I’m not ashamed to admit that I bought ‘Live After Death’ years before I finally invested in ‘Piece of Mind’.
SUMMER OF MAIDEN - PIECE OF MIND Andrew Freudenberg
I suppose the first time that I heard Iron Maiden was when ‘Run to the Hills’ stormed into the charts back in 1982. Back then, the appearance of anything resembling heavy metal on the radio or, God forbid, the TV, was a rare occurrence. While rock radio thrived in the U.S we were awash with New Romantics and 2 Tone. When Saxon, Motorhead or Gillan gave us a glimpse of the good stuff on Top of the Pops, we thanked the metal Gods and waited patiently for months until our next allowance. Tommy Vance got two or three hours a week on Radio 1 to assuage our thirst, and the unmentionable Jonathon King had a television show, Entertainment USA, seemingly designed to annoy us with how much better our transatlantic cousins had it music wise. It’s all right though, you needn’t weep for us, we still had the vinyl and cassettes, and you didn’t yet need a mortgage to buy gig tickets, so it wasn’t all bad news.
So anyway… if you were a rocker back then you could hardly ignore this flash of light in the darkness that was the UK top ten. If you hadn’t already discovered them in the Di’Anno days then this was a wake up call. Replacing their original singer with the Samson front man was eyed with great suspicion at the time, but clearly they knew what they were doing. Of course I dutifully went out and bought ‘Number of the Beast’ and wasn’t disappointed. It’s not my place to discuss the merits of the album here but suffice to say that, although admittedly nostalgia hazes the issue, I don’t think it has ever been bettered. Moving on though, I awaited the follow up with great interest.
Word emerged that Clive Burr had been ousted from his drum stool and replaced by the bizarrely monikered ex-Trust man, Nicko McBrain. We frowned and shrugged. The band disappeared off to Jersey in the Channel Islands to write new material before heading for the sunshine of Nassau to lay the tracks down. Once more Martin Birch, a teenage hero of mine due to his work with Deep Purple, helmed the controls. What could possibly go wrong?
‘Flight of Icarus’ hit the streets on the 11th April, 1983. Naturally I rushed out and bought the 7” and eagerly cranked it on my parent’s stereo. Long story short… I hated it. A plodding pace and unremarkable vocal line just did nothing for me. Being a fickle fifteen year old with limited spending power, I didn’t bother buying the album and turned my interest elsewhere. The end.
Well, not really. The true Maiden experience has always rested in their live shows and it quickly became clear that Piece of Mind contained some real gems. I caught them on their storming Powerslave tour, as well as seeing them headline the UK Monsters of Rock in 1988, and P.O.M tracks were a solid part of their set. I’m not ashamed to admit that I bought ‘Live After Death’ years before I finally invested in ‘Piece of Mind’.
Listening to ‘Piece of Mind’ 33 years after it was released, (I know, I know, 33 years, don’t get me started), one is reminded just how on fire the band were. It’s not a 100% hit rate but when they get it right, they really get it right.
McBrain makes his presence felt right from the start, hammering out a couple of solo bars before the rest of the band kick in. Throughout ‘Where Eagles Dare’, a tribute to the film that every British kid used to be legally required to have seen before they were ten, his drumming is bombastic. It’s a great track with endless time changes and a fist full of riffs. This is classic Maiden.
‘Revelations’ starts with interesting base harmonics before swaggering into the main riff. A Rush like drop leads into a joyous chug that showcases their dual guitarists. Then they slow down once more before delivering a master class in dynamic heavy metal. Shades of Thin Lizzy can be heard in some of the later melodies.
I’ve since read that Bruce wanted ‘Flight of Icarus’ as a single to ensnare American radio stations. While Steve thought it was too slow, Bruce was convinced that this would work in their favour. Well… both of them were right and they lost me for a while because of it, but listening to it now, it isn’t as bad as I remembered. With its melodic chorus and laid back verse, its certainly one of the more commercial tracks on ‘Piece of Mind’. Less immediate than Beast’s ‘Run to the Hills’ it made less impact initially, but has arguably stood the test of the time better for that very reason.
‘Die With Your Boots On’ is, for my money, one of the strongest on the album. Yes, it’s geezerish back ground vocals are a little cheesy, and its not as heavy as ‘Where Eagles Dare’ or ‘Revelations’, but it’s the sound of a band letting loose. Dickinson’s vocal melody is spot on and the whole thing hits the groove perfectly.
‘The Trooper’ is quintessential Maiden. Staccato riffs, dueling guitars, the perfect chug and a phased vocal melody all fused together perfectly. It’s little wonder that this is still at the core of their live set more than 30 years later. This is one of those tracks that just lifts and lifts for a relentless journey.
‘Still Life’ begins with a reversed message raising a proverbial finger to American religious conservatives, referencing the ineffective backlash against them at the time. Its just McBrain mucking about in the studio, a mere humorous aside, but a good reminder of the nonsense that the band endured. The track proper begins with shimmering cymbals and mellow plucked guitars, letting us in gently before building to a restrained riff and a solid vocal. Decent.
‘Quest for fire’ is the antithesis of ‘Die with Your Boots on’’. A dull vocal line and Neanderthal lyrical content, (see what I did there), accompany a rather robotic composition. This is a low point in my opinion.
‘Sun and Steel’ seems to have been largely forgotten by Maiden fans but its lighter vocal harmonies flow nicely and provide a nice alternative dynamic to the other songs on the album. I really like this one.
I have to admit I’m a huge fan of ‘Dune’ so ‘To Tame a Land’ drew my attention to the lyrics more than usual. Unfortunately they aren’t really an interesting adaptation and the song itself doesn’t do much to conjure up the book; to my ear it’s more Mexican desert than alien world. That aside, this just isn’t one of the stronger tracks on the album and is a pretty forgettable finish to proceedings. You can’t win them all I suppose.
With an album such as this, that has established itself as a classic with the fans, I know anything I say is going to attract differing opinions. Personally, I do think this is a great record. There are a couple of duff tunes, low moments that would do well to be forgotten, but like with ‘Number of the Beast’, the highs are truly memorable. Here’s hoping plenty of them are in their set, the next time they cross my path.
In 1986 I added to my own personal Maiden experience by meeting Steve and Bruce in one day. I was tagging along with a couple of friends of mine, an up and coming rock journalist and an aspiring photographer, (photo credit – Frank George!), on a two stop day trip in Germany. Our first port of call was a charity football match in Nuremberg that Steve was playing at, along with Klaus and Rudi from The Scorpions. At some point after the match I discovered that a cask of cold beer had been provided. As it was unattended and looked lonely I thought it only polite to pour myself one. No sooner had I drink in hand than up wandered Steve, clearly thirsty and looking for the previously mentioned beverage. I pointed him in the right direction and we had a nice chat for 20 minutes or so. I’d like to say that he told me the inner secrets of metal, although obviously if he had I’d have to keep it under wraps, or that we were brothers in rock from that moment on, but sadly this wasn’t the case. We talked about what Iron Maiden were up to, I tried and failed to secure a job as a roadie, I didn’t mention what a disappointment ‘Flight of Icarus’ had been, and we just had a pleasant moment drinking beer on a sunny afternoon.
When Steve Harris Met Andrew
That evening my friends and I had passes for a Marillion gig in the beautiful hillside amphitheatre overlooking the Rhine at Lorilei. Spotting Bruce backstage I regaled him with Steve’s football score from earlier that day. We shared a wonderful thirty seconds in each other’s company. So, apart from giving me an excuse to tell my story, what was the point of that? Really just that they were both friendly and down to earth guys. Solid. Just like their band really.