Welcome To The Machine: Iron Maiden
MUCH AS WE may laugh at the blustering antics of its ambassadors, HM is no joke. As a kind of musical Rollerball, exorcising taboos and neutralising unexpressed desires, its powerful but gruesome expression must surely tell us something about the minds of the millions who follow it.
Spinal Tap and Bad News let us laugh at the gap between the crazed image and the laughably tame reality, but is it really just good clean fun? A large section of society escapes from normality not to a fantasy world world of sublime glory, freedom and beauty, but to a grim, twisted landscape of murder, mayhem, rape and power madness.
I remember, during a W.A.S.P. show at the Lyceum years ago, finding the legend "W.A.S.P. fanz piss on the floor" graffitied on the toilet wall — not written in blood, not hewn into the very rock, but considerately Pentelled on a peel–off label.
It was a perfect reminder of the harmlessness of goings on in the auditorium, where — to the joy of what looked like a convention of suburban accountants in fancy dress — Blackie Lawless was symbolically miming the molesting and chainsaw mutilation of a tied–up, topless woman. The utter lack of real drama or threat involved was hilarious, but the fact that this is a popular, sought–out language of entertainment, paints a very worrying picture of the (mainly) male psyche.
With these and other issues on my mind, I upped and headed for Castle Schnellenberg, my Bavarian rendezvous with Iron Maiden.
VALHALLA I AM COMING! (ONCE I'VE PACKED MY TOOTHBRUSH AND DEODORANT)
IRON MAIDEN aren't fundamentally different to many other HM bands, but they fit the bill perfectly. From their inception as an East End pub band in the '70s they've worked, played and sold their way — with almost no media help — to multimillionaire status, whilst staying true enough to their heavy brief to earn namechecks from the likes of Slayer and Megadeth. They don't get the radio play or pin–up attention of Bon Jovi, but they're a finely–tuned rock'n'roll selling machine — survivors of six world tours, each 9–12 months long — with a stock in trade of violent, mythological imagery.
My mission was simple, to infiltrate the Metal machine and take a close look at its controlling gods. So I crept in under the wings of the beast, huddled close to the heart of the machine fuelled by a million youthful suburban fantasies, and as I stood, listening to the roar of unarticulated frustration thundering through its arteries, the masters of the beast appeared and spake unto me: "Hello mate! Wanna drink?"
My discussion partner was Bruce Dickinson, Maiden's small, convivial frontman, and the best spandex trouser–wearer in the business. Born in Yorkshire almost 30 years ago, and educated at public school and university, he does a lot of the band's talking, though you get the impression the others probably disagree with much of what he has to say.
Bruce, who joined Maiden (on their third album) after a stint with the bluesier NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal) outfit Samson, converted to the heavy rocking cause when a band called Wild Turkey played at his boarding school. "This was around the end of the '60s, early '70s, and they had an album called Battle Hymn. I tried to climb inside the bass bins, took most of my clothes off and went into a mad, Fanta–inspired frenzy. It was great and my ears were ringing for the next three days. I thought it was an amazing all round experience."
Dickinson's youth was musically formed by the likes of Arthur Brown, Magma and Van Der Graaf Generator. "The first Black Sabbath album had come out and there were a lot of very heavy art rock bands about, playing the kind of music that Wagner might have played. I'd just got hold of a copy of Deep Purple In Rock and Aqualung, so there didn't seem to be any alternative. Pop was really crass at that time, all the Bay City Rollers stuff and jazz rock was very boring, everyone going boooooooing on bass."
"Then there was T. Rex and Bowie and I couldn't stand either of them. I don't like the singing, I couldn't stand singers who whined. I remember hearing 'All The Young Dudes'. I could never stand Mott the Hoople."
Unlike the first metallists, who exploded and mutated rhythmically compulsive blues structures, Bruce's generation were getting into Genesis and Jethro Tull, expanding on an already over–fiddly blueprint, substituting complexity for space and dynamics.
