I’m a sucker for those old ‘What If?’ Marvel Comics, where they tackled fan favourite debates like “What if Spider-Man had joined the Fantastic Four?”. All in good fun, and the best ones would actually get to the core of what made these characters work so well.
There’s one musical ‘What If’ scenario that has been debated for a long time among metal fans, and it’s whether or not Iron Maiden would have achieved the same level of success had they stuck with Paul Di’Anno instead of getting Bruce Dickinson to join the band. I’ve given this probably too much thought, but I’ll take a shot and commit myself to an answer.
But first we have to breakdown the discussion into 3 parts. 1- Why did the band change singers? 2- What was the impact of Dickinson’s arrival? and 3- What factors made Iron Maiden such superstars?
Why did the band change singers?
By the time the calendars switched to 1982, Iron Maiden had two strong albums behind them with singer Paul Di’anno. Their self-titled debut album had peaked at #4 in their native UK, but the follow up, ‘Killers’, failed to crack the top 10 and stalled at #12, although it did enter the US charts, peaking at #78, something the debut had failed to accomplish. Despite their sophomore release being seen as a slight disappointment commercially, the band’s popularity was rising, having supported Judas Priest, KISS and UFO.
Singer Paul Di’Anno’s strong personality didn’t sit right with the tight grip that leader Steve Harris and manager Rod Smallwood kept on the band, which led to personal conflicts. Di’Anno was getting frustrated that his songs weren’t accepted by the band, claiming he wrote much better tracks than Harris. At a press conference in Argentina in 2009, he angrily told reporters: “I wrote fuckin’ 20-times better songs than his, but I only got one song on the ‘Killers‘ album because it’s Steve’s — he must have this.” (Reported by Blabbermouth) In the same interview he claims to have quit the band because “they were going too heavy metal, and Iron Maiden is a money-making machine, and I don’t give a fuck about it.” Considering he only got 3 co-writing credits on the first two Maiden records, and his post-Maiden career revolved around re-recording Iron Maiden songs multiple times, we can easily dismiss his bragging about his songwriting prowess.
Di’Anno also struggled with alcohol and drug addiction, and that often prevented him from performing to the best of his abilities. But the singer blamed his problems on the band’s heavy touring. His struggles led to cancellations, which didn’t sit right with the rest of the band who knew they needed to tour relentlessly to build a following. This led to their decision to fire Di’Anno from the band and the singer played his last show with Iron Maiden on September 10th 1981 at the Odd Fellow’s Mansion in Copenhagen, Denmark.
What was the impact of Dickinson’s arrival?
Steve Harris was interested in expanding his song writing towards longer, more complex arrangements, and more soaring vocals. He and Rod Smallwood had their eye on singer Bruce Bruce of Samson, who interestingly had secretly been longing to front Iron Maiden ever since they’d opened for Samson at the Music Machine in 1980. As reported in Mick Wall’s ‘Run to the Hills: The Authorised Biography’, Dickinson said “I was watching them, and they were good, really fucking good, and at that moment, I remember thinking, ‘I wanna fucking sing for that band. In fact, I’m going to sing for that band! I know I’m going to sing for that band!’ … I just thought, ‘This is really me. Not Samson.'”
Samson played its last show at the Reading Festival in 1981, and after the gig, Rod Smallwood approached the singer with an offer. He auditioned for the band in September of that year and was immediately hired. Bruce Bruce was gone, and Bruce Dickinson was now a member of Iron Maiden.
Iron Maiden’s first album had featured the best songs from their first 4 years as a band. ‘Killers’ used the rest of the material, and a few newly written tracks. When it came time to think of the third album, the cupboards were bare. “When we got to the third album we had nothing,” Steve Harris admitted to Classic Rock Magazine. “We had to write from scratch.” The band got together for 2-3 weeks, with the task of writing an album. As it turned out, their new singer would have an immediate impact on the band’s sound. “When Bruce joined, it opened up the possibilities for the new album tremendously”, recalled manager Rod Smallwood. “I simply didn’t think Paul was capable of handling vocals on some of the quite complicated directions I knew Steve wanted to explore.”
Dickinson, still under contract with Samson, couldn’t write with the band, or at least couldn’t be credited. But over the years, the band has admitted that the singer had a major impact on 3 songs: ‘The Prisoner’, ‘Children of the Damned’ and “Run to the Hills’. These songs happen to be the ones where it is the hardest to imagine Paul Di’Anno singing, so one must posit that Dickinson’s influence was quite important. Dickinson even claims to have written the drum beat that opens ‘The Prisoner’ in that Classic Rock interview. “Our drummer [Clive Burr] wasn’t there, he was out having a cup of tea, so being a frustrated drummer I started bashing out this simple drum beat at the beginning, and then Adrian started playing this riff. Harry came in and went: “Wow, what a great riff!”. And then we just started.” ‘The Prisoner’ simply doesn’t exist if Bruce never joins the band.
