The Priest & The Beast: Iron Maiden And British Steel Turn 40

Forty years ago this month, two British bands released albums that would set the course for metal over the following decade. But it’s not the similarities between Iron Maiden and British Steel that are most telling, it’s the differences

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Music has its banner years, when miracles happen or when the charts are stuffed with brilliance. For heavy music, it’s hard to think of a greater year than 1980, when the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal [NWOBHM] exploded, hand in hand with a bunch of older artists – Whitesnake, Gillan, Black Sabbath – delivering their strongest sets in years and years. The two threads merged on April 14, when two of the year’s defining albums were released: Iron Maiden’s debut, and British Steel by Judas Priest. Neither was the year’s best British metal album – that was Diamond Head’s peerless “White Album”/Lightning To The Nations, a record crippled by being a private pressing that almost no one heard – but for reach and import, they eventually outshone everything else released.

British Steel was all but a codification of heavy metal’s unwritten laws, and the sharpest, most concise expression of metal’s virtues yet: its songs combined melody and attack; its choruses were perfectly honed for arenas to sing along to; the band’s look was the perfect expression of metal’s preposterousness, and a visual expression of the sound of the record. By concentrating metal, Priest somehow managed to make it more palatable (two of British Steel’s singles – ‘Living After Midnight’ and ‘United’ – made it to Top Of The Pops). If in so doing they also created a stereotype – leather, studs, chains, homoeroticism unnoticed by its audience, and genre self-celebration and self-aggrandisement (this was the album of Metal Gods, which even if is strictly about actual gods made of actual metal, was written with the power of its title in mind). “Heavy metal needed to be more than just a name. It needed to be a thing,” Priest’s guitarist KK Downing told me recently. “It needed to be identified.” British Steel identified metal.

Never underestimate the power of Top Of The Pops, either. Just as the pop groups had grown up watching it, so had the metal bands. For scores of these bands, making it to the show was a career highlight. "Priest on Top Of The Pops was absolutely spectacular," Rob Halford told The Guardian in 2010. "Once we were on with the Osmonds. I had my whip with me and I’d heard Marie wasn’t happy about that. So, I went to see her in her dressing room with her curlers in. I’m not going to have any Mormon telling me what I can and can’t do with my whip. Us being on Top Of The Pops was great for heavy metal. We were the first band to go out with that particular look. Once it was there on stage and was being photographed, it just shot around the world. It just looked right – it looked like the music sounded."

Where Priest were making a claim for permanence, Iron Maiden’s eponymous debut was the scrappy battler coming up from the streets. Where Priest were trying to create metal’s new establishment, Maiden were creating their own rules. They didn’t want to look dressed up, so they wore leather jackets and high tops. Though not wanting to look dressed up isn’t the same as not being dressed up. In fact, theirs was a uniform as carefully selected as Priest’s (“the cunt’s kit”, was how their contemporaries in Samson referred to the Maiden look. Maiden manager Rod Smallwood was so insistent on his band’s brand identity, according to former guitarist Dennis Stratton, that when they got an unexpected eight-day break in Italy in midsummer 1980, “Rod gave us orders that everyone had to wear a leather jacket. It was nearly 90 degrees. I saw Paul [Di’Anno] walking around sweating with his leather jacket on, and I thought: ‘I ain’t doing that.’”

Unlike Priest, Maiden favoured complexity in their arrangements. While the album’s lead single, ‘Running Free’, might have had the directness and attack of punk (which Steve Harris, the band’s de facto leader, has always expressed disdain for, no matter how many times early Maiden is linked to it), ‘Phantom Of The Opera’ is the clearer template for the future of the group: multisectional, fiddly, its roots growing out from prog more than stretching back to Black Sabbath. As Steve Dawson of Saxon put it to me: “A lot of the so called NWOBHM bands wrote riffs with singing, and not songs – melodic tunes that you can whistle. Iron Maiden were sort of in that bracket to me. We couldn’t get our heads round why they kept stopping and starting. There would be 10 bits in one song. We used to think: Why is there no groove?”

He’s right. Where British Steel is all groove – it was a record designed for Downing and Tipton to stand alongside each other onstage, swinging the necks of their guitars back and forth – Iron Maiden was almost without it. It jerks and pulls; it rarely swings. Even the more straightforward headbangers – ’Running Free’, the title track, ‘Charlotte The Harlot’ – have a twitchiness to them that Priest would never have dabbled with: only ‘Prowler,’ really, sounds like it might have been on either album. Maiden weren’t, by any accounts, a drug band, but their first album often sounds like s speed record – fast, tinny, hurtling and tense.

