Friday, July 18, 2014

Ripple Library - Killers: The Origins of Iron Maiden 1975-1983


First of all, I must take my hat off to Neil Daniels for tackling the morass that is the early years of one of metal's most legendary bands, Iron Maiden.  With the "one day here, next day gone" band line-ups and seemingly random personnel changes, it's certainly not the easiest period of rock history to write about. Combine that with the fact that no records were kept of what the band was doing back then and no one really seems to remember all the band's permutations, and it truly was a labor of love for Daniels to try and make sense of it all.

And in that regard, he succeeds admirably.  As a massive fan of the early Maiden (yes, I'm much more Di'Anno than Dickinson) I've always wanted to understand the early years of the band.  Particularly, I never had a clear understanding of why the band parted with Di'Anno and why they kicked out Dennis Stratton.  I also knew next to nothing about the infamous Thunderstick years.  Now I have a much better glimpse and it all makes perfect sense. Once I fully realized Harris' fearless dedication to his vision, it all made perfect sense. 

Daniels does a great job of delineating Steve Harris' undying drive and commitment to Maiden, his relentless passion for the band and music, and the intricate line-up changes that are the history of these legends.  He does a stellar job of really outlining what each new (or outgoing) member brought to the band culminating in the now classic line-up of Harris, Dickinson, McBrain, Smith and Murray.  He also does and admirable job of following the musical growth of the band from those original, raw Soundhouse Tapes, through the first four classic albums.  Daniels' own love and admiration for the band comes through loud and clear, making this more a fan's retelling of legendary history than a dispassionate critic's looks at the past.  And the book is better for it.  Daniels' love of Maiden bleeds through every sentence and it adds to the passion of the book.

I also enjoyed the contributions of my buddy Ray Van Horn Jr, who always has something interesting to say about metal, rock, and comic books for that matter.

Having said all that, I gotta say, this is a hard book to recommend to anyone but the most fervent of Maiden fans (such as myself).  The book doesn't have any real fascinating or diabolical rock n roll stories, no rampaging chaos on the road or groupie tales, and it doesn't offer any hilarious Spinal Tap moments that would appeal to any random reader of rock and metal books.  It also doesn't really offer any new stories, lost photos, vignettes, or great new interviews with band members, past or present.  Most of the interviews and first person accounts are recalled from published interviews elsewhere.  The new interviews we have are fairly standard and non-illuminating.

Further, a vast amount of the book is spent detailing many early gigs and debating on which date, "so and so" show took place or at what show "so and so" first played guitar. ("Better luck at The Swan in Hammersmith perhaps? Marginally.  The date of this gig has been the subject of some debate - possibly 5 or 6 July has been postulated, but, in actual fact, it was almost certainly 12 July, because said gig was "last Thursday." The paper went on sale on Thursday 19 July (two days before cover date) so "last Thursday" would have been the 12th." -- page 36).  Examples like this litter the book, and in fact the above quote was found by simply opening to a random page.  Since nobody really kept records, it's unclear when a lot of shows actually happened, and in reality, it's not very important or interesting to know the exact dates.  Even less interesting to read about someone debating back and forth as to when those dates occurred.

So, in reality, the book reads more like a fan's research paper on the band, a historical thesis if you will, rather than a rampaging story of an early band struggling to make it big.

Which is fine in and of itself.  Die-hard fans of bands gobble this stuff up.  Like comic book fans, they debate dates and line-ups and facts, and guitars used, and string tunings, etc.  So, that's all fine if that's what interests you. 

But what's not fine are other issues.

Daniels has a bad habit of repeating himself way too much.  Much of this is done by using previously published quotes that touch on the same subject, but it ends up being very repetitive.  For example, I must've read 6 times in just a few pages that "Dianno was too punk" for Maiden or many more times how much Harris hated punk.  Cool.  That's good to know and it does explain a lot.  But really, you don't need to tell me over and over.  It simply becomes repetitive. 

Also, for a book that seems to be so painstakingly researched, when a mistake is made it stands out worse than glitter eyeliner on a pig. The biggest error I came across that I just couldn't get past was:

"Manager Rod Smallwood had a significant amount of input into Iron Maiden's growing fanbase, having got them signed to EMI when other British metal bands were on much smaller labels such as Arista or Chrysalis, or even more obscure labels such as Neat, Shadow Kingdom, Buried by Time and Dust, High Roller and Steel Legacy."

Ouch!!!

Come on, Neil. Buried by Time and Dust is a reissue label run by a couple of brothers who were both in grade school when Iron Maiden signed to EMI.  They certainly weren't a label "other British metal bands" signed to in 1979.  Likewise, Shadow Kingdom started in 2004 and the label didn't exist until 2007, High Roller has a similar history as a reissue label which is based in Germany actually, not UK. And Steel Legacy (as the name implies) is a reissue label also started in 2004 and based in Greece.  I can guarantee, no NWOBHM bands were ever signed to these labels in 1979.

There were tons of very small labels that were started or issued NWOBHM releases like Rondolet, Ebony, Killerwat, and of course Neat.  And Smallwood did do an excellent job getting Maiden signed to EMI rather than one of these smaller labels.  I don't want to belabor this point, but when the book exists to be a more "scholarly"history of an early period in the band's history, minor errors like this are remarkably glaring. 

In the end, these types of errors and the repetitiveness are nothing that a good editor couldn't have fixed.

Overall, I like the book and I'll not soon be parting with my copy.  If you are a diehard fan of the band and love to debate minutia with your friends or ever once carried your own cardboard "air" guitar to an early NWOBHM gig, you may find a lot to enjoy here.  As a casual fan of Maiden or someone simply wanting to read about a rags-to-riches rock and roll success story, or debauchery on the road, you be be better served elsewhere.

--Racer


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