1981 in Heavy Metal:
AC/DC - For Those About to Rock We Salute You
Accept - Breaker
Alice Cooper - Special Forces
Billy Idol - Don't Stop (debut)
Black Sabbath - Mob Rules
Blue Öyster Cult - Fire of Unknown Origin
Def Leppard - High 'n' Dry
Gillan - Future Shock / Double Trouble
Girlschool - Hit and Run
Hanoi Rocks - Bangkok Shocks, Saigon Shakes, Hanoi Rocks
Judas Priest - Point of Entry
Kiss - Music from "The Elder"
Krokus - Hardware
Mötley Crüe - Too Fast for Love (debut)
Motörhead - No Sleep 'til Hammersmith (live)
Ozzy Osbourne - Diary of a Madman
Samson - Shock Tactics (Bruce Dickinson's last)
Saxon - Denim and Leather
Thin Lizzy - Renegade
Van Halen - Fair Warning
Venom - Welcome to Hell
Whitesnake - Come an' Get It
Notable group beginnings: Metallica, Anthrax, Pantera, Slayer and Mötley Crüe - of which more later. In an important way however Killers is as much informed by 1980's run of metal, as this album is almost entirely comprised of new material (by contrast Iron Maiden's tracks were a good two or three years old by the time they were cut). It's also almost entirely a Steve Harris composition, with some input by Dave Murray and Paul Di'Anno.
Other commentators have tried to find a general theme for Killers, but if there is one it's not really that evident. Certainly the songs have recurring motifs, being either about those who kill, their victims or the wrongfully accused, but it's hard to read anything more into such rudimentary and perennial rock and roll subjects; both 'accused' songs have the protagonist beseeching a mother or other female for sanctuary or support. It's not as if there's anything new being said here, and we're still some way off from Steve Harris' better writing with some ropey rhymes ('bad'/'mad', 'knees'/'please' in Prodigal Son). The opening instrumental, The Ides of March, is as close to prog and the likes of early metal pioneers such as Sabbath as you're likely to get. It stands out once it's done, not for its quality so much as its sound - the drums are really muted, making it sound as though it was performed in a cardboard box. No time to waste though, as Killers properly cranks up with early favourite Wrathchild and one of the first of Steve Harris' classic bass intros. Harris will also introduce later track Innocent Exile making more exploratory use of the fretboard, while in Twilight Zone there's the characterisic 'gallop' in the choruses, propping up the pace of the song from the front as Harris himself would do onstage, one foot on the foldback monitor, bass head machine-gunning the crowd below.
(L-R Dave Murray, Clive Burr, Paul Di'Anno, Steve Harris, Adrian Smith)
So it goes with Killers - this is Maiden consolidating their sound and far from the 'difficult second album' syndrome. If anything this release is more about the singles than the first, and as stated above, the prog element is rapidly disappearing (although it would reappear in later albums as the group relaxed into things more), with only Ides of March and the opening bars of Murders in the Rue Morgue offering anything in that vein. Everyone's in good form - the drum fills are better, and Di'Anno's found a new voice - more powerful, confident and with a higher end, perhaps inspired by the likes of Judas Priest's Rob Halford, Steve Priest of The Sweet and Paul Stanley of Kiss, whom Maiden supported in an extensive European tour the year before. Unfortunately it would be the touring and to a greater extent the increasing pressure on the band to keep the momentum up, performing for months on end on the road that would see Paul DiAnno resort to stronger stuff to keep it together. Exhausted, and with the demands of the band's first tour in the US showing no signs of slowing, he was let go by manager Rod Smallwood in September 1981 before the Killers tour, and the rest is fodder for the next post. You have to feel sorry for Di'Anno - in interviews and documentaries he comes across as a genuinely nice guy, a joker and with an easy charisma that would have served him well on stage. It's worth noting that as far as I can see Maiden fans bear him no ill will either, unlike a later more polarising singer and, lest I forget to mention this next time, the arrival of Bruce Dickinson was not universally welcomed by the band's fan base. But when said and done perhaps the fit wasn't perfect, and Di'Anno's dismissal speaks more down the years of the sheer drive to professionalism maintained by Harris and Smallwood. With few opportunities for international success on merchandising and music videos, Iron Maiden's early success was directly down to a tried and true method of almost constant gruelling touring. Of course there would be causalties, and more would come.
But it's not all bad, as Adrian Smith - new guitarist and ex-schoolmate of Dave Murray has entered the room, and the difference in the band's sound again is palpable. For the first time Maiden can reliably be said to have no lead guitarist, nor rhythm - both would compliment each other and share lead breaks, often working in harmony across the same break in another highly distinctive, signature sound for the band. Smith has a different sound to Murray, and they bounce off each other well. It's a muscial relationship that's still to pay off in this album - there are hints here and there (the extended breaks in album closer Drifter for one), but for the most part Smith's contribution is not to balance out Murray's contribution as Dennis Stratton's part had tried to do, but add to it turning a previously weak spot into another offensive wall.
I've been guilty of undervaluing this album, perhaps looking forward more to the arrival of Bruce Dickinson and the more stable line-up that followed, but Killers is a pretty solid and consistent album, aided greatly by Steve Harris' almost sole writing duties and some greater attention paid to Paul Di'Anno's role in the band. Wrathchild is a great single, and a clear standout, but also good are Rue Morgue, the title track, and Prodigal Son. Only Drifter is the throwback, repeating verse and chorus and descending into a lengthy instrumental at the end, but as it ushers in a new sound to the band capitalising on a new second guitarist and allows Di'Anno the last undulating howl of his Maiden voyage, it's still a pass.
Killers is in a way almost mark 2 of the Iron Maiden cover, but a vast improvement - it's dynamic, makes better use of light and colour, and Eddie is better formed, rather than the head and shoulders of the debut artwork. Standing over an unseen victim clawing away up his cadaverous form (following the loose single sleeve continuity one might get away with suggesting it's a certain UK ex-PM and other iron maiden) he has in his hand a tomahawk - a very 1970s serial killer weapon, and once more he stared devillishly out at the viewer, white pinpricks of hellfire 'blazing in his eyes'. The primary light source is no longer the moon but a street light. Behind him is the East End neighbourhood, not greatly removed from that of Iron Maiden, although the houses are clearly inhabited this time - there's life in the streets, and it's suggested that the 'red light' window with dressing/undressing occupant belongs to a number 22 Acacia Ave, the aforementioned Charlotte the Harlot. As Maiden covers go it's one of the best, and kicks off a winning sequence by stable artist Derek Riggs that become ever more imaginative through to the band's seventh studio album. For the time being and excluding the Twilight Zone single cover this is the last time we'll see Eddie in an urban setting; like his band his destiny lies far beyond London's mean streets.
Tracks via YouTube (live where possible)
1. The Ides of March (instrumental)
2. Wrathchild (live at the Rainbow, 1981)
3. Murders in the Rue Morgue (US tour Bootleg)
4. Another Life (from the Maiden Japan EP)
5. Genghis Khan (live instrumental - enjoy the drums!)
6. Innocent Exile (live Soundhouse Tapes recording)
7. Killers (Harris/Di'Anno - another Live at the Rainbow clip)
8. Prodigal Son (studio version)
9. Purgatory (Maiden Japan track - HUGE bass!)
10. Twilight Zone (Harris/Murray. 1998 reissue bonus track, album version)
11. Drifter (Live at the Marquee)