Bruce Dickinson and Nicko McBrain were the missing pieces needed to turn Maiden into a true world-class act. With this second chapter in our study of Iron Maiden History we take a look at the dawn of Maiden’s classic era.
With the reissues of Iron Maiden’s 1980s catalog as black 180g vinyl and digital remasters we have had a good occasion to reappraise how Maiden’s sound morphed from the early punkish aggression of their first two records to the more grandiose and ambitious works that would come to characterise their classic 1982-1988 output.
Two of the most important factors in this evolution were singer Bruce Dickinson and drummer Nicko McBrain, who made their album debuts with Maiden in 1982 and 1983 respectively. This feature will celebrate them both, discuss the history of how they joined Iron Maiden, and argue that the band would never have enjoyed their golden age without them.
After successfully building their reputation, first in Britain and then in Europe and North America, Iron Maiden found themselves at a crossroads in late 1981. Their first two albums, Iron Maiden (1980) and Killers (1981), still stand among the most impressive debut/sophomore duos in rock history, but there was trouble behind the scenes, and sometimes even on stage.
Guitarist Dennis Stratton was fired after the first album and tour, to be replaced by Adrian Smith. At the conclusion of the Killers tour, another line-up change was inevitable – singer Paul Di’Anno had done his last Maiden gig. While Stratton was a case of mismatching, being older than the rest and antagonising band chief Steve Harris and manager Rod Smallwood with both his taste in music and his attitudes in general, Di’Anno was a case of sex and drugs.
These and all other “Maiden Exits” through the years are discussed in-depth in this feature. But whatever the reasons and conflicts, in late 1981 Iron Maiden needed a new singer.
SIX! SIX, SIX!
This was a considerable risk to take for a band that was just starting to come into their own. Losing their voice could have meant losing the fans that had swarmed to the band in the early years of formation and breakthrough. Di’Anno had been a popular frontman in Britain.
On the other hand, in hindsight, it seems clear that Di’Anno was not going to be the frontman that could take Maiden to the biggest stages in the world and provide them with the vocal bravado that would see them rival rock legends like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple in status. Maiden needed something else, some other ingredient, some X factor to take them to the next level.
“I did tell Rod Smallwood there was no way Maiden would ever break America while Paul Di’Anno sang in the band.”
Steve Harris has later admitted that Di’Anno’s voice wasn’t really the kind he originally imagined singing for Maiden. What did he have in mind? A more flamboyant, more operatic approach. Enter Bruce Dickinson. His band at the time, Samson, were going nowhere fast. Once Maiden’s rivals on the London scene, they had made poor decisions and had their share of bad luck. Bruce was ripe for another challenge.
And it seems he was clearly the right choice for Iron Maiden. Dickinson later said that when he saw Maiden live the first thing he thought was: “This was just pure Deep Purple … the same shiver up the spine.” For his part, Harris had always liked Dickinson’s singing, and later said: “I thought he sounded a bit like Ian Gillan, actually.”
Dickinson was practically ambushed at the 1981 Reading Festival, when Harris and manager Smallwood offered him an Iron Maiden audition. The next day, Dickinson led Maiden through songs like Prowler, Remember Tomorrow and Murders In The Rue Morgue in a rehearsal room in Hackney. Maiden then headed out for their final six shows with Di’Anno in early September 1981, and put Dickinson to a second test as soon as they returned: doing vocals in the studio, performing Twilight Zone among other things. A brief discussion in the studio control room, with Dickinson waiting in the vocal booth, yielded the obvious: Maiden offered him the job.
Somewhat suprisingly, perhaps, the former Bruce Bruce (his embarrassing Samson stage name…) seemed uncertain of what to do. He asked several friends and colleagues for advice about the Maiden offer. Whether Dickinson was genuinely unsure is not known. It seems more likely that he could have been nervous about leaving the Samson guys behind for a gig that would obviously pay much better and put him right into a situation that was already established.
Dickinson’s ex-Shots bandmate Bill Liesegang recalls that the singer asked him “I’ve just had this offer from Iron Maiden, do you think I should take it?” Liesegang responded that he thought it was a no-brainer. Dennis Stratton met Dickinson in a pub, where the singer told him about the offer to join Maiden. Stratton recalls: “And I said, ‘Yeah, take it. And if you take it, Maiden will be big in America’…”
The outcome was given. Maiden got their man.
And the band desperately needed not just a capable vocalist, but also someone who could lift the band’s spirit in the wake of a tough tour with uneven performances.
“If I had been looking at the group as a military unit, I would have assessed their morale as being rock bottom. The atmosphere was weary. They needed cheering up. We bonded musically, and I was left to ponder the sad state of affairs that had led to such profound apathy in the face of such amazing potential.”
