Legacy of the Beast — the phenomenon of Iron Maiden’s unending popularity
British heavy metal legends Iron Maiden have just announced their new studio album Senjutsu, slated for release on September 3rd. There couldn’t be a better time to talk about why this concerns not only old school fans of 80’s rock music, and what lies behind the phenomenon of the band that has been growing in popularity after more than 40 years.
Iron Maiden has been around since Christmas 1975 — thus, the band is now almost 46 years old. This is not a unique achievement in itself, as Judas Priest or Deep Purple started even earlier. What is impressive, however, is that today, in year 2021, Maiden is enjoying the most commercially and artistically successful period of their career. Random critics consider Iron Maiden an artifact from the 80s that is monetizing off the nostalgia of their old fans. In reality, after singer Bruce Dickinson and guitarist Adrian Smith returned to the band in 1999, Maiden have entered a period of unprecedented global popularity that even exceeded their first peak from the 80s. Last tours, including the critically acclaimed recent Legacy of the Beast World Tour, have reportedly grossed more, and were performed in front of bigger audiences, than the legendary tours from the 80s. Studio albums from the current decade, including the previous The Book of Souls, have been setting ever more impressive chart records for the band and received raving reviews and awards. The band’s popularity is growing even in the traditionally challenging regions with crazy competition for consumers’ attention, such as Europe and USA.
Two waves in the history of the band caused a curious segmentation of their fan base. The first golden era of Maiden was in the 80s, when the band released a number of albums that forever changed heavy rock — a generation of fans grew listening to these records, and many of those people are now 40 or older. In the 90s, many of them abandoned the band and now remember Iron Maiden as the performers of “Run to the Hills” and “The Trooper”. However after the reunion, Maiden has been releasing more progressive and complex material that has attracted a whole new generation of fans, many of which are barely 25 today. Thus, the band now has two different generations of followers, and Iron Maiden sometimes has a hard time trying to please both — the older fans prefer classic hits and enjoy the “history” tours, whereas the younger ones like modern songs. During A Matter of Life and Death Tour in 2006, the band performed the eponymous album in entirety, which caused some backlash from old fans, but approval from the younger folks. The Book of Souls World Tour saw the band mostly playing recent songs, and the result was a massive commercial success.
Iron Maiden wouldn’t have been where they are today without two extraordinary personalities — the band’s leader and bass player Steve Harris, and the singer Bruce Dickinson (also the manager Rod Smallwood, but it’s a story for another time). Harris was a good football player when he was a kid and he planned to pursue a career in sports until he discovered music. Self-taught, Harris learned to play the bass like a regular guitar, hence his unique technique and unusual Iron Maiden’s sound with bass guitar playing complex lead lines alongside electric guitars. Being a dedicated perfectionist, young Steve Harris was frustrated with many other musicians who played with him — including those older than him — as they weren’t good enough. Harris is not only the primary songwriter, but also an undisputed creative leader who controls the band’s brand, stage props, production and recording of albums. After 46 years on stage Harris hasn’t grown tired of music and shows — just when another Maiden’s massive global stadium tour wraps up, Steve jumps in his car and embarks on a clubs and pubs tour with his side band, British Lion. He hasn’t forgotten his passion for football — during tours Harris, aged 65, frequently plays full 90 minute matches with his friends and crew to keep himself fit for shows.
Bruce Dickinson’s unique vocals and stage performance have elevated Iron Maiden to astonishing heights, but many of his achievements lie outside of the band. A young Bruce was once kicked out of the school choir as he “couldn’t sing”. While constantly touring with Maiden in the 80s, Bruce managed to achieve significant results in fencing — at some point he was in Britain’s Top 10 — and published a few books. In 1994 Dickinson’s solo band Skunkworks risked their lives and preformed in a besieged and half-destroyed Sarajevo in the middle of the war zone. In the 90s he grew fond of aviation and eventually got the commercial airline pilot license. Recently the band toured the world on a Boeing 747–400 which was occasionally piloted by the singer himself — fly the plane in the morning, perform on stage in the evening. In 2014 at the Sonisphere UK festival, shortly before Iron Maiden took the stage, Bruce performed in a World War I historic aircraft dogfight, which took place right above the crowd. Just a few months later, when the recording of The Book of Souls barely wrapped up, Dickinson was diagnosed with throat cancer. The band delayed the album’s release and support tour while the singer spent months in chemotherapy and rehabilitation — yet in February 2016 Bruce, aged 57, again bolted on stage in great shape.
