Besides Steve Harris, only two members in the history of Iron Maiden have never left the band. Do you know who? Read on for a guide to Maiden’s numerous line-up changes: From Doug Sampson to Blaze Bayley, here are the “Maiden Exits”, and why they happened.
The current Iron Maiden line-up has been stable for over 20 years, by far the longest run in the band’s history. Indeed, many fans can’t imagine a different version of the band. But Maiden’s current stability was completely unthinkable in earlier days. In the beginning, there was one line-up change for every album.
The reasons vary from irreconcilable creative differences to unsustainable indulgences in sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, and this feature takes a closer look at the whys and hows of the most pivotal member changes in Maiden History.
Of course, endless line-up changes had plagued Steve Harris‘ new band in the years of formation from 1975 to 1979, but we’ll focus here on the most influential ex-members of Maiden and start our story as the band was getting ready to record their debut album, Iron Maiden, at the end of 1979.
Before they could get going, there was a line-up change.
DOUG SAMPSON (1978-1979)
He never appeared on an Iron Maiden album, but drummer Doug Sampson was the heartbeat of the early Maiden cult classic The Soundhouse Tapes EP in late 1979, as well as their two Metal For Muthas compilation tracks in early 1980. He also made his mark on the first Maiden single, Running Free, were he appears on the B-side track Burning Ambition.
By December 1979, and with the imminent recording of Iron Maiden’s first LP looming, Sampson had to admit that he wasn’t up to the rigours of the road. Travelling the country, eating crap food, drinking too much, and sleeping in the back of a freezing van, the young drummer found himself sick and tired all the time.
Band chief Harris was worried that the drummer, who he had also played with in their previous band Smiler, wasn’t cut out for the job. “I had some sleepless nights over it,” Harris later admitted, having felt close to the drummer both personally and musically.
Sampson was a signatory to Maiden’s first record deal with EMI, but he was soon out of the band and had to see his friends rise to fame and fortune without him. “We just couldn’t take any chances, at that time,” says Harris. The big tours that Maiden had coming up in 1980 demanded a completely reliable drummer, one who wouldn’t be worn out by the pressure or the lifestyle. Sampson was bitterly disappointed, but would later say that he understood Harris’ point of view. He ultimately conceded that, “The truth is – I don’t think I could have handled it.”
Doug Sampson was let go from Iron Maiden just before Christmas 1979, playing his last show with them on 22 December in Oldham. He was a fair drummer, and a good friend of Harris, but not as solid a performer as his replacement: Clive Burr.
Harris probably did well to replace him.
DENNIS STRATTON (1979-1980)
He was in the band for just one year, but is forever ingrained in Iron Maiden’s history because he played on the first record. Maiden’s search for a second guitarist to complement Dave Murray led them to the slightly older and more experienced Dennis Stratton.
This “Maiden Exit” can definitely not be described as amicable. Stratton fell out in a big way with both Harris and manager Rod Smallwood. Some of this had to do with Harris’ suspicion, not altogether inaccurate, that the new guitarist was not 100 percent into the Maiden thing.
During recording of the debut album, in the indifferent presence of producer Will Malone, Stratton added massive Queen-style harmony vocals and guitars to Phantom Of The Opera without Harris’ consent, and things got ugly. Harris and Smallwood ordered all of Stratton’s harmony work removed, and the manager kept a close eye on the guitarist from then on.
A similar situation arose when Maiden later recorded their single Women In Uniform. Stratton and Burr added vocal overdubs to the mix when Harris wasn’t around, and the band chief turned red when he heard it. Harris admitted later that, “I just went fucking nuts! I had to walk out, I was that pissed off.” The person most in danger of receiving a fist in the face was producer Tony Platt, but Harris also started to seriously question Stratton’s place in the band.