The mood in the band would change for the better once Di’Anno was out. It was still a gamble, though, because Dickinson sounded so very different from Di’Anno. But the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Bruce’s first studio adventure with Maiden produced the classic The Number Of The Beast in early 1982, and Maiden never looked back.
As Dickinson would later state, the third album can be either the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end. For Maiden it was definitely the album where they promoted themselves into the biggest league.
Featuring absolutely immortal metal anthems like the title track and Hallowed Be Thy Name, it is also home to the first tracks Bruce contributed to writing, although uncredited at the time: Children Of The Damned, The Prisoner and Run To The Hills. There is also some evidence that he wrote the lyrics for Gangland, but Bruce himself would rather have that particular fact forgotten, since most of the album was so incredibly good.
“It was all fresh to that line-up, which is one of the reasons it’s such a great album.”
The Beast soared to number one in the UK album charts and became a worldwide phenomenon. Iron Maiden had truly arrived. Powered by the relentless rhythms of Steve Harris and drummer Clive Burr, colored by the delicate guitar interplay of Adrian Smith and Dave Murray, the lyrics are delivered with flawless conviction and emotion by Bruce Dickinson, his incredible range and powerful technical ability giving the band many new and exciting avenues to explore.
As Dickinson later claimed, Harris had found a singer that more than matched him in terms of ambition. “It was Steve’s band,” Dickinson would say. “But I had my own ideas. And I did warn everybody about it before I joined.”
On stage, it was obvious. As Dave Murray says, “He really knew how to work an audience, and he gave it his all in a way Paul never did.” And it’s hard not to agree that Maiden’s live performance took on a whole other level of energy and appeal when Dickinson arrived:
Many years later, we would take a look at some of Dickinson’s very best live performances in this feature. We found what was obvious, that Dickinson would become inseparable from the sound of Maiden in a very short time.
“I felt at home straight away.”
Harris was also energized by the new singer’s arrival, stating a few years later that it was a crucial turning point for Maiden: “When Bruce joined, his enthusiasm was incredible, it was what we needed so bad because the morale of the band was so low.”
It wasn’t plain sailing, though. With Dickinson taking charge of center stage, Harris felt pushed aside. The two would almost literally fight for the spotlight, nearly coming to blows backstage at Newcastle City Hall early in the tour. Smallwood had to physically separate them, with Harris yelling, “He’s got to fucking go!” But what Harris probably came to realize was that Dickinson took Maiden to a different league of presentation.
The Iron Maiden live experience had now become something else entirely. Dickinson would not only deliver on the new material, he’d do equally thrilling interpretations of Di’Anno era tracks like Phantom Of The Opera and Wrathchild, and the full two-hour Beast On The Road set in 1982 was a tour de force.
But the difference in the studio was no less significant. Di’Anno’s limited range could quite simply never have accommodated Hallowed Be Thy Name or Run To The Hills. These songs would never have existed.
SINGING A LINE, OR LIVING IT
Longtime producer Martin Birch emphasises Dickinson’s importance to Maiden’s evolution, and explains that the new singer gave chief songwriter Harris the opportunity and means to experiment and be more imaginative. Dickinson could do it all, whatever you threw at him, as the Beast album plainly demonstrates. The singer remembers the euphoria of listening back to the recordings as Run To The Hills took shape:
“The layered harmony vocals was such a colossal change for the Maiden sound. Our jaws dropped as we heard the rough mixes. There are some songs that you can feel in your bones will be huge.”
Indeed, Maiden had come a long way since Dennis Stratton got the yellow card for layering harmonies into Phantom Of The Opera on the first album. There was something about Dickinson’s energy and ability that made all of this much more palatable.
Producer Birch says: “Bruce’s was a voice that I could work with much easier. He had a much bigger range, and he could carry melodies where Paul couldn’t at all.” The legendary producer states the obvious, that Di’Anno never could have done it like Dickinson, and that The Number Of The Beast therefore became a historic turning point for Iron Maiden.
But was it easy? No. Dickinson remembers being worn out and utterly frustrated as he tried to deliver what the producer wanted on the intro to the title track. Furniture flew across the studio before Birch called a two-hour break, grinning at the agited singer.
” ‘Ronnie Dio had the same problem on Heaven And Hell,’ said Martin. My head, which ached, and my eyes, which ached, started to pay close attention. ‘He came with the same attitude as you. Let’s bash this one out. And I said to him, no. You have to sum up your entire life in the first line.’ Dimly, I started to see the difference between singing a line and living it. It was like Martin was a can-opener, and I was the can of beans. I thought I’d invented theatre of the mind, but Martin Birch had been doing it for years.”
Dickinson took the direction, knowing full well the incredible work Birch had gotten out of some of rock’s most legendary voices. As he returned to the microphone he lived the lines of Harris’ mesmerizing opening verse: “I left alone, my mind was blank. I needed time to think, to get the memories from my mind.”
