FEATURE FRIDAY: Birth of the Iron Maiden Sound, 1980-81

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For this edition of our Feature Friday, we take a closer look at how the Iron Maiden sound came into being with the release of Iron Maiden and Killers. Two producers worked on these albums, but only one of them really mattered in the end.

The Iron Maiden catalog was remastered for CD reissues in 1998, and fans have been in an uproar ever since. Showing their fierce dedication to the Maiden sound, devotees have claimed that the remastered (implicitly “improved”) versions did not stand up to scrutiny, that they sacrificed the quality of the original recordings on the altar of the loudness wars.

Similar accusations have been made about the 2015 remasters made available through iTunes and Onkyo, which might at some point be turned into new CD editions as well.

With the latest vinyl reissues, picture discs in 2012-13 and black vinyl in 2014, we were luckily given the original analogue masters reproduced, not another remaster. And in reappraising the first two albums, one of the most striking things is how quickly Maiden found the sound that their fans love. How did that happen?

GETTING STARTED
In late 1978 Iron Maiden recorded one of those demos that become rock legend. In one day the band put down four tracks, three of which would become The Soundhouse Tapes, their first (and strictly limited) vinyl release. No producer, just the band and an engineer rushing against the clock.

Soundhouse

The decidedly unproduced The Soundhouse Tapes was the result of Maiden’s first experience in a recording studio, and was released to fans through mail order in late 1979.

Maiden’s live gigs, the demo, and The Soundhouse Tapes, made enough noise for EMI to sign the band. The label and the fans demanded a debut album, and for that effort Maiden would need a producer.

“We were all young and naïve and we didn’t know about producers and what they do—or don’t do, really.
Steve Harris

Early sessions had been done while drummer Doug Sampson was still in the band, with producer Guy Edwards. The first Maiden producer can still lay claim to one piece, Burning Ambition, which later showed up on the B-side of the Running Free single. But the band was unhappy with the sound and wanted someone else to work with.

A footnote to this story is the fact that Maiden recorded two tracks for the Metal For Muthas compilation album in late 1979, before starting their debut record. The band put down Sanctuary and Wrathchild with the help of EMI’s in-house producer Neil Harrison, but it is probably unlikely that Harris and hard-bargaining manager Rod Smallwood would have considered using a producer with such close ties to the record company for their own album.

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Iron Maiden on the Metal For Muthas tour in early 1980.

Who to get? An attempt at working with The Sweet guitarist Andy Scott was aborted when the would-be-Maiden-producer suggested that bassist Steve Harris use a guitar pick and not his fingers. The search continued…

Even the EMI leadership at the time can’t necessarily remember why Iron Maiden were put to work with producer Will Malone. In late 1979, Maiden had signed their first record contract, a contract that manager Smallwood made sure was for the long-term, with no option for EMI to chicken out until at least three albums had been recorded and released. You’d think the record company would be very particular about getting the right producer for such a commitment.

But the band entered Kingsway Studios with Malone in January 1980, just as soon as they had gotten guitarist Dennis Stratton and drummer Clive Burr in to complement the line-up that already comprised Harris, guitarist Dave Murray and singer Paul Di’Anno.

This line-up of Maiden would only record one album and tour for about nine months: Harris, Murray, Di’Anno, Burr, Stratton.

The band was initially impressed with the arrangement, since Malone had artists like Black Sabbath and Meat Loaf on his CV, although it was unclear to them what kind of services he had rendered to such clients.

It doesn’t seem that Malone was much of a record producer at that point, and maybe Maiden and Rod should have known? In any case, Maiden were very quickly unimpressed by their producer’s work ethic.

“We’d go in there, we’d do a take, then go in and say to him, ‘What do you think, Will?’ And he’d have his fucking feet up on the mixing desk, reading Country Life or whatever, completely mongled out of his head, and he’d look over the top of it and go, ‘Oh, I think you can do better.'”
Steve Harris

One can reasonably argue that the sound Maiden presented on their debut album was the-band-doing-what-the-band-did. They had performed the songs on tour for years anyway. But this leaves out an obvious issue: Stratton and Burr had barely joined the band, and had certainly not toured around the country with them!

It seems that Stratton and Burr took to Maiden like ducks to water, and that the nucleus of Harris/Murray/Di’Anno had such a strong identity about them that no semi-interested producer could fuck it up.

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Will Malone wasn’t cut out to produce Iron Maiden.

Murray gives much credit to his partnership with Stratton, both in terms of sound and performance. Murray played his cherished 1957 Fender Stratocaster while Stratton prefered a Gibson Les Paul, which created a balance of tone that would be important in Maiden’s future music. The guitarists also had a good rapport between them.

“Dennis was quite good. I used to go see him play in bands back in East London and I thought he was stand-out. So it was nice that we got to play together for a bit. And I think there are some great moments on the album.”
Dave Murray

Stratton was the most experienced studio musician in Maiden, and he also found the producer a little too lofty. However, the new Maiden guitarist saw the bright side of the situation: “Will might not have been the greatest producer in the world, but it meant that we could get on with it with the engineers.”

