A new decade dawned and Iron Maiden set about maintaining and developing their status as one of the world’s premier hard rock bands. The challenge would be tougher than anyone knew at the time. The 1990s had arrived.
It’s been over 25 years since Adrian Smith left Iron Maiden and Janick Gers joined in his place. More than 25 years since Maiden entered the 1990s with a line-up change, a new album, and a new sound.
Why did Maiden take a musical left turn after the worldwide success of Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son? Why did their first 1990s album sound so different when everyone in the band was happy with the final album of the 1980s? Why did Adrian Smith leave the band? How did Janick Gers come to join in his place?
These and other questions will be discussed in this instalment of our series on the history of Iron Maiden, and it will be put in the context of 5 major CHANGES that swept Maiden in 1990.
…AND WILL I TRANSCEND?
In late 1989 Iron Maiden gathered at the release party for the Maiden England concert video. Celebrating the end of Maiden’s incredibly successful 1980s period, the video featured the band live on stage at the climax of the Seventh Tour Of A Seventh Tour, powering through a set of already classic metal material from their first seven studio albums.
The full tale of Maiden’s triumphant finale to the 1980s is told in our previous Feature Friday article on Maiden’s history:
If anyone at the release party had any sense that Iron Maiden were about to enter a period of changes, they probably didn’t have a clue quite how massive those changes were going to be.
The band had arranged to meet up in January 1990 to start work on their first album of the new decade, but they would face their first 1990s challenge almost as soon as the first chord was struck…
GOING SOLO, part 1
At the time of the Maiden England release party in November 1989 Iron Maiden had enjoyed their first ever year off from band activity. Bassist and band chief Steve Harris had spent the first half of the year editing the new concert video, while two other members of the band had immersed themselves in adventures that were to impact Maiden’s development in ways that no one involved had originally intended.
Guitarist Adrian Smith had spent his time off from Maiden forming the band ASAP (an acronym for Adrian Smith And Project). He had wanted to do something outside of Maiden for a while, and ASAP was built on the one-off side project Smith and drummer Nicko McBrain had put together in late 1985, named The Entire Population Of Hackney, designed to stave off boredom in the hiatus following the massive 1984-85 World Slavery Tour.
The 1989 ASAP music that resulted from all this was definitely not derivative of Smith’s writing in Iron Maiden, but no one should have been too suprised to hear the guitarist take a different direction.
Adrian had thoroughly enjoyed the experimentation of the previous two Maiden records, Somewhere In Time (1986) and Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son (1988), and the fact that Maiden picked up on stuff like Wasted Years and the eventual single B-sides Juanita, That Girl and Reach Out encouraged him to take his explorations further.
”That’s when I started making demos of material that Maiden wouldn’t have been interested in. Up till then, I would tend to discard ideas unless they were obviously gonna work for Maiden.”
A risky inclination, perhaps, as fan favorite Wasted Years would have stayed in the pile of unfinished not-for-Maiden ideas unless Harris had heard it by accident on Smith’s idea tape…
In any case, Smith’s new diligence in working up non-Maiden tracks resulted in a batch of completed songs, the formation of the ASAP band, and the recording of Silver And Gold (1989) in London with producer Steven Stewart Short.
Maiden manager Rod Smallwood was enthusiastic about the material and the notion of Smith doing a solo album that would cater to his more ”commercial leanings”, as Rod put it, and maybe even provide a hit in America that would reflect well on Maiden. So it’s something of a paradox that when Silver And Gold was released in September 1989 it immediately tanked and quickly disappeared from view.
”It wasn’t metal enough for metal fans, and the fact that I was in Maiden didn’t cut any ice with the potential new market. It was a non-starter, commercially.”
One would think that Smith was made aware that the best place for him to be was in Iron Maiden, but the process of getting on with Maiden business would be more complicated than merely wanting to be there, as we shall see…
GOING SOLO, part 2
At the same time as Smith’s exploits, singer Bruce Dickinson also happened to make his first solo album, as the result of a series of coincidences. Harris had been asked by Maiden’s publishing company Zomba if the band could contribute a new track to the fifth instalment of the A Nightmare On Elm Street movie franchise, but he was busy with the Maiden England video. Harris passed and the request was put to Dickinson instead, who jumped at the chance to do something solo.
