Friday 6 March 2020

Iron Maiden vs Def Leppard vs Saxon

The Battle of NWOBHM

The New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (a bit of a mouthful - helpfully abbreviated to NWOBHM ( pronounced Ner-wob-am)) was a "thing", a title, bestowed by Kerrang Magazine in 1979 to recognise the swell of new bands around the country (yes, this was a Nationwide thing, not just starting in London and spreading outwards).
The formula was fairly simple - take equal parts Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Thin Lizzy, Wishbone Ash, Budgie, Prog Rock etc (ie early to mid-70s rock noises), mix them up however you wish, add a dose of DIY Punk ethic, and pretend to play an imaginary guitar, and hey presto: NWOBHM
(maybe not that simple, but you get the idea).
Of all the bands to get a record out, and column inches in the media, perhaps the 3 biggest lights were:
  • Iron Maiden (from East London)
  • Def Leppard (from Sheffield)
  • Saxon (from Barnsley)
As a "thing", NWOBHM ran from 1979 to it's death throes in 1983.  So lets see that was released in those years, how they compare, and declare who is the foremost exponent of NWOBHM.

I'm aligning the start of this analysis to 1980 due to the release of the EMI compilation 'Metal For Muthas', Diamond Head's 'Lightning To The Nations' and a host of smaller bands (often on independent labels) getting their 15 minutes of fame and Kerrang features.

Saxon's debut ('Saxon') was released in 1979, and is an OK album - if a little confused as to the market/sound it's aiming at.  It was only really the track "Stallions of the Highway" which (in retrospect) pointed the way forward for the band - others come close ("Rainbow Theme" / "Frozen Rainbow" being a prime example), but that track is the definite stand-out.

In the period 1980 to 1983, Saxon manged 5 albums, Iron Maiden 4, and Def Leppard 3.
So basing this purely on output means Saxon win, but how do these albums compare?
The albums were are:

  • 1980 Wheels of Steel / Strong Arm of the Law
  • 1981 Denim and Leather 
  • 1982 The Eagle Has Landed
  • 1983 Power & the Glory
Iron Maiden
  • 1980 Iron Maiden
  • 1981 Killers
  • 1982 Number Of The Beast
  • 1983 Piece Of Mind
Def Leppard
  • 1980 On Through The Night
  • 1981 High n Dry
  • 1983 Pyromania
So to ensure a balance battle, some preening is necessary
(and not just so I can ensure a 3 way tie and declare all 3 bands as the Masters Of NWOBHM)

Preening Job #1
Of the two Saxon albums in 1980, both are as strong as each other.  The toss of a coin decides - 'Wheels Of Steel' stays in (which is a shame as 'Strong Arm Of The Law' is possibly my favourite Saxon album)

Preening Job #2
Def Leppard didn't release an album in 1982.  The Saxon album was a live album (and a very good one too), but I would be comparing many of the same tracks.
Iron Maiden's 'Number Of The Beast' is pretty much unimpeachable and would win any competition.

So that leaves us with:

'Wheels Of Steel' vs 'Iron Maiden' vs 'On Through The Night'
No second album dip for Saxon (it might sound harsh, but I think they had that dip with their debut).  'Wheels Of Steel' is quintessential hairy biker rock ("Motorcycle Man" and "Wheels Of Steel" being the obvious examples.  And then there is "747 (Strangers In The Night)" - undoubtedly one of their high points.
The Iron Maiden debut remains fresh to this day - Paul Di'Anno may not have been the greatest singer, but his straining vocals, particularly on "Remember Tomorrow" just ad to the theatre of it all.  And talking of "theatre". the track "Phantom Of The Opera" was so good, it ended up on a Lucozade advert (with Daley Thompson)
Not a duffer amongst these 13 tracks, and the title track remains in their live set to this day.
Def Leppard's album sounds a bit "clean" when compared to the other two, and also their 'Rocks Off' EP from late 1978 - 2 of those 3 tracks ("Getcha Rocks Off" and "Overture") are included here, and personally I much prefer the original recordings.
Def Leppard are coming from a different place to Saxon and Iron Maiden, and the songs on this album support that.  More blues-y, more considered and reined in.  It rocks as hard as the other two (particularly "Rock Brigade", "Wasted" and "Rocks Off") but just misses something.  And you can see where they're looking - track 1 ("Hello America") gives you just a little clue.
This is a tough call - I almost want to share the points (Iron Maiden 0.5, with Saxon and Def Leppard receiving 0.25 each).
No - I must be definitive ...
Saxon 0 Iron Maiden 1 Def Leppard 0

'Denim and Leather' vs 'Killers' vs 'High n Dry'
You recall that "second album dip" mentioned above?  Well, this could well apply to 'Killers' - EMI maybe got the band back in the studio too quickly.  The material wasn't as good as previously (although in retrospect, there are some very good tracks here ("Murders In The Rue Morgue" and "Purgatory" are two fine examples), and the band sound like they're treading water a bit.
Saxon may also be treading water here, but they have produced possibly the definitive NWOBHM anthem ("Denim and Leather") and chucked in a fair few of their best tracks here too.  And how many other Biker-type bands would pen a song about a Steam Train?
Def Leppard - they're sights are moving further over the Atlantic.  Most melodic of the three, and (like the Saxon album) a few of their best tracks pugged away here ("Bringing On The Heartbreak" being the most notable).  For me though, their sights are just too far on MTV to appeal to my sense of Heavy Rock.
Saxon 1 Iron Maiden 1 Def Leppard 0

'Power & The Glory' vs 'Piece Of Mind' vs 'Pyromania'
'Pyromania' was the album the assured Def Leppard's status as one the biggest Rock acts on the planet - maybe not in the UK, but certainly in the US - and deservedly so, it is a very good album taking the best bits from their previous two and just adding to the recipe.
Iron Maiden have now changed lead singer (Bruce Dickinson replaced Paul Di'Anno prior to the recording of 1982s 'Number Of The Beast') and their songs are becoming more complex, more literate, better played, and still rocking along like a bugger.  The whole thing has become singularly recognisable as Iron Maiden.  This may not be one of their greatest albums when it comes to compiling Top 5 Lists, but it has many. many redeeming features.
By this stage, are Saxon a busted flush?  The title is half right - there is plenty of Power here, but little Glory.  Their 1982 live set (' The Eagle Has Landed') marks a sort of end point in Saxon's validity and growth - it maybe should've been called  'The Eagle Has Landed (And Failed To Take Off Again)'

Now wouldn't it be nice if I gave the point to 'Pyromania' and arrived at a 3 way tie.
No, for the sheer growth in 3 years (and because I prefer 'Piece Of Mind' over 'Pyromania',) the point goes to Iron Maiden
Saxon 1 Iron Maiden 2 Def Leppard 0

Probably no real surprise, but Iron Maiden win this particular match-up.
But Def Leppard finishing with nil?  To be honest, they'd probably love that as they've always declared that they were not a NWOBHM band (the genre, as it became) they were more rooted in the world of Mott The Hoople, Queen and Thin Lizzy - big rock sounds rather than headbanging.

Def Leppard - Rock Brigade

Saxon - Denim and Leather

Iron Maiden - Iron Maiden

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