Where Eagles Dare: Iron Maiden’s Piece of Mind at 40
Looking back on the metal giants’ phenomenal fourth album
All of the pieces fell into place on Iron Maiden’s fourth album.
“For me,” said founding bassist and primary songwriter Steve Harris in the band’s official biography Run To the Hills, “Piece of Mind was the best album we’d done up to then, easily.” In his esteem, the fantastic trilogy of albums that preceded Piece Of Mind all bore slight imperfections.
In Harris’s mind, the debut album was lacking in the production department. Killers had been assembled from tracks that weren’t selected for the first record. And on The Number Of The Beast, “Gangland” appeared on the album where the b-side “Total Eclipse” should have gone, an error the band corrected on reissues many years later.
Let’s also examine the personnel changes from album to album. Lead guitarist Dennis Stratton was let go between the recording of Iron Maiden and Killers. Adrian Smith replaced him, forging one of the most import guitar partnerships in history with Dave Murray, who had joined in late in ’76.
Vocalist Paul DiAnno has admitted that removing him was the right decision. His partying was taking precedence over performances. Great as his voice was in the studio, he wasn’t able to moderate, or take care of himself on the road. Maiden needed someone absolutely reliable in that role.
The Number Of The Beast brought Bruce Dickinson into that spotlight, and he relished the opportunity. However he was still under contract to his old band Samson, and couldn’t be credited for any songwriting, despite several key contributions. This was also the last record for drummer Clive Burr.
The Piece of Mind sessions were the first to feature drummer Nicko McBrain, which meant it was the first album to feature all five members of the classic lineup that, with some interruptions in the nineties, continues to work together today (albeit with the addition of third guitarist Janick Gers).
The Number Of The Beast had been recorded only a few months after Bruce Dickinson joined Iron Maiden. Fast forward one year and he’d done significant roadwork with the band. He was also now contractually free to compose songs. The twin guitar team of Smith and Murray had become a well-oiled machine. And while Nicko McBrain didn’t have the feel of a swinging jazz/rock drummer like Clive Burr, he instead brought the chops of a progressive master to the fold. With this team behind him, Steve Harris could finally create an Iron Maiden album that fused the power of Deep Purple with the perfectionism of Rush.
McBrain gets the first word on Piece of Mind. Album opener “Where Eagles Dare” kicks off with a complicated drum fill a la “Stargazer” by Rainbow. That was the effect the band wanted, but Bruce Dickinson states in his autobiography that he had actually referenced a drum lick from a not-so-well-known 1973 album by English guitarist Gordon Giltrap. “Oh yeah,” replied McBrain. “‘Heartsong.’ That was me!” McBrain had been the drummer on that Giltrap album a decade earlier.
Like every other song on Piece of Mind, “Where Eagles Dare” has literary origins. In this case, Maiden took notice of the simultaneously written 1967 novel and screenplay, Where Eagles Dare, by The Guns of Navarrone/Ice Station Zebra author Alistair MacLean. A film was made a year later starring Clint Eastwood, Richard Burton and Mary Ure. The excitement of special ops paratroopers raiding a Bavarian castle during WWII was a fertile and kinetic subject for interpretation by Iron Maiden. Dickinson spits out the lyrics like bullets from a machine gun, and wails like his chute didn’t open ‘til the last possible second.
This kind of urgency only whets the listener’s appetite for the feast to come, which is appropriate since the original working title of the album was Food For Thought. No one can recall who suggested Piece Of Mind, but once it was stated during a drunken brainstorming session, there was no looking back. That also gave illustrator Derek Riggs the opportunity to lobotomize the band’s mascot Eddie on the album sleeve.
Bruce Dickinson arrives as a full-fledged songwriter on track two, “Revelations.” This has long been my favorite song on the album, and one of the best Maiden songs in their storied career. Musically it follows the tradition of earlier songs, particularly “Children Of The Damned” thanks to the clean arpeggios that connect its massive riffs. It wasn’t until I read Bruce’s book that I realized he was a big fan of Van Der Graaf Generator. Peter Hammill’s vocal influence on Dickinson is perhaps more obvious on “Revelations” than any other Maiden song from that era.
Obviously the song’s title alludes to the final book of the Bible. The opening lines are drawn straight from Christian apologist writer GK Chesterton. But the rest of the words have more to do with Aleister Crowley and occult secret society the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. That line about “the secret of the hangman, the smile on his lips” that makes 13-year-old boys think they’ve just been let in on some amazingly profound secret is a simple reference to Tarot. All of these mysteries are woven together with enough panache to make this one of the most epic heavy metal songs ever written.
