Iron Maiden

A Secret History of ’80s Iron Maiden in 10 Songs

Brad Sanders

By Brad Sanders

on 12.01.14 in Features

Iron Maiden’s string of ’80s full-lengths — Iron Maiden, Killers, The Number of the Beast, Piece of Mind, Powerslave, Somewhere in Time, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son — make up one of the strongest strings of releases in the history of heavy metal. Over the course of seven albums, Maiden shaped metal in a way that no other band had in the years following Ozzy Osbourne‘s initial run in Black Sabbath, and that only a few have since.

There are plenty of reasons that Maiden’s big decade hit so hard — all but one of their ’80s records were Top 5 in the U.K., and two went to No. 1, impacting the wider pop conversation beyond just the metal circles. But perhaps the most crucial is the band’s self-aware brilliance as editors. The sheer quantity of their ’80s albums was the result of both creative explosion and financial imperative; that the former always superseded the latter in their decision-making shows a maturity that few groups of their scene could match. Not only were the songs there, but the right songs were there, and they were always sequenced perfectly.

The staying power of those records is partly a reflection of Maiden’s meticulously curated and frequently repackaged official history. But this fall’s complete reissuing of the band’s ’80s catalog includes that era’s 7-inch and 12-inch singles, many of which haven’t been available on vinyl since their initial pressings. These recordings show a weirder, hairier side of Maiden that was edited out of their rigorous, dead-serious LPs. For fans who might only be familiar with the Maiden found on “Hallowed Be Thy Name” and “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” “The Sheriff of Huddersfield” and “Black Bart Blues” will likely come as quite a surprise. Still, non-album tracks like those are an important, if rarely remembered, part of the story of Iron Maiden. It’s a boon to amateur metal historians everywhere that we finally have them back in print.

“Burning Ambition” (“Running Free” single)

The “Running Free” single was the first ’80s Iron Maiden release, as well as the first appearance of their undead mascot Eddie, who has graced the cover of every album, T-shirt, poster and stage backdrop since. The A-side remains a staple of the band’s live set, but the dynamic B-side actually does more to suggest the band Maiden would become. Paul Di’Anno is outmatched by the vocal melodies that bassist and principle songwriter Steve Harris composed for him here, but the tricky tempo changes and shining lead guitar are harbingers of the greatness that was to come.

“Women in Uniform” (“Women in Uniform” single)

In 1980, Maiden were still a somewhat amorphous wad of rock music, uncertain if they would eventually settle in punk, metal or something less threatening than either. “Women in Uniform” was the most obvious symptom of their brief Top of the Pops flirtation. It was a cover of a song by the Australian pop-rockers Skyhooks, whose version was a Top 10 hit in their home country. Despite the purely opportunistic intentions of the band’s then-publisher, Maiden’s version didn’t rocket them to the same mainstream heights. The song’s biggest legacy? Steve Harris’s dissatisfaction with how the release was handled helped turn their sights back to the heavier stuff.

“Invasion” (“Women in Uniform” single)

Ironically, Maiden’s punkiest early number shared an A-side with their poppiest. “Invasion” first appeared on The Soundhouse Tapes, the ultra-limited 1979 7-inch that launched the band’s career, and the slight rework on “Women in Uniform” is equally thrilling — it’s upbeat, no-nonsense, metal-edged punk, the kind of thing that would thaw tensions between the long- and short-haired kids at those early shows at London dives. The thematically similar “Invaders” would forever supplant “Invasion” in Maiden’s official history when it opened The Number of the Beast, but the sucker-punch that “Invasion” packs is not to be slept on.

“Twilight Zone” (“Twilight Zone” single)

“Twilight Zone” is the beginning of the end of the Paul Di’Anno era of Iron Maiden. Released after Killers but before the game-changing addition of Bruce Dickinson as vocalist, it was also the last non-album track that would ever be an A-side on a Maiden single. (Some Killers reissues have added it to the album’s track listing, but it wasn’t originally intended as a part of the LP.) The song itself is the kind of short, punchy rocker that Di’Anno fans would miss once he left the band. Maiden would move ever onward toward virtuosity and complexity, and the version of the band found on “Twilight Zone” would recede into memory.

