BEST & WORST: McBrain’s Live Performances

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What would an Iron Maiden live show be without the man that drives the band? Join us for a celebration of the one and only Nicko McBrain.

Maiden Revelations recently had a look at the BEST & WORST of singer Bruce Dickinson’s live performances. Now guest writer Adam Hansen scrutinizes the live work of Iron Maiden’s powerhouse engine, and picks his TOP 5 live performances by dear old flat nose.

BEST & WORST OF MCBRAIN’S LIVE PERFORMANCES
by Adam Hansen

The band’s all packed up and gone home to the four corners of the world, but the recently-ended Maiden England World Tour is still resonating with fans. Hugely successful, the past two years have seen Maiden’s already astronomical global fanbase grow by leaps and bounds.

Despite this, we diehards always manage to find little things here and there to criticize. All setlist and stage production issues aside, one of the most hotly debated Maiden England topics has been the tempo of the songs.

Adrian Smith has stated (most notably in the History of Iron Maiden Part 3 featurette on the recent Maiden England ’88 DVD) that the speeds at which the band were playing in the mid to late ‘80s were “choking the life” out of the songs. In addition, Bruce Dickinson was tripping over the words in many tunes which were already quite hard to sing at normal speed.

(Continues below pic!)

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Nicko in the engine room during a concert on Iron Maiden’s recent Maiden England World Tour, a global adventure that saw the band hold back on tempos compared with their 1980s performances.

Now, we here at Maiden Revelations don’t like to point fingers, but one Nicko McBrain can certainly be said to hold partial responsibility for such breakneck deviations from the album tempos. Indeed, the sticksman himself has mentioned several times that he “can’t play the songs at those tempos and make it work” anymore, as the band need to be more aware of pacing.

Whether he is merely being diplomatic to Adrian, telling the truth, or somewhere in between, one thing is for sure: Nicko’s playing on the Maiden England tour has been…different. Wasted Years sometimes got close to falling over backwards, and The Trooper had Bruce (used to decades of fast vocal delivery) spitting out the words faster than the band were playing! Some numbers sounded brilliant though: The Evil That Men Do packed a heavier, meatier punch, and Bruce could finally get all the words out in the chorus of Seventh Son of a Seventh Son!

We think Nicko may be on to a winner here, but he isn’t always quite so on the money. With that in mind, let’s check out Nicko McBrain’s BEST & WORST live performances, starting with the TOP 5!

5) The Trooper (Live After Death, recorded 1985)
I must be upfront here; I’m not a fan of Live After Death. I don’t think anyone in the band is in particularly fine form, especially Bruce. However, Nicko shows a surprising amount of restraint and control on this rendition of a live favorite. In fact, they’ve played it faster and much looser in recent years! Nicko’s drumming on the ’85 version is tight, controlled, and more faithful to the original than any subsequent official release. Not to mention, he throws in some pretty impressive improvised fills leading out of the initial vocal breaks and into the second verse.

4) Be Quick Or Be Dead (Live At Donington, recorded 1992)
Boasting poor audio production, lackluster vocal delivery, and some sloppy playing, this release is generally unpopular with your average Maiden fan. Despite this, it contains some fantastic musical moments. Be Quick Or Be Dead, the opening track, is the ultimate expression of Nicko’s wild side; if anything, it’s the one song where he can play as fast as possible and get away with it.

There is also an incredible fluidity and control to his ride cymbal work and drum fills, helping keep the song in the groove as it teeters on the edge. Nicko pushes the tempo just enough here, and doesn’t let the song get away from him. Ghost notes and syncopated cymbal/snare hits remind us that Boomer got his start as a jazz/blues rock drummer, emulating the likes of the greats Joe Morello, Buddy Rich, and John Bonham.

The Donington 1992 performance is a controversial part of Maiden’s concert video pantheon, and it will soon be re-released on DVD.

3) The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Flight 666, recorded 2008)
This has always been one of my personal favorites drum wise, because it contains so many different feels. Nicko’s pulse keeps the band driving forward through the initial sections of the song, his drum fills somewhat simplified from the original version. However, unlike some with modern interpretations of classic Maiden, Nicko’s omissions and changes to the song do not detract from it at all. In fact, this allows the band to settle into a heavier groove. All the important fills and hits are still there, they’re just slightly less frantic and skittish.