”[When Rod asked if I had] anything kicking about, I was, like, ’Yeah, definitely!’ You know, lying.”
Bruce had to scramble. He cooked up a song and decided to call an old mate: Janick Gers, a guitar player formerly of White Spirit and Gillan who was down on his luck and considering selling his gear. Would Janick want to do the track with Bruce for a bit of fun and a bit of cash?
“I went ’round to see him and he brought out this song that sounded AC/DC-ish, and I said, ‘Nah, it wants to be more like…’ So I put the chords in and then we re-did the chorus. He was trying to get away from the Maiden sound, so he was very open to ideas.”
Around this time Dickinson would hear Gers’ collaboration with former Marillion singer Fish, the track View From The Hill on Fish’s first solo record Vigil In A Wilderness Of Mirrors. The Maiden frontman thought to himself that “Fish is mad to loose this guy. He can really write as well as play.” What Fish threw away, Bruce could pick up and play with.
After delivering his Janick-fueled debut solo song, Bring Your Daughter…To The Slaughter, the singer was happy to learn that Zomba loved the track and wanted more. Voilà, an album project! Dickinson threw Gers another lifeline and the two of them went about writing an entire album in one mad rush, working in Gers’ front room in London’s Hounslow suburb. They assembled a band and recorded the songs with producer Chris Tsangarides in Battery Studios in the summer of 1989.
The resulting album was the pastiche-fest Tattooed Millionaire, released in the spring of 1990. Dickinson is clear in retrospect that it was never intended as anything more serious than a good time with mates, and absolutely not as a statement of artistic ambition beyond Maiden.
”Tattooed Millionaire didn’t really fullfill any passionate longing. It was just a rock’n’roll album … I think if anybody was going through a phase of trying to do something deeper, it was Adrian, not me.”
Dickinson had not intended to fill his year off from Maiden with any kind of musical activity, prefering to focus on fencing and other interests. These ”other” interests had come to include authoring novels, a pastime he’d taken to a few years earlier on the Somewhere In Time tour.
“We’ll be on a plane and while I’m reading a book, he’s bloody writing one!”
This eventually resulted in the publishing of The Adventures Of Lord Iffy Boatrace in 1990. As with his solo album, it was never designed as an alternative to continuing with Maiden.
Even so, many observers thought the singer might jump ship at the time of Tattooed Millionaire, and Harris was one of them: ”I actually said to Rod, ‘I hope he doesn’t fuck off and leave us in the shit, ’cause at this stage to find another singer would be very bad news!’”
That sentiment would come back to haunt the bassist a few years later, but at the time Dickinson assured Harris that he was still 100 per cent into Maiden, and he insists to this day that he was very happy to return to his day job for their first 1990s adventure.
But now what? Stormy seas lay ahead…
NO PRAYER FOR ADRIAN
Iron Maiden set up shop at Harris’ Essex mansion in January 1990 to write their first album of the new decade. The plan was to take more time writing than they had done in the past (through January, February and March), and then start recording the new album at London’s Battery Studios in April.
For Smith this was a very positive thing, as he felt strongly that more time for writing would be important to the band’s development. But Maiden’s songwriting had always been swift, and with the longest ever gap between albums to that point most of the band was extra geared up to get going.
Harris and Dickinson both had a bunch of ideas to bounce off each other, and the pair sat down to work. Harris boasted of their pace: ”When we got together for a writing session one day we ended up putting together Tailgunner, Run Silent Run Deep and Holy Smoke all in one day!”
Smith on the other hand was slow in getting going, only coming up with Hooks In You in the first couple of weeks. He wanted and needed more time to build new ideas and construct songs, something the original plan would facilitate: ”The plan was to spend three months writing together at Steve’s,” Smith recalled years later, ”taking our time and getting a vibe going.”
But the burst of creative energy between the singer and the bassist yielded CHANGE #1 – a stylistic shift, an intention to go back to basics, back to a street-level sound, making a kind of anti-Seventh Son album. Smith was taken aback by this left turn.