And the engineer on the first Maiden album was one Martin Levan, who went on to have a distinguished career as producer and engineer. His engineering skills facilitated the young and inexperienced Maiden and made the debut album what it is.

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Much respected engineer Martin Levan helped Maiden overcome the obstacle of a lofty producer.

Harris was never pleased with the production, but he still likes the material today and has a special place in his heart for Phantom Of The Opera, which he says was “indicative of where I wanted to take things with the band. And looking back on it now, I can see it was really a pivotal point in the direction of our music.”

Maiden had arrived. And certain journalists saw it right there and then. The annoyingly talkative Malcolm Dome, who wrote many articles on the emerging New Wave Of British Heavy Metal movement at the time, strove to become the one nobody could ignore. When commenting on Maiden’s first Marquee appearance in 1979, he wrote: “Maiden received the sort of reception that must send cold shivers down Jimmy Page’s fretboard.”

Photo of Dennis STRATTON and Steve HARRIS and Paul DI'ANNO and IRON MAIDEN

Live on stage in 1980, sending shivers up spines and down fretboards.

And Dome was just as sure of the merits of Maiden’s first album years later, stating: “I’d say that and the album that followed, Killers, are still my favourite Maiden albums of all time.”

Click here for our retro review of Iron Maiden!

THE RIGHT GUY FOR THE JOB
But even with the positive reception of the debut album, Maiden had yet to find a solid producer. Another false start was made when Maiden’s publishing company Zomba put them together with producer Tony Platt, known at the time for his work with AC/DC and Foreigner. As it turns out, Platt had been instructed by Zomba to get Maiden a hit with the ill-conceived recording of Women In Uniform, and he thus managed to piss off Harris with his production choices.

Even so, Platt had a strong influence on the Maiden sound through the early trials and tribulations of Bruce Dickinson. The future Maiden singer credits Platt with reshaping his voice and making it “the voice that people recognise today.” Dickinson’s band Samson recorded their third album Shock Tactics (1981) with Tony Platt as producer.

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Bruce Dickinson (left) with Samson, whose third album was produced by Tony Platt and took the singer to a vocal breakthrough.

Dickinson states that Platt drove him to pitch his voice higher and higher, until his “falsetto screech became almost an irrelevance as my natural voice extended into the back of my eyes.” Platt helped Dickinson find his true voice, but he was not going to be in charge of a Maiden production.

Meanwhile, on Long Island outside New York City

Record producer Martin Birch was visiting Ritchie Blackmore. It was 1980, Birch had recently produced the seminal Black Sabbath album Heaven And Hell and was now in production on Blue Öyster Cult’s Cultosauros Erectus. He was already well known as an engineer and producer of Fleetwood Mac, Deep Purple, Rainbow and many others.

Blackmore put a record on the turntable, the debut Iron Maiden album, and asked his producer friend “Why don’t you do them?”

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Steve Harris with producer Martin Birch, making an album somewhere in the Bahamas in the 1980s.

Birch was disappointed that no one had asked him to do the first album, because, as he says, it was “exactly the sort of thing I enjoyed, and I could tell that the production didn’t do enough for them on that first album.” But Maiden thought that a producer of Birch’s status wouldn’t even consider coming near young upstarts like them. Steve Harris says, “We all talked about him, but we thought, like, ‘We’re not worthy.’ “

Finally meeting up, reportedly as late as Maiden’s Rainbow Theatre gig in London just before Christmas*, Birch came clean and told Harris that he would have loved to do the first album. The question of who would produce the second Maiden album was now put to rest. They would be produced, engineered and mixed by Martin Birch, and band and producer entered London’s Battery Studios in late 1980.

(*It seems odd that Birch hadn’t met the band before then, as the album would be recorded from late 1980 and into January 1981 for a February 2 release. It might be more likely that the meeting took place at Maiden’s earlier Rainbow gig in June of 1980.)

To get the best performances out of the young group, Birch set them up in the middle of the studio and had them perform live. Overdubs and retakes would be worked out later, and Birch told them to “just play the songs as you would live, and we’ll work from there.” It’s interesting to note that this method of putting down album tracks is the very same that Maiden utilize these days with current producer Kevin Shirley.

The Maiden line-up that recorded Killers, their first album with producer Martin Birch: Murray, Di’Anno, Smith, Burr, Harris.

Another major change for the band at the time of recording Killers was obviously the replacement of guitarist Dennis Stratton. After having been in the band less than a year, he ran afoul of Harris and manager Smallwood. He was swiftly replaced with Adrian Smith, a childhood friend of Murray and former chief of Maiden’s London rivals Urchin. With Smith and Birch on board, Maiden were finally able to define their sound on record.

Click here to read about Stratton’s departure from Maiden!

It could be argued that the song selection is more impressive on the debut album, but there is no denying that the quintessential Iron Maiden sound came into being with Killers. The fat low-end, the hard-hitting drums, the powerful guitars, and the deliciously judged vocal performances. All of this would become hallmarks of 1980s Iron Maiden records, and it’s very much down to Martin Birch’s skills as producer and engineer. Just compare Killers to Sabbath’s Heaven And Hell, and it’s obvious who is in charge. They both sound like Martin Birch records.

