Feel The Burn – Steve Harris’s Burning Ambition For Iron Maiden

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Most fans of the Classic Heavy Metal / New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) band Iron Maiden already know that bassist Steve Harris has always been the leader and driving force behind the band. He was the founder and is the only remaining original member.

But the story of his burning ambition for the band takes a bit of telling. Buckle up!

Getting Started

Steve Harris – the only surviving original member of Iron Maiden. It probably seems like Dave Murray has been around forever as well, but Terry Rance and Dave Sullivan were the original guitar duo.

Harris set the musical direction, and wrote so many of the memorable songs that still get played on loops by generations of fans to this day. So it’s no exaggeration to say that the Iron Maiden story would never have worked out without him at the helm. He had a Burning Ambition that pulled everyone else along in its wake. (He even wrote a song about it, that ended up as a B-side – check out The Hawk’s ranking of Classic Iron Maiden B-sides.)

Early Influences

But ambition alone was never going to be enough. Is never enough. Harris also had to rely on hard work, talent, perseverance, no small amounts of luck and a real ruthless streak even to get the band to the start line of their eventual era of global success. There have been quite a few rags-to-riches stories in classic heavy metal, but this is surely one of the best.

Steve Harris grew up with 2 serious passions in life – football and music. And on the latter, he was inspired by the progressive rock bands from the early 1970s, as well as the nascent heavy metal acts starting out at the time. No doubt these genres were both already planting seeds for what Iron Maiden would eventually become. The heavy, distorted guitars of Black Sabbath; the twin guitar melodies of Wishbone Ash; and the musical complexity of Jethro Tull. Other early influences would include Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Thin Lizzy, UFO and Yes.

Wanting to join a band for himself, Harris toyed with the idea of drumming, before abandoning it, as he had no room for a drum kit. Instead, he decided to go for the next instrument in the rhythm section – the bass.

The First Band – and the Second and Third!!

He didn’t waste any time. The east end of London where Harris grew up was a hotbed of music at the time, and so only 10 months after picking up a bass for the first time, he joined local outfit Gypsy’s Kiss (5 local gigs, then splitsville), followed soon after by Smiler. Annoyed by the reluctance of his Smiler band-mates to play some of the new songs he was now writing (he suspected that as well as their lack of enthusiasm for anything other than straight R&B, his material was too just difficult for them), Harris quit in frustration. Realizing he’d have to go it alone if he wanted to play his own material in his preferred style, he formed what would become Iron Maiden.

The new band didn’t actually have any name at all to begin with – already showing his perfectionist tendencies, Harris reasoned that the band should work on rehearsing their material first and then worry about a name later on. But, at some point, the name Iron Maiden materialized, named after a medieval torture instrument. There was an early scare when another group also claimed the Iron Maiden moniker, after which Harris rapidly registered it for himself and the rest is history.

Maiden’s first drummer, Ron ‘Rebel’ Matthews claims that the first Maiden gig in history was in front of only about 8 people, but they quickly grew a raucous local following, with fan favourites including ‘Wrathchild’ and ‘Iron Maiden’ already getting a run out in those early shows. 

Band Breaker

But problems were already surfacing. The first Iron Maiden singer, Paul Day was well liked and had a good voice. But Harris was unhappy with his lack of charisma up on stage, and so let him go in favour of a local showman named Denny Wilcock. Wilcock’s crowd-pleasing tricks included licking a sword blade on stage, whilst biting a blood capsule to make it look as though he’d really sliced off his own tongue – not for the faint hearted at the time.  Although his stint in the band wasn’t to last, he did leave them one lasting legacy – making an introducing to a new guitarist named Dave Murray.

There was briefly talk of adding Dave to the band to create a 6-piece with 3 guitars, but it wasn’t to be. With jobs, families and mortgages to worry about, original guitarists Sullivan and Rance were struggling to commit enough time to the band, the upshot being that both left. Following an audition in a mobile home in a field filled with cows (plus their, ahem, waste!!!), Harris was blown away by Murray’s ability and offered him the gig. Another guitarist, Bob Sawyer soon followed.

But Wilcock’s positive contribution to Maiden had already come to an end. According to Matthews, he had first joined Maiden with an already established reputation as a band-breaker, and history was to repeat itself. Falling out with bandmates Matthews, Murray and Sawyer, Wilcock persuaded Steve Harris to fire all of them, only to then quit himself shortly afterwards and with zero notice on the night of a gig.

Starting Over

In desperation, Harris decided to start all over again, this time with colleagues he could trust. He quickly brought back Dave Murray and also hired Doug Sampson, the drummer from his earlier stint with Smiler. They were soon introduced to a local singer, Paul DiAnno, and the show was back on the road.

Harris still wanted a second guitarist, but the gods didn’t smile on him when recruiting for that role. One candidate, Paul Todd, preferred to spend time with his girlfriend rather than come to rehearsals. He was quickly shown the door. Tony Parsons lasted only a few months. A promising candidate, ‘Mad Mac’ seemed to be the answer at audition, only to suffer from crippling stage fright at gigs.

