As Iron Maiden re-issued their 80s classic albums on heavyweight vinyl this week, I took to wondering what it is that is so appealing about the group.
How is it that a band that burst onto the scene in the 1980’s as part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal can still sell out arena shows the world over, shift albums by the truckload (75 million to date and counting) and command an army of devoted fans that would follow their beloved ‘Irons almost anywhere?
However you look at Maiden, it is clear that they are steeped in history. Take a look at their imagery. In band mascot, Eddie, an icon known the world over, artist Derek Riggs created a character – a ghoul, if you will – painted in the recognisable, mythic horror tradition. The mummy, a zombie, Frankenstein’s monster and death himself all rolled into one. In short, a lasting image from and for the ages. And he serves as a rallying point; an instantly recognisable figure around which people can congregate.
And yet Eddie has evolved and remained relevant to the directions in which the band has headed through the years. An Egyptian idol, a patient in a mental asylum, a Terminator style android, a Gollum like tree-dweller, the Grim Reaper, a mystic figure clutching his own offspring and, most recently, a skeletal tank commander. He taps into the our psyche the way the best horror does, representing, realising and conquering our fears whilst capturing our imagination.
The group’s lyrical content is similarly mythic. Songs based on gothic horror literature, historic battles from many theatres and eras of war, science fiction, the arcane and occult, religious stories and mythology. These are songs that ask the big questions and yet offer no easy answers; songs that reach back into our shared origins and speak to the part of us that wants to know where we came from; the part of us that wonders if we are doomed to repeat ourselves; the part of us that wonders where we are headed and how we might evolve to get there.
Then there is that sound. If Iron Maiden were a film director – let’s call him Byron Maiden for the sake of argument – then we would be talking of him in hallowed terms; declaring him an auteur and studying his canonical works. Because Maiden have devloped, tweaked and altered their sound through the years and kept things interesting. But they’ve always remained recognisably Iron Maiden.
There is no mistaking the low, driving, rumbling and rolling bass lines of founding member and heart of the band, Steve Harris. The triple guitar attack of Adrian Smith, Dave Murray and Janick Gers provides a signature sound of lead, harmony and rhythm that is as recognisable as Eddie himself. Nicko McBrain’s technically proficient, crisp, staccato drumming welds the rhythm section together. And then there is the voice. The ear-enveloping, glass shattering, air raid siren that is Bruce Dickinson. Say what you like about the Blaze Bayley years or Paul D’ianno before him, but Maiden ain’t Maiden without Dickinson. All of which, when combined with the chemistry between the group of long-term bandmates and friends, equals a hugely appealing whole that is – as they say – greater than the sum of it’s parts.
But before we go there is one more signficant aspect of the band to consider: The way that they keep on giving to the people who have helped to put them where they are; the fans. If Bruce Springsteen were a heavy metal act, he would be Iron Maiden. By which I mean no metal band performing today works harder on stage, puts on a more spectacular show or engages with their fanbase in a more thrilling way than Maiden do.
You might expect 30 years on the road to make a man weary; wear him down to the point of being, well, lacklustre. But not Maiden. Their live extravaganzas are as spectacular as ever. All members of the group work harder in a live setting than many men half their age. And they continue to innovate. Do you want to be flown by Bruce Dickinson to an Iron Maiden gig and be treated like a VIP for the entire trip? Well, Bruce being a qualified pilot, you can. Sure, you’ll have to shell out a quid or two, but who else can say that the frontman of the band flew them to the concert?
Work ethic? Check. Songwriting craft? Check. Skilled musicianship? Check. Iconic sound and vision? Check. Commitment to fanbase? Check. Ability to do all this whilst taking their work seriously, but not taking themselves seriously? Check.
A band of enduring appeal? You can count on it.