Hello, if you’ve clicked here searching about Iron Maiden, perhaps owing to their quite exciting Donington/Download 2013 announcement, or even if you’ve just shown up to snaffle the Powerslave album cover image. I wrote this piece a while ago, but I started listening to Maiden even more of a while ago, so we are, of course, caught somewhere in time. This post shares some of the things that made me a teen Iron Maiden obsessive… more than 20 years ago… illustrating the enduring appeal, I hope, of the mighty Maiden! Enjoy…
This is part of ’25 albums that changed your life’, a thingmy some people were following on Facebook (about 10,500 years ago). A full explanation of why I thought this was a good idea is floating elsewhere in the Bath. If you hate all this Nick Hornby list nonsense, please feel free to substitute ‘arse’ for a word of your choice in the album title.
I was thinking about my first gig this week, set off by my beloved getting her ears syringed. Consequently, she has reported being able to hear the footfall of a kitten three streets away (‘Oh darling, it’s dancing’). It made me covet cerumenolysis too: aural clarity, no fuzz… taking me back to a time before loud music first assaulted my shell-likes in a live setting. And what led me there… was Iron Maiden… (Vincent Price chuckle).
I was quite a large fan of Iron Maiden in my teens – by which I mean both dedicated and slightly overweight. Maiden, as they must perhaps inevitably be abbreviated, which is better than the thin-ice Cockney rhyming slang implications of ‘The Irons’; Maiden. Maiden were my first exciting early-mid teens music obsession, my first tribe, my first gig. The concert included a memorable £40 coach trip to the NEC in Birmingham for the back-to-basics ‘No Prayer on the Road’ tour in 1990. With inflation, that must be about £1,850 now. On the bus was a whole troop of my high school’s rock fraternity. Great! Iron Maiden were supported by Anthrax, so in fact Anthrax were the first band I saw live, which a) explains a lot about my unreliable hearing and b) looks pretty good now I come to write it.
It’s very difficult to name a specific Album that Changed My Life by Iron Maiden. They’re all different-yet-familiar, all with things to commend them, all with particular resonances and to be viewed as holistic life-changers, really. On most days I would probably go for the template-setting and wonderful Iron Maiden, or Killers. There’s something about Paul Di’Anno’s voice and the urgent fluency of the music, the ‘come on, we’re not here to fuck about’ snark of punk, filtered through the prog twiddling ability of what Steve Harris (long-haired West Hammer Horror and Wishbone Ash fan) suggested were “people who could actually play” (citation needed, interview in Metal Hammer some long time hence). ‘Phantom of the Opera’ from Iron Maiden is still untouchable for the adrenalin/Lucozade jab of energy coming from the stop/start revs and acceleration to actual warp speed twiddling, the ecstatic ‘Woah, yeah!’… ah, Maiden. I think Harris actually said, in the same interview part-cited above, that Lucozade wanted the band in the ad, all sitting round looking knackered and then going daft onstage after a swig of the orange sugary stuff. I’m very glad they didn’t do it.
… So, yes, first two albums, yeah, but, there’s the advent of Bruce and The Number of the Beast, with Number of the Beast and Run to the Hills and Hallowed Be Thy Name… or Piece of Mind, with The Trooper and Revelations… the prog-ression through full-on synth twiddling epics Somewhere in Time… The Wasted Years/Reach Out single would definitely make it on to my fantasy juke box. Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, then No Prayer for the Dying…
Actually, as well as being the last Maiden album I really liked, and then only because it was, y’know, them (something Steve Harris once said about Golden Earring, citation blah bibble blooh) ‘No Prayer…’ was the last album for which Derek Riggs did the cover. Derek Riggs is the illustrator responsible for Iron Maiden’s best cover art. His website used to have a series of embittered-sounding FAQs about what a soul-sapping time he had over the course of his time drawing for the band. These are now nowhere to be seen, although his page labels are nice little exercises in pithy invective. He doesn’t have a lot of time for his Iron Maiden work, which is (absurdist comparison) a bit like Leonardo complaining that all people ever want to talk about is the Last Supper and Mona Lisa, not that little dining room frieze he bashed out for Matteo Bandello. Yet Riggs’ artwork was a major part of the appeal. In-jokes, self-referential and nicely-read allusions to other bands, ideas… and a tendency to have things like ‘this is a very boring painting’ running backwards as a banner in a shop window.
