By 1980, the classic metal bands were a spent force. Deep Purple had broken up four years earlier; Led Zeppelin were in their death throes, with John Bonham dying in October of 1980; and Black Sabbath were recording with Ronnie James Dio as their singer — a configuration that I like, but which purists didn’t accept as true Black Sabbath. Even second-wave bands like Rainbow were in decline, past both their artistic and commercial peaks, and increasingly moving towards a lightweight pop sound.
Into this vacuum came the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, or the NWOBHM as it’s rather cumbersomely abbreviated.
Leading the charge were Iron Maiden, along with other British bands such as Saxon and Diamond Head (and some others who we’ll get to presently). Their self-titled debut album introduced their style: harder and faster than their predecessors, texturally simplified (keyboards were discarded), and with the blues influence that was so important to classic rock stripped right out.
Unlike most of the other NWOBHM bands, Iron Maiden’s work has always had a hint of the progressive about it — they’ve never been afraid of long songs, and happily switch tempos and textures like crazy even in shorter songs like Run to the Hills. Being a big prog fan myself, that makes me more inclined to enjoy their work than that of some other NWOBHM bands, who can be a bit simplistic.
The Phantom of the Opera (above), is taken from Maiden’s self-titled debut album. The first two albums differ from the rest of Maiden’s work in that they were sung by Paul Di’Anno. Happily for the band, a self-destructive drug habit got him fired, which meant they were able to hire Bruce Dickinson from Samson. Di’Anno was a perfectly competent vocalist, but there’s really no comparison with Dickinson’s powerful yet precise howl. (Dickinson is also a competitive fencer, who has placed #7 in the UK, and a qualified airline pilot. Likes to keep busy.)
With the classic hard rock bands and their offshoots drifting into irrelevance at the start of the 1980s, something like the NWOBHM was probably necessary. But I can’t help regretting that it was largely a simplifying movement. To my mind, while the metal bands of the 80s were unquestionably harder and faster than the previous generation, they were never as interesting. Maiden, with their proggish tendencies, were perhaps the exception.