As Iron Maiden’s third album (and first with singer Bruce Dickinson), ‘The Number of the Beast,’ hits its 40th anniversary, the question on everyone’s mind is… how the HELL has this band not been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Go to any major rock festival in the U.S. this year (or any year), and nearly every band on the bill owes Maiden a debt (and they all probably have worn out their share of Maiden cassettes, CDs and t-shirts).
The band has released a handful of classic albums, including The Number of the Beast. And with their most recent two double(!) albums, The Book of Souls and Senjutsu , they’ve shown that there’s still more gas in the tank. Here, we rank their classics, starting with their debut album, going all the way up through 2021’s excellent Senjutsu. And here’s hoping that the Rock Hall does the right thing and puts Maiden on the ballot in 2023 (in the meantime, they’d better induct Judas Priest this year).
As Bruce Dickinson (who co-wrote the song with Adrian Smith) told Apple music, “This track is as close as you’re going to get to ‘Piece of Mind’ or ‘Powerslave’-era Maiden. Four minutes, super high-energy riff, big anthemic chorus, big vocals—all that. Incredible riff from Adrian, and basically no guitar solo. The lyric is a reimagining of the graphic novel ‘Constantine,’ particularly the  movie version with Keanu Reeves. It’s kind of an interesting set-up, because there’s always the assumption that God is the good guy. In this scenario, God seems to be a manipulative narcissist. He’s almost like a psychopath: ‘I’m going to do all this horrible stuff to you, and then you just have to love me.’ How does that work? That’s what the song asks.”
The last song on the band’s second album, their final LP with original singer Paul Di’Anno. Maiden’s music during the Di’Anno era was a little more street-wise than what they’d do once Bruce Dickinson joined. In this song, a “drifter” who doesn’t fit in with society, finds solace with his romantic love interest, and in the music that he loves. “Gotta get my song and I can't go wrong/Gotta keep on roaming, gotta sing my song!” It’s even a bit romantic! “What you feeling when you hold me tight?/I'm gonna cuddle up to you tonight/Gonna get you feeling so secure!”
After experimenting with synthesizers – which was controversial among many of their fans – on 1986’s ‘Somewhere In Time,’ Iron Maiden kicked off ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’ with Bruce Dickinson crooning over an acoustic guitar. But 25 seconds in, the synths take over, heralding one of the best prog-metal albums of all time.
“We want information. Information. INFORMATION!” “The Prisoner” starts with dialog from the British TV series ‘The Prisoner.’ And then: that massive drumbeat, courtesy of founding member Clive Burr. The dialog ends with the prisoner protesting: “I am not a number: I am a free man!” which Bruce Dickinson echoed in the song lyrics. It was a rallying cry among disaffected metal fans during the era.
Written by Bruce Dickinson, it’s one of the few Maiden jams that the singer wrote on his own. This one was about Aleister Crowley, who claimed to be the “Antichrist 666,” as predicted in the Bible’s Book of Revelation.
Three decades earlier, Steve Harris wrote about a World War II aerial battle in “Aces High.” Here, Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith returned to the unfriendly skies, co-writing this song about World War I German Air Force fighter pilot Manfred von Richthofen, aka “The Red Baron.” It’s one of the many highlights of ‘The Book Of Souls.’
“Who *is* Benjamin Breeg?” was the question on the minds of many Maiden fans in the lead-up to the release of the ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ album. It turns out that Breeeg was a fictional character that the band and their team came up with for an early viral campaign to promote the album. As has often been the case throughout their career, Maiden was way ahead of the curve.
One of the band’s most straight-ahead rock songs. After years of being demonized (pun intended) by evangelicals, Maiden turned the mirror on the hypocrisy of the religious right in America: "Jimmy the Reptile" was probably Jimmy Swaggart, "The TV Queen" was probably Tammy Faye Bakker. And of course, there were "plenty of bad preachers for the Devil to stoke."
