It is one of the all-time greatest Iron Maiden classics, and there has been no less than seven official live versions. To celebrate Maiden’s new live album, here is the best and worst of 2 Minutes To Midnight.
When guitarist Adrian Smith came back to Iron Maiden in 1999 he made a point of arguing about tempos. According to a recent interview with Chris Jericho, Smith used 2 Minutes To Midnight as an example of a song that did not work well with Maiden in the 1990s, because it was played too fast.
One could easily argue, as the below ranking does, that it also failed to work properly when the co-author of the song was not in the band to play it.
It is no secret that Smith argued about tempos back in the 1980s too and got nowhere with it. Even so it’s obvious that 2 Minutes To Midnight turned into one of the most important Iron Maiden songs of all time.
We thought we should dig into it now that yet another officially sanctioned live recording is available for fans to buy on Nights Of The Dead, Legacy Of The Beast: Live In Mexico City. So here’s our ranking of the seven live album versions of the song that have been released from 1985 to 2020:
7. Live At Donington
Produced by Steve Harris, 1993
In the mid-1990s, bassist and owner Steve Harris took over Iron Maiden’s recordings when producer Martin Birch retired. The first sign of where this would lead was the batch of 1993 live albums that included Live At Donington, a recording of Maiden’s Monsters Of Rock appearance in England in the summer of 1992. Let’s just say that Harris’ mix left a lot to be desired, and 2 Minutes To Midnight was one of the casualties:
Painfully exposing the lack of musical sophistication that the Adrian Smith-less 1990s line-up of Iron Maiden suffered from, this is a tough recording to revisit. The tempo edges over the top, being the antithesis of what Smith wanted for his music, and the poor mix leaves the band’s energetic performance rudderless. This is simply the worst of 2 Minutes To Midnight, in a year of disappointments.
6. A Real Dead One
Produced by Steve Harris, 1993
A Real Dead One, released the same year, features a 2 Minutes To Midnight recorded in Paris, France that is just barely preferable to the one in the bottom spot. The mix is nearly identical, but the tempo is slightly slower, even if almost imperceptibly so. This gives the track a tiny touch of added groove, something the adrenaline-fueled Donington performance lacked:
The band was still in trouble, however. Janick Gers had replaced Adrian Smith in 1990, and the new guitarist’s enthusiasm and energy could not make up for the loss of musicality that came with Smith’s exit. The opening riff lacks weight and groove, the solos lack melody and precision, there are no backing vocals, and once again Harris’ production is bewilderingly primitive.
5. Nights Of The Dead, Legacy Of The Beast: Live In Mexico City
Produced by Tony Newton, 2020
A considerable step up from the 1990s, it is still telling that Maiden’s most recent live recording sits this low in the ranking. The chief reason for this is the production in the hands of Tony Newton, who by the evidence seems to be Steve Harris’ mixing proxy and nothing more. For the second time in a row, as they did with The Book Of Souls: Live Chapter in 2017, Maiden drop regular producer Kevin Shirley, and the result is an unpleasant sonic landscape reminiscent of the 1990s:
The saving grace is the fact that this line-up of the band is awesome. The presence of Adrian Smith, riffs and solos and backing vocals galore, and the groovy rhythms of Harris and drummer Nicko McBrain make this the first 2 Minutes To Midnight on our list that can easily be given repeat listens.
4. Rock In Rio
Produced by Kevin Shirley, 2002
At this point it becomes obvious that one can fairly safely pick Maiden live recordings by the name of the producer. Rock In Rio from the Brazilian mega-festival was Kevin Shirley’s first live album with Maiden, and the comparison to Harris and Newton’s Nights Of The Dead is overwhelming:
The tempo is still a little faster than what Maiden would settle for a few years later, and there is cause for frustration that Janick Gers still plays the opening riff. On the other hand, check out the solo section where Dave Murray opens and Adrian Smith takes over, leading into a breakdown where all three guitar amigos blend into the first live recording of that beautiful harmony line before the riff returns.
Older fans knew it back then, this is more like it. And new folks became fans because Rock In Rio delivered what should be expected of the best metal band on the planet. The Blaze Bayley era of Maiden was never likely to receive the live album treatment, but from 2000 and beyond there would be many.
3. Flight 666
Produced by Kevin Shirley, 2009
Shirley returned for Flight 666, an album that features many of the greatest live performances ever captured of the band, including a killer 2 Minutes To Midnight from Melbourne, Australia. The opening riff is back in Smith’s hands, the drums and bass roll like thunder from the speakers, and the tempo is groove-perfect for a latter-day mature Maiden performance:
By this point, as Maiden concluded their first decade since reuniting with Smith and singer Bruce Dickinson, a new playfulness also started creeping into the performances. This was apparent in the guitar interplay, and also in the rhythmic fills and flourishes of McBrain and Harris, the latter exemplified by the ending section of this live version. Maiden had by now reached a sense of strength and confidence that found its perfect match in Shirley’s audio treatment.
We are certainly getting close to the best of 2 Minutes To Midnight.
2. Live After Death
Produced by Martin Birch, 1985
There was only one Martin Birch, and the Iron Maiden sound would never have existed without him. In 1985 Maiden released their first live album, the undisputable classic Live After Death, which included the version of 2 Minutes To Midnight that undoubtedly ensured the song’s status as a live favorite:
Recorded at Long Beach Arena, California on the Powerslave tour that awed the world in 1984-85, this is an example of the classic Maiden line-up’s live power before their tempos soared in the latter half of the 1980s. Guitars and vocals alike benefit greatly from the more restrained groove, and Harris’ bass also comes nicely to the front in Birch’s mix.
Many would argue that there is no better version of 2 Minutes To Midnight, not even the original Powerslave recording from 1984. But we beg to differ at Maiden Revelations.
1. En Vivo!
Produced by Kevin Shirley, 2012
After the artistic and commercial high of the Somewhere Back In Time world tour and the Flight 666 movie and soundtrack in 2008-09, there was something anti-climactic about Maiden’s next adventure. Although the pre-album part of their The Final Frontier world tour in 2010-11 featured a defiantly modern setlist, for most of the tour the set was back to an overly familiar form. It was therefore a surprise to find that the arguably overplayed 2 Minutes To Midnight got its greatest ever treatment on the En Vivo! live album:
Everything works. The tempo and groove is perfect. The guitar riffs are thick and heavy. Bruce Dickinson’s perfomance is a career high. The mix perfectly captures all the power and nuances of a band on top form. Of special note is Adrian Smith’s confident and effortless riffs, fills and solos throughout the song.
In later years, 2 Minutes To Midnight was also featured in the 2012-2014 Maiden England World Tour, but that show sadly never got a proper live release. Of the seven available versions, the En Vivo! outing from Santiago, Chile gets our vote as the best of 2 Minutes To Midnight.
Are we wrong? Are we right? Have your say about the best and worst of 2 Minutes To Midnight in the comments below.