It’s easy now to take for granted how flawless Iron Maiden was in the 1980s, but even as they issued one classic album after another that decade I spent little time appreciating what a massive legacy the group was building. I was just enjoying the music, which is as it should be. But this is a Popdose Flashback after all, so now it’s all about historical context, baby!
1982’s The Number of the Beast established Iron Maiden not just as one of the premier groups in metal, but as an increasingly powerful commercial force as well. And yet on the eve of recording sessions for its followup, Piece of Mind, the band had yet another lineup change to contend with. Drummer Clive Burr left the band in December of ’82, making him the third member to leave the fold in as many years (following lead singer Paul DiAnno and guitarist Dennis Stratton).
Enter former Trust drummer Michael Henry “Nicko” McBrain, and the final piece of what most fans consider the greatest Iron Maiden lineup was now in place. With their new percussionist in tow, the band headed to Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas in January 1983 to begin recording their fourth studio album. (One sign of success — your record label is willing to pony up for a trip to the Bahamas to record a record.) Martin Birch also joined the sessions, making this the third consecutive Maiden LP he produced.
Released on May 16, 1983, Piece of Mind roars out of the gate with “Where Eagles Dare,” featuring an opening drum part and riff that has been stuck in my head for three decades. While I’ve always preferred Burr’s more nuanced approach to drumming, there’s no denying that McBrain brought a primal power to Iron Maiden’s sound that lifted them to arguably greater heights than on The Number of the Beast.
What strikes my ears immediately about this track and the entire album is the production and mixing. The Number of the Beast felt and sounded like it was recorded in a crypt. There was a very real sense of dread and menace on that album, which is largely absent here. What Birch and his team did was replace the gloom with a much more open sound. The instruments all crackle with an energy not heard on an Iron Maiden record before, and in the process the group’s keen ear for melody was brought to the fore.
That sound and that great songwriting peaked on the third song of Side A, “Flight of Icarus.” It almost cracked Britain’s Top 10 singles chart, and for good reason. This is just an unbeatable combination of riffage, production, and Bruce Dickinson’s soaring vocals.
The rest of the record is no less potent, although it isn’t quite as consistent as The Number of the Beast. Dickinson received his first official songwriting credits on the superb “Revelations” and “Sun and Steel,” a less essential but no less fun Side B track. Bassist Steve Harris’s compositions didn’t dominate quite as much as on the first three LPs, but he still hit scored big more than once. The Dune-inspired album closer, “To Tame a Land,” clocked in at more than seven minutes and became another jewel in Harris’s crown as one of metal’s finest epic song writers.
Then of course there’s the opening salvo of the second side — “The Trooper” — which was a fan favorite from the get-go and has been one of Iron Maiden’s signature concert numbers for thirty years. It stands as one of the band’s greatest achievements in my opinion, and rightfully belongs on any list of the greatest metal songs of all-time.
Lest you think I’m overlooking the deep cuts, let’s touch on them now. Right after the fire and thunder of “The Trooper” comes “Still Life,” which begins with a cheeky backward message delivered to all those who accused Iron Maiden of promoting devil worship. Up next are “Quest for Fire” and the aforementioned “Sun and Steel.” While neither is an all-time classic, I’ve always been fond of them and I think they work perfectly to set the stage for “To Tame a Land.”
In retrospect, however, perhaps one of the group’s two cover songs recorded during the Piece of Mind sessions would’ve kept the momentum going more. Those would be the Montrose rocker “I’ve Got the Fire” (the B-side of the “Flight of Icarus” single) and Jethro Tull’s “Cross-Eyed Mary” (the B-side of the single for “The Trooper”).
There are those who consider Piece of Mind to be Iron Maiden’s best album, and I can’t really argue with that. I may not agree, but I can’t argue. To support the record the band launched the World Piece Tour, which ran until the middle of December 1983 and totaled 139 concerts. The album and tour that followed only added to the incredible legacy I mentioned at the beginning of this post, but the next part of that story will have to wait until September 2014.