I’d never worked with a producer who was so totally involved in the whole process. He was a good laugh, but when we were working, he cracked the whip.”
Adrian Smith

Indeed, Birch’s studio discipline soon saw him christened “the headmaster”, and credited as “produced, engineered and bullied by…” The already tight band were forced to knuckle down and become “even tighter”, according to Smith.

But Birch found working with Maiden both enjoyable and easy, saying, “It was pretty obvious from the off that Steve was in charge. […] Which was good, from my point of view, because me and Steve would agree 99 per cent of the time.” Working with a younger and less blasé band made for a refreshing change for Birch: “I thought, ‘I like this band. I hope we work together again.'”

As it turns out, Birch would soon have Maiden as a full-time job. His choice is easy to understand, as he was doing massive amounts of work in 1980-84 for crazy rockers like Black Sabbath and Whitesnake. He must have thought that he’d rather stick to the more agreeable and manageable Maiden than be a journeyman in drug-fueled mayhem.

“I was lucky enough to be in the position where I could make that decision.”
Martin Birch

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Martin Birch standing in the middle of the men most responsible for creating the sound of The Number Of The Beast, a year after Killers. Note engineer Nigel Green, second from left.

Martin Birch helped give birth to the classic Maiden sound with his work on Killers, and the course for the band’s incredible 1980s era was suddenly clearer. Ironically, the sonic triumph of Killers was also met with their first critical backlash.

A combination of forces were pitted against Maiden at this point:

1) The inevitable envy in many corners of the music scene, with Maiden’s surprise-hit debut album and high profile tours with Judas Priest and KISS.

2) The fading magic of the once-irresistible NWOBHM scene, fabricated though the slogan was, and the ensuing ego battles between people invested in it.

3) The possibly unavoidable comparisons to the punkish energy of the debut album, which was now being replaced with something more powerful, sophisticated, and ambitious.

As a result, Killers received a critical mauling. Only Malcolm Dome would give it a positive review in the UK, in Record Mirror, and says “it was almost inevitable that Maiden would start picking up bad reviews. […] And it’s a shame, because Killers was a great album.”

His sentiment is backed up by the live power of the Killers era Iron Maiden, in this late 1980 London show which is available on the Early Days (2004) DVD set:

Click here for a guide to Maiden concert videos!

But whatever the critical backlash, the band wouldn’t care much. Killers sold better than the debut, and band chief Harris actually states that he prefers it to The Number Of The Beast (1982): “I loved The Number Of The Beast, but I didn’t think it was our best album at the time, and I still don’t.”

Given that he says he likes Killers better than the debut, the implication is clear, however surprising. Harris thought Killers was the best Iron Maiden album until Piece Of Mind (1983).

Fans also seemed to love Killers, and the band was building their reputation quickly. At this time they also caught the eyes and ears of Samson’s Dickinson, who thought that Killers was much more interesting than the debut album: “When I heard Killers, I was like, ‘This is more like it. This is really gonna do it for them.’ “

The recording of Killers at Battery Studios coincided with Samson’s recording of Shock Tactics in the same studio. Dickinson, being a mate of Clive Burr, remembers being invited around for a listen. An inebriated Birch had just finished the mix and played the new Maiden album for Dickinson so loud his ears nearly bled.

The Maiden sound had arrived.

Click here for our retro review of the Killers album!

THE BIRTH OF LEGENDS
Martin Birch turned into a proper legend when he took the Maiden job. His work before Maiden was impressive, no doubt, but with Maiden he started building a metal icon from the ground up.

Over the next decade, he would produce every single Maiden album, from The Number Of The Beast to Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son (1988), finally ending his work with them in 1992 with the Fear Of The Dark album. Suitors would inevitably come forward, and Birch even turned down an offer from Metallica.

“They where another band that had been incredibly influenced by both Maiden and Purple, I think, but I was putting so much energy into the Maiden albums, I thought, ‘If I start trying to build up another band in the same way, I won’t be able to give either of them 100 per cent,’ so I said no.”
Martin Birch

These are the hands that built the Maiden sound.

In other words, Maiden found a producer as early as their second album who was able and willing to guide them through the process of capturing their essence on vinyl, and who was also willing to make them his sole priority. Birch would continue to provide essential audio and performance expertise as the band grew out of their formative years and into their classic era, which you can read all about here:

Dawn of the Classic Era, 1982-83.

Like so many other crucial pieces, Rod Smallwood just before and Bruce Dickinson right after, Birch’s arrival made a world of difference, and it’s hard to see how Maiden would have become as successful without him.

Visit our Feature Friday and Best & Worst sections for more in-depth discussions of all things Iron Maiden!

Primary sources: Run To The Hills – The Authorised Biography (Mick Wall, 2001 edition), The History of Iron Maiden, Part 1: The Early Days (DVD, 2004), Guitar World (7 March 2011), What Does This Button Do? (Bruce Dickinson, 2017).

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