12 – making it the lowest placing for a new IRON MAIDEN studio LP until the release of 1998’s “Virtual IX“.
– Thank You to YouTube user ‘Reign Of Darkness‘ for the above footage.
Departure of Paul Di’Anno
Lead vocalist Paul Di’Anno spoke out about the album many years later in the French-language book “L’épopée des Killers“, saying: “I don’t like Killers. I think it’s not up to the height of the first album. Don’t ask me why. We all worked like crazy, but it didn’t have the magic of the first.”
Di’Anno’s opinion on the album could be in part due to it being his final LP with IRON MAIDEN. The singer’s substance abuse issues had reached a concerning level by the time of the record’s release causing the band to make the difficult decision to pursue a new frontman. A position that would eventually go to SAMSON vocalist Bruce Dickinson.