A more serious problem developed during Maiden’s tour as special guests to KISS in Europe in 1980. Stratton didn’t like hanging and travelling with his own band day in and day out, and spent much of his time travelling with the crew or hanging out with KISS. Manager Smallwood saw this as a threat to Maiden’s unity at a crucial stage of their campaign, and he made Stratton aware that he was to hang out with his own band.
The guitarist resented this, and things got uglier. Harris insists that Stratton “seemed to be negative about a lot of things” and that he would “sometimes get a bit aggressive when he’d had a few beers.” Maybe more seriously, Harris claims that Stratton had issues with Maiden’s musical direction: “He questioned a lot of the fundamental things we were trying to do.”
Smallwood had been unsure about the hiring of Stratton to begin with and kept confronting the guitarist, who would later complain that the manager “even started having a go at me about the music I was listening to.” Without a doubt, the writing was on the wall for Stratton as guitar player in Iron Maiden.
Frankly, it’s easy to see how Stratton would be agitated by the manager’s dictates, and it’s also easy to agree with him that Maiden were a little too young to understand the need for space on the road. But it’s equally easy to understand that the band felt uncomfortable with a guitarist who was a little older, and a little too cocky after having been in the band just a few months. In any case, Maiden’s rise would have been in question if they didn’t get Adrian Smith to join the band.
Dennis Stratton played his last Maiden concert in Drammen, Norway at the end of the KISS tour, on 13 October 1980. He shot the video for Women In Uniform with them some days later, before being fired.
One album, one man out.
PAUL DI’ANNO (1978-1981)
The unmistakable voice of early Iron Maiden, Paul Di’Anno sang on the first two records: Iron Maiden (1980) and Killers (1981). But he was to be the second casualty of Maiden’s first album line-up. A real character, jack-the-lad, “the beast” as he calls himself, Di’Anno’s penchant for fast living would eventually part him from a band that were very serious indeed about developing their career.
It’s the well-known tale of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. The singer would stay up for days partying, and consequently lose his voice or otherwise be in so terrible physical and emotional shape that gigs would be sub-par or even cancelled. This never sat well with Harris and manager Smallwood, who deemed Di’Anno’s behaviour a clear and present threat to Maiden’s progress in the early 1980s.
Harris stated at the time that, “If it had been because he was doing too many gigs I’d have every sympathy.” But it was clearly alcohol and drugs that impaired Di’Anno, and Maiden was growing into ever bigger obligations: “We couldn’t afford to keep playing gigs where he wasn’t putting in 100 percent, where it was half-hearted, or worse still, blowing out.”
This was no snap decision for Maiden and Smallwood, with Harris later stating that, “We’d done well with the first two albums. We knew we didn’t have any choice but to make the change, but you don’t know what’s going to happen next.” Letting go of Di’Anno could potentially mean the end of Maiden’s rise.
Di’Anno, for his part, has never denied the effects the rock’n’roll lifestyle had on his ability to deliver what Maiden required of him. But he also insists that he was getting tired of the heavily scheduled Maiden routine at that point. “I’d had a bellyful,” he said later. “I didn’t get into rock’n’roll to keep to schedules and have meetings and make sure I get my eight hours’ beauty sleep every night.”
He also claims that he wasn’t entirely happy with the musical direction the band was heading in, beginning with Killers. Whether this is hindsight or foresight, one cannot know for sure. Harris was completely blunt about the issue three decades later: “Paul was totally fucked up.”
The fact of the matter is that Maiden went on to recruit a singer who had the kind of voice Harris had wanted to begin with: Bruce Dickinson. And how would they ever have conquered the world without him? Even Di’Anno applauded the choice, and has later stated in no uncertain terms that he thinks that, “Bruce is absolutely the best singer the band have ever had.”
Dickinson claims that he was actually asked to join Maiden before Di’Anno had formally been given the boot. Which has to be the case since Dickinson was approached when his band Samson appeared at the 1981 Reading Festival on 29 August. At that point Maiden still had a handful of shows left on the Killers tour, and Dickinson asked Smallwood, “What’s gonna happen to Paul, and does he know he’s going?”
