Iron Maiden released their first compilation album in 1996. But did Best Of The Beast serve to capture new fans, or did it simply shed a harsh light on the state of the band in the mid-1990s?
Best Of The Beast
Remastered by Simon Heyworth and Murray Harris
Released 23 September 1996
For a band with the artistic and commercial worth of Iron Maiden it seems that a “best of” compilation was overdue in the mid-1990s. But Maiden and manager Rod Smallwood might have missed the boat by waiting this long, and at the same time unwittingly shot themselves in their 1996 foot by highlighting Maiden’s proud history at a point when their current output paled in comparison.
This was at a time when Maiden’s record company had already reissued their CD catalog in 1995 with bonus discs, and slightly ahead of the 1998 remaster project that would dovetail with Smallwood driving a nail into the coffin of the Blaze Bayley era by convincing Steve Harris to take Bruce Dickinson back.
With the two-disc limited edition CD of Best Of The Beast Maiden went all chronologically retrograde by opening the album with a new song and working their way back through the years to the point of their mythical 1970s The Soundhouse Tapes origins. This was an entertaining approach for the rather serious Maiden fan, while it’s not likely to interest anyone else. The one-disc standard CD version catered to the hoped-for segment of non-hardcores that could be won over by a collection of most of Maiden’s singles plus Hallowed Be Thy Name.
After making, releasing and touring their first album with new singer Bayley, which you can read all about here, Maiden were typically self-assured and confident enough to open their double version “best of” with the new track Virus, a very bad video for which was shot in Harris’ empty swimming pool:
As the opening track is followed by then recent The X Factor (1995) material, Sign Of The Cross and Man On The Edge, the double version clearly doesn’t aim for the uninitiated. The single version on the other hand sets out to impress from the start with The Number Of The Beast, Can I Play With Madness, Fear Of The Dark and Run To The Hills, all certified crowd-pleasers.
Being an official “best of” collection from the mid-1990s period in which Steve Harris had complete control of all things Maiden, it’s safe to assume that this album is really the material that Harris thought of as Maiden’s best at that point in time. The song selection thus gives an interesting insight into Harris’ own view of his band.
While some tracks written or co-written by estranged singer Dickinson are indeed featured, the omission of his solo composition Powerslave (Maiden’s best ever title track, from one of their best ever albums) and his co-write Flight Of Icarus (their biggest US single ever) are telling. Not even the quadruple vinyl version makes room for any of these two, and that’s among a gargantuan 34 tracks. But the omission of Icarus from the singles-oriented standard edition CD is perhaps the most perplexing.
Put it this way, Maiden Revelations don’t completely agree with Harris about the best of Iron Maiden’s output. He also neglected to include the phenomenal Infinite Dreams from the Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son (1988) album, so it’s not only Dickinson’s work that suffers omission, but the former two tracks are highly conspicuous by their absence.
As you can plainly see, the 1990s artwork collapse continued with the several different editions of the Virus single. Although celebrated artist Derek Riggs’ cover artwork for the album at least evoked classic Iron Maiden illustrations, the mid-90s efforts to “update” Eddie for a new decade never failed to fail. This depressing trend would go on into the subsequent studio record Virtual IX in 1998.
As for what music is actually on this compilation album, there are a couple of surprises. One would scarcely expect the Powerslave (1984) classic Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, purely because of its length, and the rarely played Where Eagles Dare from Piece Of Mind (1983) is welcome, even if Dickinson’s Revelations would have made more sense. The conspiracy-minded can also ponder the absence from all versions of Children Of The Damned, a The Number Of The Beast (1982) classic that Dickinson co-wrote despite not being credited for it.
Harris makes an effort with the double CD version to cover every era of the band, including at least two tracks from every album except Killers (1981), which is only represented by Wrathchild. It’s inevitable that the weight of the band’s prolific 1980s makes it difficult for their 1990s period to shine, particularly the Blaze Bayley material that includes a live version of the Fear Of The Dark (1992) track Afraid To Shoot Strangers:
This compilation would be one of the last Maiden releases to feature original singer Paul Di’Anno, who has since had all his material replaced (like Bayley) by Dickinson’s live versions on later compilation albums. He appears here on the last few tracks of the two-disc limited edition. The biggest attraction of these are the songs lifted from The Soundhouse Tapes sessions way back in late 1978, including Strange World and Iron Maiden, and also Prowler and Invasion on the quadruple vinyl version.
Indeed, this is the only official Iron Maiden release to feature all recorded members of the band: Drummers from Doug Sampson, via Clive Burr, to Nicko McBrain. Singers from Paul Di’Anno, via Bruce Dickinson, to Blaze Bayley. And guitarists (alongside Dave Murray) from Dennis Stratton, via Adrian Smith, to Janick Gers. There is even a fair chance that Paul Cairns plays guitar on the Soundhouse tracks.
The Maiden family tree had grown tall by 1996:
It is possible that Harris (and to some extent Smallwood) saw Best Of The Beast as a way to clean house and position Maiden for a future ahead without baggage. The Bayley era line-up had settled, although not without problems when it came to live performances, and planned on making another studio album for release in 1998.
However, it was and remains difficult to listen to this compilation without acknowledging the Bruce Dickinson-shaped hole in their mid-1990s line-up. And that distraction serves to cover up another hole: that left behind by guitarist Adrian Smith when he left in 1990.
Unwittingly, Maiden highlight their own problems.
There is obviously a mass of great material on this album, but in retrospect it’s merely a curiousity to have subpar tracks like Virus and the live version of Afraid To Shoot Strangers on here. Moreover, the inverted chronology of the two-disc version never creates a good listening flow, and there are two or three obvious omissions that cannot be ignored.
Best Of The Beast is out of print and has been replaced in Maiden’s catalog by the more recent Somewhere Back In Time (2008) and From Fear To Eternity (2011). As an introduction to Maiden, Best Of The Beast is fair. As a summary of their 1980-1996 history it’s got some annoying flaws but is still comprehensive enough to be somewhat entertaining.
It is clear, however, that interested listeners could just as well put on any Iron Maiden studio album from the 1980-1988 period, where other great material is found and the featured compilation tracks also come into their own much better than here.
Christer’s Verdict: 3/6