It was a drizzly, grey Saturday morning sometime in 1982 and I was being dragged around the shops by my parents. At some point, we ended up in a WH Smiths record shop. I wasn’t even into music then, of any description, but I flicked idly through the vinyl anyway just to pass the time. By chance, two tall, long-haired cavemen clad in denim and leather came and stood next to me. When one of them leaned over and picked up something called The Number of the Beast it grabbed my attention instantly, my ten-year-old face transfixed by the artwork on the front. As he lifted it out, I noticed more artwork, this time on the back of his jacket. Iron Maiden – Purgatory. It looked magnificent. I’d never even heard of Iron Maiden before then and I certainly didn’t know who or what a Purgatory was, but I knew I wanted to see more. Grabbing the next record in the section, my eyes didn’t leave the intricately painted sleeve until my parents came and literally pulled it out of my hands. Killers.
What a title. What a cover. A long-haired maniac gripping an axe and grinning insanely. Yellow street lights illuminating a blackened sky and dirty looking council houses. The clawed hands of a dying victim reaching upwards, hopelessly grasping at his murderer’s t-shirt. That image stayed with me until I finally discovered metal in 1984 when like a methodically planned TV show or film series, two years of foreshadowing suddenly fell into place. The seeds had been planted.
The final album to feature original vocalist Paul Di’Anno, 1981’s Killers remains a perfectly weighted mix of metal, punk, and progressive rock. Immediately proving a deliberate point that the band didn’t hold with convention, the album opens with a full-blown instrumental, ‘The Ides of March’. The doubleheader of ‘Wrathchild’ and ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’ follow, the former an instant three-minute classic, the latter another track which has more than stood the test of time, while also seeming to forget that the killer in the Edgar Allen Poe short story on which it was based is actually a giant orangutan.
The uptempo ‘Another Life’ possesses a snotty punk breakdown and is only slightly let down by a rather repetitive structure, while the record’s second instrumental ‘Genghis Khan’ is an eclectic mix of differing speeds and time signatures. Part of Maiden’s long-standing tradition of writing classic title tracks, ‘Killers’ is one of the two central highlights contained on the second half of the album. ‘Prodigal Son’ is a breezy but underrated slow-burner, and ‘Drifter’ is a boisterous closer, but the real treat here is the fast and furious penultimate track, ‘Purgatory’. A song that while unfortunately pinpointing Di’Anno’s limitations as a singer also hints strongly at the more adventurous style to come, bridging the gap perfectly between the two albums.
Taking the rawness of the debut while leading the band towards more classical and progressive (Acacia) avenues, Killers was written almost exclusively by bassist Steve Harris. And although showing occasional, fleeting signs of writer’s fatigue, the sheer talent and unbridled energy of the rest of the band more than makeup for it. The drumming from Clive Burr (RIP) is both effortlessly controlled and enthusiastically wild where necessary, and the newly formed partnership of Dave Murray and Adrian Smith was already paying dividends. Although Paul Di’Anno was soon to be replaced by the more flamboyant vocal gymnastics of Bruce Dickinson, the groundwork for Number… had most definitely been laid down. With both Derek Riggs‘s wonderful artistic evolution of cover mascot Eddie the Head and the inspired recruitment of the now sadly departed Martin Birch (nicknamed “Headmaster for this release”) as a producer, Killers was Maiden’s gateway to greatness.