The early eighties saw the rise of Iron Maiden. One of the most successful groups to emerge from the new wave of British heavy metal, by the beginning of 1983 Maiden had already released three classic albums: Iron Maiden, Killers, and Number of the Beast. The band underwent a number of lineup changes in their early years, including the replacement of vocalist Paul Di’Anno with Bruce Dickinson and drummer Clive Burr with Nicko McBrain in 1982. By the time Iron Maiden entered the recording studio to work on their fourth album, Piece of Mind, the band had a stable lineup that would last throughout the rest of the decade. Not long into the sessions, Maiden would record one of their most beloved songs: “The Trooper.”
Iron Maiden was formed in 1975 by bassist and primary songwriter Steve Harris. Harris left his previous band Smiler in order to form a group that could perform the hard rock songs he was writing. The name Iron Maiden—which references a supposed medieval torture device—was inspired by the classic novel The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas. The band’s early years were marked by their frequently changing line-up, though Harris soon teamed up with the band’s longtime guitarist Dave Murray.
By the end of 1979, Iron Maiden had recruited vocalist Paul Di’Anno and secured a record deal with EMI. In 1980 they recorded and released their self-titled debut album. The album cover was adorned by Derek Rigg’s illustration of a zombie-like figure with a punk rock haircut named Eddie. Eddie quickly became Iron Maiden’s mascot and one of the most recognizable icons in heavy metal. He is featured on every Iron Maiden album cover and is a fixture of the band’s theatrical live shows.
Iron Maiden’s first album established them as one of the premiere bands of the new wave of British heavy metal. The new wave of British heavy metal, or NWOBHM, referred to the slew of underground metal bands that formed in the U.K. during the late 1970s after the initial explosion of punk rock began to use momentum. Along with Iron Maiden, some of the best-known bands from the new wave of British heavy metal also included Motörhead, Def Leppard, and Saxon.
In 1982, Paul Di’Anno left the group and was replaced by former Samson vocalist Bruce Dickinson. Dickinson brought his high tenor range and operatic vibrato to Iron Maiden’s third album, The Number of the Beast, which launched the band to new levels of international stardom. At the beginning of 1983, Iron Maiden began work on the follow-up to The Number of the Beast, entitled Piece of Mind. The album’s second single was “The Trooper.” Written by Steve Smith, this long-time fan favorite was inspired by the Crimean war, a conflict fought between Russia and a variety of allied powers including the U.K. from 1853 to 1856. More specifically, it was inspired by Lord Tennyson’s poem “the Charge of the Light Brigade,” named after the failed British military operation that occurred during the Battle of Balaclava in 1854.
The song is often heard as a critique of the futility of war. In the words of songwriter and bassist Steve Harris, “It’s the idea of someone being ordered to go and fight. In those days, you didn’t question it. They weren’t allowed to question it. You got on the horse and went straight into battle no matter how ridiculous it was, charging cannons firing at you. There have been a lot of crazy things people have been ordered to do in wars, and quite a few of our songs are about that.”
The song features an iconic guitar hook played in harmony by Dave Murray and Adrian Smith. The galloping rhythm heard in Steve Harris’s bass part is a signature of Iron Maiden’s sound, and evokes the image of horses charging into battle. “The Trooper” also calls back to heavy metal’s roots in the blues tradition with its use of stop-time rhythm. This is heard when the guitars and drums dramatically drop out in the verse as Bruce Dickenson sings lines like “You take my life but I’ll take yours too.” Although this is done in a heavy metal idiom, it’s not too far off from the rhythms heard in classic electric blues tracks like “I’m A Man” by Muddy Waters. The use of stop time also helps make this song a showpiece for Dickenson’s versatile, wide-ranging vocals. The virtuosic back-to-back guitar solos from Murray and Smith are another highlight of this track.
After writing and arranging Piece of Mind at a retreat in Jersey, Iron Maiden ventured to the Bahamas for the first time to record the album in Nassau at Compass Point Studios. These recordings were later mixed in New York City at Electric Lady Studios. These recording sessions were the first to feature Maiden’s longtime drummer, Nicko McBrain.
This album was the band’s third collaboration with the legendary British rock producer, Martin Birch, who had also worked with such hard rock luminaries as Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. Birch first worked with Iron Maiden on their sophomore album Killers, and would go on to collaborate with the band on all of their releases up to and including 1992’s Fear of the Dark. Piece of Mind spent eighteen weeks on the UK charts, where it peaked at number three. “The Trooper” was released as a single on June 20, 1983, and peaked at number twelve on the UK charts and number twenty-eight on the Billboard rock chart, in spite of the fact that Iron Maiden never benefitted from much radio airplay in the United States. A music video was filmed for the song that featured footage from the classic 1936 Errol Flynn film The Charge of the Light Brigade. The video garnered some controversy, and the BBC refused to play it unedited because of the violent war scenes.
“The Trooper” has gone on to be a staple of Iron Maiden’s elaborate live shows. During performances, Bruce Dickinson waves a large Union Jack flag. In recent years he has also donned an authentic redcoat military uniform of the type that would have been worn by British soldiers in the Crimean War. The song has been firmly solidified as one of Iron Maiden’s most popular tracks, and has been covered by numerous bands, such as Sentence and Rage. In 2013, the band even collaborated on a beer called Trooper, named after the song and based on a recipe created by Bruce Dickinson.