Rise of the Punks: The Quest to Slay the Heavy Metal Dragon
Punk rock had made a statement about heavy metal.
Punk had made a statement about all of rock, actually, by returning it, in important ways, to its most basic elements.
Loud volume. Three chords. Major speed. And a whole lot of attitude.
Punk rock was a reaction against rock in general. But it was especially a reaction again heavy metal.
The punk rockers claimed that metal was over the top. It was too self-indulgent. Too pompous. Too over the top. And as punk emerged as a dominant force in rock in the mid-1970’s, a steep decline in the sale of heavy metal music followed.
Had the dragon been slain by the punk rock knight in shining armor?
Zombie Music: Metal Comes Back from the Dead
It wasn’t just punk that ate into the sales of the heavy metal machine. Other genres posed a challenge as well, even unlikely genres. Disco. More mainstream classic rock.
Heavy metal seemed to be in the midst of a crisis. And like all things that find themselves confronted by crisis, it had two options.
It could Adapt. Or it could become extinct.
Heavy metal couldn’t just remain indifferent to punk rock. It had to engage with it. It had to take a stand.
Heavy metal musicians appreciated what was occurring in the punk rock scene. They were enamored with the new genre’s intense energy. Its aggressive attitude. Its speed. Its ferocity.
Punk was actually pretty damn cool.
Not only was it the music itself that was influencing heavy metal musicians. They were also inspired by the DIY ethic that seemed to drive punk rock. It was a way to return the power to the people.
New heavy metal bands began to emerge. They found smaller but extremely devoted audiences. And among these new bands existed one that was destined for international stardom.
That band was Iron Maiden.
The Rock and Roll Dreams of Iron Maiden Guitarist Steve Harris
Stephen Percy “Steve” Harris was born on March 12, 1956 in a tucked away corner of East London known as Leytonstone. As a child, Harris didn’t dream of rock and roll stardom the way so many other children do.
Steve Harris dreamt of football. (Soccer, to us Americans.)
Harris’s dreams were filled with football glory. With making that final goal kick that ignited a crowd of thousands to roar in unison. Harris dreamt of World Cup glory. But by his early teens, his passion for that sport began to be supplanted. A new love gnawed at his bones.
That new passion was music.
It started with drums. There was something about pounding the skins that really drove Harris. Perhaps it was the violent intensity of the way one makes contact with the percussive.
But there was a problem.
His house literally didn’t have enough space for a drum kit. And that wasn’t the only issue. He knew his parents would never let him get away with the sheer amount of volume power that his drumming would produce. Harris could see his rock and roll dreams slipping away quickly.
But then they were saved by the bass.
Steve Harris was a rhythm guy. He loved the beat. But drums weren’t going to work. So he knew what his only option was. Bass guitar.
Harris owned a cheap acoustic guitar with which he had taught himself how to play a few rudimentary chords. He now saw it as currency. He threw the guitar into its case and dashed off for the local music store with an axe and a prayer. And when he got there, he was able to trade in the guitar and score a knockoff Fender Precision Bass for $70.
Victory is sweet.
Harris was now able to start seriously training to play the music he loved. And you might be surprised that the music he especially loved at this point was Progressive Rock. Prog, as it is often affectionately or derisively known.
Harris adored bands like Yes. He worshipped at the alter of Jethro Tull. He bowed down before King Crimson. And the progressive stylings of Peter Gabriel’s Genesis drove him mad with intoxication.
After a few stints in local rock acts, Harris realized he needed something new. It was time to kick start his own band. His own rules. His own attitude. And on Christmas Day, 1975, the 19-year old Steve harris made it happen.
Iron Maiden was born.
The Iron Maiden Arrives
The name Iron Maiden comes from what was thought to be a Renaissance-era torture device. It consisted of a cabinet, a person sized cabinet, that had hinged to it a swinging door. With metal spikes attached.
Harris’s original lineup for Iron Maiden consisted of two guitarists, David Sullivan and Terry Rance, Dave Matthews – not that Dave Matthews, on drums, Paul Day on vocals, and Harris himself handling the bass duties. But the lineup wasn’t stable, and vocalists came and went. By 1977, however, the dust settled, at least for a time, and the band now boasted Paul Di’Anno handling vocal duties.
At the same time that Iron Maiden was getting off the ground, a local London DJ by the name of Neal Kay was spinning records at a grungy London pub called the Prince of Wales. His repertoire consisted mostly of music by up and coming bands. Kay’s gatherings may have started off small, but soon the Prince of Wales was packing in local music journalists by the dozens. The Prince of Wales was now the rock and roll place to be in London.
On a nondescript day in the rock and roll life of Neal Kay, a nondescript demo tape landed in his hands with the name Iron Maiden scrawled on it. But something happened when Kay dropped the needle onto the record. It was love at first listen.
Kay began playing the Iron Maiden demo over and over again. He loved everything about it. The speed. The power. The key changes. And the melody lines of the band’s new guitarist, Dave Murray.”It was definitely the most impressive demo I’d ever had delivered to me!” Kay has enthusiastically stated.
Kay wasn’t the only person who was impressed.
Kicking Off the New Wave of British Heavy Metal
The Iron Maiden wound its way through London and into the hands of executives at the famous EMI records. They were interested.
The big time was arriving. And soon, Iron Maiden was signed.
At the same time as Iron Maiden was finding its stride at EMI, a music journalist by the name of Geoff Barton, who worked at Sounds magazine, began noticing a trend. If heavy metal had been left for dead in the wake of the Punk leviathan, the dead were now walking. Running even.
Heavy metal was suddenly alive and well.
Barton began to write an article about the phenomenon. The re-emergence of metal had happened. And he gave it a name. Noting the popularity of the term “New Wave” that had been associated with a musical outgrowth of punk rock, Barton appropriated the term. And coined a new one.
Barton introduced the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.
Commonly abbreviated as NWOBHM, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal set off an immediate chain reaction that prompted new heavy metal bands to spring out of the ground as if the dead were truly rising from the grave.
Among the most important and successful of this NWOBHM was Iron Maiden. But they weren’t the only ones. Another band of significant note was the early incarnation of Def Leppard – before they went all hair-metal pop on us.
Neal Kay and a legion of other heavy metal DJs would continue to run “heavy metal music disco parties” that became enormously popular with the new crop of heavy metal fans – or “metalheads.”
The new British Heavy Metal bands would rock hard and they would party hard. Drugs. Sex. Smashed equipment. All the good stuff commonly associated with rock and roll were present. And meanwhile, Iron Maiden’s star would continue to rise. They toured with another heavy hitter metal band in the United States, Judas Priest. Ultimately, Paul Di’Anno was replaced with another vocalist, Bruce Dickinson.
And this time, the vocalist would stick.
So would heavy metal. And we’re all the better for it.
– Brian M. Reiser,
J&R Adventures / Tribut Apparel