"I was into the blues but I wasn't infatuated the way Led Zeppelin were. I always thought Led Zeppelin were terribly overrated, like Jimi Hendrix, who made a few revolutionary tracks and a lot of shit. Deep Purple was what really moved me. I'd never heard a band play with so much power, so loose and yet so ballsy.
"I wanted to be a drummer, not a singer. If it was a case of choosing between John Bonham, who went biff, bang, wallop or Ian Paice, who did thirty million drum rolls to a second, I wanted to be like Ian Paice. I ended up being a singer by accident. Basically I couldn't afford a drum kit."
"Anyway, I decided I wanted a group with the lyrics of Van Der Graaf, the playing and proficiency of Purple and the energy of punk. It was a pretty tall order for a bunch of University students, jumping around like punks, playing like Ritchie Blackmore and writing songs like Jethro Tull, but we had a shot at it."
So Maiden exist on an all–white musical diet?
"Black music isn't a no–no, but I tend to think that when white people play black music, like reggae, it's so bad as to be unreal."
What about HM rap?
"That was all absolute crap! Stuff like the Beastie Boys is shit. The only good one was Aerosmith, 'Walk This Way' with Run DMC, but the Beastie Boys are utter rubbish. If you wanna hear a good rap band, go and see the Red Hot Chili Peppers."
Whether The Beastie Boys are any good isn't the point. It's about harnessing the power of different musical styles.
"But you do that all the time. It's horses for courses though, you don't go into the studio thinking I'll do a bit of this and a bit of that, you treat each melody with the feel you consider right. I've recorded stuff that sounded a bit more 'black', but it was with different musicians, other heads than Iron Maiden."
AC/DC and ZZ Top have made some great funk–based riffs with the dirt and power of HM.
"We don't do any of that. We could, but for us that would be throwaway. It's too easy, too obvious."
Does music have to be hard to play to be good?
"Not at all. In fact, if you listen to this album, there are some grooves there, they just don't last for whole songs, they're sections."
So do Maiden combine the lyrics of Van Der Graaf with the technical ability of Purple and the energy of punk?
"I'd like to think we're getting there. I want Iron Maiden to be THE completest rock band around, a vehicle in which you can say anything, even if it is only for 30 seconds on one track. We did a 12–bar groove, 'Black Bart Blues', on the B–side of our new single. Everyone says it has an amazing feeling, but we couldn't do that on an album. It's goodtime music, and we want to terrify people a bit, put their backs up, wind them up."
THE CORPORATE MERCHANDISING TOUR
THE GAP between reality and projected image is at its most glaring in HM, where chaos and subcultural outsiderdom are often evoked by bands that are little more than well–oiled money–spinning organisations. Whilst the band onstage may be simulating satanic rites of fire and blood, the real killing is taking place at the merchandising stands.
And while most metal stars explain their every action as 'Just the lads having a laugh together', their skills have become too valuable to them and their associates to be treated as just a larf.
"To say we're the same as we were seven years ago would be a load of rubbish. We've all got our credit cards, and can do what we want now, but in a lot of ways that's better. When you're forced by necessity to sit in a minibus for eight hours going to gigs, you tell yourself that it's really important to be like that, because that's the only way you can justify it: 'It must be really important to be like this!'
"Success and money gives you back some of your freedom, cos for that first five years you're never outside of the rock'n'roll bubble. You're either touring or shacked up in some hotel, hiring the ballroom to rehearse frantically for your next album.
"And the only reason you get sent to record in the Bahamas or whatever, is that you can have a bit of a holiday, rest while you work, because they're gonna send you out on the road again for nine months when it's finished."
That would seem to confirm the money–making machine theory.
"I'm not pretending you don't get pissed off with it. After our 13–month Powerslave Tour I really didn't give a shit any more. I thought if this is what it's gonna do to my head, sod it! I'll go and be a folk singer. You get sick of the routine, of trotting it out every night. What really does you in is America, cos you're bashing your head against a brick wall most nights of the week."
