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Nicko McBrain

Current band member, drummer with Iron Maiden

Background

Drummers eh? If you thought bassists suffered, just try and be in a drummer’s stool to try and get noticed… if you’re on record, that is. We all know that when live, these mad tub-thumpers can show what they’re truly capable of — or not in some cases!

But, when on record, unless the production is premiere, to your average you and me, it’s difficult to discern whether a drummer is exceptional, average, or as dull as rusty fireplace. Although, there are always the ones who grab your attention before you’ve even started to listen to their drumming skills…

Take Nicko McBrain for example, Maiden’s liveliest and loudest member of the band on and off the stage (don’t say anything about Bruce!) and, as Steve Harris once put it, ‘a party animal’ and “the only man who can have a party with himself!”. “‘Ello, boyz and girls, how the ‘kin hell are we?” and all that lark on all those ‘Listen with Nicko’s’ on the limited edition The First Ten Years Singles. His appearances as the masked Stranger in 83’s Flight Of Icurus video. His infamous appearances on the Sooty show (One of Nick’s many trademark’s is to have Sooty on view at the front of his kit!)

Just recently, Nicko appeared on BBC’s Music Live, in reception of thousands of people around the country getting out their drums and percussion and banging away together in ‘peace and harmony’ — headaches and noise more like! Nicko gave an impressive drum demonstration, before cracking a few jokes and telling everyone to buy Brave New World!

As we all know, Nicko McBrain is probably the greatest metal songwriter of our time. Classic Maiden B-Sides contributed by him include the swashbuckling Nodding Donkey Blues, the mighty Sherriff Of Huddersfield and his epic solo record, 1990’s instrumental The Rhythm Of The Beast (featuring Mr Dave Murray on the pink oboe, yes, thank you!).

I mean, you just can’t get any better, can you? It’s not hard to understand why Nicko’s never got ANY writing credits on Maiden album tracks… he saves himself for the B Sides! He doesn’t want to show Steve, Bruce, Janick, Dave and H up! That’s his claim with looks as well (he hides behind his kit to give ‘em a chance!) Seriously, Nicko puts all his energy and resources into his drumming, and similarly, leaves everyone else to do there bit in the best way they possibly can, be that songwriting, guitar solos, vocals, bass-lines etc, and that theory has definitely proved beneficial for Nicko and Maiden alike.

The most instant evidence that Maiden had recruited a quality catch came almost immediately on the Piece Of Mind and World Piece Tour opener Where Eagles Dare. From the woofer splitting drum intro through to the track’s six minute and ten second conclusion. McBrain delivers his nemesis performance, and one of the definitive drum performances in heavy metal drumming.

Nicko would continue to make his drumming and percussive mark on all the Maiden classics, spanning from ‘83 era Piece Of Mind up to 2000’s present Brave New World. Maybe most symbolic with Nicko during his very early days would be his Powerslave era stick abusing (the production being superb for it’s time), the likes of Aces High, Two Minutes To Midnight and the title track demonstrating this.

Then there was Live After Death, Nicko’s drums providing the backup for one of the greatest Live recordings of our time. Particularly exceptional is his performance on the epic 13 minute Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, and how him and H speed up Flight Of Icurus to superb effect. The only thing slightly off putting about this superb McBrain gig is the drum sound — so typically 80’s!

Come 1986’s Somewhere In Time, and Nicko just kept getting better, but unfortunately this album suffered similar sonic shortfalls. However, 1988 would offer no such disappointments. Seventh Son Of Seventh Son would offer Maiden’s best production since Powerslave and Number Of The Beast, showing Nicko’s abilities to their best.

Performances continued to blossom on the likes of No Prayer For The Dying and Fear Of The Dark, but production wasn’t red hot. Although Nicko really made his presence known on the drumming World, without any more shadows of doubt, following his monstrous contributions on live gigs and recordings Live At Donington, (1993), A Real Live Dead One (1993) and Raising Hell (1994). 1995’s The X Factor was an album that showed another massive Nicko McBrain performance, aided by some decent production, while 1998’s Virtual XI reflected Nicko’s drumming poorly. Although, 2000’s Brave New World has no such quarms, and, as a huge bonus, it holds a major advantage in a drum respect over every other album Maiden have done.

