How Martin Birch Captured The Magic Of Heavy Metal

Legendary producer Martin Birch helmed some of the biggest records in rock and metal, shaping the sound of a generation – from Iron Maiden to Black Sabbath and beyond

How Martin Birch Captured The Magic Of Heavy Metal
Phil Alexander

Martin Birch, the legendary British producer who helped define the sound of modern hard rock, has died at the age of 71.

His death was confirmed by a number of artists with whom he worked, including Black Sabbath bass player Geezer Butler. Writing on Twitter, Geezer said: “Really sad to hear of the passing of Martin Birch. Brilliant producer. Had the pleasure of working with him on the Black Sabbath albums #HeavenandHell and #MobRules. Condolences to Vera and the family. #RIPMartin.”

In fact, Martin’s work on Sabbath’s Heaven And Hell album in 1980 helped revitalise their career following the sacking of original frontman Ozzy Osbourne; the producer adding a rich, contemporary veneer to the band’s sound in the process.

In that same year, Martin embarked on one of his most successful creative relationships when he began working with Iron Maiden. The first fruits of that association emerged in February 1981 with the release of Maiden’s second studio album, Killers – an album that saw Martin help the East London five-piece evolve their sound beyond the cut-and-thrust of their debut into more expansive territory.

Most transformative of all, however, was his work with Maiden on their third album, The Number Of The Beast, which emerged a year later in March ’82. This time around, Martin not only helped integrate new singer Bruce Dickinson into the band, but he also helped emphasise the impact of the material itself as he developed a strong working partnership with Maiden leader and principal songwriter Steve Harris.

The result was an album that managed to spawn a clutch of hit singles – the title-track and Run To The Hills – without alienating the band’s hardcore fanbase, and which also topped the UK chart and dented the U.S. Top 40. Most significantly of all, the album transformed Maiden from being at the forefront of the so-called New Wave Of British Heavy Metal and established them on a global stage. Crucial to that was Martin’s ability to help them create a new template for modern metal as we know it.

Born in Woking, Surrey, on December 27, 1948, by the time Martin began working with Maiden, the 32-year-old was already a seasoned studio professional. As an engineer he had cut his teeth on a string of classic albums that included Jeff Beck’s Beck-Ola (1969), Fleetwood Mac’s Then Play On (1969) and Wishbone Ash’s Argus (1970), and had begun to work with the fast-rising Deep Purple.

Having recruited their new vocalist Ian Gillan and bass player Roger Glover and moved away from their psychedelic roots, Purple emerged as an altogether tougher sounding outfit and delivered their first major statement with their fourth studio album, Deep Purple In Rock, in June 1970.

Martin’s engineering technique was key to capturing the raw and increasingly ambitious sound that the band had begun to develop onstage on tunes that included the turbo-charged Speed King and the brooding Child In Time. The studio whizz would continue to work with Purple for the best part of a decade, contributing to a run of classic albums that included Fireball (1971) Machine Head (1972) and Burn (1974), as well as their 1973 landmark double live album, Made In Japan.

When guitar player Ritchie Blackmore left Deep Purple in 1975 to form Rainbow, he also called on Martin to helm the band’s first three albums, including their epochal second album, Rising (released in ’76 and which Martin also mixed), whose magisterial power is defined by the album’s most epic tune, Stargazer.

The band’s third album, the more compact but no less enthralling Long Live Rock’N’Roll, followed two years later. In the space of three years Martin not only helped establish Rainbow as a festival headliners in their own right, but he also forged a close relationship with the band’s frontman, Ronnie James Dio – a singer with whom he would be reunited for Sabbath’s classic early ’80s period.

Equally, Martin developed a long-lasting friendship with Ian Gillan’s successor, Purple Mark III singer David Coverdale, who formed Whitesnake in ’78 – the band’s first six albums benefiting from Martin’s deft production technique and, again, transforming the outfit into global contenders. Indeed, David was another musician who took to Twitter following Martin’s death to pay his respects, describing him as “a gloriously talented, loving man…”

In contrast to the warring egos, the increasing musical indulgence and fractious atmosphere that he’d witnessed in Purple, when Martin began working with Maiden he found a band with a work ethic and a genuine streetwise, us-against-the-world attitude that he immediately admired.

“They are not into the ‘star system’ and remain very accessible,” he told French magazine Best in 1983. “They listen to you and they are not convinced right away that they are right. This is why I think that this is my favourite band to work with.”

Martin’s relationship with Maiden was such that he worked with them almost exclusively for over a decade – producing Killers, The Number Of The Beast and a continued hot streak that included Piece Of Mind (1983), Powerslave (1984), Somewhere In Time (1986), Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son (1988), No Prayer For The Dying (1990) and Fear Of The Dark (1992), as well as 1985’s hugely influential live set, Live After Death. His discipline in the studio was such that he earned the nickname of ‘The Headmaster’ in the process, although he admitted that at times his extreme closeness to the band did bring his own objectivity into question.

Never a man to court the limelight, Martin disappeared from view in later life. What he leaves behind, however, is a remarkable sonic legacy – the power of which was confirmed by the heartfelt tributes that met his passing from musicians and fans alike.

“His credits of production was pretty much my road map of music in my youth,” wrote Alice In Chains bass player Mike Inez on Instagram as he posted the sleeves of Heaven And Hell, Machine Head, The Number Of The Beast and Whitesnake’s Saints And Sinners.

Kerrang! would like to echo those sentiments and extend our condolences to the Birch family and friends, as well as all the artists that benefitted tremendously from Martin’s wise counsel.

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