I thought American crowds were much more enthusiastic.
"Sure. You say the same thing every night and they go wild. They're like sheep. You really have to try hard not to become like them, or before long you'll end up writing songs about rock'n'roll."
If your life is rock'n'roll, wouldn't that be natural?
"That would be terrible,'cos there's nothing of substance to write about, it's all crap, hot air and bullshit. It's usually a bunch of irresponsible boozed–up people who're far too old to be doing that respectably, going around screwing the female population and taking their money. Rock'n'roll is a licence to be irresponsible and get paid for it."
And you're in a rock'n'roll band.
"Well everyone has a right to be that way occasionally — you have your greatest fun when you're 'carefree' — but if you did it all the time you'd end up like a walking cliché that can't drive a car or do the laundry, that thinks eggs get boiled by room service, and can't got to a bank because they think cash comes from tour managers.
"I know people who honestly don't know where to buy stamps, they've been on the road so long. Writing about the rock'n'roll lifestyle? Nah! It's stupid, and Joe Walsh has done it all anyway.
"In many ways Spinal Tap has got it exactly right. The only sad thing is that people are laughing at HM bands, without realising that it's the whole business that's like that. Whether it's pop bands who go to the Montreux Festival, mime for 30 minutes and then collapse of nervous exhaustion, it's all bullshit."
Speaking of which, I read that Maiden–founder Steve Harris got builders to recreate the Queen Vic pub on the end of his mansion, to stay close to his East End roots [Bruce screams with laughter]. Only the rock'n'roll lifestyle could let someone graft a pub onto a mansion in Essex, and think they're staying close to their roots.
"Point taken, but you can always find a quote from someone and, by juxtaposing it with a piece of information out of context, make them look like a fool. Tabloids make their living like that. I think most Eastenders would find the idea of Steve Harris having a mansion and grafting a pub onto it hilarious, and could they come round?
"But you won't catch Steve doing Gold Amex card ads, it's not him. Basically we haven't changed, under all the money we're the same people. Steve is a million miles from the cliched rock star as country squire. If you'd given him the money at 16, he'd still have done the same thing. It's not a result of his brain being adversely affected by seven years with Iron Maiden, he's just a nutcase.
"It's for the same reason that he's got a massive Eddie head hidden behind a tree in his garden [laughs], it's what he wants."
Somebody told me that when it comes to corporate rock bands, Iron Maiden are the best in the world. Any comment?
"Urrrrm. Well, if you're talking about our management, it's probably true, but if you're talking about the band, it's a load of rubbish. A corporate rock band has its soul in its chequebook and wallet, and sits there churning out music to a prearranged formula to sell the maximum number of 'units' in America."
Apparently once, during EMI's rearrangement, all record company support disappeared halfway through an American tour, and you had your roadies going round every town flyposting schools, etc.
"What?! It must've been another band, cos that's a load of crap. We couldn't get our roadies out of bed to do that. I think our management is second to none — only the Genesis management is remotely as together — but we only notice they're there when something goes wrong..
"You phone up and say help, the truck has broken down or one of the crew is in jail, and all of a sudden the right lawyer is there, with the right amount of money at the right time, and the guy gets out of jail. That's a good manager. People say it's cynical, but they're usually jealous that you've got your act so together."
Anyone in the media who deals with different kinds of musicians will tell you that HM bands are brilliantly organized. Whilst other bands may be totally occupied with their music, with chaotic results, HM bands market themsleves with military efficiency.
"You're absolutely correct, but you've got to remember that we've done 9–12 months touring with all six albums. When you work that hard, and you get virtually no support from the media, you learn to capitalise on what you've got, to give everything you do maximum impact.
"That's why we had those attention–grabbing album covers, so that people would go 'Yeuch! It must be Iron Maiden.' It's only recently that the media has become interested in us, that we can make people aware of our albums without putting someone with an axe through their head on the sleeve.
