Nicko McBrain has become a name synonymous with supplying the earth shattering drum beats and furious fills for British heavy metal titans IRON MAIDEN. Joining the band after they had already become significantly established as the forerunners of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal in the late seventies and early eighties, McBrain took over the drum kit from vacated stickman Clive Burr with a ferocity that needs to be addressed and quite frankly revered. For 40 years now, IRON MAIDEN’s hurricane of a backbone, Nicko McBrain, has still remained somewhat of an “unsung hero” in heavy metal.
Michael Henry McBrain was born on June the 5th of 1952 in Hackney, London. At the age of ten the young McBrain had developed a fondness for beating pots and pans, much like many other would be drummers. This would evolve into drumming on his parent’s gas cooker with a pair of knives which would chip the paintwork and piss off his parents in the meantime. Yet perhaps this incident would be one of the beginnings of legend, as soon after the budding musician would be gifted with his very own drum kit from his father.
Nicko recalls that he was eleven or twelve when his father brought that first drum kit home, which consisted of “basically one snare, one tom-tom, one cymbal, two drumsticks and a pair of brushes.” The enthusiastic Nicko eventually began jamming covers by THE ROLLING STONES and THE BEATLES before gigging in pubs throughout London beginning in 1966. This was around the time that Michael Henry became “Nicko” when his parents began addressing him as “Nicky” after his favorite teddy bear named Nicholas. It was while playing drums for musician Billy Day, who would drunkenly introduce him as “Neeko” to the head of CBS records while they were recording at CBS Studios, Whitfield Street, that his moniker would be complete. McBrain liked the name, changing “Nicky” to “Nicko” so that it “sounded more English”.
Despite obtaining a degree in engineering at Southgate Technical College, McBrain would settle into session work to make ends meet. He would also go on to join a variety of bands including STREETWALKERS, TRUST (who would tour with IRON MAIDEN in the early days, establishing the relationship between the two forces) and even spent some time behind the drum kit for guitarist Pat Travers before being asked to join IRON MAIDEN in 1982 to replace drummer Clive Burr.
Thus, the “definitive lineup” of IRON MAIDEN was born. Beginning with 1983’s “Piece of Mind” album and contributing to a total of fourteen studio releases thus far, Nicko McBrain has consistently delivered thunderous drums, hurricane tom rolls and tornado like fills behind his massive fort of a drum kit. So why is he always seemingly vacant from “Metals’ Top Drummers” lists? Why do your buddies consistently jabber on about stick men like John Bonham, Mike Portnoy, Chris Adler, Mike Mangini, Dave Lombardo and numerous others without giving mention to the absolute force that is Nicko McBrain?
Now granted, hardcore IRON MAIDEN fans will quickly jump to his defense, claiming to have always shouted his glories from the rooftops. His live performance is a spectacle of insane drumming proportions, playing like he has six arms instead of two. From the instantly recognizable, crushing intro to ‘Where Eagles Dare’ to the all encompassing percussion delivery on ‘Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son’, IRON MAIDEN fans already know the significance and strait up importance of Nicko McBrain as a drummer.
Despite lineup changes within IRON MAIDEN in the 1990s, McBrain remained behind his massive wall of a drumkit throughout, continuing to beat MAIDEN fans into submission through the return of guitarist Adrian Smith and singer Bruce Dickinson in 1999, through to the modern day.
Nicko has even managed to accumulate some songwriting credits to his name with the song “New Frontier” from 2003’s “Dance of Death” album, as well as the notable 1984 track “Mission From ‘Arry” (which if you haven’t heard, it is strongly suggested by this writer that you seek it out immediately and get ready to bust a gut) which was actually simply a recording of a backstage argument between Nicko and Steve Harris, as well as 1992’s “Nodding Donkey Blues”, which were both respectively B-sides for the singles “2 Minutes to Midnight” and “Be Quick or Be Dead”.
Part of this could be due to the fact that plain and simply when it comes to IRON MAIDEN the sum is always greater than it’s parts. The band are a collective wall of heavy metal sound that nobody can simply pinpoint to one particular member, no matter how awesome Steve Harris is as a bassist or Bruce Dickinson is as the group’s soaring vocalist, every single band member contributes an integral part to the sound of IRON MAIDEN.
Also, when looking at the current landscape in heavy metal, there are phenom drummers galore by the likes of players like Mike Mangini (DREAM THEATER), Danny Carey (TOOL), Chris Adler (FIRSTBORNE, ex-LAMB OF GOD), Jay Weinberg (SLIPKNOT) and recently fallen icons like Vinnie Paul Abbott (PANTERA, HELLYEAH) and Joey Jordisoin (SLIPKNOT). These players, who are at the top of their game (or certainly were before their passing), have all been, directly or indirectly, inspired by Nicko McBrain.
Nicko just attacks the drums with such a controlled ferocity which has become a signature of IRON MAIDEN’s overall sound. This is not to take anything away from Clive Burr, who’s drumming abilities on the first three IRON MAIDEN albums is no less than spectacular. It’s McBrain’s abilities coupled with his over the top personality that have always made him stand out as one of Heavy Metal’s “unsung heroes”.
– Scott Penfold is the Program Director of Loaded Radio as well as a writer and on-air personality.