A thirteen and a half minute epic written by Steve Harris. As with “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Bruce Dickinson wondered how he’d remember all of the words. But, also as with “Rime,” Steve had a great song, even if it was lengthy. New songs are often a cue for a bathroom break, particularly with legacy acts. But not with Maiden fans: this writer saw Maiden perform “The Red and the Black” at Madison Square Garden to a crowd of fans chanting along with the catchy “whoa-ooo-ooo-ooa!” chorus as if it was a weathered classic, just weeks after its release.
A few years into their career, Maiden fans were on high alert for anything that wasn’t “metal” enough, and ballads would not have been easily accepted. But on Iron Maiden’s debut, they had a bit more freedom, and this song, which had shades of Hendrix’s slow jams, was an amazing showcase for Paul Di’Anno’s voice.
Written by Adrian Smith, the song is about an Arctic explorer who dies and is frozen in the ice; a century later, his body is found preserved by other explorers. A very straight-ahead song, it showed the direction that Smith was heading in.
Another one of the band’s most straight-ahead songs, it kind of stood out on the prog-rock-y ‘Seventh Son of A Seventh Son.’ “Can I Play With Madness?” may have been too commercial for some of Maiden’s fans, but it was one of their biggest “hits,” reaching the top ten in the U.K., as well as in Norway and New Zealand.
The song was actually inspired by Steve Harris’s father, who had recently died. “Just for a second a glimpse of my father I see/And in a movement he beckons to me/And in a moment the memories are all that remain/And all the wounds are reopening again.” It was a mature metal song, one that reckoned with mortality. “There are times when I feel I'm afraid for the world,” Dickinson sings (but it’s Harris’s lyrics). “There are times I'm ashamed of us all.”
At the time, this was Maiden’s most accessible and radio-friendly jam; it was written by Adrian Smith, who also sang backing vocals (again, you could see him moving towards a solo career, especially if you listened to the B-side, “Reach Out,” which Smith sang lead on). It was kind of like Maiden’s “Turn The Page”; “Wasted Years” was about spending weeks and months and years on the road.
The backward recording at the beginning of the song was new drummer Nicko McBrain “taking the piss” (as the Brits say) out of American evangelicals, who were concerned that Iron Maiden’s “Satanic messages” would influence the youth. Nicko told Maiden biographer Mick Wall, “We were sick and tired of being labeled as Devil worshippers and all this bollocks by these f—ing morons in the States, so we thought, 'Right, you want to take the piss? We'll show you how to take the bleeding piss, my son!'” They taped him mimicking a British comedy routine. “I remember it distinctly ended with the words, 'Don't meddle wid t'ings yo don't understand.' We thought, if people were going to be stupid about this sort of thing, we might as well give them something to be really stupid about.” The song itself, written by Steve Harris and Dave Murray, was inspired by the 1964 short story "The Inhabitant of the Lake.”
Another song based on war; this one focuses on the horrors of battle. “Laying low in a blood-filled trench/Kill time 'til my very own death/On my face I can feel the falling rain/Never see my friends again.” This is one of Maiden’s most underrated songs.
Five years after ‘The Final Frontier,’ Maiden returned with their first double album, and this song kicked it off. It was written by Dickinson and originally intended for a solo album. Happily, the band used it; it’s one of their best songs of the millennium.
New drummer Nicko McBrain introduced himself to Maiden fans powerfully on the first track on his first album with the group. Formerly of the French metal band Trust, he immediately announced himself as the perfect replacement for Clive Burr in the first few seconds of this song. Written by Steve Harris, “Where Eagles Dare” is based on a 1967 Alistair Maclean novel about a World War II covert rescue of an American general from a Nazi stronghold in the Bavarian Alps. Besides introducing McBrain, the song introduced the idea that Maiden was quickly expanding their lyrical subject matter.
“Fear of the Dark” was the final song and title track from Dickinson’s final album with Maiden for years. The studio version is great. But it’s one of those songs that just takes on a different life when it’s played live. ‘Rock In Rio’ was recorded during one of Maiden’s first tours with Dickinson (and Adrian Smith) back in the band. Recorded at the festival of the same name, the show took place at the end of the ‘Brave New World’ tour… in front of about 250,000 fans, many of whom were seeing Maiden for the first time.