”The vibe was, ’Let’s go back and make a really raw-sounding album like Killers,’ and I didn’t want to do that. I thought we were heading in the right direction with the last two albums. I thought we needed to keep going forward.”
With a handful of songs done in record time, Harris and Dickinson agreed to ditch the original plan of writing for three months in Essex and then recording in London in the spring. The new idea was to call in producer Martin Birch at once and get a mobile recording unit to tape the band in their rehearsal room. Smith felt devastated by the change of plans, later stating that he was ”completely thrown by the idea.”
But with Harris and Dickinson in agreement about the direction of the music and the method of recording, there was very little Smith could do to alter the course of proceedings. The singer was fired up by the quick and energetic approach that resembled the way he had recently created his first solo album.
”I was as responsible as everyone else in saying: ‘Oh yes, let’s go and do it in a barn with a fucking antiquated recording mobile.’ ”
At the time, Harris’ enthusiasm was obvious: “Originally we were going to do it at Battery Studios in London in April, but we were ready early. And we were so fired up we thought, fuck it, let’s do it now, let’s get a mobile in.”
Despite Smith’s misgivings, Birch and the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio were called in. According to Harris, the band had rehearsed four songs with Smith at that point – Hooks In You, Holy Smoke, Public Enema Number One, and The Assassin.
Recording got underway, and Harris and McBrain put down the basic tracks for The Assassin. But it became obvious that the Smith situation was unbearable. CHANGE #1 led directly to CHANGE #2, the departure of Adrian Smith from Iron Maiden.
The build-up to this point can be traced from the end of Maiden’s classic era, when Smith became unhappy with the exaggerated tempos of the band’s live performances. He clung to the wish and hope that their sophisticated late 1980s material could be given more room to breathe on stage, but now his love for that material was also being negated by the band’s new direction.
”Adrian seemed really negative about a lot of things. He just didn’t seem to have the passion anymore.”
A meeting was called and Smith was challenged to explain what was going on in his head at the time, like the guitarist later recalled: ”I said, ‘Well…’, and took a deep breath and went on for about an hour, talking about how I felt.”
Smith insisted he was still happy to contribute to Maiden, despite having enjoyed his solo project, but he was very unhappy that the new recording plan left him little chance to actually do so.
”It all happened over a couple of agonising days. There were lots of long phone calls. It was all very emotional.”
Bottom line: Smith disagreed with the musical direction for the new album, wanting to continue down the road that had been travelled in 1986-88. He was also put off by the change of plans that interrupted the writing process they had agreed to beforehand. And he must surely have been dreading a year on the road when he was unhappy with both the new direction and with the band’s live performances of the period.
It was a reluctant parting of the ways that was pushed into effect by Harris, who probably believed that the most important thing was to keep Maiden’s energy going, not allowing the shark to stop moving.
Dickinson later admitted that Smith ”wasn’t fired but he didn’t quit entirely willingly … He sort of agreed to leave.” Smith told Harris that he was 90 per cent into it, and the band chief replied that only 200 per cent would do. Smith yielded.
“He clearly wasn’t happy with the current state of affairs, but I don’t believe he wanted out; he just wanted to make it better.”
However, a myth did take form in the wake of Smith’s departure – that he wasn’t interested in metal music anymore. Harris did his part in promoting this notion, saying at the time that “I think maybe that was why Adrian wasn’t into some of the new material, cos it was far more on the heavy side this time around.”
The idea is somewhat perplexing, as it’s hard to argue that Maiden’s new songs in 1990 were heavier than Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son. But Smith was aware that his ASAP record had “perhaps sent the wrong signals to the band in some way, like they were worried that I wasn’t into doing metal anymore.”
It certainly became the default explanation at the time, in papers and magazines, but it wasn’t true. In any case, it was the end of the road for Smith with Maiden at a critical point in the band’s history. He was out.
