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‘Killers’: How Iron Maiden’s Second Album Slayed The Competition
In Depth

‘Killers’: How Iron Maiden’s Second Album Slayed The Competition

Heavy metal with punk attitude, Iron Maiden’s second album, ‘Killers’, remains one of their most pivotal releases.


Iron Maiden’s second album, Killers, went gold on both sides of the Atlantic, yet it remains one of their most unsung releases. Commercially, it was eclipsed by its illustrious successor, The Number Of The Beast, but it was more than a mere stepping stone to the gargantuan chart success Maiden have continued to enjoy throughout their career, up to and including the release of their 2021 album, Senjutsu. A creative development from the band’s spiky, self-titled debut album, Killers is one of the most pivotal releases in Maiden’s body of work.

Listen to Iron Maiden’s ‘Killers’ album here.

The backstory: “We’d never played to so many people in Britain before”

It’s to Steve Harris and co’s credit that Killers exudes the quality it does, as the circumstances surrounding the album’s recording could easily have consumed lesser bands. Despite flying in the face of changing musical trends such as the mod revival, new wave, and the fledgling New Romantic scene, Iron Maiden had broken into the UK Top 5 with their debut album, but that created pressure in itself, for the record’s success meant the band were hardly off the road during 1980. Prestigious support slots with Judas Priest and KISS presaged Maiden’s first major headlining tour, while an inaugural Reading Festival slot proved both triumphant and terrifying for the fast-rising London band.

“We’d never played to so many people in Britain before, and at one point [lighting engineer] Dave Lights turned the spotlights on the audience, and as far back as you could see, there were people,” Harris recalled in Mick Wall’s Maiden biography, Run To The Hills. “Playing in pubs you can see the whites of people’s eyes and that can be scary if you’re not used to it. But playing to 40,000 people… When they turned the lights on and you could see them all, that sent a shiver through me.”

The recording: “When we were working, he cracked the whip”

Acutely aware of his band’s burgeoning army of fans, Harris realised that Maiden’s next album, Killers, simply had to hit to spot. However, he also realised the group didn’t have the necessary firepower to ensure that happened unless changes were made to the current team. A new energy was injected with the arrival of guitarist Adrian Smith (who replaced the band’s previous, soft rock-loving guitarist Dennis Stratton), while Harris had his eye on a new producer: the in-demand Martin Birch, whose CV included work with Deep Purple, Rainbow, Blue Öyster Cult and – earlier that same year – Black Sabbath’s excellent, Ronnie James Dio-fronted Heaven And Hell.

Harris had previously wanted Birch to produce Maiden’s debut album (which had been helmed by future Massive Attack and The Verve alumnus Wil Malone), but the bassist had assumed his band weren’t even on Birch’s radar. However, when the two met during the summer of 1980, the producer expressed his eagerness to work with Iron Maiden, and his production on Killers led to him overseeing all the band’s classic albums through to 1992’s Fear Of The Dark.

Maiden playfully nicknamed Birch “Headmaster”, due to his methodology, but Harris knew the producer’s disciplined approach was crucial to Maiden’s development. Consequently, the band entered London’s Battery Studios in November 1980 and spent two months working diligently on Killers. To capture the spirit of their new material, Birch encouraged them to play live in the studio as much as possible, and to add relatively minimal overdubs.

“He was great, but he was a bit intimidating at first, because he had this big reputation” Adrian Smith said of Birch, in a 2020 interview with eonmusic. “I’d never worked with a producer who was so totally involved in the whole process. He was a good laugh, but when we were working, he cracked the whip.”

Finding their sound: “He pushed me to do things that I didn’t think I was capable of”

Iron Maiden’s original vocalist, Paul Di’Anno, also recalled the Killers sessions with fondness, in an interview with German magazine Rock Hard.

“It was a very special experience, ’cause he pushed me to do things that I didn’t think I was capable of,” Di’Anno said of the way Birch handled the band. “At the time, I didn’t have any recording experience, and Martin was my first ‘real’ teacher: he made me realise how I should or shouldn’t use my voice. I was young and thought I knew it all, but in fact, I knew fuck all, and Martin made me aware of it. He was a real inspiration to me and he’ll always have a special place in my heart.”

Birch was able to help Maiden shape new material which was, for the most part, superior to anything they’d written to date. Meaty tracks such as Another Life, the swaggering Drifter and the gritty, revenge-fuelled Wrathchild were still flecked with the raw street-punk spirit of the group’s debut album, but the likes of Innocent Exile and the shape-shifting instrumental Genghis Khan were harder, heavier and more focused than the Maiden of yore, while the proto-speed metal of Purgatory somehow pulled off the trick of sounding both raw yet refined.

In fact, Killers’ tracklist was refreshingly filler-free, though Harris’ epic, Edgar Allan Poe-inspired Murders In The Rue Morgue, the album’s dramatic, serial-killer related title track and Prodigal Son – the band’s first truly accomplished ballad – all displayed a new maturity suggesting Maiden were now rapidly outstripping their NWOBHM contemporaries.

The artwork: “It’s a pun on the term for a rock’n’roll guitarist”

Capping off an already enticing package, Killers also came housed in one of the best Iron Maiden album covers, as designed by Derek Riggs. However, while the sleeve depicted the band’s legendary mascot, Eddie, in a suitably murderous looking pose, the image was entirely tongue-in-cheek.

“The Killers picture was done about three years after the first [album cover] was painted,” Riggs later told Revolver magazine. “Eddie has an axe because he’s an ‘axe man’ – it’s a pun on the term for a rock’n’roll guitarist. His hair got a bit Farah Fawcett, but that was OK back then, because there was this kind of fashion for big fluffy hair with rock bands, so people didn’t really notice. But really it’s just me making it up as I go along. Eddie was not ‘developed’, Eddie is just there.”

The release: “‘Killers’, in particular, is a favourite of mine”

Released on 2 February 1981, Killers was received by fans as a quality step up, and the album’s global collection of gold discs have long since proved its worth in the wider scheme of all things Maiden-related. Indeed, one of the record’s biggest long-term fans is Bruce Dickinson – the man who would shortly replace Paul Di’Anno behind the mic.

“The first two albums were very good, very successful,” Dickinson told The Irish Times in 2017. “Killers, in particular, is a favourite of mine. The sound on that album really was the sound that should have been on the first Iron Maiden album.”

Find out which ‘Killers’ track kills it among our best Iron Maiden songs.

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