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‘Piece Of Mind’: How Iron Maiden Thought Up A Classic Metal Album
In Depth

‘Piece Of Mind’: How Iron Maiden Thought Up A Classic Metal Album

The album that introduced Iron Maiden’s classic line-up, ‘Piece Of Mind’ saw the group make a powerful bid for the big league.

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Iron Maiden made a lasting statement with their masterful third album, The Number Of The Beast. A landmark record which inspired future metal megastars such as Metallica, Anthrax and Ghost, it yielded multi-platinum rewards, but its success inevitably brought pressure to sessions for what would become its follow-up album, Piece Of Mind.

Listen to ‘Piece Of Mind’ here.

The backstory: “It was Nicko’s first album, we felt like we were on a high”

Outwardly, Maiden didn’t seem unduly concerned, exuding the collective confidence of a group more than capable of coming up with the goods. Closer to home, though, bassist and team leader Steve Harris felt one more change of personnel was still required to enable his boys to take on the world on their own terms. Having brought one of the best rock frontmen of all time into the fold when they replaced original singer Paul Di’Anno with Bruce Dickinson following the release of their second album, Killers, Maiden now looked to add some extra firepower to its rhythm section.

Towards the end of their The Beast On The Road tour, long-time drummer Clive Burr had struggled with the band’s hectic schedule. Differing sources have since put this down to everything from alcohol-related issues to exhaustion and the fallout from the death of Burr’s father, but while the whole truth seemingly remains elusive, what is certain is that the drummer was asked to leave the group shortly after the tour ended. Steve Harris then drafted in a new sticksman, Nicko McBrain, who had previously played support to Maiden while drumming for French metal outfit Trust.

As well as displaying a highly developed technical ability behind the kit, McBrain had become friends with Maiden, but both band and fans alike were conflicted over Burr’s departure. In Mick Wall’s authorised Iron Maiden biography, Run To The Hills, Bruce Dickinson said of Burr, who died of MS in 2013, “I still think he’s the best drummer the band ever had. That’s not taking anything away from Nicko. Technically, Nicko’s probably a far more competent drummer than Clive. It’s just that Clive had this incredible feel, and you can’t learn that, and I regret that he wasn’t given more time to try to sort himself out.”

The recording: “We might as well give them something to be really stupid about”

Nonetheless, McBrain – a powerhouse drummer and something of a force of nature on his own terms – gave Iron Maiden a necessary jolt of adrenaline as they began preparing to record Piece Of Mind. Allegedly riotous – though also highly productive – initial writing sessions for the album took place on Jersey, in the Channel Islands, early in 1983, and brought forth a wealth of new material which the band were soon ready to take into the studio with producer Martin Birch.

This time, though, instead of returning to Battery, the London studio where they’d recorded their previous two albums, Maiden reconvened with their producer at Compass Point, the recording facility founded by Island Records’ Chris Blackwell in Nassau, the largest city in the Bahamas. The venue proved highly agreeable, and the band would return to the Caribbean to record their next two albums, Powerslave and Somewhere In Time.

Despite the distractions of island life, Maiden knuckled down and recorded Piece Of Mind in just a few weeks. Between them, Harris, Dickinson and guitarist Adrian Smith had all contributed excellent material, and the sessions yielded many standout moments that still hold their own among the best Iron Maiden songs.

The songs: “I knew it would get onto American radio… and I was right”

Notably, though, many of the Piece Of Mind songs were a departure from what had come before, in that they reflected the band’s love of literature and cinema rather than the real-life, street-level observations which had inspired much of their self-titled debut album, its follow-up, Killers, and songs such as Gangland and 22 Acacia Avenue, from The Number Of The Beast.

Though disparate, the band’s literary influences assisted Maiden in creating some of their most ambitious and satisfying music yet for Piece Of Mind. Based on Alistair MacLean’s script for Brian J Hutton’s 1968 war film, Where Eagles Dare, Maiden’s proto-speed metal song of the same name offered Nicko McBrain an early chance to flex his muscles and provided the album with a breathtaking start. By comparison, Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic Dune was the starting point for the album’s mystical closer, To Tame A Land, whereas Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Crimean War-era narrative poem The Charge Of The Light Brigade inspired a third Harris-penned epic, The Trooper: a truly stirring anthem which arguably remains Maiden’s signature song.

Elsewhere, Japanese samurai warrior and novelist Yukio Mishima’s 1968 essay Sun And Steel inspired Smith and Dickinson to pen a robust rocker with the same name, while Dickinson stepped back onto more familiar Number Of The Beast territory for the complex Revelations, in which he quoted lines from GK Chesterton’s hymn O God Of Earth And Altar.

Again writing in tandem with Smith, Dickinson delved into Greek mythology for Flight Of Icarus, based on the tragedy of the boy who flew too close to the sun and fell to his death in the sea. This melodic, harmony-laden song seemed the obvious, radio-friendly choice for Piece Of Mind’s lead single, though it polarised opinion within the band.

“Steve never liked it,” Bruce Dickinson recalled in Run To The Hills. “He thought it was too slow, but I wanted it to have that rocksteady sort of beat. I knew it would get onto American radio if we kept it that way, and I was right.”

Flight Of Icarus did indeed make headway in the US, and it also cleared a path for Piece Of Mind’s success at home when it shot to No.11 in the UK. However, another album highlight, Still Life, penned by Harris and guitarist Dave Murray, caused something of a furore among potential US censors, as it included a hidden message which could only be understood by playing the song backwards.

This was entirely a joke and intended as a swipe at US critics who had accused Iron Maiden of conveying Satanic messages through their music. In reality, the backwards message consisted of nothing more sinister than Nicko McBrain mimicking actor John Bird’s impression of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, and it was never intended to be taken seriously.

“One of the boys taped me in the middle of this Idi Amin routine I used to do when I’d had a few drinks,” McBrain told Maiden biographer Mick Wall. “I remember it distinctly ended with the words, ‘Don’t meddle wid t’ings yo don’t understand.’ We thought, if people were going to be stupid about this sort of thing, we might as well give them something to be really stupid about, you know?”

The release: “The best album we’d done up to then, easily”

In the long run, though, any controversy surrounding Still Life only helped Piece Of Mind’s cause. Housed in one of Derek Riggs’ classic Iron Maiden album covers, featuring the group’s mascot, Eddie, post-lobotomy and chained up in a padded cell, the album was issued on 16 May 1983 and, by June, it had already gone gold in the UK. Significantly, the record also rewarded the band with their highest US chart placing to date (No.14 on the Billboard 200), en route to topping Kerrang! magazine’s end-of-year poll of the greatest metal albums of all time – even beating the mighty The Number Of The Beast, which came in at No.2.

By this time, Iron Maiden were concluding their whopping 139-date World Piece Tour, which included their first-ever headlining arena shows in North America. A sold-out trek, it provided proof (should any more have been required) that Iron Maiden were now right up there with the biggest bands on the planet.

“For me, Piece Of Mind was the best album we’d done up to then, easily,” Steve Harris told Kerrang! in 2020. “And I carried on thinking that right up until the Seventh Son… album. I’m not saying the two albums we did in between [Powerslave and Somewhere In Time] weren’t good – but Piece Of Mind was just special. It was Nicko’s first album, we felt like we were on a high and you can hear that mood on the album.”

Find out which ‘Piece Of Mind’ tracks rank among the best Iron Maiden songs.

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