BEST & WORST: 2 Minutes To Midnight

2MinutesArtworkIt 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.

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Guitarist Adrian Smith wrote the music for 2 Minutes To Midnight, the first single from the Powerslave album in 1984. Singer Bruce Dickinson wrote the lyrics.

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

16 thoughts on “BEST & WORST: 2 Minutes To Midnight

  1. Merry Christmas and happy new year christer! I could go on at length about 2 minutes to midnight but I couldn’t really improve on your thoughts (I’d have LAD at number one though) so I’ll just send festive greetings. Hope you had a good one!

  2. Happy New Year, Christer! Great point re. Tony Newton/Steve Harris (I yearn for a Kevin Shirley/Roy Z/anyone competent re-mix of Live Chapter), and I generally agree with your 2MTM rankings, but the LAD version would be my no. 1. I just love Dave’s solo on it: melodic and fluid, and I prefer the less processed guitar tone. His more recent takes (1990 onwards!) on 2MTM, and all other classic era solos, have suffered from being more or less ‘Janicky’, i.e. scrappy with a tendency to unsuccessful improvisation. Having said that, I actually like Janick’s playing on the En Vivo 2MTM; he’s so much better when he slows down and isn’t doing that frenetic Blackmore impression. Adrian’s playing is masterful on En Vivo, it really is his album.

    Re. Adrian and tempo in the 80s, did he get his way with Phantom of the Opera? The version on LAD is rather stately.

    • Happy New Year, Ross! I suppose it was the post-1985 period that must have gotten on Adrian’s nerves tempo-wise. Up until and including Live After Death it’s good I think. (A couple of exceptions there maybe, like Revelations). Nicko’s first two tours with the band actually brought the tempos down quite considerably compared to Clive’s playing in 1982. But it’s clear by the time of Maiden England in 1988 that the tempos are at times OTT.

    • “Having said that, I actually like Janick’s playing on the En Vivo 2MTM; he’s so much better when he slows down and isn’t doing that frenetic Blackmore impression.” I hadn’t thought so clearly about the Blackmore comparison, but you really hit it on the nail there. I also enjoy Janick’s slower and more thoughtful playing. I recently watched their Rock in Rio 2012-13 concert. On Hallowed Be Thy Name I thought the beginning sounded similar to Adrian’s recorded or his 1980’s live solos, but by the end of it he was doing that very quick run high on the neck that doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere. It sounded very similar to the ending of his solo on Revelations on “Flight 666”. I don’t think his solos for what were Adrian’s have to be just like Adrian’s, but sometimes the “shredding” doesn’t even sound in the same key, sorry to say.

      • Good point about the Janick’s default fast soloing mode. I think he enjoys the out of control element, but the inevitable off-key finish is cringeworthy. I was hoping the new live album would draw on the best performances of the LotB tour, e.g. those rare nights when Adrian played the Revelations solo (e.g. first night in London), or when Janick took the solo and managed to stay approx. in key (second night in London).

      • I would also have preferred a different performance (or performances) for the Nights live album. Since there is no video, and the audience track sounds crap for most of the album, it makes no sense that the Mexico shows were picked because of the crowd. Bruce’s performance was much better in Paris 2018 for example. This is an example of Maiden (probably Steve mostly) picking particular shows because of how they felt onstage, which does not transfer to the listener.

      • @ Christer Bake Andresen: I suspect the rationale for choosing Mexico over other counties had more to do with money than with the energy Steve Harris felt on stage during that performance. South America is a fast-developing market, a region (especially Brazil) with a large number of people who have both an appreciation for classic metal and increasing amounts of cash to spend on music. I may be wrong in my assessment, but I don’t think the titles Rock in Rio, En Vivo, the Mayan-themed Book of Souls, and now the Mexico-themed Nights of the Dead are a coincidence.

  3. Great read and insight. I would like to see more of it for other songs that make frequent appearances on live releases such as NOTB, Hallowed, The Trooper, and Fear of the Dark. NOTB, would be a good one, since there have been some bad recordings of that particular song on live releases.

    • Thanks, that’s kind of you. When time allows I’ll keep going through the history of Maiden.

  4. The Book of Souls: Live Chapter is the exception to the rule that Tony Newton’s live productions are inferior to Kevin Shirley’s. I recall many reviewers on Amazon saying that the live album sounds better than the studio album, and that they wished Tony Newton had produced the studio album, as well. I don’t know how well Tony Newton would have performed in the studio, but I agree that the live album sounds amazing and just as good, if not better, than the studio counterpart.

    On the topic of “2 Minutes to Midnight,” I think Live After Death had the best version, sonically speaking. Although I am conflicted regarding the dark, compact overall sound and the somewhat fizzy guitars, at the same time, I really like the warmth that that is missing from Kevin Shirley’s production on all instruments. With the exception of The Final Frontier, which has too much uncontrolled low end in the guitars, Kevin’s production typically has a very hard midrange in the guitars, which I find a bit one dimensional and unrefined. The reason for this is probably twofold: To make the albums more audible in cars, where much of music is consumed today and to give them an edgier and modern aesthetic that will also appeal to the American market.

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