“Total Eclipse” (“Run to the Hills” single)

When Iron Maiden replaced the sacked Paul Di’Anno with Bruce Dickinson, their course was irrevocably changed. Dickinson brought a massive vocal range and a thespian’s flair where Di’Anno brought raw aggression. The two eras are almost completely discrete, except for the B-side to Dickinson’s first single with the band, which features a (disputed) writing credit for Di’Anno. The epic “Total Eclipse” doesn’t particularly sound like a Di’Anno-era song, but it suggests that had he stuck around, the band would have evolved into the more theatrical, melodic act that they ended up becoming. The song didn’t make the initial track listing of The Number of the Beast, but subsequent reissues have mostly opted to add it, making it a rare Maiden B-side that most fans have actually heard.

“Mission from ‘Arry” (“2 Minutes to Midnight” single)

“Mission from ‘Arry” might be the strangest “song” to ever be released under the Iron Maiden moniker. It’s not actually a song at all, but a surreptitiously recorded backstage argument between Steve Harris and drummer Nicko McBrain. Its inclusion as a B-side for the “2 Minutes to Midnight” single showed a sense of humor that didn’t cross over into the LPs. They were laughing at their own stupid selves and inviting fans to laugh along with them, which wouldn’t have flown on an album with songs based on ancient Egyptian mythology and the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It’s also worth noting that when Maiden put “funny” tracks on a full-length record — 1990′s No Prayer for the Dying — that record was terrible. Relegating the piss-takes to the realm of the B-side keeps the stakes low, and that’s why “Mission from ‘Arry” is still a fun, dumb listen all these years later.

“Cross-Eyed Mary” (“The Trooper” single)

It’s no secret that Iron Maiden love prog-rock, but in 1983, they hadn’t really begun to play it. That makes their cover of Jethro Tull’s “Cross-Eyed Mary” a revealing glimpse into their lives as fans, well before that fandom crossed over into the arrangements. It’s also fucking awesome, with Dave Murray and Adrian Smith’s guitar harmonies replacing Ian Anderson‘s famous flute lines and Bruce Dickinson’s howl at peak Air Raid Siren. “Cross-Eyed Mary” could have ended up burning Maiden’s bridge to their punk bona fides once and for all, but it’s a testament to their fluidity that it was able to coexist with their earlier discography while pointing the way to the future.

“Reach Out” (“Wasted Years” single)

Never on an Iron Maiden LP does a member of the band besides the singer take on lead vocal duties, but on the Dave Colwell-penned B-side “Reach Out,” Adrian Smith steps behind the microphone and performs admirably. Smith’s ill-advised solo endeavors, A.S.A.P. and Psycho Motel, are enough to make you glad he didn’t play frontman for Maiden more often, but “Reach Out” is still a charming diversion. In a neat bit of congruence, Smith now often sings lead on “Wasted Years” live — the A-side to his only recorded contribution as a lead singer.

“The Sheriff of Huddersfield” (“Wasted Years” single)

The brand of silliness that would undermine No Prayer for the Dying starts with this song. It’s a goof on Maiden’s manager, Rod Smallwood, who had trouble adjusting to his new house in the Hollywood Hills, and its explicit inside-jokiness is a bridge too far for a band who generally knew how to communicate with their fans. The kinda-sorta rapped bit is poorly executed and incredibly dated, and while there’s some good musical ideas, it’s too easy to see the embarrassing early ’90s iteration of the band leaking through at the song’s seams. Sometimes, tracks fell off the LPs for a good reason. (“Black Bart Blues” from the Can I Play With Madness 7-inch might be even dumber, but let’s go out on a higher note.)

“Massacre” (“Can I Play With Madness” single)

This many years into a singular career, it’s hard not to take Iron Maiden for granted. No one sounds quite like them, and they don’t sound quite like anyone else. But their DNA retains bits and pieces of the bands they grew up listening to, and none is more important than Thin Lizzy. It took them until 1988 to cover the Irish rock gods, and the resulting version of “Massacre,” a deep cut from the underappreciated Johnny the Fox record, is simply brilliant. Lizzy’s twin guitar leads are the bedrock on which Iron Maiden’s world-conquering sound was built, and Smith and Murray are reverent in their muscular update of the harmonies here. Shortly after touring on Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, Smith would leave the band, the albums would grow directionless, Dickinson would follow Smith out the door, and the remaining members would wander a musical wilderness for most of the ’90s. “Massacre” was one of the last recordings of Maiden’s golden era, and it neatly tied their early days as a Lizzy-worshiping pub-rock outfit to their zenith as the biggest metal band in the world.