Rooted in working class, Iron Maiden band members have never been star struck, and in fact very much hate glossy, privileged and rock n’ roll lifestyle of Guns n’ Roses or Ozzy Osborne. Bruce Dickinson navigates Paris or London daily via subway and by bike. Guitarist Janick Gers can often be found in random Irish pubs after shows. His colleague Adrian Smith prefers fishing — he even wrote a whole book about it.
Iron Maiden is the metal’s “people’s band”, a proud symbol of honesty, quality, musicianship and relentless devotion from fans. Regardless of tastes in heavy music — whether it’s classic hard and heavy, thrash, power or prog — you would be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t adore, or at least respect, this band. Maiden have never cared about fashion or changed their sound to pursue trends and commercial success. Neither in the 80s nor after the reunion, the band hasn’t had significant radio play or TV airtime, hasn’t enjoyed wide press coverage, and has packed arenas around the world mostly due to word of mouth and dedication from the fans. There is a rule in the band that ensures that no record company or management can influence the creative process. In 1983 when the band was recording Piece of Mind album, representatives from the label appeared in the studio and voiced their concern that the track “Flight of Icarus”, slated to be released as the next lead single, didn’t sound similar to the previous hit single “Run to the Hills”. Reportedly, angry Steve Harris showed them the door in response.
Thrash, speed and power metal of the late 80s didn’t influence Maiden’s sound significantly — nor did grunge and alternative rock of the 90s. The band evolved by maturing, pursuing own artistic interests, and also occasionally changing line-ups. As the result, in the 90s Iron Maiden found themselves totally out of trend and uncool. It’s hard to imagine now, but the band that used to sell out arenas in the 80s — and does so today — used to perform in clubs during The X Factor and Virtual XI era. However, self-determination and desire to do what they liked eventually paid off, and today the band enjoys universal respect and worship for not “selling out”. However, while greatly cherishing their fans, Iron Maiden has never blindly followed their calls — each new singer didn’t sound like the previous one, which caused a lot of frustration from the more conservative listeners. Nowadays the band openly pushes back against those fans who demand that they only play “classics” and not new songs, during the shows.
There is a big number of sub-genres that originated from Iron Maiden’s music, and musicians that the band has profoundly influenced. The founders of thrash metal were inspired by the earlier albums of the band, Iron Maiden and Killers in particular — this has been mentioned many times by the members of Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, Anthrax, Exodus and so many other bands. Maiden’s influence on a radically different style, power metal, was equally profound. Dickinson’s high pitched operatic vocals and guitar harmonies were the starting point for such bands as Helloween, Blind Guardian and their followers. The complexity and increasingly developing progressive elements in Iron Maiden’s music influenced later bands as well — Brann Dailor and Troy Sanders from Mastodon, ex-Opeth guitar player Peter Lindgren, Ghost’s leader Tobias Forge and many others stated that they learned to play instruments and compose material from Iron Maiden’s music.
The influence of the band on so many vastly different sub genres of rock and metal is rooted in diversity and richness of their music, which originates from the band members’ different music tastes. Steve Harris grew up listening to both classic rock (UFO, Wishbone Ash, Led Zeppelin) and progressive rock (Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, Yes, Rush). Dave Murray learned to play guitar impressed by Jimmy Hendrix. Nicko McBrain studied jazz drumming.
Iron Maiden’s catalogue includes 16 studio albums (not counting the just-announced new release), none of which are bad. Nobody argues the classic status of the legendary 80s albums from The Number of the Beast through Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. The post-reunion era albums from Brave New World onwards are universally loved as well (that even includes mainstream media), maybe with the exception of the most orthodox and conservative listeners. The early period with Paul Di’Anno’s vocals is somewhat equally ignored by fierce Dickinson fans, and adored by those who prefer more rock n’ roll, almost punk rock sound.