You see, unlike most drummers, say Lars Ulrich (Metallica), Vinnie Paul (Pantera) or Paul Bostaph (Slayer) Nicko doesn’t use a double bass drum pedal. Nicko only uses a single bass drum pedal. But, over the years, Nicko has developed a technique that allows him to kick faster than many drummers who actually use a double pedal — he’s also being described as having ‘probably the fastest right foot in rock’.

“But, personality aside, Nicko would have to be the best drummer in the World still using a single bass drum pedal. Nicko has developed a style of playing which allows him to kick faster than many other drummers who actually use a double pedal…”
Iron Maiden Fan Club Biography (1999)

The argument as to why Nicko doesn’t use a double pedal is thus explained by this, although the one major criticism many have had of Maiden’s rhythm section is that McBrain’s pedal drumming has never being captured at it’s finest on any Maiden studio record.

Of course, live, you can hear this superbly and the good news is that now, thanks to a certain producer who’s figured this was missing on record, (Kevin Shirley), latest album Brave New World let’s you hear Nicko at his peak — performing at his best, and brilliantly recorded as well. It’s one of the first things you notice on the record. The production of the drums. But most importantly, the drum performance. If you’ve ever doubted how good a drummer Nicko McBrain really is, or who he compares to other World class drummers, Brave New World is this crazy cockney’s answer.

Ghost Of The Navigator sees Nicko turn in one of his best drumming performances yet, as does Dream Of Mirrors - check out his phenomenal single pedal bass drumming near the track’s conclusion (Yes, it is only a single pedal bass drum!). His single pedal brilliance also makes its mark particularly on the likes of The Wicker Man, Brave New World and Out Of The Silent Planet. Meanwhile, the direct but nevertheless impressive drumming, coupled with his excellent all around kit use, makes for his best showing yet in the studio. It’s also a good starting point to anyone unaware of Nicko’s abilities of why the man is one of the most towering drummers around.

Classic Nicko performances? Well, all the Maiden classics really, but to name a few, Tailgunner, Fear Of The Dark, Be Quick Or Be Dead, Afraid To Shoot Strangers, Sign Of The Cross, Man On The Edge, Futureal and The Clansman all spring out as blasts from Nicko’s 90’s drumming past.

Nicko’s 47 now, but his enthusiasm is infectious. He really has made his mark on Maiden, being well regarded as the bands classic (and best) drummer, mostly down to his power, discernment of what to hit when and his racing right foot.

Not a one-dimensional drummer by any standards, Nicko isn’t slowing down just yet, but even when he does, he should have no fears, as his name will surely go down in heavy metal history as one of the genres most talented drummers. Nicko is also one of the most respected and influential drummers around, check out this extract:

“Many drummers really look up to Nicko and Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater has said that — ‘I may fit forty different patterns into a song and Nicko only thirty, but his will still sound better and more technical.’
In the way of criticisms, we’d say it’s a shame he never has considered using a double pedal, and his songwriting is near enough non-existent. Plus, you wonder how long Nicko will be able to keep blasting out the beats. But, really, the day he decides to call it quits, you wouldn’t bet against Maiden doing likewise.”
Iron Maiden Fan Club Biography (1999)

Finally, like all drummers tend to be guilty of, sometimes Nicko can speed a song up to much and ruin it as a result of the wrong tempo — a perfect sketch of this is brought to life on Maiden England’s live version of Wasted Years. Although, this can make other track’s better, so it’s harsh to be too critical, and this is a rare McBrain default in any case.

But, if you haven’t realised it, let us set the record straight — Nicko McBrain is a drummer who is as good in his category of instrument as any of the Maiden boys are at theirs. It’s only then that you realise just how strong Maiden’s rhythm section, and The Iron’s in general, individually and as a group, really are.

Originally part of a feature written by Andy Law and Neil Gibson



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