In 1980 when Iron Maiden first emerged the British music industry was witnessing the dying sparks of both the disco and punk scenes and as the new decade dawned the public’s tastes would turn to the rising new wave and synth wave cycles. Yet among the drum machines and synthesisers the country’s hard rock was about to be revitalised with what critics would come to dub the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Spearheaded by newcomers Iron Maiden and also boasting such acclaimed artists as Motörhead, Diamond Head and Saxon, the NWOBHM would take elements of Black Sabbath‘s proto metal and the raw sensibilities of punk rock to create something that felt fresh and exciting.
While the band would ultimately become synonymous with their iconic frontman Bruce Dickinson, Iron Maiden had first emerged in the mid-seventies as the brainchild of bassist Steve Harris who, after an eclectic line-up change would finally recruit London-born vocalist Paul Di’Anno. Along with guitarist Dave Murray and drummer Doug Sampson, the band entered the studio to recording their debut EP The Soundhouse Tapes in the winter of 1978 and soon attracted the attention of EMI Records who wasted no time in signing the group. While their profile was further enhanced with the inclusion of two songs on the popular compilation Metal for Muthas, Iron Maiden joined forces with Black Sabbath veteran Wil Malone for the recording of their full-length debut.
Released through the label in April 1980, the nine-track record would include such early favourites as Running Free and soon became one of the most influential albums of the NWOBHM scene, laying the groundwork that the band would follow for decades to come. ‘I couldn’t have started a punk band, that would have been against my religion,’ Harris confessed to Sounds in how he had intended to defy the popular music trends of the day. ‘We found it hard to gig at first, but once we started playing at the Ruskin, we discovered we were able to pull in loads of people just like us who love heavy metal and don’t want to know about new wave. I went to see bands like Judas Priest and there were still thousands of kids into the bands, it was just that the press didn’t recognise it or write about it.’
Yet despite its important place in the history of heavy metal, many involved past and present with Iron Maiden have expressed their disappointment at the final result of their debut album. For Harris, the mastermind behind the band, he had hoped to recruit the services of a more experienced producer for the sessions, specifically Martin Birch who had already carved out a successful career through his work with Fleetwood Mac, Deep Purple and, most recently, Whitesnake. Ultimately Birch would be hired to record Iron Maiden‘s sophomore album Killers, leaving Harris feeling frustrated at the production of their first release, particularly with regards to the overall sound of the rhythm guitars that lacked the epic sound that the group had developed during their time on the road.
People thought Iron Maiden was a bit of a punk band because it sounds shit
Dickinson, who would join Iron Maiden following the departure of Paul Di’Anno in 1981, would also show little enthusiasm for the quality of the record. ‘Killers, in particular, is a favorite of mine. The sound on that album really was the sound that should have been on the first Iron Maiden album,’ he told the Irish Times. ‘In fact, Martin Birch, who produced the Killers album, Steve Harris wanted to use him for the first album but they didn’t approach him because they thought he wouldn’t be interested. Steve has always regretted the production on the very first album. It is not up to the quality of Killers. Ironically people thought Iron Maiden was a bit of a punk band because it sounds shit.’
For Harris, he felt one important aspect of developing the band would be to take their time and not rush into the studio to record their second album, instead further honing their skills while touring the world. ‘By the time we got to the second album we’d already toured Japan and done a couple of UK tours, we’d done a support tour with Judas Priest and another with KISS,’ he would explain to The Quietus in 2012. ‘We were ready for it. And that’s half the problem these days. You get a band with any kind of promise and they get shoved up to the front too quick and they don’t get chance to grow. They get things thrust upon them too early.’
In a new interview with Eonmusic, Di’Anno has given his own opinion on Iron Maiden‘s self-titled debut. ‘I love the songs, but can’t stand the fucking recording of it!’ he declares. ‘The songs are fantastic but to do it any justice, it would have to be re-recorded, not remastered, re-recorded. Wil Malone, I think he was Mike Oldfield’s triangle engineer or something! It pissed me off because it lacks; it’s like painting a picture that doesn’t give its full glory, because that album, the songs on there are absolutely stonking. As a first album it was brilliant but the production just let it down….We heard it overall in the control room and it sounded alright then, but when it’s pressed and mastered and put out. I think it’s all a bit too exciting and I think in the cold light of day a couple of days after we thought, ‘The production is not that great, is it?’ But it was too late to do anything about it then.’