Inside the tour that almost broke Iron Maiden: ‘We all went barking mad’

Inside the tour that almost broke Iron Maiden: ‘We all went barking mad’

In the late 1970s, the artist Derek Riggs rented a room in a house on Oakfield Road, in Finsbury Park. On dark winter nights he would gaze from his window at a lonely lamppost on Endymion Road until a picture formed in his mind. It’s surely a surprise to the now 62 year old art school dropout that this unlovely spot in North London is the birthplace of the most iconic creation in late 20th Century popular art – Eddie the ‘Ead, the enduring and endlessly adaptable mascot of Iron Maiden.

In the 40 years that have elapsed since ‘Eddie’ appeared in cartoon form on this spot on Maiden’s titular debut album, this most purposeful of nature’s whoopsies has been, among many other things, Satan’s puppet master, an Egyptian pharaoh, an inmate in an insane asylum, a futuristic cyborg, and a spaceman. Whichever way you slice it, you just don’t get that kind of bang from Mayor McCheese.

Most recently, his image has appeared on the tailfin of the bespoke Boeing 747 on which the London quintet tours. The plane is piloted by singer Bruce Dickinson; the musicians and their crew sit behind him in the front section, while packed in the rear is enough equipment to kit out a concert in a stadium. The aircraft even has a name – Ed Force One.

Dickinson is both his band’s most strident advocate and its curious anomaly. While the rest of Maiden speak like a gang of blaggers from The Sweeney, Dickinson is a public school alumnus, an author, a championship-level fencer, a commercial airline pilot, a television presenter, and a worthy addition to the long tradition of British eccentrics. Were it not for his irrepressible talents as a centre-stage performer, the group would be an anonymous bunch indeed.

Then again, were it not for the resolute bedrock of Iron Maiden, Dickinson himself would be nothing. For 40 years the sextet has proved impervious to mainstream trends and the limitations of being a metal group that aren’t all that heavy. But as the world turns, Maiden ascend; with more than a 100 million album sales to their credit, they are the band of the people, the presidents of the Democratic Republic of Rock’n’roll.

“To use a farming analogy, we have our field and we’ve got to plough it, and that’s it,” Bruce Dickinson said in 2011. “What’s going on in the next field is of no interest to us; we can only plough one field at a time. We are unashamedly a niche band. Admittedly our niche is quite big.”

But it is Eddie that is the group’s true icon. In press shots its members often appear no more photogenic than a mouthful of cockles, while their immortal mascot – who has appeared on the front of all but one of their 28 studio and live albums, and on literally hundreds of t-shirt designs – endures. On the cover of one LP the band quoted H.P. Lovecraft’s warning that “in stranger eons death may die”. Maybe so, but not for Eddie the ‘Ead.

For supporters of a certain age, the most popular iteration of Maiden’s beloved mascot was seen onstage during the World Slavery Tour of 1984 and 1985. As drummer Nicko McBrain clattered out the rhythm to the dependably hectic Iron Maiden, behind him a mummified Eddie emerged, 20 feet tall and mounted on motorcycle springs. Following one show, the creature’s torso was nicked and somehow secreted away; ever resourceful, the band’s crew repurposed a new one using tightly rolled bathroom towels.

“I thought that was the best show that Maiden ever put on,” Bruce Dickinson told the journalist Mick Wall in the book Running Free. “Virtually everything on [the tour], the whole set, apart from the lights, was done Music Hall style – it was all boxes and ropes and two blokes pulling levers. It was so simple, it was like pantomime. You could set it up in small theatres or big arenas and it would always look fantastic.”

Over the course of 11 months, the World Slavery Tour visited no fewer 21 countries. During one of its two epic North American legs, in the spring of 1985 Iron Maiden played to 58,000 people over four nights at the Long Beach Arena in Los Angeles. The second performance, on March 15th, was recorded and released without overdubs as Live After Death, the last great double-live LP of the classic rock era. Such is its longevity that last month the album was re-issued as part of a lavish box-set.