The band resolved to carry on as a four-piece for the time being. They had started going further afield for gigs, even making a road trip to Aberdeen in their new pride and joy, the Green Goddess – a truck with enough room for their gear AND to sleep in after the show. They also continued to invest in their show. Wilcock’s blood-capsule trick was replaced by a fish tank pump spewing fake blood over the drummer’s head by way of the mouth of a Japanese-style Kabuki mask. Obviously, a blood capsule lacked sufficient volume for this stunt, so roadies improvised with any red liquid they could lay their hands on – anything from paint to food dye. Blonde – haired drummer Sampson often had a hell of a time getting it off after the shows, but put up with it for the sake of the performances.

The Soundhouse Tapes

At this point, the more famous parts of the early years Iron Maiden story kick in. Harris wanted to make a professional demo tape, and the band travelled to Spaceward studios in Cambridge on New Year’s Eve – the only day they could afford to hire the venue due to lack of interest from anyone else.

Intending to sleep in their van on a freezing winter night (after having spent all their money on making the tape), fate intervened briefly in their favour. Paul DiAnno managed to chat up a nurse in a pub, who offered to let the whole band sleep on the floor of her bedsit.  But the good luck evaporated the next day. Unable to pull together enough money to buy the 2’’ master tapes, the band had to return to London empty handed. And when they returned a few days later to complete the purchase, the tapes had been erased, leaving a ¼ ‘’ tape as the only remaining cut available.

With nothing else to show for his efforts, Steve Harris anyway took the tape to a well known heavy metal DJ in London, Neil Kay, who ran regular music nights at the Soundhouse club. (Hence ‘Soundhouse Tapes’ as the name for the demo). Harris asked Kay to give the demo a listen (legendary response: ‘get in the queue mate’). But after finally listening to the demo, Kay was suitably impressed. Adding the songs to his regular set, Kay was astonished to find that they were hitting the high ranks of his local heavy metal chart, with songs like ‘Prowler’ beating established acts like Black Sabbath and UFO. With the planets suitably aligned, Kay offered Maiden a gig at the club, and they duly brought the house down.

Rod Smallwood Comes On Board

Maiden’s next big problem was that they lacked management – someone to break down doors, arrange bigger gigs and even get them on the radar with a record label. They took a gamble. Harris sent a copy of the tape to Rod Smallwood, a young manager who had already built good know-how and contacts in the business. He agreed to arrange a couple gigs to see the band in the flesh, but disaster struck yet again. At the first gig, the band refused to take the stage early in front of an empty pub. Following a slanging match with the pub’s manager in the men’s toilets, (‘I’ll see that you never play in this part of London again!!’), Maiden walked out, leaving Smallwood none the wiser as to their prospects.

At the second gig, following singer Paul DiAnno’s arrest for carrying a knife in public, the band were forced to go on as a 3-piece with Harris doubling up as makeshift singer. Fortunately, DiAnno was released from the lock-up in time to join for the last half hour, and did enough to save the day – Smallwood agreed to take on the band. He arranged a 5000 unit production run of the Soundhouse Tapes that could be sold at gigs (those are a real collectors’ item these days), and also ramped up a roadmap of London gigs culminating with a night at the Marquee club.

All that was missing now was a record deal. Smallwood knew that EMI wanted to sign a heavy metal band, but due to the promotional costs associated with that genre (no radio play, no TV), they were determined only to take on one. Tossing up between Maiden and some Sheffield outfit called Def Leppard, legend has it that the fans swung the deal in Maiden’s favour. EMI boss Brian Shepherd arranged visit the Soundhouse personally to see Maiden play another gig there, but turned up late to find the place already packed. Worse was to follow when, standing at the back and craning his neck to see, some kids put a banner up right in front of him.

The verdict? ‘I couldn’t see the band, and couldn’t hear much, but the fans went absolutely wild, so we’ll sign them.’  A 3-album deal swiftly followed.

30 Quid a Week?

Thanks to the recording deal, the band decided to go fully pro and give up their day jobs – but being a full-time musician was a far from lucrative affair to begin with. Smallwood put them all on £30 a week, a pittance even in those days. But things were looking up. The loss of drummer Doug Sampson due to health issues (root cause: constantly sleeping in the back of a van, with a diet of junk food, booze and fags) turned out too be a relatively minor inconvenience. NWOBHM stalwart Clive Burr had experience with contemporary bad Samson, and proved a good fit for Maiden at his own audition. And Dennis Stratton agreed to join as a second guitarist to complete the first recording line-up.

So there you have it – the rollercoaster of the early Maiden years. Hirings and firings. Ups and downs. Big breaks and small ones. If you ask Classic Metal Hawk though, it’s par for the course. Hard work. Talent. Perseverance. Ruthlessness. And luck. In music, and certainly in Classic Heavy Metal at the time, you needed all these in spades – Maiden had all that. And most of it was personified by Steve Harris’s leadership.

But who knows? If you believe in the Metaverse, maybe there’s a universe out there where Harris squeezed a small drum kit into his room somehow, and the Iron Maiden story never happened. That early recording of ‘Iron Maiden’ sounds rough and ready to our ears now. But it set them on their way, and it’s great now to look back.

This is one of the most inspiring stories in Classic Heavy Metal, according to The Hawk. A guy that had never picked up a bass until his late teens ended up leading one of the most influential bands ever. Just shows what you can do with some drive, plenty of ideas and a good ear. Now to listen to the Soundhouse Tapes again.

Why not do the same, and share your thoughts in the comments below while you’re doing that? (Or send feedback direct to The Hawk).

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