“Flight Of Icarus” turns the Greek myth on its head by making the prideful father into a villain, rather than the impetuous young boy who wears the wings and flies too high. This one was contentious in 1983 because Iron Maiden fans weren’t yet used to hearing choruses with vocal harmonies in heavy metal music. Lead singers like Ozzy, Dio and Rob Halford rarely harmonized with themselves. So some fans felt this epic, ascending chorus was evidence that the poison of AOR acts like REO Speedwagon had seeped in. Those fans must not have listened to much Uriah Heep.
VIDEO: Iron Maiden “Flight Of Icarus”
Dickinson co-wrote “Flight of Icarus” with guitarist Adrian Smith. The two would partner on many future songs. With this being the first Maiden single not penned by Steve Harris—as well as the first song the band issued in the U.S. as a single, period—there was even controversy within the band. Harris wanted the song to be faster and more complex. Dickinson fought to keep the steady beat, and won.
“This is nothing to do with getting it on the radio, is it?” Harris demanded.
“Oh no, God forbid. Of course not,” Dickinson lied in response.
Though today we think of “Run To the Hills” as Iron Maiden’s radio hit, that galloping perennial didn’t get into steady classic rock rotation until later. It never charted in the United States. “Flight Of Icarus” did, peaking at number 8, a feat Maiden has never replicated.
As Bruce Dickinson recalls, “Steve never liked it. He thought it was too slow. But I wanted it to be that rock-steady sort of beat, I knew it would get onto American radio if we kept it that way and I was right.” Harris made his feelings clear by not including the song in the band’s live set list for thirty-two years.
For other bands that might have been career suicide. Iron Maiden has never relied on American radio, though. It’s always been their dedicated worldwide fan base that has made them highly respected millionaires. Nevertheless, having a song receive that kind of attention on the airwaves in 1983 helped manager Rod Smallwood’s gamble pay off. After several U.S. tours in support of other acts like Judas Priest and Rainbow, the Piece of Mind tour saw the band headlining large venues, and packing them.
“Die With Your Boots On” kicks the tempo up several notches, and features gang vocals in a call and response that yields quite an earworm. Many listeners may have preferred this to be the single that represented Piece of Mind to the masses, but corporate media simply wasn’t ready for such hard-charging metal in 1983. The day when Clear Channel stations would play “Master Of Puppets” alongside “Kashmir” and “Sweet Emotion” was still years off.
“The Trooper” kicks off side two with another all time Maiden classic. The harmonized guitars and galloping drum beat set the stage for another bloody tale of war. “The Trooper” finds its origin in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s 1854 poem “The Charge Of the Light Brigade” based on a military action during the Crimean War. This was the album’s second single, and fared far better with fans. It also charted higher at home in the United Kingdom than “Flight Of Icarus”, which must have made Steve Harris smile. Incidentally, there’s a hilarious mash-up on YouTube of “The Trooper” and “Daydream Believer” by the Monkees that deserves a spin if you haven’t heard it.
As we venture further, this is where I should point out that the audiophiles I consulted for this article—as well as my own listening—draw the same conclusion: There is no great sounding CD issue of Piece of Mind. This album has always sounded best on the original vinyl and cassette. The original CD sounds brittle, lacking proper low-end bass. Later CD remasters just add volume and noise. If you love this record, do yourself a favor and find a way to hear an original copy on a nice system. You’ll be glad you did.
Side two continues with a gag. Thanks to Iron Maiden’s shameless piss-take on Satanism, their The Number Of The Beast album had incurred the wrath of many religious fundamentalists, particularly in the United States. Those deluded fools spent hours searching for backwards messages on “evil” rock albums. So Iron Maiden decided to give them one that wasn’t even hidden.
On most editions of Piece of Mind this is simply a spoken word intro to the song “Still Life.” But the first Japanese CD awarded the bit its own track ID, listed as “Phatoor.” Regardless, it’s really just a recording of Nicko McBrain doing a drunken impression of former Ugandan president Idi Amin. I don’t want to spoil what he says here, because that’s part of the joy of going through the effort to decipher a backwards message in the first place. Whether you do that the old fashioned way, by dragging the needle in reverse by hand, or modern digital means, is open to your discretion and facilities.