Was it right…? Was it wrong…? It’s easy to see Harris’ point of view about wanting all members of the band to show the necessary fire and dedication. But what about the other point of view? Let’s be honest:
Adrian Smith was expected to be as excited about the new direction and the record-it-at-once-on-a-mobile-in-a-barn strategy as everyone else, but in essence he had been blindsided: The band didn’t stand by their plan to write for three months to develop their first 1990s album, and once the big discussion came, the mobile and Birch were already there and recording. Adrian’s argument was that they shouldn’t do what they were already doing…
THIRSTY WORK, MAKING HOLY SMOKE
The severely amputated writing schedule threw things up in the air. Even if the band had wanted to get a real studio at that point, they probably couldn’t have done so on such short notice.
In effect, Harris and Dickinson championed a last minute rethink of a carefully planned year of activity, and found themselves without a proper studio for recording and with one guitarist less to do the work.
To solve problem number one, get a mobile studio! Luckily for Maiden, Martin Birch was semi-retired at that point and worked only for them. Which meant he could be called in on short notice. The legendary producer was not enthusiastic about the mobile solution…
”Martin Birch suggested that we do the album in a proper studio, but everybody was like, ‘No, no, no, this’ll be really cool.’ And Martin did the best he could.”
To solve problem number two, get Janick Gers! Harris thought the Tattooed Millionaire guitarist might be exactly the person Maiden needed: ”Good guitar player … Great onstage … Good bloke.” With no time to lose, Dickinson called Gers and asked him to learn The Trooper, Iron Maiden, The Prisoner and Children Of The Damned.
”I got a phone call one afternoon from Bruce. He said, ‘Would you learn some Maiden numbers?’ The first thing I said was, ‘No,’ because we’d agreed we wouldn’t do any Maiden numbers.”
Dickinson explained that Maiden were in fact hoping to replace Adrian Smith with Janick Gers, and the prospective Maiden guitarist turned white as a sheet… Gers auditioned the next day, suggesting that they start by blasting through The Trooper. It was a done deal right away, as Gers recalls: ”The whole thing just took off. When we finished, I was shaking with the adrenaline, and I remember Bruce saying, ‘Shit! That sounded incredible!’”
CHANGE #2 had led to CHANGE #3: Janick Gers was the new guitarist in Iron Maiden. Recording commenced immediately and was completed in about three weeks. Gers worked in a very different way from his predecessor, as Harris explained: ”Recording with Janick is interesting. You have to get him in one or two takes, otherwise it just isn’t happening for him, that’s how he is.”
Which suited the new Maiden ethos, didn’t it? Birch worked his magic as best he could on the mobile unit and later mixed the album at Battery Studios. The first Maiden record of the new decade would be titled No Prayer For The Dying and released on October 1 in the fall of 1990.
The band launched their new campaign by heading out on a UK tour of smaller venues, another one of the back-to-basics efforts of 1990. And indeed, the new-look and new-sound Maiden seemed to fit theaters better than they would arenas.
In what might have been a natural reaction to the big productions of the 1980s they made CHANGE #4: Dropping the pyro and the elaborate sets in favor of Marshall stacks and simple lighting.
”We thought the Seventh Son stage show just got a bit out of hand, and we just wanted to get away from all that and turn everything into a massive club gig again.”
It was certainly what many music journalists were asking for at the time, that Maiden abandon their 1980s fantasy style and get more realistic. In the early 1990s a Metal Hammer writer confronted Dickinson, stating that Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son was “confused” and that the tour was “pantomime”. Dickinson agreed:
“Yeah, I think you’re right. That was a flawed album and the tour was too much. We forgot about the music.”
So Maiden plotted their course for the 1990s by making an effort to de-Tap, although it could be asked if walls of Marshalls were any less Spinal Tap-ish than the earlier thematic productions…
Maiden’s story, in short, is that they thought their late 80s stage shows were overblown and that they had seen the error of their ways. Quite simply, toning down was the right thing to do, artistically.
BUSINESS OF THE BEAST
However, could there be something else behind all this? Maiden are in the music business, after all. And what would be the business consequences of halving their US record sales and slicing their concert attendance too?
