Ginger Nuts of Horror
"there’s an authenticity to the guitar here, something down to earth about Murray and Smith’s duelling and cooperating fretwork"
Music is a strange beast. Promiscuous, sometimes incestuous. Influences pass back and forth like DNA, causing constant mutations. Iron Maiden are often credited with blending the immediacy of punk with the riffs of metal to create their sound.
In 1981, I was an adolescent punk rocker. The initial popularity of punk had waned, and, locally, there weren’t many of us left. Therefore, the majority of my friends and social circle were culled from that other group of outsiders—the rockers (the term metalhead was still a good few years coming).
Being a punk kid meant I painted my own jackets, printed my own t-shirts and otherwise customised my own clothes. My rocker mates had to get their mums or sisters to embroider their denims, or sew on back patches. They soon tired of this uniformity (and lack of cool). As the owner of the printing ink, fabric paint, acrylics and enamels, I became the go-to guy for daubing album artwork onto denim and leather.
And that’s how I was introduced to Killers.....
Cash was short, so we operated a strange barter system. I’d receive weird and wonderful gifts in exchange for an hour or so of my mediocre talent—a wah-wah pedal here, a set of paintbrushes there, and so on.
A good friend turned up one day with a cut-off denim in one hand, and a copy of the latest Iron Maiden album in the other. Would I paint it as a back patch? One look at that beautiful, vivid artwork (by Derek Riggs) and I couldn’t wait to get started. Payment, if I remember correctly, was a huge jerrycan full of Martini, stolen in a midnight raid on a tank wagon stabled at the local freight yard.
So, I settled in, paintbrush in hand, with a pint of Martini for creative inspiration (that stuff is vile, but hey, free alcohol). Killers was cued on the turntable, headphones were on, and the volume was loud.
Thanks to my mates, I was pretty well acclimatised to heavy rock, although there were few bands I could embrace with the same enthusiasm as punk. But from the first moment I heard Killers, it was given classic album status.
So what is it about Maiden, and this album in particular, that rises above other hard rock fare, that has the power to light a fire in a young punk rocker’s heart?
Nearly every piece I’ve read about Maiden’s musical beginnings runs that line about the coupling of punk and metal. But the band deny this vehemently—bass player and founder Steve Harris: “Punk was only important in that we hated it and didn’t want anything to do with it … We were around before punk, from ’75, and then when punk began to really happen in ’77 people started making those comparisons, which really annoyed us because we didn’t want them.”
But whatever the opinion of the band, there’s no denying that there’s a fast, unashamed aggression in their sound, and this brings people back to the punk comparison time and time again. Add to that the themes of darkness and horror in the artwork and music, and you not only explain an adolescent’s love, but also the band’s inability to shake off the punk parallels.
Yes, music is a promiscuous beast. Maiden and punk weren’t fuck-buddies, but they may share the same parent. Steve Harris, Paul Di’Anno, Dave Murray, Adrian Smith and Clive Burr all cut their teeth on the pub rock circuit, the scene that also spawned many a punk band. On those smoky boozer stages, a thrilling, down and dirty performance was essential to success.
It probably helped too that Harris and the boys came from lowly beginnings on East London housing estates. Harris spent time as a street sweeper. Di'Anno had been a butcher and a chef. Murray was no stranger to street gangs, and Smith left school to join a band. Gigging was all they wanted to do, and that shines through in the grass roots honesty of their sound. Even later incarnations of the group—with posh-boy Bruce ‘Air Raid Siren’ Dickinson—couldn’t diminish that working class appeal.
As soon as I clapped eyes on Killers, I knew I was going to like it. I mean, how punk is that cover? An urban estate, an innocent young woman assaulted by some mummified horror with an axe. There was something provocative and confrontational there, it promised a gritty sound from the streets. In another coincidental link to punk, artist Derek Riggs originally drew Eddie the Head for a punk rock project that never materialised. The piece that would later become the cover for Iron Maiden’s debut album was originally entitled “Electric Matthew Says Hello”. Maiden’s management saw the pic in Riggs’s portfolio and co-opted it, after asking him to tone down Eddie’s punky hairdo.
And then we have the subject matter of the songs. These guys, like me, enjoyed their horror, with compositions about angst, wrath, serial killers, and classic dark fiction. Titles like Murders in the Rue Morgue, Purgatory, Killers,—hell, even their name is a mediaeval instrument of torture. It was as though the Irons had tapped into every corner of my teenage psyche.
With my hopes already raised by the promise of the cover, the scratchy vinyl run-in gave way to the first notes of The Ides of March. And a march it is, a martial instrumental, building tension for the album to come. Great guitar work, too—probably one of the all-time classic intro songs. It gives way to the urgent bass of Wrathchild. This song, about an angry young man searching for his estranged father, sets the spite-filled scene for the rest of the album. You just know that when Di’Anno finds his man, it ain’t gonna be pretty. We go from there to the catchy Murders in the Rue Morgue, and who couldn’t love a song based on a Poe story? Then there’s the energetic rhythm of Another Life, Genghis Khan (another powerful instrumental), the driving bass and great riffs of Innocent Exile, the gleeful nastiness of Killers—the list goes on, and detailing the songs here makes me want to listen to the album yet again. Okay, personally, I can take or leave the acoustic leanings of the next track, Prodigal Son, but it serves as a mellow little breather before the breakneck riffing of Purgatory and the slamming beat of Drifter.
The amount of musicianship on show throughout should be anathema to any self-respecting punk. Punk was all about the renunciation of the lead solo, the rejection of gross displays of talent. But there’s an authenticity to the guitar here, something down to earth about Murray and Smith’s duelling and cooperating fretwork. Clive Burr’s drumming slaps and crashes, keeping the noise levels to maximum throughout, and Harris plays as though he has twenty fingers. Above all this, Di’Anno’s mocking growl fits perfectly. At no time does the music appear preening or self-indulgent, as it can with lesser bands. And it’s never extraneous—each note, each solo, acts as a necessary part of the whole. In fact, Iron Maiden—alongside Motörhead—are probably responsible for giving the guitar solo back to punk. And so the musical interbreeding perpetuates…
No, Iron Maiden aren’t, and never were, a punk-influenced band. But they’ve done things their own way, and never compromised, and there’s nothing more punk than that.