Without Dickinson, the album also loses its first single, ‘Run to the Hills’, which reached #7 on the charts, and paved the way for the album going to #1 upon release a few weeks later. The band then capitalized on its success with the controversial single “The Number of the Beast”. Heavy touring followed as the band started making a name worldwide.
On the next two records, Dickinson would once again contribute to key tracks, like ‘Revelations’ and ‘Flight of Icarus’ off 1983’s ‘Piece of Mind’, and ‘2 Minutes to Midnight’ and the title track off of 1984’s ‘Powerslave’.
What factors made Iron Maiden such superstars?
This is where the debate becomes more subjective. Certainly, heavy touring helped them build an audience, with the ‘Beast on the Road’ and ‘World Piece’ tours. But the band topped both of them with the 11-month ‘World Slavery Tour’, that saw the band play in markets almost entirely ignored by Western touring acts at the time. Their unprecedented string of shows behind the iron curtain earned them a lot of goodwill with fans there, and expanded their audience tremendously. Even in North America, the band reached many B and C markets that were routinely skipped by major bands. Their impeccable work ethic earned them a lot of their success.
Musically, with ‘The Number of the Beast’, Iron Maiden entered their prime years creatively. That period through 1988’s ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’ yielded most of the band’s classic tracks that to this day occupy a large part of their setlists. There is a clear stylistic departure in their writing as the band made use of their new singer’s incredible vocal range. Steve Harris also pushed the band towards longer songs with complicated arrangements inspired by his love of progressive rock, something that Di’Anno had been very vocally against. How much of their success comes down to Dickinson’s vocals? A lot in my opinion, but Steve Harris’ epic songwriting is another important factor in their rise to stardom. How much of it was inspired by having a high range vocalist in his band? That’s of course a debate we can never settle.
The third element upon which Iron Maiden’s fame was built is entirely non-musical. Growing up in the 80’s, the band’s albums stood out in the record racks by virtue of their amazing Derek Riggs covers. Eddie’s face and multiple personas were just as fascinating as the music was. I’d venture that everyone already knew of the band the first time they heard their music. The visual aspect of the band (and its inevitable merchandising) was a sure deal, no matter what happened in the band.
What if Bruce Dickinson had never joined Iron Maiden (a tale of fiction)
So knowing that the band wouldn’t have toured as much, that Dickinson’s songwriting contribution would at best be partially replaced, and that there would be push back against a shift towards more orchestrated songs, what would Iron Maiden’s future be like? Here’s a possible scenario.
It’s early September in 1981, and Iron Maiden is close to the end of a short tour of Europe. The weather’s turning cold in Denmark, and tempers are running hot in the band. The band is frustrated with singer Paul Di’Anno, who’s very critical of the band’s heavy touring schedule, and his drinking and drug use are affecting his live performance. The band’s last album didn’t sell as well as they had hoped, and everyone but the stubborn singer feels they need to work even harder to reach the success they feel is close at hand.
For his part, Di’Anno is annoyed that bassist Steve Harris controls ‘his’ band with an iron fist, helped by manager Rod Smallwood. He hates Harris’ more heavy metal songwriting, and he feels he’s trying to take the band in an epic direction that doesn’t suit him.
After the last show of the tour in Copenhagen, on September 10, the band holds a meeting to clear the air. If they are to move forward, they’ll need to work as a unit. Tempers flare, words fly and fists are brandished, but the band comes out with an understanding: some things must change.
Di’Anno promises to curtail his drinking and cut out drugs. He’ll also go along with Harris’s desire to write more epic songs. In return, the band will relax its touring schedule, trying to be more strategic in choosing where and when to play, to avoid wearing out their singer. And they’ll use more of his songs in the future. The band has a 5 week break until the tour picks up in Italy, so they start writing new material. ‘Run to the Hills’ comes out quite differently without Dickinson, as does ‘Children of the Damned’. ‘The Prisoner’ never exists in this timeline, so ‘Total Eclipse’ makes the album. Di’anno’s contributions water down Harris’ progressive leanings, so the new records comes out a lot closer in style to ‘Killers’ than to the album we know.