This is precisely what happened in 1988, while Maiden were still touring with an excessively expensive production:
Co-manager Andy Taylor, Smallwood’s life-long partner in crime and Maiden’s deeply respected business guru, has been open about the state of Maiden’s affairs as the 1990s dawned: “In the late 80s we had a couple of tough years, but we worked it out and came out the other end.”
Cue a home studio and a bare bones stage production…
But why did Maiden make a considerable musical change from 1988 to 1990? The question is somewhat puzzling in light of how strongly the band felt about Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son. Harris is on record time and again saying it’s one of his absolute favorite Maiden albums, and Smith left the band partially because they abandoned that direction.
Dickinson was outspoken back in 1988, stating that ”with Seventh Son I think we’ve shown the way for heavy metal in the 1990s.” But in 1990 the Seventh Son style was exactly what the band tried to get away from, as they seemed to agree with music writers that they had gone wrong in 1988.
How did it all turn out?
The single Bring Your Daughter…To The Slaughter, somewhat perversely released on Christmas Eve 1990, gave Maiden their first number one hit in the UK, which Harris took as a sign that Maiden’s change of direction was the right thing to do: ”It just made me feel excited again, like it really was all worthwhile, like a vindication that we must be doing something right.”
In truth, the single’s chart success probably depended greatly on the cynical move by EMI and Smallwood to release a whole host of different editions that would all be purchased by loyal fans around the UK. But in any case, it seemed that Harris had a desire to escape the Seventh Son aesthetic, despite his love for that album. How come? At the time he gave a simple answer:
”I think some of our fans were disappointed in the musical orientation we had taken lately, so I think they’ll be happy we’re going back to a more aggressive and powerful style.”
Does this mean that Harris actually took to heart the decline in American sales, and that he bought into the tendency of some journalists to write off Maiden’s late 80s as “confused” and “clichéd”? It actually seems so. In which case the new album was at least a semi-conscious effort to regain their American cool. If the kids wanted more aggressive music, Maiden would be more aggressive.
As Dickinson stated in retrospect, the notion was definitely to make a kind of anti-Seventh Son album, the very sentiment that put Smith off and out of the band.
”The idea was to do something that was the opposite to Seventh Son. And the idea was to do something that was very street, very happening and something that was gonna sound good. The fact is that it sounded terrible and everybody kind of acknowledges it now … As far as production was concerned, it’s my least favourite album of all.”
Even Harris conceded that ”For me, it didn’t quite come off.”
CHANGE #5 was evident as Maiden hit the road to support No Prayer For The Dying, particularly in America in early 1991: A clear decline in interest, smaller audiences and smaller sales. Seventh Son had nearly halved the American sales of Somewhere In Time, and No Prayer halved it again compared to Seventh Son.
In other words, the change of musical direction did nothing to arrest Maiden’s falling star in America, and it merely maintained the status quo in the rest of the world. Harris would probably tell you that he never cared about sales, but wasn’t the change of style a direct response to the audience’s wishes and the journalists’ acid? Surely Maiden hoped to rectify something with No Prayer For The Dying, but failed to do so.
It was a new decade, thrash metal was already big, with bands like Metallica and Slayer leading the charge. And the grunge wave was brewing, about to deliver a suckerpunch to the music scene with bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.
But could it not also be the case that many people simply found Maiden’s new music less interesting than the older stuff? In all honesty, does No Prayer For The Dying hold a candle to Powerslave (1984)? Was it the changing times that hurt Maiden, or did they fail to deliver the goods?
The declining fortunes of Iron Maiden were signs of things to come. The 90s had started, and Maiden’s challenges had just begun…
Sources: Kerrang! No 306 and No 307 (September 1990) and No 388 (April 1992), Metal Hammer No 20 vol 5 (September-October 1990) and No 8 vol 7 (August 1992), A Conversation With Bruce Dickinson (1996), Run To The Hills – The Authorised Biography (2001), Classic Rock 33 (November 2001), The Guardian: “Rock by numbers” (May 2003), Bruce Dickinson – Flashing Metal With Iron Maiden And Flying Solo (2007) Kerrang!: Maiden Heaven (2014), What Does This Button Do? (Bruce Dickinson, 2017).