Iron Maiden‘s self-titled debut turned forty this April 14. Forty years is but a decade shy of half a century, a long passage of time by any measure, one that has seen the world change beyond recognition, and yet this seminal heavy metal band soldiers on in the face of personal travails and the ceaseless churn of musical trends, both as commercial behemoth and a creative force not yet fully spent. It is an achievement of some magnitude and one I suspect even the band’s harshest critics don’t begrudge them: if there’s any band in the heavy metal canon that has well and truly earned their keep, it is Iron Maiden, and that on the back of a distinctively old-fashioned work ethic, one that acknowledges that inspiration may not always be a faithful ally, but that lasting contentment lies in turning up day after day and putting your best foot forward.
The first Iron Maiden has a uniquely playful quality about it, found only in the youngest of bands somewhat in awe of the incipient alchemy they suddenly find themselves capable of. Paul DiAnno’s voice is untrained and the band’s playing relatively unpolished, and while many of the attributes that would come to define the Iron Maiden sound – standard chord progressions, the triplet gallop, the bass guitar as conductor, and guitar harmonies – are already in place, the songs themselves are still a long way shy of the high-octane power metal of the coming decade, carefree and with a lilt in their step, the very analogue of riding a Schwinn down the street on a sunny day to find something a little more risqué in the dark alley around the corner. The vibe is celebratory like no other album in the genre, something the band would subsequently exchange for grander themes with the entry of Bruce Dickinson, leaving this snapshot at the intersection of adolescence and adulthood for successive generations to discover.
The songs on Iron Maiden are heavy metal standards by now, burned into fans’ memories as if their own identities. Episodic by nature, the simpler ones rush by, surcharged with the focused energy and attack of the NWOBHM, while the band’s fledgling progressive aspirations are expressed through a variety of textures and tempos. Colorful in imagery, too: ‘Prowler‘ and ‘Charlotte The Harlot’ hearken to a time of emerging male sexuality when ideas about the other half of the species are synonymous with little more than curves and orifices and acts of deviant promiscuity; the thumping ‘Running Free‘ is one of the great odes to reckless living, the possibility of ending up a drug-addled hobo in a pool of your own piss be damned; the softer overtures of ‘Remember Tomorrow‘ and ‘Strange World‘ are two sides to the same coin, gentle dreamtime insinuations of resurgence and fantasy, but the former in its alternating of dynamics set the template for the future classic ‘Revelations‘ and pretty much every worthwhile ballad to follow.
The essence of Iron Maiden, however, lies coded inside the instrumental ‘Transilvania‘ and the epic ‘Phantom of the Opera‘; together, their marriage of speed, narrative technique, folk sensibility, and musical theater thrust heavy metal headlong into a world of new possibilities, one where it didn’t have to remain constrained by the relics of the past, but could instead use its burgeoning syntax to create an identity all its own. All metal hitherto could tentatively be enjoyed by listeners of other music; Iron Maiden, and these two songs in particular, were niche, first and foremost, created by and for a specific mindset, and therefore crucial in the conception itself of the metalhead.