When he left the equation, I pretty much did too, coinkidinkally. It is entirely fair and accurate to note that Maiden effectively stopped trading at Fear of the Dark as far as I’m concerned. The Blaze Bayley years were deliberately shunned… more recent efforts are only slightly on the radar. That said, the current three-guitar line-up looks exciting on the old YouTubes, and the interesting Flight 666 (if you will) rockumentary illustrated that, pleasingly, little has changed in the world of Maiden from when I was really into them. My impression from the film, obviously to an extent confirmation bias, was of an occasionally lairy but soft-centred, Goon/Python-humoured football (“soccer”!) crowd… hard working British men and women… (FX: Nicko McBrain humming ‘Land of Hope & Glory’ then blowing a raspberry).
Anyway, yes, so, Powerslave it is. I got obsessed with Powerslave. I got it on CD for my birthday one year, along with a Number of the Beast t-shirt I still have, from the World’s Greatest Aunty. Before that, the tape of the album wore my tape player out. It was the first album I heard by them, at one point a copy off a mate. The cover alone was fascinating. I’ve always had a bit of a thing for (Ancient) Egyptian culture, so the artwork was an immediate draw. The title track considers pharaonic responsibilities, kingly mortality and tomb curses, sort of Bruce Dickinson sitting between two vast and trunkless legs of HP Lovecraft, chewing his pen and looking thoughtful.
The rest of the material on the album is preoccupied with familiar Maiden preoccupations – war, old TV or movies, twiddling guitars ratcheted up to 11, the whole sounding thoroughly electric, like lightning, I mean, I always thought. Back in the Village, what a riff. First and possibly favourite track is the awesome chocks-away single Aces High, which for full effect should be watched as performed on the Live After Death double album meisterwerk, complete with Winston Churchill’s ‘We shall fight them on the beaches’ speech as an audio introduction, and the band leaping onstage and into action at Long Beach Arena (Southern California) as if they have short ropes of elastic attaching the monitors to their nipples.
The highlight of the album, though, has to be, is the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It is an epic 13-minute retelling of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s lengthy meditation on man’s journey through life, a story for which the subtext may or may not be ‘what not to do if a bird shits on you.’ Being a bit of a bookworm as well as a guitar nut, this enormous tune had a possibly cataclysmic effect, leading me to an abiding affection for STC, and to know parts of the poem by heart, coming in useful for sounding more erudite than I am on occasion.
It also marked a (retrospectively) intriguing period of what might now be diagnosed as onset OCD, in that I would have to listen to the full 13 minute Rime experience uninterrupted all the way through… so I would whip out the tape and FFWD to get to the beginning if disturbed while listening for whatever reason. Hey, 1988. We had the technology. I particularly recall doing this on a family holiday, in the car in the Highlands of Scotland, where the misty mountains and interminable rains of the west coast in summer lent themselves rather appositely to a tale of a solitary loon trapped in a vessel in dismal meteorological conditions. The tinny rattle of guitar and drums, not to mention occasional exasperated opening and shutting of personal stereo, the whirr of the FFWD, the click and re-opening and shutting, must have been a bit of an annoyance for the family. And in fact it is entirely likely that the family didn’t really care that I HAD to hear all 13 perfect minutes uninterrupted, and were in fact more concerned to engage me in conversation, or vainly protect my delicate adolescent lugholes. The trauma! Ah, youth. It’s funny because it’s ridiculous. And over much quicker than you appreciate at the time. Like the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in many ways.
Concludals: Powerslave was a pivotal album, soundtracking a watershed in Iron Maiden’s career, and in my life, and – in the Cairngorms – an actual watershed. After Maiden, it was indie rock fandom, to which I’m coming back, I will return in other posts… then off into the wide musical yonder. Chocks away!