A metal classic was born.
Iron Maiden would never have become anything close to the monster we know and love without Dickinson. The voice, immediately recognisable. The range, able to handle everything from Sign Of The Cross to Aces High with supreme mastery. The dedication, delivering everything from Charlotte The Harlot to Paschendale with perfect conviction.
If Bruce had sounded more like the clichéd 80s rock voices of singers like Joe Elliott, David Lee Roth or Mark Slaughter, Maiden would not have lasted the way they have. His voice was built on English 1960-70s singers like Gillan and Arthur Brown, which gave him a unique identity in terms of the 1980s. Combined with this, his quirky personality made sure things would never be dull, on or off stage.
And how about the songs he wrote or co-wrote? Just tick off how many of these you think of as essential Iron Maiden songs: Revelations, Flight Of Icarus, Die With Your Boots On, 2 Minutes To Midnight, Powerslave, Moonchild, The Evil That Men Do, and so on and on.
Singer. Songwriter. Frontman. Spokesperson. Bruce was, and is, irreplaceable. But after the success of The Number Of The Beast and the massive 1982 world tour, Dickinson found himself feeling depressed that he had already achieved his dreams: “I was in a great band, I’ve got a number one album, I’ve just done a world tour… What do I do with the rest of my life?”
This restlessness would often come back to haunt him, but at the dawn of Maiden’s classic era he never had the time to ponder it. The Maiden machine rolled on…
THE FINAL PIECE
Needle to vinyl. A slight scratching sound. Then: Tadada-dumdumdum, tadada-dumdumdum, tadada-dumdumdum, tadada-boom! Thus Iron Maiden opened a new chapter in their history, with the new drummer leading the way. The classic line-up was a reality. The golden age was unfolding, and Maiden were about to explode.
“That’s the fucking line-up.”
Doug Hall, sound engineer
In early 1983, as Iron Maiden faced the momentous task of recording a follow-up to the groundbreaking The Number Of The Beast album, they did so with a new drummer: Nicko McBrain.
McBrain had been playing with The Pat Travers Band and more recently the French band Trust, when the call came from Iron Maiden. Clive Burr had been asked to leave, and Nicko was asked to come and have a jam with the band. He was then promptly offered the gig, with Harris knowing that “he’d be the right man for the job.” Nicko’s reaction? “I was well fucking pleased!”
Not much later Nicko made his Maiden debut on a German TV show, where he had to wear an Eddie mask since Burr’s departure had not yet been announced.
In short order Iron Maiden were writing and rehearsing their new songs in the Channel Islands, before heading off to Nassau in the Bahamas to record McBrain’s debut Maiden album, Piece Of Mind. Featuring timeless classics such as Where Eagles Dare and The Trooper, along with equally impressive rarities like Still Life and To Tame A Land, McBrain’s first Maiden album was an instant classic.
“The best album we’d done up to then, easily.”
Once again produced by Martin Birch, Piece Of Mind marked the start of a period of stability for Maiden. The Harris-Murray-Smith-Dickinson-McBrain line-up would reach the top of the world during the 1980s, releasing 4 classic studio albums, 1 monumental live album, and traveling the globe on record-breaking world tours.
Iron Maiden had finally assembled the ultimate line-up.
But the McBrain case is very different from the Dickinson case. The singer replaced someone with an obviously inferior ability. The drummer replaced someone who still commands an enormous amount of respect from fans and critics, Clive Burr. His drumming on the first three Maiden albums was essential in creating the Maiden sound, and his powerful playing was the backbone of their live shows for three fundamentally important years.
So what did McBrain bring to the band that they couldn’t do without?
The answer lies in the reasons behind Burr’s departure. As the 1982 world tour dragged on, the drummer became less reliable, as recounted in this feature. In short, Harris was feeling increasingly frustrated by Burr’s lack of consistency, which the bassist attributed to too much partying.
Dickinson, the newest member of the band, has a different perspective when looking back. He claims in his autobiography that friction between Harris and Burr started to simmer during the Beast tour until it reached a point where Harris was dead-set on having Burr out of the band, not necessarily because of booze and drugs:
“It wasn’t about partying, or girls, because everybody was guilty of that at some time or another. ‘Artistic differences’ would be to overstate his creative input. The breakdown of the relationship between a drummer and a bass player is pretty fundamental, especially if the bass player also happens to be the principal songwriter and band leader.”
The bass player, principal songwriter and band leader on the other hand has stated that he came close to calling a halt to the 1982 US tour because the band was not functioning as well as they should be on stage. Burr was quite simply fucking up their gigs, in Harris’ opinion. Smith agrees with this, and the guitarist also claims that Burr was given numerous warnings, after which he’d pull himself together for a few shows and then fall apart again.