No Prayer for the Dying (1990) and Fear of the Dark (1992) albums are considered weaker by some, but even those records are jam-packed with great songs and charted very high. Albums with Blaze Bayley on vocals mostly disappointed the fans during the later half of the 90s, but today the attitude towards them has changed pretty significantly, with The X Factor (1995) now being considered by many as one of the highlights of the band’s catalogue. Bayley’s albums further developed a more melancholic, progressive sound that defines the band’s modern era. During the recent ‘historical’ Legacy of the Beast tour Iron Maiden performed “Sign of the Cross” and “The Clansman”, which are the songs from that era. It’s telling that, unlike their peers from Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, Maiden has not pretended that “controversial” albums never existed. Quite the opposite — the band prides itself in constantly reminding the world about the place in the band’s history these records occupy. Such albums are frequently featured on the band’s social media and official Spotify playlists, have their own catalogue numbers (from one to seventeen), and band members often talk about them in interviews as of works they are very proud of.
Maiden’s catalogue is an impressive chronicle of constant evolution and movement from Point A to Point B, without deviations or hitting dead-ends. While constantly evolving, the band has never strayed away from the main course. Iron Maiden (1980) sounds completely different from The Book of Souls (2015), and yet even the debut album (especially the song “Phantom of the Opera”) hints at the progressive elements of Maiden’s music that would dominate its sound towards the latter half of their catalogue.
Both the band’s music and lyrics is a great display of the perfect balance between accessibility and complexity. Instrumental parts of many Maiden songs are pretty sophisticated, and all band members are highly regarded by fellow musicians and critics as virtuosos — and yet, the band performs melodic and clearly understandable music. Even the most complex compositions, many of which are longer than 10 minutes, are mostly filled with licks, fills, subtle back line parties instead of teeth-crunching mathematical chaos, hardly digestible, which is so popular in many modern technical progressive bands. Accessibility of the band’s music and image made their live shows somewhat reminiscent of an accessible sport, football, in terms of energy and vibe. Many fans support and follow the band from city to city on tours, display banners reminiscent of football fans’ creations, and sing choruses and melodies louder than any mass performances of “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” by Harris’ favorite club West Ham United supporters. As some people on Iron Maiden FC (that stands for Fan Club, not Football Club — although what’s the difference?) say, every show by the band gives you emotions similar to when your favorite football team wins an important game, and it does so all the time, without ever losing.
Unlike many genre peers that tirelessly explore the themes of fantasy and horror in their lyrics, Maiden based many of their songs on classic poetry, literature, films and TV. “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is inspired by the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Prisoner” is dedicated to the eponymous TV show, and “To Tame a Land” is based on Frank Herbert’s “Dune”. History is by far the band’s favorite topic — “The Trooper” recounts the events of the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava from year 1854, “Paschendale” tells the story of the eponymous battle of World War I, whereas “Empire of the Clouds” is about the tragic crash of the R101 airship of 1930, which resulted in deaths of 48 people. Iron Maiden also likes to write songs about current day topics, such as “Holy Smoke” that mocks the TV preachers industry popular in late 80s, or “Tears of a Clown” that was influenced by the suicide of the popular comedian Robin Williams. However, in spite of the seriousness and richness of the themes of the songs, the band is notorious for their self-humorous attitude and fondness of over-the-top theatrics. The live shows are as brilliantly pretentious as it gets, filled with fireworks, explosions and inflated devils, and the band’s albums covers are done in a deliberate comic-book art style.
Which tales will Iron Maiden tell on their new album? Considering the age of the band’s members (Nicko McBrain is 70 soon), it’s possible that the band’s 17th studio album would be their final. If so, this is the last opportunity for fans to solve teasing clues, listen to a lead single on repeat, stare at a new cover artwork and study a new track list. Maybe the last chapter in the legendary story of the world’s most beloved metal band is commencing — let’s hope it’s as grandiose as everything this band has done to date.