Iron Maiden, the O2 Arena, May 27th 2017
Someone appears to be buzzing a gigantic pot of glue at the very summit of Iron Maiden’s Aztec-era stage set. It isn’t yet clear that the person crouched over the steaming vat is Bruce Dickinson – it’s just a slight figure in a hooded cape. It could be someone from a Du Maurier story, or a wicked witch in a pantomime.
But when the figure starts to sing, you know exactly who is under the hood. No-one could accuse Bruce Dickinson, or the band, of a low-key entrance. Soon his cloak is thrown off, Steve, Dave and the rest bounce onto the stage, and the show begins.
The last time I saw Iron Maiden was in 1993. I had just finished my last exam and was preparing to leave school, destination unknown. The Real Live Tour arrived at the SECC in Glasgow, and getting to see Maiden fulfilled a teenage dream, but the crowd was nowhere near capacity. Great banks of empty seats could be seen at the back of the venue. Bruce Dickinson had already announced he was going to leave the band, and made his annoyance at participating in that final tour plain. This was before he qualified as a pilot, I think. He still had long hair and a leather jacket. He referred to a “shitty arena”, and was booed. He farted into the microphone.
Anyone watching that show with a dash of maturity and a pinch of objectivity – tough in a room full of fanatics – would have recognised a distressed company in action. As a 40-year-old, I’d have said something like, “you can tell they’re in decline… next time they play here it’ll be at the Barras. They’ll be at King Tut’s in five years”.
Suede, Blur and Oasis were just around the corner, but Maiden had already been outmoded by bands from Seattle. In Utero and Vs would be released in a matter of weeks. Maiden’s brand of spectacle and, let’s face it, silliness, was very quickly the oldest of old hat. What seemed dangerous and subversive at one point began to look like a creaky old 50s creature feature. Iron Maiden were never cool, but in the spring of 1993 they were tragically uncool. It just felt disloyal to say so.
Something weird has happened to popular culture since then. Quarter of a century later, Iron Maiden aren’t a bunch of old men playing tours in working men’s clubs and village halls. They’re bigger than they ever were. They headline El Stadio Fuckoffico in Argentina or Brazil at a moment’s notice. In 2017, I sat there watching them in the O2 with about 20,000 other people in a sell-out crowd. You had to move fast to get tickets. Be quick or be dead. They’re the hot ticket once again. Iron Maiden have somehow demoded that which is new.
Twenty-four years after the Real Live Tour, a fully reinstated Bruce cuts a much more committed, though no less impish figure. Viewed from my perch high up among the gods, or gargoyles, he’s wearing a pair of khaki combat trousers, and is singing in an incredible splay-legged rock god stance which must be hell on his groin muscles. Surely in no other context would a human being stand like that. Perhaps in weightlifting, in the moments before his knees pop and his spinal column collapses. Imagine it – meeting the Queen. Giving a best man’s speech. Scream for me, funeral!
He is such an unusual character. There must be a movie in Bruce Dickinson somewhere. University graduate, Olympic standard fencer, Iron Maiden singer, airline pilot. He’s unique on stage, too – a bizarre hybrid of Carry On camp and cockatoo-haired rock star, a cheeky chappy who has managed to age well, and not taking himself, or anything in the immediate vicinity, with any degree of seriousness. Possibly he’s stayed away from the drink, since his treatment for cancer. He seems to be enjoying himself tonight; he charges around the various platforms, roundabouts and slip-roads up and down the stage. Such a mischievous laddie, too – during The Trooper he flops his ragged battle flag over Adrian Smith’s face.
Oh yeah, Adrian Smith. He’s back in the band, and has been for a while. Iron Maiden now have three guitarists, all blond, sagging against each other, soloing. The show is a feast of electric guitar. In close-up on the big screens, Dave Murray still looks like a naughty schoolboy, but his fingers are still faster than just about anyone’s. Iron Maiden are all about sixty now. This still seems quite young compared to the Stones and Paul McCartney and The Who, who continue to tour as their ninth decades peep over the horizon.
Adrian Smith looks the oldest, but that could just be the bandanna. Janick Gers – 27 years later, “the new boy”, like Ronnie Wood – is still doing his lovably daffy stage tics and twitches. Hurling the guitar around his shoulders by the strap, scissoring his skinny-jeaned legs like a foraging flamingo, and then kicking one of his amplifiers. This gesture is presumably meant to be a bit dangerous and punky, but comes across as the tantrum of a petulant child. This serves as a definition of sorts for most music scenes, but punk in particular.
Iron Maiden’s first album sounds a bit punk, actually. It’s worth a fresh listen. I did listen to it, having gone back to buy the old albums on CD, replacing the crumbling C90 tape copies from long ago.
We go back to what we knew. Someone said recently that even though we have an ocean of music out there, near-unlimited choice easily accessible through MP3 and YouTube, we have actually become more conservative. Or maybe, we just got old. Perhaps the memory banks are full and can’t take any more stuff.