Fans may have wondered: could Iron Maiden do *just one more* great album? Metal, after all, is mostly a younger person’s game. But when Maiden debuted the first song from their latest album, ‘Senjutsu,’ it was clear that, even in their 60s, Maiden still has classic material in their arsenal.
Clocking in at over thirteen and a half minutes, the Steve Harris-penned tune was based on the 1798 poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In the 1980s, high school literature teachers across America were perplexed over why their long-haired students were suddenly interested in a nearly 200-year old poem. “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was why.
With the lush synthesizers and bluesy guitar at the beginning, this Steve Harris-penned jam veered pretty close to being a ballad. Like “Still Life” and “Fear of the Dark,” it dealt with fear, and anxiety, visions and nightmares.
Co-written by Steve Harris and Paul Di’Anno, this is one of the most terrifying songs in the Maiden canon. “‘Scream for mercy,’” Di’Anno growls. “He laughs as he's watching you bleed/Killer behind you/His blood-lust defies all his needs.” Bruce Dickinson has been singing Di’Anno’s songs since he joined the band, and he’s a technically better singer. But he’s not nearly as scary as Di’Anno was on the song.
Written by Bruce Dickinson, it’s the title track and centerpiece of Maiden’s fifth album, using the ancient Egyptian references that would influence the LP’s cover. A song about an arrogant leader (in this case, a Pharaoh) in his final hours, who can’t believe that his time is coming to an end, and he’s kind of kicking and screaming about it. He promises to return and haunt his heir.
Written by Steve Harris, “Killers” features one of his coolest basslines. The fury in the song is almost like the punk rock of the U.K. at the time. And that’s understandable: the narrator is looking for his absentee dad: “I was born into a scene of angriness and greed/And dominance and persecution/My mother was a queen, my dad I've never seen/I was never meant to be/And now I spend my time looking all around/For a man that's nowhere to be found.” Under the rage, this is one of Maiden’s saddest songs.
The first song from the first Maiden album, it set the stage for more horrifying stories to come. As the title insinuates, the song is about a creepy guy who, as it turns out, flashes women.
Based on the 1963 film of the same name, that movie is about six children with psychic abilities who are forced to battle for their survival against an inferior human race. Spoiler alert: the kids are all killed, and the song describes the scene: “Smiles as the flame sears his flesh/Melting his face, screaming in pain/Peeling the skin from his eyes/Watch him die according to plan.” And then, the kicker: “He's dust on the ground, what did we learn?”
Inspired by the 1910 novel… which also inspired the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical of the same name, which is not nearly as cool as the Maiden tune. The song, and the story, is about a character whose ugliness forces him to live as a recluse, an outcast from society. But really, he just wants to be loved. He falls in love with a beautiful young opera singer, but he burns with jealousy towards her fiance. As well as towards the rest of the human race.
Maiden’s 1999 reunion tour with Bruce Dickinson showed that the band still had chemistry and power. But could they add to their discography? “The Wicker Man” was the lead single from the first Iron Maiden album with Bruce Dickinson in eight years; it showed that they still had a lot of gas in the tank, more stories to tell and more riffs to unleash.
A nearly ten-minute epic written by Steve Harris. He was influenced by the 1987 ‘Seventh Son’ fantasy novel. The instrumental jamming on the song veered from segments that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the first two Maiden albums but then morphed into very futuristic-sounding proggy bits. Between the very mainstream sounding “Can I Play With Madness?” and the full embrace of keyboards, the ‘Seventh Son’ album was somewhat controversial at the time, but in hindsight, it is one of the band’s masterpieces.
Loosely based on the Greek myth of Icarus (who created wings and flew too high, and got too close to the sun). The song was written by Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith, and was Maiden’s first video to get significant (or, any) airplay on MTV. Steve Harris has said that he doesn’t love the song, but it surely was instrumental in turning millions of American fans on to Iron Maiden.