Dickinson remembers that there was talk of leaving for Scandinavia when he auditioned for the band, and Maiden did play their last few shows with Di’Anno in Sweden and Denmark in early September. “The niceties of filling a dead man’s shoes did not sit comfortably with me,” Dickinson remembers.
All of this would certainly be indicative of Maiden’s frustration with their original singer during the Killers tour, but also that they didn’t dare to let Di’Anno go before a replacement was secured. This story would repeat itself many years later as Dickinson was once again on his way in.
By all accounts an amicable split, even if it did come with a bit of drama, Paul Di’Anno parted ways with Iron Maiden in late 1981, taking his final bow in Copenhagen on 10 September 1981.
Two albums, two men out.
CLIVE BURR (1979-1982)
The energetic and ever-smiling Clive Burr handled the drums masterfully on Maiden’s first three albums, culminating with the groundbreaking The Number Of The Beast in 1982. Bruce Dickinson once stated that Burr was “the best drummer the band ever had.” The singer probably did not mean to take anything away from Burr’s successor, Nicko McBrain, but Burr’s importance to the Maiden legacy is immense.
Despite his obvious talent and his charming demeanor, the much-admired drummer was another casualty of the rock’n’roll lifestyle that came with Maiden’s growing popularity in the early 1980s. Or was that really the case?
Previously reliable on stage, Burr started having performance trouble on the 1982 Beast On The Road tour, according to several members of the band. Often hitting the stage while nursing a hangover, just the same as certain other people in the band, Burr reportedly started to let his playing suffer. Harris wouldn’t tolerate it for long.
Adrian Smith recalls the trouble of “keeping it together for the rest of us when he was having an off night, which he was having more and more as time went by.” And Harris, by then used to band members succumbing to the lifestyle and very worried about getting through the tour, remembers a night when Burr “spent most of the gig throwing up into a bucket at the side of his kit.”
Dickinson claims that there was more than drugs and booze about this “Maiden Exit”, pointing to little things on tour that somehow ballooned into major things. Small frictions escalated into Burr’s estrangement from Harris, according to the singer, and “slowly yet surely niggles and arguments crept in backstage.” An inevitable slide towards Burr’s exit was in motion: “Clive’s luggage was an issue – Clive got more luggage,” Dickinson says in retrospect. “Steve jumped on the drum riser, telling him to play faster – Clive slowed down.”
It seems that Harris had his mind set on McBrain succeeding Burr even before the tour ended. Indeed, McBrain would be called a couple of times to discuss joining the band in case it didn’t work out with Burr, being “on a retainer” as he put it, and Burr smelled a change in the air.
McBrain had grown close to all the guys in Maiden from touring with them as the drummer of Trust, and he says that Burr called him from the road, telling his soon-to-be replacement that he knew the band were eyeing McBrain as the new Maiden drummer: “I was honest with him and told him straight, ‘Look, Clive, they ain’t gonna offer me the gig if you pull yourself together.’ I didn’t want to steal another man’s gig.”
“It got to everybody, in the end,” says Smith. No matter what the root cause was, at the conclusion of the tour Clive Burr was fired from the band that had made him famous. He played his last Iron Maiden gig in Tokyo, Japan on 4 December 1982.
Three albums, three men out.
ADRIAN SMITH (1980-1990, 1999-present)
Flash forward several years, and Adrian Smith would find himself the next member to leave Maiden. But this time the reasons were very different and much more complex than a question of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. Having been an integral part of Maiden’s meteoric rise in the 1980s, Smith came to a crossroads as the 1990s dawned.
The writer or co-writer of timeless Maiden cuts like The Prisoner, Flight Of Icarus, 2 Minutes To Midnight, Wasted Years, and Can I Play With Madness, Smith’s importance to Maiden’s success cannot be overestimated. He blossomed as writer and guitarist throughout the 1980s, peaking with the seminal albums Somewhere In Time (1986) and Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son (1988).
