Once you delve into the music inside that garishly designed package, what you hear is a young, fiery band hitting the ground running. Five years is a long, long time for a band to go from inception to first album, but that extended period in which to gestate, to hone that sound, to tighten it up by playing show after show, worked wonders for the East London crew. By the time the band was ready to record that first album, they were primed, quickly completing it in 13 days.
With the original UK pressing clocking in at 37 minutes, by far the shortest album in the discography, Iron Maiden is lean, ferocious, and despite the band's dislike of the production -- Will Malone is credited as producer but the band says they were essentially left to do the bulk of the work themselves -- it sounds wonderfully gritty, straight out of the gutters of lager-soaked, blue-collar Leyton and East Ham. Just like 1979's The Soundhouse Tapes demo EP, the album kicks off with "Prowler," but this time around the tempo is picked up drastically, with more bite in the band's performance, and more menace in Paul Di'Anno's singing. Playful and cheeky, Dave Murray's "Charlotte the Harlot," the only solo composition the guitarist would contribute to the band, shows a seedier side of the band that they'd downplay in subsequent years. The single "Running Free," meanwhile, is a Di'Anno tour de force, as the frontman is in full thug mode, exuding arrogance atop Clive Burr's Gary Glitter-derived rhythm and Harris's lively bassline. Di'Anno was always most at home when singing the band's more abrasive material, and "Running Free" is his defining moment as a metal singer. Interestingly, the single "Sanctuary," a brilliant, savage little tune originally written by former guitarist Rob Angelo that was released a month after the album came out, was left off the original UK pressing but included on the North American version that same year. And for good reason, too, as the song is an early Maiden classic, one that remained a live staple for a long time.
For all that grit on the record, Iron Maiden most importantly lays the groundwork for the future sound of the band, the progressive side that Harris was always most keen on developing more. "Remember Tomorrow" is an extraordinary piece, an exercise in heavy metal dynamics that captures that ebb and flow of mellow and powerful perfectly. "Strange World," by contrast, is strictly a mood piece, but sublimely executed. It's the timeless "Phantom Of The Opera," however, that sets the stage for a decades-long career. The best track on the album, Harris's seven-minute piece is chilling, wrought with tension and menace, Di'Anno leering and looming, the guitars by Murray and Dennis Stratton intricate and searing. Stratton's contributions cannot be underestimated, either, especially on these more prog-oriented tracks, as he came up with the bulk of the guitar harmonies and vocal harmonies, not to mention singing the backing vocals on "Phantom Of The Opera" himself. Unfortunately he was less enamored of the band's harder-edged material, and would leave the band in the fall of 1980.
And what of "Iron Maiden," that peculiar calling card that the band has never neglected to perform as the climactic conclusion to their concerts? It remains Harris' strangest song, not making very much sense lyrically, built around a weird riff and even weirder syncopation. But that whole mess somehow works, dammit, and epitomizes a stupendous album that the most significant, game-changing debut since Black Sabbath ten years earlier. These five young Cockney blokes cast their gaze beyond their dinky little island of a country and set their sights on the rest of the world. In just less than two years they'd be well on their way.
Rivaled only by Black Sabbath and Judas Priest in regards to influence and impact on the early development of heavy metal, Iron Maiden took the burgeoning musical style to a new and very unique level, starting in the UK in the late-1970s, and soon after, all over the world. Formed in 1975 by bassist Steve Harris and gradually rising within the country’s nascent heavy metal scene that would come to be known as the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, the band developed a clever hybrid of gritty heavy metal that reflected their East London upbringing and a strong progressive-rock tendency, with UFO and Jethro Tull serving as important signposts.
Built around twin guitar harmonies and Harris’ uniquely melodic upper register basslines, Iron Maiden took the flamboyance of Judas Priest’s landmark Sad Wings Of Destiny and brought in more energy, more aggression, more intricacy, which was immediately apparent on the band’s self-titled debut album in 1980. Thanks to some key lineup changes — the additions of singer Bruce Dickinson, guitarist Adrian Smith, and drummer Nicko McBrain solidified the “classic” Maiden lineup alongside Harris and guitarist Dave Murray — shrewd marketing that future metal bands would copy for decades, and visionary management, the band would quickly become one of the biggest acts in the genre in the mid-1980s. However, that’s only one third of a remarkable story. The 1990s would be as creatively and commercially dismal as the 1980s were successful, but the band would rebound in an astonishing way in the 2000s with a series of strong albums and groundbreaking world tours. Today, with a new generation having caught on to their timeless music, the band is more popular globally than they ever were before, one of the biggest moneymakers in the music business.
Like any other band that’s been around for well over three decades, it’s easy at first to separate the good albums from the worst, but with Maiden it quickly becomes an interesting conundrum when it comes to ranking them. The fact is, as sterling as their reputation is, there is no such thing as a perfect Iron Maiden studio album. Either an album has at least one little bit of gristle, or just isn’t as prime a cut as others, which is why when you ask longtime Maiden fans to name which album is best, you’ll likely get some strong differences in opinion. The fun thing about Iron Maiden is that the music means so much to people, that the fans’ choices of their favorite is often the first Maiden album they ever heard. For yours truly, a fan of 30 years and counting, that’s Powerslave; it is my personal favorite Maiden album, hands down. But it’s not their best, and the challenge of this massive list, which has been months in the works, has been to remove all sentimentality and assess this band with a strictly objective critical ear.
Will certain rankings ruffle a few feathers? Knowing the passion of metal fans, most likely (sorry kids, “Fear Of The Dark” is a terrible song). But the great thing about lists like these is that they provoke discussion, and there’s no better discography to dissect, celebrate, criticize, and discuss than that of the greatest heavy metal band that ever walked the earth. Okay, now that’s my personal bias speaking. Enjoy. Start the Countdown here.
Postscript: Because there will be some nitpicky fans that will likely demand to know why the live releases aren’t ranked in detail, here you go.
1. Live After Death (1985)
2. Rock In Rio (2002)
3. En Vivo! (2012)
4. Beast Over Hammersmith (2002)
5. Maiden England ’88 (2013)
6. Maiden Japan (1981)
7. Flight 666 (2009)
8. BBC Archives (2002)
9. Death On The Road (2005)
10. A Real Dead One (1993)
11. Live At Donington (1993)
12. A Real Live One (1993)