The studio version was Iron Maiden’s first single; as good as that version was, the definitive take is the live one from the ‘Maiden Japan’ EP. Co-written by Steve Harris and Paul Di’Anno, Di’Anno said the lyrics were based loosely on his life (although, being British, he never spent a night in “an L.A. jail”). As he told Mick Wall in Maiden’s authorized biography, ‘Run To The Hills,’ “It's about being 16 and just running wild and running free. It comes from my days as a skinhead."
The song was inspired by the Battle Of Britain in World War II. As with “Running Free,” the studio version of “Aces High” was great… but the live version just added something. In 1985, Maiden may have been the hottest band in the world (with apologies to Gene and Paul), and the energy was off the charts when the lights went down and they played an excerpt of Winston Churchill’s famous 1940 “We shall fight on the beaches” speech, and then launched into “Aces High.”
Nearly 30 years after Maiden’s debut, Metallica covered this slow jam for a tribute album. Lars Ulrich said, “It was basically the blueprint for songs like 'Fade to Black' and 'Sanitarium' and when we were jamming our way thru most of our favorite early Maiden songs, this one stood out and also came together somewhat effortlessly.”
Considered by many to be the definitive Maiden song. Metal Hammer’s readers voted it the best Maiden song of all time; it also topped the “All Iron Maiden Songs Ranked” list published by metal website Loudwire. And as Steve Harris (who wrote the song) once said, “If someone who’d never heard Maiden before – someone from another planet or something – asked you about Maiden, what would you play them? I think 'Hallowed Be Thy Name' is the one.”
Maiden isn’t really considered a “political” band, but this song, written by Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith, is an anti-war protest, but they don’t just take aim at the “war machine,” they also blast the media’s coverage of war: “Napalm screams of human flames/For a prime-time Belsen feast, yeah/As the reasons for the carnage cut/Their meat and lick the gravy/We oil the jaws of the war machine/And feed it with our babies.”
Like Black Sabbath before them, Iron Maiden had a self-titled song on their self-titled debut. This punk rock-ish jam, co-written by Steve Harris and Paul Di’Anno, doesn’t boast Maiden’s best lyrics, but it always works when they play it live. Even though only two guys who played on the original version are still in the band – Harris and guitarist Dave Murray – it’s still a timeless anthem to both Maiden and the fans. According to Setlist.fm, it has been played more than any other Maiden song: as of this writing, it has made their set over 2,200 times.
Oh, the controversy and the pearl-clutching! When this album, and this song, was released in America, certain parents feared that it would turn their kids into Satan-worshiping cretins. As author Mick Wall wrote in ‘Run to the Hills’: “In America, where the title of the album had caused a storm of protest from the emerging so-called ‘moral majority,’ a right-wing American political pressure group ludicrously accused Maiden of being Devil worshippers and of ‘trying to pervert our kids.’” Steve Harris added, “They obviously hadn't read the lyrics.” Do they ever? “They just wanted to believe all that rubbish about us being Satanists." Of course, the negative publicity only helped the band. The song itself is obviously one of Maiden’s greatest, and Dickinson’s haunted operatic screams in the song definitely differentiated him from Paul Di’Anno.
Maiden and their fans are fortunate that Steve Harris is both well-read and a student of history; had that not been the case, the band probably would have run out of material a long time ago. “The Trooper” was inspired by a British cavalry charge against the Russian army during the Crimean War at Balaclava on October 25, 1854. Lots of people died horrible deaths that day. Harris’s empathy for people who suffer in senseless wars comes through in many Maiden songs, especially this one. “And as I lay there gazing at the sky/My body's numb and my throat is dry,” Dickinson wails. “And as I lay forgotten and alone/Without a tear, I draw my parting groan.”
The album’s title track was the one that parents and religious “leaders” were sweating (and moaning) over, but had ‘The Number of the Beast’ LP been released today, “Run To The Hills” might have gotten more attention. It depicts the colonization of America, and the first verse comes from the perspective of Native Americans. The […]