Simon Price on Iron Maiden: War, gore, and the rock roar that never falters

It may not be alternative. It may not be cool. But what Iron Maiden offer is heavy metal to the max

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The Independent Culture

When Bruce Dickinson bellows "Scream for me, London!", I close my eyes and conceptualise the obeisant response as 20,000 ragged rectangular speech bubbles, each containing the word "AAAIIIEEE!!!" in Comic Sans.

That was the way the stereotypical square-jawed, brutish Germans would respond in 1970s comics like Battle, Commando, Valiant, Warlord and Victor when a noble Tommy had tossed a hand grenade into their hideout (the only other words in their vocabulary being "Schnell!" and "Achtung!").

If Iron Maiden belong in a cultural tradition, it's that of Boy's Own war fiction as much as rock'n'roll. Their attitude to the horrors of war is deeply ambiguous: a mix of disgust and glee. For three decades and counting, Maiden have lucratively fed the craving for gore and mayhem among their core constituency of prepubescent boys, and grown men who've never quite stopped being one. Having it both ways is their modus operandi. For example, "Run To The Hills" can be defended as an excoriating critique of the genocide inflicted upon the indigenous peoples of America, but the relish with which Dickinson rasps the words "raping the women and wasting the men" was just made for IM's adolescent fans to punch the air, drooling, "Yeah! Rape! Death!"

At a time when heavy metal has merged with alternative rock, Maiden serve as a useful reminder that HM – reinforcing patriarchy and hierarchy with all that royalist imagery, flag-waving and, shall we say, traditional attitudes towards sexual equality – was never alternative, never cool. Indeed, it existed for the weaklings (moral and physical). In Maiden's Eighties heyday, heavy metallers were always the acne-encrusted, bespectacled, runty kids at school, wearing their leather jacket like a protective carapace, living out vicarious power fantasies through stinky Donington rock.

It is, as I've just proven, easy to sneer. But you don't have to like Iron Maiden – and, broadly, I don't – to have a sneaking, grudging respect for them. If you're looking for unreconstructed, unironic heavy metal kicks, Iron Maiden deliver. There's a reason why these survivors are one of British music's most successful exports. And there's something admirable about any band who never deviate from their aesthetic; bands – like Ramones, like Motorhead, like AC/DC – who follow a guiding principle of "be the thing that you are, and be it to the max".

On a purely technical level, Maiden are fearsomely impressive. Their three – yes, three – guitarists, notably the Strat-juggling Janick Gers, are a high-speed shredding machine, their action-movie riffs evoking more-than-mild peril as bassist Steve Harris machine-guns the crowd. The drum solo from the concave-featured Nicko McBrain, introduced by Dickinson ironically as "the most handsome man in the band" and more candidly as "the face that sank a thousand ships" is, at least, mercifully short.

But the real tour de force is Dickinson's vocal, a rock roar that never falters, even at its most shrill. Whether standing centre-stage, legs constantly angled at twenty past eight, or galloping across platforms painted to resemble Arctic ice shelves, the strangely Bill Oddie-like singer gamely gets into character for every song, donning a daft leather pilot's cap for "Aces High" and a Victorian tailcoat bedecked in occult symbols for the Crowley-referencing "Moonchild".

The Maiden England tour, largely based on the 1988 tour of the same name (itself just reissued on DVD), ticks all the pantomime-horror boxes, from pyros to robotic hellhounds with glowing eyes. And, of course, Eddie, the Derek Riggs-created zombie mascot who dates back to the "Sanctuary" sleeve – on which he stood malevolently over the murdered corpse of Margaret Thatcher – and beyond. He ends this show rising as an eviscerated half-skeleton, a flame intermittently shooting skywards through his skull, while proffering a nascent homunculus in some sort of egg sac, like his own newborn offspring.

The overgrown teenagers lap it up. But Maiden apparently have something to offer octogenarians, too. "I tell you who we had here last night," Dickinson confides during the encores. "Believe it or not, we had Mr Strictly Come Dancing himself. We had old Brucie Forsyth, watching us onstage. Which is absolutely fucking unbelievable. I wish I'd have known. I would've said, 'Nice to see you, to see you nice...'."

Critic's Choice

The B-52's, the New Wave's kitschest kooks, bring their beehive wigs to the ABC, Glasgow (Mon); Academy, Manchester (Tue); Academy, Birmingham (Thu); Indigo2, London (Fri) and Rewind Festival, Oxfordshire (Sat). Martha Wainwright – heiress to a folk dynasty – plays the Picture House, Edinburgh (Mon); Arts Centre, Pocklington (Tue); Union Chapel, London (Thu) and Picturedrome, Holmfirth (Sat)

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