To all outward appearances, and certainly so many decades after the fact, the dismissal of longtime Iron Maiden drummer Doug Sampson in December 1979 may seem like just another minor case of the game of musical chairs so often played by unsigned bands. But diehard fans of the British heavy metal franchise know otherwise.

Sure, since getting their start on Christmas Day 1975, the fledgling Iron Maiden had already cycled through three lead singers, just as many drummers, a half-dozen guitarists and even briefly integrated a keyboard player into their midst — all orbiting around Steve Harris, the band's founder, driving force, bassist and true star.

But Sampson was a little different. His friendship with Harris dated all the way back to pre-Maiden days and a shared passage through a ragged bunch of East London pub rockers called Smiler, where the teenagers cut some important musical teeth together. And in 1977, when Harris was struggling mightily to maintain a stable Iron Maiden lineup, it was Sampson whom he called upon to help shore up the band’s rhythm section.

With Sampson, Maiden – now fronted by singer Paul Di’Anno and bolstered by lead guitarist Dave Murray’s talents – began gathering serious momentum over the next year and a half. That period witnessed the first signs of an emerging New Wave of British Heavy Metal for which ground zero became DJ Neal Kaye’s weekly Heavy Metal Bandwagon Soundhouse.

Hence the title chosen for Iron Maiden’s first demo, The Soundhouse Tapes – which they recorded on New Year’s Eve 1978, and later released in a limited run of 5,000 copies on Nov. 9, 1979 to the delight of their burgeoning fan base. Now, with their signing to EMI a foregone conclusion except for the contract ink drying, Iron Maiden’s career, and their workload, began to accelerate at a head-spinning pace.

And that ultimately led to Sampson’s undoing. As work began on the sessions for Iron Maiden’s self-titled debut (to be released April 14, 1980), Steve Harris became increasingly concerned with his drummer’s stamina, as ill health began affecting Sampson’s performances. This didn't bode well for a grueling tour schedule that was already coming together for the ensuing year.

After enduring, by his own admission, a few sleepless nights over the matter, Harris made the difficult business decision of removing his old friend from Iron Maiden, officially replacing him only four days later with new drummer Clive Burr.

For his part, Doug Sampson has admitted he was heartbroken at the time he was let go, but also somewhat relieved as he too had grown unsure about his ability to cope with the hardships that lay ahead for Iron Maiden. And, for what it’s worth, dedicated Maiden fans have never forgotten about Sampson or his contributions to the group’s rise. In addition to The Soundhouse Tapes, he also recorded versions of "Sanctuary" and "Wrathchild" (as heard on 1980’s Metal for Muthas compilation), as well as the early-days favorite "Burning Ambition" (the B-side of Iron Maiden’s first single, "Running Free").
 
 

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