How Martin Birch Helped Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson
Martin Birch, the music producer who worked with more than a score of rock’s legendary groups died Sunday, August 9, 2020 at age 71. No cause of death was announced. He leaves behind his wife Vera and daughter Haley.
Among the dozens of bands Birch worked with were Deep Purple, Rainbow, Black Sabbath and most notably Iron Maiden on ten of their albums.
Birch retired from producing at the age of 43. Martin Birch’s special ability was to allow a band to be itself while coaxing spectacular individual performances. He then captured it all for posterity.
In Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson’s entertaining autobiography What Does This Button Do? (HarperCollins, 2017), Dickinson tells some great stories on why Birch was so valuable in the studio and out.
Here is Dickinson talking about the recording of his 1982 debut with Iron Maiden, The Number of the Beast:
Having a management-appointed nickname was standard practice. Even the road-crew names were interspersed with unwanted epithets. Our producer, Martin Birch, would turn up to rehearsals in his Range Rover, with straw attached to his boots. Thus his credit on The Number of the Beast reads: Martin ‘Farmer’ Birch. It was all harmless really, and it took a few years before it became tiresome.
Before formal recording sessions with Birch started, the songs were recorded on a basic boom box recorder:
…Martin Birch turned up right at the end, for one day. He had a listen to the songs. He made no comment, he just looked thoughtful and paid attention to them. Much later down the track, Martin and I had a few beers, and he opened up on his philosophy of production.
‘There are two types of producer,’ he said. ‘One type thinks that it’s his record, and he’s going to make a hit record that will sell shitloads and everyone will say he is a great producer,
He sipped his beer and looked around the bar with disdain. ‘And then there are producers who are just a mirror. We reflect the artist in the best way to let their message, their sound, come through.’
‘And what if the band is shit?’ I asked.
‘I don’t do shit bands.’
I thought back through his catalogue. Deep Purple’s In Rock and Made in Japan, Black Sabbath’s Heaven and Hell, Blue Oyster Cult and quite a few little surprises: Leo Sayer, Jimi Hendrix, and Wayne County and the Electric Chairs. You could learn a lot from Mr Birch.
Then it was time to sing
…When the time came to sing before Mr Birch, it was a mixture of curiosity and frustration. The frustration was born out of Martin’s tactic of making me wait; the curiosity was finding out what he could teach me. This was a guy who’d had some of the greatest voices, and some of the greatest vocal performances, on his watch.
I wanted to get stuck in to bashing out the vocals, to bask in the glory. Martin was not interested in such frippery, and in the nicest and most polite way he taught me not to take things for granted.
Consider the opening sequence to ‘The Number of the Beast’. Before the blood-curdling scream a la ‘Won’ Get Fooled Again’ is an almost whispered intro building into the climactic shriek. It’s not very high and it’s physically under-demanding. I thought I could polish it off in a few takes and move on to being loud and bombastic.
Martin, (leader and bassist) Steve (Harris) and I spent all day and all night on the first two lines. Again and again, until I was so sick of it I threw furniture against the walls in frustration, taking big lumps off of the damp plaster in the half-completed kitchen.
We took a two-hour break. I sat glumly with a mug of coffee. Martin was positively chirpy. Bastard, I thought.
‘Not so easy, eh?’ he grinned. ‘Ronnie Dio had the same problem on “Heaven and Hell”.’
My head, which ached, and my eyes, which ached, started to pay close attention. ‘Like, how?’
“Well, he came with the same attitude as you. Let’s bash this one out. And I said to him, “No. You have to sum up your entire life in the first line. I don’t hear it yet.”
Of course, I know the song. The opening line.
‘Your whole life is in that line,’ said Martin. ‘Your identity as a singer.’
Dimly, I started to see the difference between singing a line and living it.
I went for a walk around the rest of the studio. It was deathly quiet, no musicians around.
The silent drum kit, the guitars lying around and the faint odour of dust roasting on the valves
that were still switched on in the amplifiers.
‘I left alone my mind was blank. I needed time to think to get the memories from my mind.’
And that’s who I was when I went back to the microphone, ‘Just what I saw, in my old dreams …’ and so it went on. It was like Martin was a can-opener, and I was the can of beans.
Once the crack had appeared in my self-constructed dam the flood happened. The wall I built was my ego. Everyone needs one, especially if you want to own 100,000 rock fans but you don’t bring it into the studio. What possesses you in the studio should be the song, like a film that unfolds before you. All I do is sing the words that paint the picture. I thought I’d invented theatre of the mind, but Martin Birch had been doing it for years.
Martin Birch was one of the few people not in a band that rock fans took note of when credited on an album. That itself is an accomplishment. Whether it was Fleetwood Mac, Jeff Beck, Skid Row or any band Birch worked with, he made them that much better. The music will continue to bring joy to millions and that will remain Martin Birch’s legacy.