To my ears, “Still Life” is the most underrated song on Piece of Mind. Many Iron Maiden biographies, including their Wikipedia page, claim that the lyrics are based on the 1964 short story “The Inhabitant Of The Lake” by British horror fantasist Ramsey Campbell. When I contacted him to comment, he replied, “I often hear this and am surprised afresh every time. Have Iron Maiden actually confirmed my tale was the inspiration?” Unfortunately for Mr. Campbell, they have not. Nowhere can I find an actual quote or citation that confirms this story was the basis for the song.
I did find a listener comment that claims the lyrics to “Still Life” more closely resemble an even earlier tale by HP Lovecraft contemporary Clark Ashton Smith, called “Genius Loci.” Regardless, it’s a wonderful, moody tune that continues the horror tradition in Maiden’s discography. “Phantom of the Opera” and “Murders In The Rue Morgue,” Edgar Allan Poe and 1960s horror films had provided wicked inspirations all along, which makes sense considering the band’s mascot Eddie was some type of un-killable zombie/ghoul.
“Quest For Fire” separates Maiden fans that can keep tongue inserted in cheek from those who somehow demand the band take their subjects more seriously. The song’s title was obviously derived from the 1981 film by French director Jean-Jacques Annaud. But Bruce leads with the lyric “In a time, when dinosaurs walked the earth…” which puts this song into far more fantastic territory than the semi-realistic prehistoric flick.
I think of Maiden’s “Quest For Fire” as more akin to an Edgar Rice Burroughs hollow earth novel, or something Frank Frazetta would paint. Condemning the band for not acing their history exams seems unfair. I also have a soft spot for Annaud’s movie; the first time I watched it in my late teens, I was so stoned that I began to believe I could understand the Neanderthal caveman language that A Clockwork Orange author Anthony Burgess had devised for the film.
“Sun And Steel” doesn’t get much more respect. Perhaps that’s why the band abandoned it to the boneyard position (ie second to last on the album). The lyric deals with 16th-17th century Japanese Samurai Miyamoto Musashi, oft considered the greatest swordsman who ever lived. Bruce Dickinson spent much of his off time on the Piece of Mind tour taking fencing lessons, and partaking in competitions, so it seems a more than appropriate subject. To my ears, the chorus really shines, even if this is part two of the album’s Achilles heel to listeners who champion Powerslave as the band’s greatest accomplishment. Personally, I’ll take “Sun And Steel” over “Flash Of The Blade” every single time. Touché!
Piece of Mind’s epic finale was originally titled “Dune.” A year earlier Patrick McGoohan granted permission to Maiden to pen a song based on his brilliant TV series The Prisoner with two simple words, “Do it.” Emboldened by that experience the band requested permission from science fiction author Frank Herbert to commemorate his profound and influential novel, Dune. His agents’ response was so abrupt that it’s nothing short of comical in retrospect.
“Frank Herbert doesn’t like rock bands, particularly heavy rock bands, and especially bands like Iron Maiden.”
Hence, the song’s title was changed. “To Tame A Land” still manages to include direct references to the desert planet of Arrakis, sandriders, Muad’ Dib, Gom Jabar, and the Kwizatz Haderach. I’m not sure how that all works out legally, but artistically it’s a smash. Sure, when stacked up directly against other Maiden epics like “Hallowed Be Thy Name” and “Rime Of The Ancient Mariner” it’s not a towering achievement, but it’s still a powerful dirge on a grand theme, and a more than worthy closer for the first Iron Maiden album to fully satisfy Steve Harris.
For Harris, it was the band’s recorded pinnacle, “And I carried on thinking that right up until the Seventh Son album, which was five years later. I’m not saying the two albums we did in-between—Powerslave and Somewhere In Time—weren’t good, ‘cause there’s a lot of stuff on those albums I still think of as some of our best ever. But Piece Of Mind was just special. You can nearly always go back to an album and pick out things you might have done differently or whatever. But I still think Piece of Mind is good the way it is. It was Nicko’s first album, we felt like we were on a high and you can hear that mood on the album, I think. Most of all, though, it was just the songs. Between us, I thought we’d really come up with the goods this time.”
- Where Eagles Dare: Iron Maiden’s Piece of Mind at 40 - May 16, 2023
- Six Months In Sabbath: The Ray Gillen Footnote - November 28, 2022
- Empty Fossil of the New Scene: Alice In Chains’ Dirt at 30 - September 29, 2022
3 thoughts on “Where Eagles Dare: Iron Maiden’s Piece of Mind at 40”
Seriously insightful piece about a seriously great and important band.
It’s a timeless and watershed single for music.