Martin Birch: The "Special Talent" Behind the Bands

Another week, another death. These are getting tiresome to write; it feels like 2016 again, but specfically for music legends. This writer's favourite band is Iron Maiden too, so this one does hit close to home.

Think of all your favourite hard rock and heavy metal bands. Deep Purple are probably on that list, with the likes of Iron Maiden, Whitesnake, Rainbow, Fleetwood Mac, Black Sabbath...the one connection between them? Martin Birch. He worked with them all; in fact, by 1980 his stock was already so high that Iron Maiden, who idolised him, were too afraid to ask him to work on their debut album, for which they ended up with Will Malone. Malone was lazy, useless, and the album came out sounding like crap. It was a case of what could have been, as Birch would later say he would have loved to have done it. Them's the breaks.

His CV was extensive, producing ten Deep Purple albums (including In Rock, which hugely inspired later Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson), five Rainbow records and nine Whitesnake albums. It's a testament to both his skill and personality that once these bands got one taste of Birch's production, they wouldn't look anywhere else. Ronnie James Dio was certainly a fan; after leaving Rainbow and joining Black Sabbath, he would essentially bring Birch with him, who would go on to produce both Sabbath albums with Dio on lead vocals.

He did work with some artists as a one-off, including the likes of Jeff Beck, Skid Row and Gary Moore, but the most iconic part of his career has to be the Iron Maiden albums. Clearly feeling a strong particular connection with the band, once he'd worked with Maiden for the first time, he effectively retired from working with other bands. From 1981 onwards, he worked exclusively with the band, with only one or two exceptions.

Birch's influence helped to form the band's sound, and he worked very well indeed with Dickinson. “To me, Martin was a mentor who completely transformed my singing: he was a psychotherapist and in his own words a juggler who could mirror exactly what a band was", said Dickinson in a tribute. "That was his special talent as a producer."

Can't imagine Birch enjoyed being in Maiden's 'Holy Smoke' video much.

One of the most iconic stories of Birch's production career occurred during the recording of Iron Maiden's 1982 breakthrough album The Number of the Beast, and specifically its title track. Birch was being particularly meticulous with the song and wanted to ensure that the correct tone and atmosphere was captured at the beginning of the song. This led to him making Dickinson sing the first four lines of the song again and again for four hours straight. Speaking about this frustrating session in a documentary, Dickinson said "I got so pissed off I was throwing chairs across the room, and when [Birch] finally got the one he wanted, he just said 'yeah, that's it'. I was just like 'why?!', but I understand a little better now."

From 1981 to 1992, Birch was the unseen seventh member of the band (the sixth was manager Rod Smallwood). His skill and knowledge helped the band take over the world; good albums need good producers, and in Birch they'd snagged the best.

His productions, without fail, were punchy, powerful, immediate. The difference in quality between Maiden's debut and their second album Killers is incredible, with the latter sounding sonically superior, helping the band move away from their much-hated comparisons to punk bands. He always got the best out of the bands he worked with and backed it up by being the best himself. The results were always outstanding; if your work includes In Rock, Rainbow's Rising, and The Number of the Beast, it's safe to say that you've had a pretty good career.

He was just as popular outside of the studio. Various tributes have described him as "a really nice man, great fun with a terrific sense of humour" (Steve Harris), "a wonderful, warm & funny human being" (Bruce Dickinson), and he was a "very dear friend" to David Coverdale. His personality led to a whole host of nicknames, including 'The Headmaster' and 'Farmer', as well as a wild alter ego called 'Marvin', who would come out after a few drinks. 'Marvin' once challenged high-class fencer Dickinson to a fight, convinced his Karate would be superior to Dickinson's foil. Make of that what you will.

His loss is a huge shame, but once again, we find ourselves paying tribute to a man who will leave a lasting legacy. His work no doubt inspired people to become producers themselves, and many of the albums on which he worked have gone down in history as some of the best ever recorded in their respective genres. Birch helped create rock and metal as we know it, and was an all-round good and funny guy. Our condolences go out to his family and friends. RIP Martin Birch.


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