2) Sign of the Cross (Rock In Rio, recorded 2001)
In my opinion, this whole album is the pinnacle of Nicko-ness: the perfect amount of unbridled speed, an absolutely deadly right foot, and machine-gun fire drum fills that make your hair stand on end. In Sign of the Cross, Nicko’s slightly off-kilter acceleration and deceleration of the tempo conjures visions of the Mighty Maiden as a massive battlecruiser, loaded to the brim with heavy armor and weaponry. It may not turn on a dime, but it’ll do a complete 180 if you give it time.

This track is the epitome of REAL heavy metal drumming. It’s moody, it’s heavy, and it’s not perfect. But dammit, there’s something so refreshingly real about the way the drums sometimes lag behind the guitars, or get ahead of the bass.

1) Where Eagles Dare (Ullevi, recorded 2005)
What Nicko-related list would be complete without mentioning this song? From the thunderous arrival of the opening tom fill to the last, rapid-fire snare drum hits, Nicko owns it. And he should, because it was this very tune that announced to the world back in 1983 that a new man was behind the kit in the world’s greatest heavy metal band, and he was here to stay.

Click here to read more about the importance of Nicko McBrain’s arrival at the dawn of Iron Maiden’s classic era!

Nicko keeps it locked in and groovy, unlike the breakneck speeds at which Eagles was played on previous tours. Despite being a great, crowd-pleasing rocker, it’s also a triumphant celebration of everything Nicko: bombastic, single-pedal madness, head-bangingly good grooves, and epic, rolling fills that are nearly a mile long, all of which manages to compliment the other instrumental and vocal parts, and never gets in the way of the song.

So, what’s the worst of Nicko’s performances…?

It’s hard for me to find examples of truly terrible performances by Nicko, because even if he’s having an off night he can still pound out the basics and make the songs sound decent. It’s usually when he gets carried away and tries to do too much in too small a space that things go awry. That being said, I’ll give you my three least favorite live performances by the oldest, tallest current member of Maiden:

3) Revelations (Live After Death, recorded 1985)
Nicko, what were you thinking? Talk about choking the life out of a song… if there’s any Maiden tune that needs breathing room and a simple groove it’s this one. However, right from the drum entrance the song is far too fast. On top of that, the annoying little crash cymbal/hihat fills during the guitar lead around 1:20 make it seem like Nicko is getting bored. There is too much going on here that isn’t necessary, and the tempo turns what was a thoughtful, sensitive song into something almost laughable.

2) The Prisoner (Maiden England, recorded 1988)
Again, Nicko’s wandering sticks get the best of him. The intro to The Prisoner is probably about as simple as they come (excluding Run To The Hills). Nicko interprets this by throwing in a load of big tom fills and playing it way too fast. The song never really settles down, and doesn’t have the same weight it did when Clive Burr was still in the band. Happily, this is one of the tunes that benefited greatly from Nicko’s restraint on the 2012-13 Maiden England tour.

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Bruce complains to Nicko that his tongue hurts, on stage during the very speedy Seventh Tour Of A Seventh Tour in 1988.

1) Wasted Years (Maiden England, recorded 1988)
When Nicko plays a simple groove, he sometimes has the tendency to speed up. I can’t think of a better example of exactly the kind of playing Adrian was complaining about than this one. During the guitar break before the solo, he tries to rein Nicko in to no avail, and the song ends up back in the upper stratosphere as H does his best to keep up during his solo. This song is one I will always skip, because it embodies perfectly the tempo issues Maiden was having in the ‘80s, and simply has none of the soul and passion that made the studio version so catchy and different.

Like a fine wine, Nicko seems to (mostly) get better with age. His newer, more groove-oriented approach to playing live has complimented some fantastic live releases (Rock In Rio and Flight 666 spring to mind), and serves the songs even better than their original drum parts in some cases. However, as evidenced by a few flubs and weird moments during some recent Maiden England shows, this new, super-restrained way of playing may not be the best direction for the band to take.

Part of the reason Nicko’s playing is so special is that fine balance between solid, driving rhythm and off-the-wall improvisation. Achieving a good balance of those two elements is what makes a Maiden show click. Hopefully, now that the band has had a chance to settle in to the new way of doing things, those little extra touches of madness will once again become a part of Nicko’s repetoire.