Sometimes, when writing about different groups within a genre, I find myself wondering what it looks like from the outside. To the average record buyer in 1980, Maiden and Priest probably looked interchangeable: long-haired groups in leather, each fronted by a short-haired singer; loud guitars; lyrics that often seemed to dwell on unpleasantness of various sorts. And, truth be told, Maiden and Priest did have a lot in common. Crucially, both employed what – for reasons lost in the mists of metal history – is routinely referred to as a “twin guitar attack”, and in both cases that owed a debt to Wishbone Ash, whose 1971 album Argus was a touchstone for a bunch of the twin-guitar bands who made an impact at the end of the 70s and the start of the 80s. While Maiden were, arguably, the more old fashioned band, both employed a cleanliness and sharpness of sound. Maiden needed it to avoid the fiddliness turning into an overegged churn; Priest, for all the power of British Steel, made clarity their defining purpose. But the twin guitars were the heart of everything both bands did – the countermelodies of Stratton and Dave Murray, the competing solos of Downing and Glenn Tipton, and the way the riffs seemed to gather force like avalanches.

The two albums were different in conception, too. Maiden went into the studio with songs written over several years, and with a band hastily cobbled together – Stratton and drummer Clive Burr had joined the group only weeks before recording began. Priest, by contrast, had a stable core of Rob Halford, Tipton, Downing and bassist Ian Hill, but they went into the studio at the start of February 1980 with almost nothing prepared, and a calendar month to complete the album. “They were at a point in their career where they were being very productive and very inventive, and Unleashed In The East had given them a degree of success they hadn’t had in the United States before,” Tom Allom, who produced British Steel, told me. “And they were beginning to get the feeling that they were on to something. They were getting their music across. It was just one of those magical four-week periods when everything came together. It was quick – 28 days. We worked hard. We worked long hours. We were young. We could take the pace. It was a very productive process.”

Fate and booking agents would then combine to intertwine the fate of the two bands, when Maiden were announced as the opening act for Priest’s UK tour for British Steel, only for Paul Di’Anno to stick his foot in it. “He insulted KK Downing and said something about blowing them off the stage,” Stratton told me. “And you don’t really do that before you go on tour, because you’re relying on that main band to let you use the PA and the lights.”

“I can remember reading it in a magazine when we were still in the studio,” Downing told me, “and I thought, ‘Who the fuck are this lot?’ I’m just there thinking there are so many bands that would be grateful for the tour. Why should we give it to these bands if that’s their attitude? But that’s a big statement to make . And it didn’t happen, that’s for sure! It didn’t happen, it just created an atmosphere.” Downing also believed Maiden had visited Priest’s rehearsals not to apologise, as Stratton said, but to spy on them. “I think they had a quest to unsettle us and overthrow us,” Downing said. The distrust would linger for a few years, as Maiden – to Downing’s bafflement – were invited to support Priest in the US in 1981 and 1982. On the latter of those tours, Bruce Dickinson called out the headliners for not allowing Maiden to put on the show they wanted. According to Downing, Maiden’s staging demands included things that were physically impossible given the size of the venues, and would have required Priest’s crew to assemble their stage set after Maiden had left the stage.

There has been no rivalry between the bands for decades now. Both were able to find their place headlining arenas. Both became emblematic of metal’s insistence on achieving success on its own terms. (Priest did look at the radio dial on their following album, Point Of Entry, but the one that broke them in America, Screaming for Vengeance, was entirely metallic and wholly uncompromising.)

Still, though, the records they released in April 1980 are emblematic not just of the bands, but of trends within metal. Iron Maiden and British Steel represent divergent strands of thought, both of which still exert gravitational force in the metal world. Iron Maiden stand for self-reliance, and the belief that if you remain true to yourself, your music will find its audience, because what they want is that purity of expression. Their music is uncopyable, because its dominant elements – the galloping bass, the harmony lead guitars – are so distinctive that taking them only marks a band out as an Iron Maiden copyist. It’s inefficient music, almost – when you listen to the first Maiden album it’s as if you can hear the mechanical elements trying to lock into place. Priest, though, looked outwards: theirs was music that had been tooled and finished to deliver the maximum kick with minimal unnecessary deviation; theirs was almost a lowest common denominator version of metal (which is, perhaps, an inevitable consequence of codifying its visual, musical and lyrical themes). No one is ever going to suggest British Steel was too fiddly. But it’s the one I gain more pleasure from listening to. Every element is in its place; not even Maiden would say that about their debut.

The true miracle, though, is that these were just more albums among a plethora of astounding heavy records released in 1980. This was the year of Back In Black, Angel Witch, Heaven And Hell, On Through The Night, Lightning To The Nations, Demolition, Ace Of Spades, Blizzard Of Ozz, Wheels Of Steel, Strong Arm Of The Law, Répression, Wild Cat, Women And Children First, Live… In The Heart Of The City, and more. There would be more significant albums to come, but never again would there be a year in which so many great albums captured the imaginations of so many fans of heavy music.

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