September 16, 2019

You remember Samson, right? Sure you do, the band which Bruce Dickinson was in before he left to join Iron Maiden and make history. If that describes your first thoughts about the band, and maybe your only ones, then you’ve got a lot in common with a whole lot of listeners, rock fans or no, but in fact it is an unfair assessment. In the space of these three years, up to Bruce’s departure, the band made some really excellent music, and deserve to be remembered as one of the key NWOBHM bands. This box goes a good way to redressing that fact.

   Containing five CDs in total, plus a poster which unfolds to reveal a wealth of factual information about the band, this set opens with the 1979 debut album Survivors. Recorded before Bruce’s arrival, and featuring lead vocals by guitarist and bandleader Paul Samson, the album is notable for its terrible cover design, with a O-Level Art painting of the band standing atop a pile of corpses, with shoddily hand-drawn logos for the band name and album title. There’s more to it though, with tracks like the excellent power-ballad Tomorrow Or Yesterday, punchy opener It’s Not As Easy As It Seems and the hilariously titled I Wish I Was The Saddle Of A Schoolgirl’s Bike all standing out. Samson’s vocals are serviceable at best, however, and the album credits are wholly misleading. The album was actually recorded with John McCoy (Gillan) handling all of the bass parts (Gillan bandmate Colin Towns contributes some keyboards). McCoy, however, is credited only as a ‘special guest’ with incoming bassist Chris Aylmer  credited with the bass role, despite not having been in the band at this time. Dickinson is also misrepresented, being credited with vocals, guitar and, most bizarrely, harmonica, when in truth he makes no appearance. He was also going by the name of Bruce Bruce at the time, an absurd stage name adopted after seeing the Monty Python ‘Bruces’ sketch. A great bonus to this disc is the whole album (minus the Hawkwind-y  instrumental Koz) with Dickinson on vocals. He’s clearly hesitant at this point, and rarely takes flight, but he shows strong glimpses of his future grandeur on a much-improved Tomorrow Or Yesterday.

With this line-up bedding in, the second album Head On was a massive, skyscraper-leaping progression – still rightly regarded in some admittedly small quarters as a classic of British NWOBHM rock. With a startling cover featuring the imposing figure of drummer Thunderstick (aka the much more prosaic Barry Purkis), clad in his trademark leather mask and brandishing an executioner’s axe, the album features classic after classic.

 However, you’ll never listen to it! This is because of Disc Three, which is the Tony Platt alternative mix of the album, done to improve the initial vinyl pressing’s flat self-production. Never released on CD before this, it is a complete revelation, lifting already classic tracks like Vice Versa, Hammerhead and the lengthy, prowling grandeur of Walking Out On You to another level entirely. Those tracks are the Triple Crown on the album, but are backed up in strong fashion by Hard Times, Take It Like A Man and Take Me To Your Leader. Also of interest is that Side Two opener Thunderburst is a different version of what would also become Iron Maiden’s instrumental Ides Of March, being a co-write between Steve Harris and Thunderstick from when he was briefly in a formative Maiden.

The following album Shock Tactics, again produced by Platt, promised much to an expectant fanbase, but it was something of a disappointment. It sounded good, for sure, but the band had rushed to make it in the same year as Head On, and much of the songwriting was not strong enough. Two albums in a year was a heavy demand for any band, and main songwriter Samson struggled to come up with enough inspiration.The band even used Russ Ballard, general AOR songwriter-for-hire of the time, for the unremarkable opener Riding With The Angels. Earth Mother is a decent song for sure, as is Bright Lights, while the lengthy closer Communion hints at more beneath the surface, but there are a number of throwaways such as Go To Hell, Once Bitten and Grime Crime, and overall it’s a definite step down from Head On, and stalled the band’s progress somewhat.

What stalled it still further was Bruce taking up the Iron Maiden invitation in 1981 of course, but before that we have the fifth disc here, containing the live album Live At Reading, recorded at the festival there in 1981. A big stage for the band, it’s a very strong recording which shows what a great live band they could be. Tracks like Big Brother, Take It Like A Man and Earth Mother eclipse their studio counterparts, with the latter being the best track on here. In fact, the tracks which work least well are the Head On classics Hammerhead and Walking Out On You, which show themselves to work much better as studio creations than as live favourites.

After Bruce’s departure (and dropping of the ridiculous Bruce Bruce thing), it is good to report that there was a future for Samson after the loss of their vocal talisman. In fact, they went on to recruit Nicky Moore on vocals who had an enormous range and power, and thus they could ride out Bruce’s leaving to an extent. Their next album, Before The Storm was arguably their finest album, although they never entirely successfully followed it up.

This box is everything about early Samson that you could possibly want, and a timely reminder that Dickinson really was Bruce Almighty before he even joined Maiden. This is a great box, and one which somehow leaves a great bit of filling in a sadly overlooked hole.

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