Dickinson seems to agree with the underlying problem: “Clive always regarded the Maiden set-up with a jaundiced eye, even as he was held in high regard by fans. […] Where we didn’t see eye to eye was in the intricate and often eccentric fills and time signatures dreamt up by Steve. […] Clive was Mr Outgoing off stage, but often Mr Approximate when it came to precision on stage.”
At the all-important dawn of the classic era, inconsistency would not be suffered, no matter what the root cause of the problem was. Iron Maiden needed a drummer who’d be completely tour-proof.
But, if Burr’s partying had been the source of his performance problems, what on Earth would possess Harris and Smallwood to hire the ultimate party animal, Nicko McBrain???
The answer could be that partying wasn’t really the cause of the Burr problem. What Dickinson today calls “self-fulfilling irretrievable disagreements” led to Burr being destructive on stage and to Harris simply not trusting his drummer anymore. And trust would be the basis of his relationship with Burr’s successor behind the kit.
Manager Smallwood first met McBrain at a party in New York, and says the first thing he thought was “lovely guy, completely mad.” The only thing to change since then is a slight addition to Smallwood’s estimation: “Brilliant drummer, lovely guy, completely fucking mad.”
The mad and brilliant drummer himself adds that he and Smallwood “actually met one another in a cupboard. It was one of those sorts of parties…”
The difference between him and Burr was the fact that McBrain would never let anything get in the way of his performance. Harris once talked about Nicko’s “reserve bag of energy”, trying to put into words how nothing that shakes Nicko up, or brings him down, can ever make a negative impact on a Maiden concert.
Whatever happens, Nicko delivers. Something Harris does not fail to appreciate. The bassist says that no matter what McBrain has been up to, “it’s never affected his gig.” The rest of the band can concentrate on their own tasks, and they never have to worry if their drummer is going to be alright on the night.
“I know he’ll be right on it the minute we step onstage,
and that’s priceless to me.”
Steve Harris on Nicko McBrain
Live on stage, Iron Maiden would simply never fail through any fault of their navigator Nicko McBrain. The pace and persistence he brought to the band would enable them to face any challenge thrown their way. Or, let’s just take it from longtime sound engineer Doug Hall, who beams at the thought of this line-up’s arrival: “Now they’re there, that’s the fucking line-up. I tell you, whoa. You wouldn’t want to follow this group on stage.”
In fact, this strength seems to have been forged before McBrain even played a gig with them, in the rehearsal rooms and studios where Piece Of Mind was created. It may be easy to forget this, but the way Maiden not only followed up Beast in 1983, but actually transcended it, is nothing short of mind-blowing. And it’s equally impressive how McBrain took up the mantle and sounded like he had never done anything but play drums in Iron Maiden.
Guest writer Adam Hansen highlights old flat-nose’s importance to Iron Maiden by discussing some of McBrain’s best live performances in this feature.
As Adam points out, it’s not just faultless reliability that is Nicko’s strong point. It might be easy to overlook the fact that McBrain’s drumming style is more playful and less regimented than Burr’s. The result of this is possibly a less intense but more sophisticated Maiden sound. Harris and McBrain holds the groove down in a manner which is usually not as frantic as the 1980-82 aesthetic (although McBrain can certainly go OTT in his pace sometimes), but just as precise. The obvious upside to this is the creation of sonic breathing room for the guitars and vocals to shine. Without this dynamic, Maiden would have been a different band.
“Nicko always had the chops and the technique, but in Maiden he really exploded, to the point where a lot of the stuff we did after he joined was then founded on his playing, all those busy patterns he does, displaying tremendous technique.”
It’s possible to argue that Iron Maiden might not have been as strong and long-lasting as they turned out to be, without the inimitable McBrain in the engine room. His 1983 album debut certainly ranks among the most assured and effortless ever for someone coming into an already established band.
As the World Piece Tour came to a halt in late 1983, Iron Maiden were on the brink of becoming the world’s biggest metal band. That throne would finally be theirs after the major efforts of 1984 and 1985, which you can read all about in our next history chapter:
But 1983 was a key year in the history of Iron Maiden. It saw them stabilize at the highest level by releasing one of their best albums ever with Piece Of Mind, successfully headlining everywhere including the USA, and settling on a top-notch line-up.
Nicko McBrain played a huge part in this:
Primary sources for this feature: Uncredited 1987 interview at MaidenFans.com, Run To The Hills – The Authorised Biography (Mick Wall, 2001), Bruce Dickinson – Flashing Metal With Iron Maiden And Flying Solo (Joe Shooman, 2007), The History Of Iron Maiden, Part 1: The Early Days (DVD, 2004), Classic Rock’s “Iron Maiden: Hope And Glory (Paul Elliott, 2011), What Does This Button Do? (Bruce Dickinson, 2017).