"The new single is like that as a pastiche of the old days, but our LP sleeve is much more ambitious, and our stage show will be much sparser, no medieval castles or any of that rubbish. We're trying to be a bit different, stretch out within the structure, but the structure is important, it's our identity."
You've said when you get onstage you give a performance. Don't you ever feel that performance invokes the Hammer Of The Gods myth, advertising a lifestyle you don't live? I mean on your last tour you wrote a book and practiced your fencing. Mayhem and debauchery I don't think!
"I felt that way a few years ago, on the Number Of The Beast Tour. The experience of that first American tour, with women throwing themsleves at you and everything, was like taking a very powerful drug every night."
"No. Anyway, really dangerous drugs are the ones that alter your perception of things without you being aware you've taken them. That's when you start believing your own press releases and stuff."
On to HM lyrics at last. What attracts you to the myths of Icarus, Osiris, etc...?
"Those are mostly my songs. Steve's songs tend to be about dreams, nightmares and obsessions, 'cos he has a lot of those, he's a terrible sleeper. He writes a lot of songs about out–of–body experiences, which he has more of than he likes to admit. I think he has a bit of a problem with things like that, he's quite frightened of it. I like the imagery of myths, the words you can use in association with them, and I think mythology suits our stage presentation."
Do you go onstage as the bad boys of rock?
"No, I'm an entertainer. I feel more like some sort of bizarre juggler."
So neither the audience nor the band are really depraved. The experience you share is complete fantasy, a ceremony release.
"Yes. We're just there to see that it reaches a climax at the right moment. Ceremony as a release is used all over the place, whether it's formal or informal. A football match is a ceremony of release. The key is to defuse it, so that people can tell the difference between the ritual and reality. The ritual releases feelings that, if put into practice in the modern world, would end up killing them. Songs like 'Two Minutes To Midnight' are about that bit inside you that actually wants to be in a gunship in Nam, hosing down all those gooks."
But the lyrics of some speed metal bands, even if meant just to shock, are sadistic, misogynistic and generally unpleasant in a totally unamusing way. That doesn't worry you?
"Some thrash bands seem to have a bit of a problem with it, but I assume it's tongue–in–cheek, as I've met them, and they're the most mild–mannered people around. I don't think the imagery is such a problem. I mean gory imagery for sensationalism's sake has been around for a long time, back as far as Grand Guignol theatre and stuff like that."
I'm not suggesting HM is disruptive and dangerous.
"It's usually quite the opposite. And when the music gets disruptive and dangerous, the only people it's usually dangerous for is the audience. Joe Soap can get onstage and say 'Let's trash this place dudes!', but he's not the one who's gonna get his head caved in and spend the night in a cell."
OUR OFFICIAL chinwag concluded, I retire to the bar, where Bruce later joins me with off–the–record tales of dope–dealing bigwigs being teargassed out of a bar at closing time by the French riot police.
Elsewhere Castle Schnellenberg is overrun by management consultants and EMI employees, taking care of business over a polite glass of amber nectar.
The wildest occurrence of the night is when we're forced to listen to the new Maiden LP Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son, before being allowed to eat. As if this Dickensian notion of singing for your supper weren't bad enough, the waxing is almost an hour long, and they've kindly installed two PA stacks in a dining room half the size of the Marquee, which pump the sucker out at brain–battering volume. After 15 minutes, my alcohol–sensitized head demands that I go and hear what the album sounds like from outside the castle.
Back indoors phrases like "consistent quality", "mainstream" and "chart potential" are being bandied about with glee. It seems that Maiden are finally trying to hurdle the last popularity barrier, and the "Madness" single is rumoured to be a future Top Tenner.
To me, even through the solid castle floor, Seventh Son... sounds more like Armageddon than a pop–picker's choice on Radio One. But, if this is bad news for the group, it's surely good news for their fans.
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