When the news came in early 1990 that he was leaving the band, fans were in shock. At this point, the line-up had been stable for seven years! They had released four classic studio albums, including Piece Of Mind (1983) and Powerslave (1984), as well as the double live behemoth Live After Death (1985).
What happened? The received wisdom at the time, readily distributed through papers and magazines, was that Smith had finally decided to follow his more commercial instincts, those that got a free reign on his solo album Silver And Gold in 1989. Surely, the originator of some of Maiden’s most catchy songs felt the need to leave Maiden’s heavy metal behind?
The truth was very different. When Maiden regrouped in early 1990 to start writing a new album, it seems that people in the band had different ideas about how to proceed, but not along the lines most would expect. Smith was very happy with the direction of the previous two records, and was dismayed to learn that Harris and Dickinson wanted a more stripped-down and back-to-basics approach for the new album.
“I didn’t want to do that,” Smith said later. Neither did he think it was a good idea to get a mobile recording truck in after just a few weeks, when the original intention had been to write together for 3 months.
Dickinson later recalled that Smith “wasn’t fired, but he didn’t quit entirely willingly. […] It came to a big discussion one day before No Prayer For The Dying. And it started off with him suggesting that maybe we should write more than eight songs per album.” In short, Smith wanted to continue in the style of Somewhere In Time and Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son, and he wanted the band to spend more time writing than they usually did.
Smith was never going to win that one, and was pushed to leave Iron Maiden in early 1990, as work progressed on their new album.
In retrospect, Smith has opened up a bit more about what made him unhappy. Not only did he disagree with the musical direction of the album they were about to record, but he also had a problem with the band’s live performances. As he says, “We used to play the songs too fast. We came up with some really interesting songs at the time, but we were just kind of choking the life out of them just playing them too fast.”
Adrian was unhappy with Maiden’s live performances and had to face the reality that he didn’t agree with their direction in the studio either. End of the line, in other words.
This was the first “Maiden Exit” that would lead into a period of declining fortunes for the band, whether it was due to Smith’s leaving or not. Many fans certainly feel that this was a major negative turn of events for the band. Even Harris later confessed that he thought “maybe Maiden lost something when Adrian left.”
The years of stability were over.
BRUCE DICKINSON (1981-1993, 1999-present)
A time of upheaval for Maiden got even more intense in early 1993, when their singer announced his decision to leave the band he had fronted for more than a decade. In three years, Iron Maiden had lost two of their chief songwriters and even one of their most identifiable features: the voice.
A strong personality, with a fierce individualist streak, Dickinson had by that point already been through a period of considering his “Maiden Exit”. His first doubts about his future with the band came in 1986, as they were working on the Somewhere In Time album. Dickinson envisioned a different sound and style for that record, thinking that it was time for Maiden to make some drastic changes.
Dickinson’s semi-acoustic and folksy songs were nixed by the rest of the band and producer Martin Birch. The latter always had a sense that Dickinson might pull Maiden too far away from its proper course, and was careful about keeping the Maiden sound recognizably conservative.
The singer was secretly hurt by this rejection, and later mused that “perhaps I should have left in 1986.” He didn’t, but soldiered on through recording and touring, and eventually played a major role on the subsequent 1988 album Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son, where he co-wrote half of the record’s songs with Smith and Harris.
Firmly back in the fold, Dickinson had no thoughts of leaving Iron Maiden as the 1990s dawned, even though some observers speculated that he was on the way out when he recorded his solo album Tattooed Millionaire (1990). Not so, according to Bruce, who claims he was happy and energized when working on Maiden’s first 1990s albums No Prayer For The Dying (1990) and Fear Of The Dark (1992).
But then something of an artistic identity crisis hit him. Dickinson started to feel a strong urge to explore musical territory he now realized he would never see with Maiden. In 1992 and early 1993 he worked on a second solo album. The first attempt reportedly sounded too much like what people would expect from himself and Maiden. Producer Chris Tsangarides recalls that “[it] was a bit heavier […] And I think possibly a load of the tunes should have been for Maiden, maybe.”
