Nicko McBrain: Unleashing The Beast
Somewhere (Way) Back In Time
The story begins in the borough of Hackney, just northeast of central London, where Nicko was born Michael Henry McBrain. His parents endearingly called him “Nicky” after his favorite teddy bear, “Nicholas” (future bandmate Billy Day would eventually dub him “Nicko”). McBrain’s father, a trumpet player and a big “jazzer,” introduced his son to Dave Brubeck — and more importantly, drummer Joe Morello. Upon seeing Morello perform a solo on television, McBrain started banging on his mother’s kitchen appliances with assorted cutlery, leaving a path of destruction in his wake.
“Once I saw Joe Morello,” he recalls, “I told my dad, ‘I’m gonna be a drummer. I’m gonna be the best drummer in the world.’ But I didn’t go into jazz. I was 11 years old when The Beatles came out and then I was like, ‘Holy s__t! I want to be Ringo Starr!’ I was very vulnerable to what was going on [in London]. I was inspired by Ringo, Charlie Watts, Keith Moon ... When Led Zeppelin came out, John Bonham was a major influence on me and I thought, ‘That’s what I’m going to be playing.’”
Sensing their boy was onto something (and fearing further carnage of their cookware), McBrain’s parents bought him a 3-piece Broadway John Grey drum kit. The self-taught young lad played along to records, absorbing the grooves of pop and soul, funk and blues, and eventually harder-edged underground and progressive rock. He jammed with local musicians at every opportunity and quickly ensconced himself in clubs and studios about town. McBrain’s parents were supportive of his passion, yet he attended four years of university for mechanical engineering at their urging. “I was 21 the day I got my final exam results,” McBrain remembers. “And I said to my mom, ‘I’ve done what you’ve asked me to do. I’ve passed with honors. I’ve got a trade. I’m off on the music trail now.’ And I turned professional and never looked back.”
Stints with over a dozen musical acts followed, and by the mid-’70s, McBrain was making waves with groups like the funk-influenced Streetwalkers and blues-rock guitar wunderkind Pat Travers. In 1981, he was playing in Trust, a punk/metal socio-political band from France that supported Iron Maiden on several shows during the Killers and Number Of The Beast tours. But it was at a fateful Belgian gig in 1979 — when McBrain first opened for Iron Maiden while playing in a power trio called McKitty — that etched an indelible impression in the mind of Steve Harris, Maiden’s bassist, founder, and principal songwriter.
“It was Iron Maiden’s first-ever show out of England, and I met the guys and we got on really well,” McBrain says. “At that show I did an impromptu drum solo because the guitarist’s gear broke down and Steve always remembered it. He said it was one of the best solos he’d ever seen. And he’s not a big solo lover — thank God. [laughs] So when things weren’t kicking over too well with Clive [Burr, Iron Maiden’s first drummer] and [Clive] was getting more and more despondent, the first person who sprung to mind was me.”
Match Maiden Heaven
There are varying accounts regarding Burr’s departure from Iron Maiden, but there’s no disputing that his legacy endures on classics like “The Prisoner,” “Wrathchild,” “Genghis Khan,” and “Hallowed Be Thy Name.” Burr’s style boasted weight, power, and clarity, and he wove timeless hooks into his parts — the sixteenth-note-driven “Run To The Hills” being one of the most air-drummed songs of all time. (Sadly, Burr now suffers from multiple sclerosis. Iron Maiden and several other bands have played numerous benefit gigs to help with his lofty medical expenses.)
While Number Of The Beast was Burr’s final contribution to Iron Maiden, it was singer Bruce Dickinson’s first, having replaced original vocalist Paul Di’Anno on the strength of his operatic range and dominant stage presence. Similarly, the addition of McBrain proved essential in realizing Maiden’s latent potential as an ensemble. The drummer’s past experiences in myriad musical styles brought a scopious rhythmic vocabulary to the band, helping Harris and company craft a more complex sound.
“My style progressed from my early days playing in three-piece bands and becoming more of a ‘percussion-drummer,’” McBrain says. “What I mean by that is I wasn’t just a timekeeper; I was an explorer. I had the opportunity to embellish. When you’re in a three-piece there’s a lot more room to step out and become progressive and play chops and fills and whatnot. I’m now in a six-piece band, which is twice as many as three. [laughs] But I still play the same way. I try to listen to everything else that’s going on and interpret it, and embellish where I can.”
McBrain’s feel, though still heavy and driving, was noticeably more fluid than that of the punk-influenced Burr. The elasticity in his meter allowed Iron Maiden to open up and breathe deeper, even amidst the increased number of beats emanating from their new drummer’s 11-piece kit. “Not everything worked,” McBrain admits. “Sometimes the guys would go, ‘Woah! Come on, Nick, we don’t need that Billy Cobham fill right there.’ [laughs] It’s like a painting by numbers; Clive made the numbers and put the sketch out and I put the colors in. If you listen to the bass drum pattern in “Number Of The Beast” — I’ve played that song the same pretty much every year since I’ve joined the band — it’s different from Clive. It’s got a different swing point to it.”