Produced by Martin Birch – the helmsman of the deafeningly revered Made In Japan, by Deep Purple – and featuring standards such as The Trooper, Run To The Hills, and Number Of The Beast, the 18 song set (which features five tracks recorded at the Hammersmith Odeon, the group’s spiritual home in the 1980s) is rightly valorised as a near-perfect highlight reel of Iron Maiden’s bulletproof first act. As well as much else, Bruce Dickinson’s imploration “Scream for me Long Beach!” has become as renowned a rallying-cry as any in metal.

The World Slavery Tour landed in North America in the final week of November 1984. Save for a four-week jag in Japan and Australia the following spring, it remained on the continent until the caravan’s final concert at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, in California, on July 5. Over this period the band sold 1.2 million tickets in Canada and the United States, a figure comparable to the number of people who bought the Powerslave album for which the tour was undertaken. In other words, everyone that bought the record also went to the shows.

“We didn’t get any airplay either” said Rod Smallwood, the quintet’s loyal and redoubtable Yorkshire born manager. “It was just word of mouth, what I call the jungle drums of metal.”

This phenomenon can hardly be overstated. In the face of blanket discrimination from North American radio and MTV – at least until the launch of the channel’s niche programme Headbanger’s Ball, in 1987 – Iron Maiden cultivated an audience in ways that today are difficult to credit. On tour for years on end, the group bypassed all established channels of communication, not to mention a mainstream media that only ever sniffed in their direction.

“As a stage show [the World Slavery Tour] was spectacular,” opined one Canadian TV reporter following an appearance at Halifax Metro Centre, in Nova Scotia, in November 1984. “As noise it was awe-inspiring. As music it was average. Iron Maiden… swore a bit and shook their fists, but it never went beyond teenage self-assertion.”

Iron Maiden did have their champions in the British press. In 1980, the journalist Geoff Barton wrote a 12 page article for Sounds magazine on the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, the pub-born spit’n’sawdust scene of which the Londoners were principal players. The piece was headlined “Kerrang!”, an onomatopoeia denoting the sound of a guitar struck with force. The following summer, the publication of the same name was launched. Of the many scores of articles written about the band by the weekly rock title, only one has failed to grace its front cover.

In the earliest years of the 1980s, Maiden were the most rugged metal act the world had ever known. As working class as a crisps and salad cream sandwich, the group were led by bassist Steve Harris and fronted by the always threatening Paul Di’Anno. Back then they were punks in all but sound, a truth about which its members remain in denial. “I couldn’t have started a punk band, that would have been against my religion,” Harris has said.

“The closest the ‘art establishment’ ever came to embracing metal was punk,” Bruce Dickinson – who replaced Di’Anno in 1981 – told the songwriter Frank Turner in 2014. “The reason they embraced punk was because it was rubbish and the reason they embraced rubbish was because they could control it… But what [the punk bands would] really love to be doing is being in a heavy metal band surrounded by porn stars.”

From the singer in a group that travelled to recording sessions in the Bahamas with flight cases packed with Heinz baked beans and HP sauce, this paean to the wild life of rock’n’roll seems a bit rich. But matters of authenticity are relevant. At least as striking as their music is the stainless incorruptibility that courses through the veins of Iron Maiden, particularly in the case of Steve Harris. The bassist is not only the leader of the band, he’s also its target audience.

How else to explain the World Slavery Tour? On a venture that saw Maiden playing for an estimated 300,000 people at the Rock In Rio festival, it was an endurance test that rattled the character of every one of its 60-odd participants. Members of the road crew would only know what day it was by the daily rota of meals served in catering. At its end, guitarist Adrian Smith was so frazzled that when he went to visit his parents he knocked on the wrong front door.

“I think we were all going a bit barking mad, I know was,” Bruce Dickinson said on the DVD The History Of Iron Maiden. “Thirteen months on the road [including rehearsals in Florida] was not conducive to my mental health. I went through a period when I considered jacking the whole thing in, basically… there was nothing left in the tank.”

