Back in the mists of time, long before Iron Maiden became a reality – let alone a world conquering phenomenon – bassist and founder member Steve Harris was in a band called Gypsy’s Kiss. Maiden fans will surely have heard Steve briefly talk about the band during the excellent Iron Maiden ‘Early Years’ documentary, but few would have suspected they’d actually get to hear them.
Iron Maiden’s second album ‘Killers’ was released in the UK in February 1981, just ten months after their debut LP. Not so much “born into a scene of angriness and greed, dominance and persecution” as born of haste following EMI’s request for a speedy follow up, it was a “second album” in almost every conceivable sense. Faced with the prospect of having to deliver a new product amid relentless touring, they looked to their archive of already written material and plundered it for all it was worth. Years of honing their sound on the road and the fact the debut included just eight tracks, they found themselves in the fortunate position of having a cushion of material – and while it’s sometimes obvious why some of the tracks were not considered first division material when compiling the debut, Maiden’s “leftovers” were still strong, with some tracks having already become firm fan favourites by the time Steve Harris and company re-entered the studio.
As the 1990s dawned and Iron Maiden entered their second decade as recording artists, their eighth studio album presented the band’s first real misfire. Sure, 1981’s ‘Killers’ may have used of a lot of leftover material but it had a lot of heart, but ‘No Prayer For The Dying’ (released in October 1990) is the first Maiden release that could be considered bad. Maybe that’s harsh. To put it another way: it is one of those albums which sounds solid enough at first, but dig a little deeper and repeated listens show it to be generally unremarkable. And obviously, compared to Maiden’s previous heights – following a decade where the band could barely put a foot wrong – that’s not so good. Since its predecessor ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’ offered especially memorable material in ‘Infinite Dreams’, ‘Can I Play With Madness’ and ‘The Evil That Men Do’, it didn’t seem like too much of a leap of faith to expect ‘No Prayer…’ to deliver a similar standard of goods, but most of the album sounds genuinely flat by comparison with any of its forebears.
In 1995 the Iron Maiden catalogue was made available as special edition CDs. These briefly available “special editions” didn’t really live up to expectations – each had a bonus disc containing a handful of b-sides that almost every Maiden fan already owned. They were nice to have, especially for those missing a few items in their collections, but hardly special by any stretch. In 2002, the albums were reissued as “definitive remasters”, this time without bonus discs and with an extra track inserted into the running order of the first three releases. Hardly definitive – and to add insult to injury, the sound on these reissues (presumably okayed by Steve “Bomber” Harris) appeared compressed and not always sounding as good as any of the previous issues.
When Iron Maiden headlined the UK leg of the Sonisphere Festival in 2011, it was a distinctly underwhelming experience. Not only were the band too quiet, but since they had a new product to promote (that year’s workmanlike ‘Final Frontier’ album), the setlist represented the rest of the ‘Final Frontier’ tour in that most of their near two hour set was culled from material from the band’s three most current releases. For those who’d never seen the band before, or the more casual admirer who’d have liked to hear a few more classics, the set was a colossal misfire. Sure, when you’re a band headlining your own ticketed gig at a large venue, the audience is your audience, they’ll go along for the ride no matter what; but a festival audience is an entirely different beast – much more demanding. From halfway through Maiden’s set on that particular occasion, people were leaving in droves, wandering off with casual indifference.