(Iron) Maiden Voyage: Formative Years (Chapter 1 of 7)

There must have been something in the water.

Maybe it was the cynicism that overtook the younger siblings of the Woodstock generation. Or maybe it was the mounting number of warheads and troops on both sides of the Iron Curtain, the spirit of the times, always seemingly one minute away from nuclear midnight. Maybe it was the bleakness of industrial Britain coping with the world in which the sun set on the Empire, a liberal helping of Hendrix and the Fab Four paving the way to a shift in public thinking. This was the new world, a world where many concepts of morality and righteousness were turned on their head; the world where no one was infallible; the world where ideologies fought for hearts and minds as much as they vied for territory and resources.

Out of this world of perpetual conflict, heavy metal arose like a bastard offspring of darker aspects of the 1960s, becoming a mirror through which the new generation painted a picture of their reality. While the earliest purveyors of the genre still often thought in terms of complex structures and technical playing, even that was further deconstructed by the advent of punk movement, which took a stand against the musical excesses and often idealistic worldviews espoused through early metal lyrics. By the late 1970s, the marriage of earlier metal musical proficiency with rawer, punk-influenced energy produced the movement we came to call the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM).

While Iron Maiden is the most commonly recognized name from the movement, they were far from the only band that carved a notable career from it. Stalwarts such as Saxon and Diamond Head still ply their trade even now, while Def Leppard, though only vaguely relevant in a metal discussion in 2012, got their start in the same scene. All shared the hallmarks of the style – energetic sound that owed much to Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, but given a faster, edgier treatment, at odds with the contemporary punk scene and yet undeniably influenced by it.

Iron Maiden’s first, self-titled effort, is a sign of the times. The songs are generally short and to the point, bursting with energy and excitement of a band hungry for recognition (although even at this early stage, the seeds of future complex compositions are sown with “Phantom of the Opera”, or the balladry of “Remember Tomorrow” and “Strange World”). The raw sound of music is complemented by vocals of Paul Di’Anno, whose approach was essentially a tuneful take on punk style. While Di’Anno would never be known as a technically great vocalist, his youthful enthusiasm sells the songs well, while multiple guitar harmonies straight out of Thin Lizzy’s arsenal harken to arena rock staples.

For an album released in the year of my birth, the self-titled Iron Maiden record is still a surprisingly relevant listen, and it is no wonder that the band still frequently includes songs from it in their setlists. The music ranges from relatively simple riffs and melodies to challenging, ambitious compositions requiring perfect synchronicity between instruments and vocals. Some of the songs, such as “Remember Tomorrow”, are almost deceptively simple – easy enough for a sixteen year old with rudimentary guitar skills to learn, and yet taking skill of progressive giants such as Opeth to truly master, as anyone who heard their version of the song could attest. It is not the best thing ever released under Iron Maiden name, but it still holds certain appeal to me, as it was the album playing in the background when my group of high school friends started separating into those who listened to heavy music, and those who did not; those who wanted to play instruments, and those who chose other interests and pursuits.

But there is something else to it, too. I came to the United States a few months short of my sixteenth birthday, speaking mediocre English and having little to no idea on what to expect. The youthful alienation of Iron Maiden’s early material spoke to me in a way few other pieces of music could. The song themes echoed self-discovery of someone still learning to be an adult, being in a strange place and seeking an escape from reality within your own head. While some songs are downright silly (“Prowler” and “Charlotte the Harlot”), others, such as “Running Free” and “Sanctuary”, exude a rough charm of teenage rebellion that stood the test of time, and elicited much of the same emotions even at the time when the band members themselves were firmly in the middle age.

In this sense, “Iron Maiden” (the album) has a unique place in my heart. While the follow-up, 1981’s “Killers”, was largely similar in style, mostly consisting of songs that were left over from the first album sessions, the fantasy themes did not hold the same resonance to my teenage self, and some of the songs lacked the unique feel of the debut. As a result, “Killers” does not find its way into my playlist as often as other Iron Maiden releases, even though it is still full of good music. The title track recaptures the rough-around-the-edges feeling of the self-titled debut, and “Twilight Zone” (a bonus track included on the US version) sounds like the band is already outgrowing its rough beginnings. “Wrathchild” is a song exemplifying where Iron Maiden was in their evolution at the time, and a very fun track to play on either guitar or bass. I still have many fond memories of trying to learn this song with a friend – him playing bass, me playing guitar and trying to sing.

For all its positives, “Killers” does suffer from several issues. At times it sounds as if the band recorded their strongest material for the self-titled album, and used the leftovers for follow-up. Some of these songs (“Purgatory”, aforementioned title track, and “Wrathchild”) are amongst Iron Maiden’s best, but others feel unfinished (“Another Life”), or display a work-in-progress rather than an artist with developed sound (“Innocent Exile”, which was apparently one of the first songs written by band leader and bassist Steve Harris). The newer songs, “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “Prodigal Son”, represent two very different directions, with the former foreshadowing the style popularized during the band’s ascendancy to global stardom, and the latter taking a folky, progressive approach that would not be revisited until much later in Iron Maiden’s career.

Finally, and most tellingly, the addition of Adrian Smith on guitar, soon to be a part of one of the most famous guitar teams in all metal, added to the intricacy and the quality of playing. As the arrangements began to rely more on twin guitar heroics of Smith and stalwart Dave Murray, one member of the band began to sound increasingly out of place – vocalist Paul Di’Anno. As much as Di’Anno’s rougher style made the debut a hallmark in NWOBHM movement, his delivery was often at odds with songs on “Killers”, where the dramatic feel of many songs clashed with his gritty, blue-collar approach. It was little wonder that by the end of 1981, Di’Anno was gone, moving on to a middling career trying to recapture former glory while finding new ways to get in all sorts of trouble. In his place, Iron Maiden chose to recruit a then-unknown vocalist by the name of Bruce Dickinson, who became the last piece of the puzzle necessary to launch the band’s career to the next level.

Next up: Forging the Legend (“The Number of the Beast” through “Powerslave”). Stay tuned…

(Iron) Maiden Voyage: Preface

Iron Maiden are an enigma. To a casual observer, they embody the worst of heavy metal’s excesses, a bygone era of Bill and Ted, big hair, leather and spikes. To the countless legions of metal fans, they are almost universally revered as a formative force within the genre, influencing the mainstream and the underground musicians alike, and commanding respect reserved for very few metal icons.

Whatever point of view you may espouse, it is undisputed that any artist whose career has remained vibrant and relevant almost four decades after inception must be doing something right. Over the next several posts, I am going to spend some time reflecting on Iron Maiden’s recording career, both as a would-be music critic, and as a fan of the music. This is not a series of reviews, but rather a look at the band’s discography in the context of what it meant to me, where the music fit into my life – and what meaning it still has, many years later.

Having first heard Iron Maiden as a teenager in the 1990s, I could have hardly imagined that their music would be a frequent fixture in my playlist at a point in life when most people shop for minivans and learn the intricacies of children’s TV shows and parent-teacher conferences. And yet, as a thirty-something father of two, I find myself as drawn to Iron Maiden’s musical output as ever. What is it about the band that explains this longevity, and why would it still hold as much appeal to me now as it did to onetime scrawny fourteen year old?

Over the course of this series of posts, I will try to answer this question, as well as to share my thoughts on different stages of Iron Maiden’s career. So, let’s get started – at the beginning.