Manager Smallwood intervened. He took the singer aside and told him that a solo project should really be different from Maiden if it was to have any merit. And thus was set in motion the soul searching that would lead to Dickinson’s departure from Iron Maiden.
Dickinson promptly flew to L.A. and started another second album attempt with producer Keith Olsen. The results were very different, to say the least. The singer decided against releasing it, but he had by now come to terms with the choice he had to make: Stay in Maiden and never find out what else he could do, or take the plunge. For an artist of Dickinson’s ambition and restlessness, the choice was inevitable.
And so he announced that the Real Live Tour in 1993 would be his last as Maiden’s singer. In retrospect the best thing to do would have been to tell people after the tour, not before it, as Maiden’s 1993 European trek quickly degenerated into media shit-digging and accusations from the band and crew of below-par vocal performances.
Bruce Dickinson left Iron Maiden after a final concert in August 1993, the rather idiotic pay-per-view spectacle Raising Hell. The door was now open to Blaze Bayley, and Maiden’s biggest shift in sound for 12 years.
BLAZE BAYLEY (1993-1999)
Just a few years later, Bayley had the painful realization that this was a revolving door. Maiden’s fortunes were at an all-time low pretty much everywhere except South America, and changes were brewing behind the scenes. As 1999 dawned Bayley was asked to leave Maiden to make room for the return of his own predecessor.
Blaze Bayley was a hundred percent loyal and dedicated to the cause of Iron Maiden, and he never gave less than all he had for a band that he truly loved. Because of this, Bayley won the respect of Maiden fans, even though many of them never approved of his vocal performances.
There is no doubt that the work ethic and energy embodied by Bayley and Smith-replacement Janick Gers helped Maiden survive a decade that was very difficult for older heavy metal bands. The 1990s would not necessarily have been a happier time for Maiden had Dickinson stayed. But all the same, Harris chose a replacement singer who was simply unable to sing much of the Dickinson era material due to his much lower vocal register.
Three obvious questions come up:
First, why did the band choose a singer they knew could not sing as high as Dickinson had done? Bayley remembers struggling with classic era material at his audition, while “blitzing” the Di’Anno material, and everyone involved acknowledged his inability to cope with the classic era Dickinson material.
Second, why didn’t Maiden detune to help Bayley out? Granted, it would have been another change in the band’s sound, but even one half-step down would have helped him. The alternative was to have Bayley struggle in public to deliver Maiden classics that were written for a very different singer.
Third, why didn’t they perform more Di’Anno era material that would have suited Bayley better? Songs like Phantom Of The Opera and Killers would certainly have been welcomed back to the setlist by their fans.
Maiden’s record sales were now at an all-time low, with the Bayley albums The X Factor (1995) and Virtual XI (1998) seeing the continuation of a steady decline that had started around 1990. Concert attendance had also dropped to a tiny fraction of what the band had enjoyed in their heyday.
It was clear to manager Smallwood that these fortunes could not be reversed with Bayley fronting the band. He soon started pulling strings behind the curtains to prepare the way for another Iron Maiden line-up change.
Stay tuned for our in-depth Maiden History chapter on the making of Virtual XI and the end of the Blaze era, coming in the fall of 2020!
Bayley himself claims that a combination of vocal strain, sound issues on stage, and recurring allergy problems all exacerbated his vocal difficulties at the time. Be that as it may, it was obvious to anyone who saw Maiden live back then, and to anyone who watches those clips on YouTube these days, that even a Bayley on top form was unable to sing songs like The Trooper and Hallowed Be Thy Name. Not to mention that beloved classics like Children Of The Damned, Run To The Hills, The Prisoner, Where Eagles Dare, Aces High, Rime Of The Ancient Mariner and Wasted Years would never have returned with Bayley as Maiden’s singer.