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The great Nicko McBrain and his ever-present mascot, a teddy bear that has been a close witness to all the developments of Nicko’s drumming through the decades.

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51 thoughts on “BEST & WORST: McBrain’s Live Performances

  1. I don’t really like how “nice” and “clean” he sounds on the Premier drumsets… I prefered his sound when he used sonor which sounded way better and stronger IMO…

    • I’m no expert, but it seems to me that changes in production technology would account for the change in drum sound over the years. When did Nicko play Sonor and when did he play Premier?

      • I think he turned to Premier in X factor cause one of his friends that had a high position in Sonor got fired or retired or something….

      • Nicko played Sonor until 1993, when he switched to Premier because Sonor got sold off to a new investor.

        The main differences in his sound come from the fact that his Sonor kits had very thick beechwood shells. His Premiers are fairly thin maple shells, which produce a much different sound. In addition, Nicko switched from clear power dot heads to coated heads on his Premiers, because they respond better to that kind of drumhead.

        Honestly, there are some examples out there of both his Sonors and Premiers sounding great (Sonors on SIT, Premiers on RiR) and terrible (Sonors on NPFTD, Premiers on DOTR). Plus, there are a whole host of other variables to account for in each case: microphones, mic placement, tuning, humidity, the size of the room, if Nicko ate enough for breakfast, etc.

  2. I think he plays a Premier Signia in Raising Hell, so he made the change at least as early as 1993. Has he been playing that ever since? I certainly don’t think the drums on Virtual XI sound “nice” and “clean”, whereas the Sonor set he played on Fear Of The Dark certainly does. So I’m still leaning towards recording technology having as much to do with it, or more.

    • He played the Signias until the Death on the Road tour, because Premier discontinued them and replaced them with the elite series. I should also add that while his toms are maple his kick is a maple/birch blend, for an increase in attack and bottom end.

      • He’s still with Premier, but he’s playing the Elite Series. Not quite as good as the Signias IMO, they lack a bit of punch.

        My favorite looking (and sounding) kits of Nicko’s are his Sonor Phonic Plus Hi-Tech (from Somewhere In Time/On Tour) and his Blue Premier Signia from BNW Tour.

  3. Loving Nick is very easy. Loving his drumming, well…not so much. To me, he seems to play very creatively and instinctively, but I’ve never considered him a “great” drummer, especially when he would get excited and play faster like a pubescent kid looking at a Playboy.

    I am in total agreement that although time has definitely agreed with his musical growth, I also wonder if the discipline may have muffled his personal style. Regardless, whatever he’s doing, the rest of the band seems to jive with and that’s what really matters, I think.

    • I have no doubt that he’s a great drummer. Listening to his studio work, and the way he compliments the guitar parts and lyrics with little extra touches is evidence enough for me. He’s got great chops, and he doesn’t overuse them. I will agree though that live, especially in the 80s, he has a tendancy to get carried away.

      • Nicko is a great drummer and many of his peers and great younger drummers agree. However, you are right when you say that he was too frantic and skittish live in the 80s/early 90s.

  4. @Adam: Brilliant info further up here! Thanks for sorting out what kind of equipment he’s used at different times. And it makes sense what you say, that loads of technical issues will dictate the drum sound, and thus both Sonor and Premier have sounded good and bad at different times. Excellent info!

    • On a side note: Has anyone noticed that sometimes he seems to have great troubles with the altering 4/4 and 5/4 in The Number of the Beast? On a lot of live clips it seems that he really has to work his way back into the groove.

      • Torgrim, at what point in the song does that happen? I’d like to listen out for it.

        It reminds me that my drummer friend and I went to see Nicko recording his video (Rhythms of the Beast?) twenty-odd years ago. Someone asked Nicko if he could play two time signatures at the same time I think, 3/4 and 4/4. Nicko said it was impossible and invited him up to the front to have a go. The audience member managed it… Also, my mate asked Nicko to break down the intro drum licks to Black Bart Blues. Nicko couldn’t remember(!) and asked my mate down the front to have a go and remind him. My mate (who later had half a career as a metal drummer) got a bit shy.

      • It’s nothing compared to Bruce’s complete inability to sing 7/8 on Brighter Than A Thousand Suns… 😀

        The players in Maiden are not the most technically sophisticated in the business, that’s for sure.

