Since 1982, Nicko McBrain has been the drumming locomotive driving English heavy metal stalwarts Iron Maiden. Beloved worldwide by fans and respected by his peers, as much for his ever-friendly demeanor and wicked sense of humor as for his superlative chops, feel, versatility and durability. That’s why it’s high time we compiled a list of the Top 10 Nicko McBrain Iron Maiden Songs, to celebrate one of heavy metal’s all time greats and true originals.
"New Frontier"From: ‘Dance of Death’ (2003)
With so many inventive, awe-inspiring percussive performances to choose from, we figured we might as well start our survey with his sole songwriting co-credit for Iron Maiden over these past 30-odd years. Not that there’s anything shabby about his energetic playing throughout "New Frontier" — a standout track from 2003’s Dance of Death album.
"Mission from ‘arry"From: Single (1984)
This hilariously profane, Spinal Tap-like argument between Nicko and bassist Steve Harris may seem like an unorthodox choice for our list of Top 10 Nicko McBrain Iron Maiden Songs (it isn’t a song, after all), but Iron Maiden did see fit to release it as a b-side on the "Two Minutes to Midnight" single, and it has since gone down in McBrain lore. So trust us and listen...
"Sign of the Cross"From: ‘The X-Factor’ (1995)
The '90s were trying times for Iron Maiden. Forced to contend with the absence of singer Bruce Dickinson and guitarist Adrian Smith (both key songwriters in the past), as well as longtime producer Martin Birch’s retirement, Steve Harris went a little overboard on ’95’s The X-Factor, and especially its overwrought opening number, "Sign of the Cross." But Nicko was willing and able to go right over the side with him, as the challenging, intentionally lopsided time signatures employed near the six-minute mark of the song clearly show.
"Dune (To Tame a Land)"From: ‘Piece of Mind’ (1983)
The telepathic musical interaction between Harris and McBrain earned the latter his post with Iron Maiden after he briefly supplanted Clive Burr on tour in 1982. Their first work with McBrain on board, 1983’s amazing Piece of Mind, solidified the group’s classic lineup. That album’s closing masterpiece, "Dune (To Tame a Land),"gave Nicko plenty of room to show off his dynamic versatility.
"Be Quick or Be Dead"From: ‘Fear of the Dark’ (1992)
After McBrain's arrival, Iron Maiden wouldn’t commit a serious blunder until the release of 1990’s flawed No Prayer for the Dying album. But they quickly made amends by shaking things up on ’92’s comeback Fear of the Dark. Among other things, this meant streamlining songs like the frantic, refreshingly direct LP-opener, "Be Quick or Be Dead," and convincing Nicko to alter his very drum sound from the snappy, almost jazzy tones that are his trademark, to a fuller, more thumping drum sound — albeit temporarily.
"Brighter Than a Thousand Suns"From: ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ (2006)
Steve Harris has never been shy about professing his passion for ‘70s progressive rock, but while his music has frequently indulged in epic ambitions, never did it dominate an entire album quite like it did on 2006’s A Matter of Life and Death. And of course, Nicko was up to the task, bringing every percussive trick in his vast arsenal to multi-faceted tracks like "Brighter Than a Thousand Suns."
"Seventh Son of a Seventh Son"From: ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’ (1988)
Speaking of progressive, let’s not forget to mention the breathtaking ten-minute title track of Maiden’s only full-fledged concept album, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son in our list of Top 10 Nicko McBrain Iron Maiden Songs. Once again, McBrain’s technique is tested across multiple passages, demanding numerous tempo shifts and running the gamut of intensity and restraint, according to the song’s many musical mood swings. And yet he acquits himself brilliantly and seemingly effortlessly, as usual.
"Powerslave"From: ‘Powerslave' (1984)
One of Nicko McBrain’s least celebrated talents is his ability to really swing — an unfortunate, but somewhat understandable byproduct of his association with heavy metal. However, swing is precisely what Nicko brings to so many Iron Maiden songs, including the landmark title track of 1984’s Powerslave, thus sparing them from the clunky transitions and plodding vibes that afflict many other metal bands. Don’t miss his precision rolls and fills coming out of the guitar solos
"Alexander the Great"From: ‘Somewhere in Time’ (1986)
After digging for heavy metal treasure in the Valley of the Kings and touring the world between ’84 and ’85, Iron Maiden blasted off back to the future with the dystopian, Blade Runner-inspired motifs of ’86’s Somewhere in Time. But they still found room for one of their trademark historical yarns in LP-capper "Alexander the Great," which, on top of affording Nicko the usual plethora of dynamics, inspired him to employ all kinds of martial rhythms to better convey Alexander’s military conquests. In doing so, he arguably made himself the saving grace of a song that would otherwise rarely crop up on many Iron Maiden lists.
"Where Eagles Dare"From: ‘Piece of Mind’ (1983)
We didn't expect the eventual No. 1 on our list of Top 10 Nicko McBrain Iron Maiden Songs to be the first cut we thought of, no less the first Nicko contribution most fans ever heard. But as the opening track of 1983’s Piece of Mind, "Where Eagles Dare" introduced his all-around formidable technique, pristine attack, and, perhaps most of all, his legendary right foot.