In 1981 Iron Maiden’s one arm bandit was in full spin and came up with a line of bright red cherries on their second album, Killers (2 February, 1981; Harvest/Capitol Records).
First, Paul Di'Anno had the opportunity to showcase his enormous vocal range, before he left the band to be replaced by Bruce Dickinson. Second, Adrian Smith had just replaced Dennis Stratton, bringing his beloved 1972 Gibson Les Paul Gold Top and songwriting talents with him. Third, the singer and guitarist were solidly accompanied by drummer Clive Burr, bassist Steve Harris and ‘twin’ guitarist Dave Murray. And finally the band, who were all in the form of their lives, managed to fish the legendary producer Martin Birch (Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Whitesnake) who helped both focus the energy that the group were generating and maintain the strength of the songs throughout.
It is worth remembering the context in which this unique album was produced. In February 1981 Phil Collins had just released his first solo record, Face Value; in April British pop group Bucks Fizz won the Eurovision Song Contest with their song Making Your Mind Up and in May Sheena Easton hit number 1 on the US Billboard charts with Morning Train (9 to 5). It was specifically against this backdrop that Iron Maiden’s dangerous sounding heavy metal assault of Killers landed.
The ambition of the album is made clear by the first track The Ides Of March, which makes you feel like you are looking out over some breathtaking landscape, before the drums and soaring guitar kick in. As the opener reaches its peak, the hugely popular Wrathchild segues in with its machine gun beat and guitar attack, followed by the relentless drive of Di’ Anno’s biting vocals.
Murders In The Rue Morgue initially represents a change of pace but slowly builds into a crescendo, with outlaw lyrics that remind this critic of Hendrix’s Hey Joe and The Stranglers’ La Folie. “Now I’ve gotta get away from the arms of the law, All France is looking for me, I’ve gotta find my way across the border for sure, Down the south to Italy,” Di’ Anno thrillingly sings. This sets the stage for another two great songs with dark and nihilistic lyrics, Innocent Exile and Killers, which help transform this album into a pioneering and edgy masterpiece.
Prodigal Son marks another change of pace and highlights the quality of Iron Maiden’s musicianship, while Purgatory and Drifter return the album to its heavy roots, with raucous vocals and outstanding guitar melodies.
Killers was the last Iron Maiden album to feature Di’Anno, and he brought a punk aesthetic to their sound that would never be repeated. In fact all the band members were on fire, with particular credit going to the twin guitar attack of Smith and Murray. Further, the band were superbly served by Birch’s production that allowed the members creative space while maintaining the album’s cohesion. In sum, all the cherries came up together on Killers, and heavy metal would never be the same.