In 1985, while the popular kids in high school were listening to records by the Power Station, Falco, and Madonna, and while the cooler set were raving about R.E.M., the Cure, and the Jesus & Mary Chain, my own world revolved around heavy metal. I devoured everything, from the underground thrash of Slayer to the fun, cheeseball shock rock of W.A.S.P. to the stylish L.A. glam of Ratt. However, over the course of that year, one band was starting to emerge as my clear-cut favorite, as Iron Maiden’s album Powerslave—which I received for Christmas 1984—quickly became my most-played cassette. Over and over, I’d lose myself in the fierce, yet warmly melodic sounds of the British metal kings, escaping into a world of menacing Egyptian tales, World War II scenarios, Samurai depictions, and even the hallucinogenic poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. If I wasn’t following the lyrics closely, I was admiring the lush artwork by the gifted Derek Riggs, his painting of the band’s mascot Eddie gazing from a throne in front of a massive Egyptian pyramid.
Iron Maiden’s popularity had grown far beyond its roots as London’s leading band from the blossoming new wave of British heavy metal scene, with 1982’s The Number of the Beast and 1983’s Piece of Mind winning fans over worldwide. But it was Powerslave that catapulted Iron Maiden to the top of the heap, making it one of the world’s most popular musical acts. The band’s members, who were all barely 27 (except drummer Nicko McBrain, who had turned 30), were in their prime, and they knew it, as Maiden kicked off the massive World Slavery Tour, consisting of a walloping 322 dates in two dozen countries. Boasting a lavish stage show that featured an Egyptian-themed stage, complete with sarcophagi, a variety of detailed backdrops designed by Riggs, and a massive torso of a mummified Eddie which would appear from behind the drum riser at the climax of every set, they made sure fans got plenty of bang for their hard-earned bucks. Two separate four-night runs at London’s Hammersmith Odeon and at Los Angeles’s Long Beach Arena afforded the band the perfect opportunities to record a live album, and it took full advantage.
Live After Death
US/UK Release Date: October 1985
Arriving just in time for my 15th birthday, just shy of Halloween 1985, the resulting double live extravaganza Live After Death exceeded everyone’s expectations, including my own, a searing, 102-minute collection of Maiden at its peak. With three sides of the album featuring a complete concert recording from Long Beach, and a special fourth side recorded at Hammersmith, accompanied by a brilliant assemblage of photos and liner notes (not to mention some more fantastic artwork by Riggs), it was an absolute treasure for fans, and went on to be universally regarded as an instant classic in the genre. And I played the hell out of it for the next decade.
Live albums by metal bands have always been dicey affairs, which is surprising considering how that genre is most often best experienced in a live setting. In previous years, listeners had been subjected to the fake crowd noise on Kiss’s Alive, Rob Halford’s re-recorded vocals on Judas Priest’s Unleashed in the East, and Led Zeppelin’s limp The Song Remains the Same, not to mention two abysmal 1982 live efforts by Black Sabbath (Live Evil) and Ozzy Osbourne (Speak of the Devil). With veteran producer Martin Birch at the helm, mixing the music live in a mobile truck outside the venues, Iron Maiden had found the perfect man to make the quintessential metal concert recording. Birch, who had produced Deep Purple’s well-regarded Made in Japan, brought in state-of-the-art recording equipment, including an array of ultra-sensitive recording mikes to replace the band’s regular touring microphones, and the man obviously knew what he was doing, as the clarity of the final product is stunning, even 20 years later.
Still, you can have all the recording bells and whistles you want, but if the band doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain, it’s a lost cause. A seasoned live act for years, Maiden was up to the challenge, its performance so flawless that the live recordings didn’t need any studio enhancements whatsoever. Although two Long Beach sets were recorded with the intention of choosing the best performances from both nights, the band wound up using the entire set of one night. Opening with the legendary 1940 “We will never surrender” speech by Winston Churchill, the band tears into the opener “Aces High”, guitarists Dave Murray and Adrian Smith delivering their trademark dual harmony leads, bassist Steve Harris providing his distinctive, melodic, upper register bass lines, drummer McBrain pounding out some of the most impossible-to-duplicate drum fills in rock music, and lead singer Bruce Dickinson in rare form, howling away in the voice that gave him the nickname “the air raid siren”. Dickinson does show signs of road weariness at times, as there are a couple of instances he fights to hit the higher notes, but the fact that his vocals remain untampered-with on the record makes it sound all the more authentic and sincere.
With heavy focus on Powerslave, Piece of Mind, and The Number of the Beast, classic after classic song is reeled off. “2 Minutes to Midnight”, “The Trooper”, and “Hallowed Be Thy Name” prove why they’re perennial live favorites, while the blistering performance of the enigmatic “Revelations” shatters the original 1983 recording. Simply put, this band is on, and nowhere is that more evident than on the performance of the 13-minute epic “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. One of the most difficult and intricate songs the band has ever recorded, it tops the Powerslave original with a rendition that veers from adrenaline-fueled intensity to more pensive, ambient moments. It’s Murray and Smith who shine the brightest; and while not the fastest shredders of the decade, they were two of the most expressive guitarists around, and they complement each other brilliantly on the record, with Murray’s Fender Stratocaster offset by Smith’s more tinny-sounding Lado custom model, neither missing a note during the solos.
The fourth, “Hammersmith” side of the album serves as sort of an encore, and with the exception of “Die With Your Boots On”, the focus is on the band’s early material. Recorded five months before the Long Beach shows, Dickinson’s voice is exceptionally strong, evident on “Children of the Damned”, during which he lets loose with some spectacular, soaring singing. Although “Children of the Damned”, “Die With Your Boots On”, and the great “22 Acacia Avenue” all sound superb, it’s the two early classics that are the biggest treats for fans. Both “Wrathchild” and “Phantom of the Opera” were originally recorded with singer Paul Di’Anno, and Dickinson’s versions are stupendous, delivered with much more power and charisma than the originals.
A third Long Beach date was filmed, and the companion concert video, released at the same time as the album, perfectly documents the visual feast that was the live Maiden experience, offering unlucky fans (like myself) a chance to finally witness the spectacle. Dickinson, the consummate frontman, is all over the place, gregariously exhorting the crowd (including his now legendary, “Scream for me, Long Beach!”), running all over the different levels of the stage, telling humorous stories between songs, hopping on the drum kit, waving a Union Jack, carrying Murray on his shoulders, and even going so far as to wear a garish feathered headdress during “Powerslave”. The stage show, with its props, pyro, gigantic Eddies (yeah, two of them), moving light rig, and numerous visual effects (at one point, backlit jets of smoke effectively simulate a torrential rainstorm during “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”), is especially fun to watch today, as such extravagant arena shows don’t exist anymore. Long out of print, the concert video is essential for every fan of the band, and will be finally released on DVD in late 2005.
Along with Motorhead’s 1981 No Sleep Till Hammersmith, Live After Death remains one of the greatest live albums in metal history. Although Iron Maiden would go on to release four more live albums since (with a fifth on the way this summer), none has come close to topping the original. For millions of young listeners at the time, Live After Death offered them a chance to get to know the band’s rich back catalog of material, and personally, the record kicked off an obsession with Iron Maiden that has yet to subside two decades later.
Two and a half years after first hearing the album, in April 1987, I finally had my first and what would be my only chance to see Iron Maiden in person, and although this fanboy’s heart aches that the band has not returned to my part of the world in 15 years, there’s always the timeless Live After Death to revisit over and over. The single most played album in my ever-growing collection, it still gives me goose bumps to this day.