In truth, it remains a mystery why Harris would hire him, when the chief had no intention of tuning down to accommodate Bayley’s vocal range. It’s hard to see how that nightly struggle, trying to sing outside of his register, wouldn’t damage his voice and further compromise his performances. Did Harris not understand this…?
Smallwood finally convinced Harris that Bayley would have to go, preferably to make way for a reunion with Dickinson, the one voice everyone knew could deliver the goods night after night. It’s impossible not to feel bad for Bayley, a lesser replacement for a vocal legend, forced to take a blow that must have been incredibly hard on his self-confidence.
Blaze Bayley was the last member to leave Maiden, in January 1999. He was the singer in Maiden’s third longest surviving line-up, but also the least commercially successful since the very beginning of their career. Bayley performed his last show with Iron Maiden in Buenos Aires, Argentina on 12 December 1998.
The seventh man out since the band started work on their first album.
So who were left standing?
Dickinson and Smith both returned to Iron Maiden in early 1999 for a hugely successful reunion. This three-guitar line-up released their fifth studio album in 2015 (and look set to release their sixth in the not-too-distant future), and they have done numerous record-breaking world tours in the more than two decades since reforming.
Maiden’s status as the world’s premier metal band was well and truly restored. And despite multi-million record sales being a thing of the past, their concert attendance and general popularity these days is far beyond even their glorious 1980s period.
The 1999 reunion reduced the number of ex-members by two. It’s interesting to note that the only ones to return to Harris’ band are the two that most clearly left for seriously artistic reasons, not as a consequence of personal conflicts or performance challenges. Harris made a statement by taking them back: He values their points of view, their musical abilities and their songwriting, and sees that this diversity is vital to Maiden’s status and longevity.
It’s also interesting to note that besides Harris, only two members of the band have never left. Even the ever smiling Dave Murray was once fired from Maiden in the very early days, though not by Harris. Joining an early incarnation of Iron Maiden in late 1976, Murray lasted about sixth months before falling out with eccentric singer Dennis Wilcock and scheming guitarist Bob Sawyer.
A very upset Murray had to pack up his guitar and leave, later recalling that, ” Because I believed in it and loved it so much, getting sacked from the band was quite painful.” He was later invited back by Harris when the line-up fell apart. The Maiden chief knew he wanted Murray in the band more than anyone else, and the rest is history.
So, in actual fact, the only people to join Iron Maiden and never, ever leave, are drummer Nicko McBrain and guitarist Janick Gers. The former has now been in Maiden for more than 37 years, while the latter has clocked up an impressive 30 years of non-stop Maidening, and counting.
After many years of struggles and changes, with only the 1983-1989 period seeing a stable and commercially successful band, Maiden finally arrived at their ultimate line-up in 1999 and have not looked back since.
Sources: Running Free – The Official Story of Iron Maiden (Garry Bushell and Ross Halfin, 1986), Stockholm, Sunday April 28 1996 (bookofhours.net, 1996), Run To The Hills – The Authorised Biography of Iron Maiden (Mick Wall, 2001), The History Of Iron Maiden Part 1: The Early Days (DVD, 2004), Metal Hammer’s “Iron Maiden Special” (2005), Bruce Dickinson – Flashing Metal With Iron Maiden And Flying Solo (Joe Shooman, 2007), Blaze Bayley – At The End Of The Day (Lawrence Paterson, 2009), The Beast (Paul Di’Anno, 2010), Classic Rock’s “Iron Maiden: Hope And Glory” (Paul Elliot, 2011), The History Of Iron Maiden, Part 3: Maiden England (DVD, 2013), Kerrang!: “Maiden Heaven” (2014), Rhythm presents 100 Drum Heroes (Edited by Chris Burke, 2015), What Does This Button Do? (Bruce Dickinson, 2017), Classic Rock Platinum Series and Metal Hammer present Iron Maiden (2019).