      • HAhahaha, yeah, Bruce’s grasp of 7 is a little, shall we say, ambiguous. IMO, I’ve never thought Nicko had any real trouble with odd times. I think NOTB is just a case of him trying to do too many fills and added licks in a small space.

  5. I absolutely love BTATS, and I tell myself that the awkwardness of the time signature and Bruce’s straining across it is symbolic of the unnaturalness of the atomic bomb and therefore all intended to reinforce the theme of the song. By which time The Pilgrim has usually started.

    • Bruce even has a tendancy to get about an eighth note ahead on a few other songs that aren’t even in odd times (namely Paschendale). I’ve actually noticed in the past couple years that his rhythm live has been a little bit questionable on most tunes, compared to 1999-2005

      • @Adam: You can actually notice this on some songs on Rock In Rio too, Ghost Of The Navigator comes to mind. My interpretation is that he does it out of necessity, to get more room to breath. Which is perfectly understandable, and many singers do this in one way or another.

        @2Mins: Sinatra croons! He doesn’t sing along to a metal band in 7/8. It’s clear that Bruce’s … “interpretation” of BTATS … is due to him not being able to follow the 7/8 timing. 😉

      • Funnily enough, when promoting “A matter of life and death” and discussing the Steve-Bruce ongoing dispute between melody or lyrics first, Steve said that ‘Brighter than a thousand suns’ was one the songs where he won and got Bruce to sing the melody he had written (I guess in the same time signature)!

  6. Christer, I think the comparison has a little validity… They are/were both storytellers in song. Bruce may struggle on BTATS (but I genuinely think that adds to the song), but on other songs he’s definitely drifting around the beat a little which emphasises the storytelling aspect. I also love the syncopation between his vocals and the rhythm section on The Alchemist, for example.

    • Yeah, on some tracks it’s done on purpose for effect. But when he alters songs live it’s quite obvious, to me anyway, that it’s often done to open up more breathing room between sentences. He often speeds up the end of sentences, which is a give-away for me as a singer anyway. And who can blame him?

      • Agreed, it’s not like he’s standing there, leaning on the mike stand with a whisky in his hand, night after night, is it?!

    • There are so many nuances to Nicko’s playing that get lost in the final mix. Ghost notes, triplets and little fills here and there, great work on his ride, etc.

  7. So weird to hear Nicko playing such a straight-forward version of Hallowed Be Thy Name. Sticks almost entirely to Clive’s drum line and tempo.

    • Interesting…I’m sure most of us are most familiar with Nicko’s live after death version, with that radical action after the guitar solos, but before the twin harmonies.

      Clive plays the entire song on the hi-hat, however, whereas Nicko is on the ride over the guitar solos, then back to the hi-hat for the harmonies and out. But you’re right, very straightforward version for Nicko, and I wonder when the version we hear on LAD came to….life.

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  9. My all-time worse Nicko pick is the studio version of ‘Caught Somewhere in Time’. He lives on the ride cymbal for almost the entire song, even when the song cries for a switch back to the hi-hat, e.g., when the song goes back into the main riff after the guitar solos. It’s completely lacking in dynamics, and now nearly unlistenable. My best pick is, surprisingly, from the same album: ‘Deja Vu’. This song has a tremendous mix of dynamic hi-hat and ride action, and in my opinion, is his hi-watermark with the band.

    • That’s interesting. I know several fans who would hold CSIT to be one of their favorite Nicko performances.

      • He definitely has his ‘moments’ on CSIT – no doubt about it, but that’s true of most Nicko tracks. My issue is, that he’s on the high-hat for the 1st main riff, then switches to the ride for the 1st verse, and never goes back to the high-hat! He goes through the lead solos, then back into the to main riff, verse, bridge, chorus, outtro…all on the ride cymbal! Give it a listen some time, and once you notice, it really stands out. Especially not returning to the hi-hat for the main riff after the break. It’s almost as if it was a mistake but left alone.

        Also, the triplets on the bass drum are only sometimes clear and audible. I understand the coolness of having them fully-linked with Steve’s bass line, but to me it just sounds inconsistent muddy.