At the beginning of the tour, Iron Maiden gatecrashed a wedding in Poland and, much to the delight of the assembled guests, played Smoke On The Water. Six months later, at Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan, Bruce Dickinson was so poorly that he sang an entire concert while sitting on the drum-riser (the illness led to the cancellation of two of the seven dates in New York, a sanction almost unheard of for a metal band on the road). On the tour’s penultimate date, at the Sacramento Sports Arena, conditions were so unbearable that Steve Harris’s rubber boots melted onstage.

“At the time, [the tour] just seemed endless,” said Adrian Smith in Running Free. “We were getting burnt out. These days, when bands take on [that kind of] world tour they build-in gaps for recuperation. But there were no breaks on that tour, no real gaps, just a day off here and there. We were all a bit jacked-off at the end, to be honest.

“You’re gone for a year and your whole life goes out the window, basically,” he said. “As for keeping long-term relationships going – whether it’s with friends or lovers, or whoever – I mean, forget it. I know it goes with the territory, but it was tough. By the end, you don’t know how to act properly anymore; you don’t know who you are or what you’re supposed to be doing.”

Iron Maiden returned to the road in 1986 in support of Somewhere In Time, their sixth studio album. More than a year after the end of the World Slavery Tour, the lyrics to the songs penned by Adrian Smith suggest a man suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder. On Stranger In A Strange Land, he speaks of being “trapped inside this prison, lost and far from home”. On the evergreen banger Wasted Years, he writes of watching cities go by in the night as his thoughts turn to home, a place where “my heart is lying… and will be to my dying day.”

During this time, I went to see Iron Maiden at the Oxford Apollo on the 13th night of the 151-date Somewhere On Tour caravan. Largely nonplussed, I watched as the garishly-costumed band leapt around a stage filled with inflatable sci-fi ephemera and an iteration of Eddie modeled on Blade Runner. Even as a 15 year old, I thought it was hokey.

The reason for this, surely, is that weeks earlier I had watched in awe as Metallica tore apart the Hammersmith Odeon. While Maiden sang Boys’ Own adventure stories about being in an aeronautical dog-fight during the Second World War, the visitors from San Francisco played at twice the speed, and with many times the intensity, while warning of a “hypnotising power [that was] crushing all that cower”. Maiden wore spandex, while Metallica looked like feral street rats from the Tenderloin. I knew then that the tectonic plates on Planet Metal were shifting, and I remember it vividly.

“I know I’m going to get in trouble by saying we’re better than Metallica – but it’s true,” Bruce Dickson told Metal Hammer magazine in 2011. “They can be bigger than us and they can sell more tickets than we do, and they should [because they] have more middle-class and middle-class bourgeois in their shows than we do. But they’re not Maiden… We do not want our fans to become customers, because if our fans become customers they [might as well] be fans of Metallica.”

Bruce Dickinson was wrong to feel threatened, just as I was wrong to believe that the Metallica’s startling ascendancy spelled the end for Iron Maiden. The younger band changed the sound of metal in ways that are profound, and in doing so quickly made the Englishmen’s music appear more sedate than it did in 1984. But in the fullness of time, it made no difference. Maiden are now more popular than ever they were; once disdained, they’ve attained the status of National Treasures, the most gilded epithet the British public can confer.

Like hundreds of other groups, by rights the Londoners should presently be embarked on yet another world tour. As plans were drawn for Ed Force One to fly its passengers to arenas and stadiums in Barcelona, Sydney, Moscow, Tel Aviv, and more, Rod Smallwood was doing battle with promoters to ensure that the barrier at the front of the stage was positioned as close to the performers as possible.

After more than 40 years in the game, very little has changed. Then, as now, nothing can separate Iron Maiden from its audience.

Read the full article here by Ian Winwood at The Telegraph

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