When punk rock first hit the scene in the mid to late ‘70s, it appeared to draw a line in the sand, and longhaired metalheads and spiky-haired punkers had to remain on their respective sides. But eventually, certain bands became bold enough to combine both styles together, including Motörhead, Venom, and early Iron Maiden — especially the latter’s classic self-titled debut album from 1980.
Granted, Maiden would soon transform themselves into more of a traditional heavy metal band, and erase most of the “punk” from their sonic equation. But in 1980, punk’s attitude was still well on display within the grooves of their debut recording. And one of the most obvious reasons for this was because their singer at the time, Paul Di’Anno, was a shorthaired punk rocker.
Originally formed in London circa 1975 by bassist Steve Harris, Maiden would endure countless lineup changes for the remainder of the decade, but in the process, also built a rabid following, issued a popular self-released recording (1979’s The Soundhouse Tapes) and aligned themselves with the fast-rising New Wave of British Heavy Metal — which also included the likes of Def Leppard, Saxon, and Diamond Head, among others. But by the time they inked a deal with EMI in the UK and Harvest/Capitol in North America, Maiden’s lineup consisted of Di’Anno, Harris, the twin guitar tandem of Dave Murray and Dennis Stratton, and drummer Clive Burr.
If you are only familiar with “the Bruce Dickinson era” of Maiden — especially their studio recordings post-1984 — you could quite possibly be tricked into believing that their debut was by another band entirely. While Dickinson could get quite operatic at times, Di’Anno’s vocals sound like a punkier Bon Scott, while lyrically, the “Di’Anno Maiden” seemed to focus more on streetwise lyrics. It was only later on that Maiden would eventually expand their song structures and tackle broader lyrical topics… which admittedly, could border on Spinal Tap territory at times (“Alexander the Great,” anyone?). But certain trademark Maiden elements could already be detected at this early stage — especially their Thin Lizzy-esque twin guitar harmonies and galloping bass lines.
To oversee the recording of Iron Maiden, the band enlisted producer Wil Malone, who supposedly was hired due to the fact that he had done an arrangement for Black Sabbath (the song “Spiral Architect,” off 1974’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath), and set up shop at Kingsway Studios in London. When interviewed for the book Iron Maiden ’80 ’81, Malone recalled that the “street punk” vibe of the material also spilled over into the studio.
“The one thing that sticks in my mind is that when they had a disagreement between themselves, they’d fight each other and roll around on the studio floor, fighting — which is behavior I hadn’t seen since I was at school,” remembered Malone. “Which is quite eye opening. Apart from that, the sessions were good sessions. They played well. It was a small studio, with a very large underground car park. And the equipment wasn’t very good. But we managed to get through it, and we did all the tracks in about ten days — which is very fast for an album.”
The album’s tracklist would be slightly altered depending on region, but going by the “1998 remastered release,” Iron Maiden would kick off with a breathless one-two punch of “Prowler” (which contained a nifty guitar riff drenched in wah) and “Sanctuary” (a tune that deals with being on the run from the law…a theme that “Di’Anno Maiden” would return to several times), before taking the tempo down a bit with “Remember Tomorrow.” Although Harris penned the majority of the songs on the album, “Remember Tomorrow” was one of the few tunes to be co-credited to the bassist and Di’Anno.
And it turns out the song’s meaning had a special meaning to the singer. “That was about my grandfather,” explained Di’Anno. “I lost him in 1980, when I was on tour. He was a diabetic and they cut his toe off, and his heel, then he lost his leg from the knee down, and he just sort of gave up. But the lyrics don’t sort of relate to it, to be honest with you — just the words ‘remember tomorrow.’ Because that is what he always used to say – that was his little catch phrase. ‘You never know what is going to happen, remember tomorrow, it might be a better day’ sort of thing. So I just kept it in, and that was it.”
Up next was the album’s first single — and the second and final song on the album co-penned by Harris and Di’Anno — “Running Free,” which kicks off with a now-classic drum beat by Burr (while only appearing on three Maiden albums, he did compose an impressive amount of classic/instantly recognizable song-opening drum beats, including “Run to the Hills”), and once more, lyrics about being on the run from the law. Wrapping up side one of the LP version would be the album’s mega-epic “Phantom of the Opera,” which would serve as a preview of things to come (“Hallowed Be Thy Name”, “To Tame a Land”, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, etc.).
Side two continues the metal mayhem with one of Maiden’s best instrumentals, the oft-overlooked “Transylvania,” before again taking the tempo down a notch, with the ballad “Strange World” — which remains one of Di’Anno’s best vocal performances on record. Then finishing off the album are a pair of tunes that are decidedly light-hearted in the lyrical department — “Charlotte the Harlot” (penned by Dave Murray) and “Iron Maiden” (with such oh-so-sunny lyrics as “I just want to see your blood, I just want to stand and stare, See the blood begin to flow, As it falls upon the floor”).
And while there is no denying that the debut was pretty bloody brilliant from start to finish (not a dud detected in the bunch), what really put the whole enchilada over the top was the striking album cover artwork by Derek Riggs — which featured a headshot of the band’s viciously homicidal/seemingly immortal mascot, Eddie.
“Maiden was so masterful at the way that they were able to really market themselves — right from the get-go — with the album covers and the imaging of Eddie and all that,” explained long-time Maiden fan and radio host Eddie Trunk. “You’ve got to remember, I was a kid at the time. Most of us were kids. And that is a very powerful thing, to see something like that — this drawing of this monster. It starts to conjure up stuff in your head, like, ‘Hey, what’s the story with these guys? What are these guys about?’ There was just a great imagery there. And then of course, this thing came out [on stage] with the mask on and became more elaborate over time. I think that as great as the music is on the record, that’s a big part of the Iron Maiden story, that you can’t brush under the carpet – there was almost this imagery about the band, right from the get-go, driven by the fact that this character, this mascot, was on the cover of every one of their records.”
Upon its release on April 14, 1980, in the UK (a bit later in the US), Iron Maiden was a smash hit in their homeland (peaking at #4 on the UK album charts), while the rest of Europe was introduced to the band when they landed the opening spot on Kiss’ tour of arenas and large halls later that year — as well as a show-stealing performance at the Reading Festival. But it would turn out to be the only Maiden album to include Stratton (who was fired after the album’s tour had wrapped, and replaced by Adrian Smith), while Di’Anno would only stick around for one more album (1981’s equally as brilliant Killers), before being replaced by Dickinson.
Despite not registering on the US album charts — probably due to the fact that the band did not begin touring the States until album #2 — Iron Maiden has aged marvelously, and has served as an obvious influence on what would become known as thrash metal. All you have to do is listen to the early works of the “Big 4″ of thrash (that would be Metallica, Anthrax, Slayer, and Megadeth), for all the sonic proof you’ll ever need.
Guess Di’Anno wasn’t kidding when he sang “Iron Maiden’s gonna get ya, no matter how far” — the album continues to inspire this deep into the legendary band’s career.
Pick up Iron Maiden’s debut album on vinyl and other formats at Reverb LP.