        But to be sure, there are some EPIC fills in that song, and that snare interlude right before the lead solos is one of the record’s finest moments. That’s what’s frustrating about Nicko, though, is that it’s sometimes SO good, and other times not.

        Thanks for taking the time to talk about it with me! I could discuss this stuff all day long, but there’s usually not willing counterparts…I’m sure you know what I mean. I’m glad I found this blog! Cheers.

    • I love his work on Deja Vu! Not a huge fan of the song, mainly for its lyrics, but Nicko really brings it to life.

  10. @euguene: It’s not that I haven’t noticed that he’s on the ride all through the song, but that’s not uncommon with Nicko. Songs like The Trooper and Aces High had no hi-hat. I remember thinking back in the 80s that this was a little strange. These days I’m just used to it.

    • Interesting, I hadn’t noticed that on Trooper or Aces High. Back to SiT, though, it DOES have massive hi-hat action on Heaven Can Wait, the verses of ‘..Long Distance Runner’, and of course Deja Vu (which I consider to be his finest overall)….

      • There’s no doubt we’re talking about one of the greatest ever drummers!

  11. One thing that bothers me about Nicko’s drumming (out of very few, believe me) is the way he plays Two Minutes to Midnight live these days. He shows great technique and precision for sure, but he changes the tempo WAY too much… really overdoes a song that shows on its studio release a really amazing combination of swing and power through its steadiness. If anyone watches the Rock in Rio and Flight 666 versions, they’ll know what I’m talking about. I think his Live After Death version is much more spot on: very steady, heavy, and contains a groovy drive. His footwork in that version is also beautiful.

    Regardless, even though I am not a drummer myself, I love Nicko’s drumming. It’s a perfect combination of technique and expression that only he seems to be able to pull off. I am not saying he’s the best in the world, he does make mistakes and does not always have the best-sounding beats, but his work is crazy unique and, when done right, impresses me consistently. That’s the same way I, as someone who can sing, feel about Bruce.

    • Completely agree with you about both Nicko and Bruce! But it’s funny, I personally think 2MTM sounds way better now than in the 80s. Particularly the versions on Flight 666 and En Vivo! sit really well with me, drumming-wise and everything else. 🙂

      Speaking of Nicko and mistakes: On Flight 666 Steve and Kevin decided to use a version of Ancient Mariner where Nicko makes a really funny mistake in the bridge leading into “THERE goes the Mariner…” Almost drops the ball completely! 😀

      • No way! I wasn’t the only one who though I noticed he was somewhat off beat. His drumming in that performance is otherwise rock solid.

    • I should also mention in response to the author’s worst performance pick that there’s something about the way
      Nicko plays The Prisoner that somehow… appeals to me. True, Clive Burr’s playing on the song, both in the studio and live, just sounded better and had more weight than Nicko’s (hard to sound exactly like the almighty Clive!), but the sped-up intro actually sounds a bit cool, aside from the fact that there is probably a little too much splash cymbal action going on. I love when Nicko hits the toms at about 14 seconds into the performance, it carries a really interesting groove. After the intro, he throws in some awesome fills and gives a really cool performance of his own that shows his ability to really groove. Maybe he overplays, and while I do prefer Clive’s playing on that song, I don’t think The Prisoner from Maiden England is a really bad example of his drumming.

      • Clive’s studio version is great, his live version I never liked that much. A bit too aggressive. My personal fave is Nicko’s 2014 version.

      • That version is amazing, I agree! Slowing down adds so much weight, and I like how Nicko adds the galloping triplets to the intro 🙂

      • I don’t mind Clive’s aggressive style too much, it’s one of his trademark styles in my opinion. One thing I do mind, though, is that sometimes his timing gets sloppy. That’s not to say that perfect timing and proper technique are far more important than creativity, but Nicko achieves both for me 🙂 No disrespecting Clive though, he was awesome.

  12. @Cris: I agree, that 2008 Mariner performance is killer. But it’s hilarious when he stumbles through the final fill and just barely makes it into “THERE goes the Mariner…” 😀

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  15. “Revelations”? Really? You must be the only person in the world who prefers the speed of the original. I love Piece of Mind, but I literally have a playlist which is that album with Revelations substituted for the Live after Death version.

    • I can’t speak for Adam, but personally I prefer it the way it’s been performed since coming back in the post-2000 period. Which is slower than the Live After Death version.

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