The label uses the title track as its first single, stirring up controversy before the album is even released, with the band facing accusations of being devil worshippers. With ‘Hallowed Be Thy Name’ being too long for a single release, the punkier ‘Run to the Hills’ gets the nod and fails to catch on with the general public without the operatic chorus we know. Overall the album scores well with their fans though, cementing their following, but fails to make significant inroads with the general public.
‘The Beast on the Road’ tour is still spread over 10 months, but is considerably lighter, hitting mostly major markets. A large tour of the UK and Europe means that the band passes on an extended US tour as an opener for .38 Special, but after some rest they open for Scorpions on a gruelling US trek that forces them to pass on a similar opportunity with Judas Priest. After more rest, shows in Australia and Japan close out the year.
So we’re one album into our alternate reality, and the band has released an album that partially showed their growth but ultimately failed to expand their fan base by much. Let’s remember that in the real world, Paul Di’anno has never written anything on the same level has what Iron Maiden has released, so it’s hard to imagine him making up for Dickinson’s contributions.
Now as we get to the ‘Piece of Mind’ album, this is where extrapolation becomes difficult. I can imagine Di’anno singing ‘Hallowed Be Thy Name’ or ‘Number of the Beast’. They would probably be much different in feel, but they’d still be beloved songs. But ‘Piece of Mind’ is everything Di’anno hated about Iron Maiden.
It’s important to note also that Bruce Dickinson wrote or co-wrote 4 songs on ‘Piece of Mind’, including three tracks that are still played live to this day: ‘Revelations’ (Dickinson), ‘Flight of Icarus’ (Smith, Dickinson), ‘Die With Your Boots On’ (Smith, Dickinson, Harris) and ‘Sun and Steel’ (Dickinson, Smith). Without Bruce in the band, the album is missing 3 of its 4 strongest tracks, including its leading single. Considering how poor the weakest track of the album is (‘Quest for Fire’), it’s safe to say the band didn’t have many songs in reserve. How would the fairly repetitive ‘Where Eagles Dare’ fare without the soaring vocals we know? Would Di’Anno have balked at doing a song based on ‘Dune’? There’s a fair chance that ‘Piece of Mind’ is a dud without Dickinson’s contributions.
In our reality, the ‘World Piece Tour‘ took the band on the road from May to December, hitting A, B and C markets in Europe and North America, something that would not have been possible with Di’Anno. The recipe would be repeated for ‘Powerslave’ and the ‘World Slavery Tour‘ that saw the band hit the road for 11 months, once again supporting an album featuring two important contributions from Dickinson: the album’s lead single ‘2 Minutes to Midnight’ and the album’s title track. (He also wrote ‘Back in the Village’, but it played no part in their rise to fame).
At this point, Harris would probably be frustrated to have to tone down his writing ambitions, and would want to tour more. He’d either a- fire Di’anno, b- keep Iron Maiden going as a mid level band with a side project to write what he wants, or c- break up the band. There’s absolutely no way we’re getting ‘Somewhere in Time’ and ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’ from a Di’anno-fronted Iron Maiden.
The ‘World Slavery Tour’ was the pinnacle of their fame in the 80’s, as far as attendance is concerned. Subsequent tours suffered very slight dips in attendance until the ‘No Prayer on the Road’ tour where attendance started to drop substantially, especially in North America as hair bands took over audiences. Interestingly enough, Steve Harris had decided to move Maiden away from the epic songwriting after ‘Seventh Son’, and Dickinson changed his singing style to something more growly. Ironically, Di’Anno would have probably been a better fit for what they were trying to do, but their rapidly declining sales and attendance prove that this was not what their audience wanted.
Maiden had already built a sizeable following and were able to survive that drop, but by the mid-90’s, with Dickinson gone, the band was holding on by a thread. Had they not built that cult status beforehand, they would have been wiped out and reduced to playing clubs like so many of their peers. I firmly believe this would have been their fate had they stuck it out with Paul Di’Anno.
Paul Di’Anno did not want any part of what Iron Maiden was trying to build, so this alternate timeline had a low probability of ever happening anyway. But even if they’d found a common ground, Iron Maiden today would at best be a band doing the festival rounds in Europe, with an occasional club tour in North America. With Di’Anno staying, even for just a few years, they would have missed their window of opportunity, and they’d be a Saxon level band today. Without that epic songwriting style, it is doubtful the band would have found the level of fame they have, nor would they have had the resurgence in fame they’ve enjoyed for the last 15 years as a younger generation discovered their amazing body of work.
Make no mistake: the two Di’Anno albums are classics, and both are excellent. But they are not what made Iron Maiden the legends they are now. Without Bruce Dickinson, the heavy metal landscape would be much different today.
Whether you agree or disagree with my take, I’d love to read your comments!