I can’t keep up with new music, new faces. Maybe you aren’t meant to. I would struggle to name a George Ezra song. (Shotgun? Was that him?) Drake could be sitting beside me on the bus and I wouldn’t know. I can barely remember any number one singles from the past year. I still think people like Kaiser Chiefs and the Arctic Monkeys are new bands. I see them treated as grizzled veterans with about half a dozen albums to their name and that’s a shock to the system, too. It’s no country for old men.
One of Maiden’s endearing on-stage habits: They are still wearing their own t-shirts. You wonder if it’s like football teams; if they’re given brand new ones to wear before every show, with names printed across the back, their own squad number, their own peg in the dressing room.
At some point you stop analysing Iron Maiden’s aesthetic. It simply is, you accept it. Alice Cooper’s name and make-up once meant something at one stage, but now it’s part of the furniture. Iron Maiden means songs about ancient gods and sacrifices as much as it is the Battle of Britain or classic syndicated TV shows.
There’s a strong horror theme. It’s rooted in the occult vibe of the 1970s, when Christopher Lee still played Dracula and people claimed they had seen vampires prowling Highgate Cemetery, but Iron Maiden only really got big in the video nasties era. In the minds of someone like Mary Whitehouse, there would have been considerable overlap in terms of content.
That comic book horror atmosphere is still going strong in the 2017 version of Maiden. For their Book of Souls tour, there are loads of gumby stage effects. A giant inflatable Eddie bulges into life early on, with brains exposed, and hands or tentacles or tree branches spread across the stage. The devil pops up, literally, during Number of the Beast, another immense inflatable recalling the design of the Goat of Mendes in Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out, so much so that I wonder if someone should sue.
Death and terror stalks the stage. When the giant stiltwalker/animatronic Eddie mannequin lurches around to menace the band and the audience, he is “sacrificed” to the ancient gods by Dickinson, his heart seemingly cut out, spewing blood, before Bruce hurls it into the crowd. “Catch the heart” is a thing at these shows, I understand. A thing prized and clutched close to the chest for the rest of the show like a bridal bouquet. Someone will have it even now, perhaps on their mantelpiece.
This jolly blood and violence contrasts awkwardly with Dickinson’s speech near the end of the set, condemning a horrible tragedy which took place days beforehand in Manchester. “We don’t give a fuck about what colour you are, your sexual orientation… we don’t give a shit. We’re here to have a good time, and enjoy music and freedom,” he tells the overwhelmingly white, almost certainly majority-straight crowd. The applause is sustained. Iron Maiden, champions of freedom and the liberal society. You heard it here first, folks.
It’s heart-warming in ways I might have sneered at as a 16-year-old; your heroes being heroic. I’m actually tearing up when Dickinson says those words.
As a series of unfamiliar songs are played, it strikes me that I haven’t listened to any new music from Iron Maiden since 1994. They’ve been putting albums out since then, and this set is admirably top-heavy with new material. The odd favourite comes out. I loved Wrathchild. A friend who was with me said it was like a glimpse of the teenage me, and he’s spot on. I made a point of photographing Steve Harris with his foot on the monitor at this point.
The jewel in the crown, though, is the full version of Powerslave. This is the song that drew me into Iron Maiden, drew me into music. I listened to it again and again on my brother’s bootleg tape on an ancient tape recorder borrowed from his girlfriend. He’d banned me from listening to it, for fear of the tape chewing up. I disobeyed.
The solo in the up-tempo middle section of this ludicrous song of ancient Egyptian pharaohs made me think; oh, I like that. That’s interesting. I imagined what it’d be like to play it. To be a rock star. (Zappa’s Man From Utopia was on the other side of that tape, but that’s another story.) So it was a lovely moment to see it as well as hear it performed, in all its glory. You high-five your nine-year-old self. Both of you know the same delight.
The great songs still stack up, though. Bruce’s eardrum-molesting screams during Number of the Beast. Wasted Years, with its terrific hook. Another commentator said Iron Maiden are secretly a great pop band, heavily disguised, and I see the truth in that. I had a ball.
After it’s over, there’s a moment of comedy so perfect that it seems like it was choreographed. Poor Nicko McBrain had been stuck at the back of the stage, seemingly shoved into a cupboard, unseen apart from shimmering cymbals. Shimmer me cymbals!
He comes out, dead last, to take the applause of the crowd after the final encore. There’s a cable stretched across the stage, obvious even from my perch. Nicko trips on it and falls on his arse so spectacularly that he rolls across the scene, crashing into the Aztec ruins-themed stage backdrop, causing the entire image to ripple from floor to ceiling. A collapse so magnificent that it shook reality. A collision so hilarious that it broke the fourth wall.
He laughs as he gets back up. I wondered if it was deliberate, a well-rehearsed pratfall. It looked deliberate. Either it was a perfectly-timed piece of theatre, or one of the best accidents I’ve ever seen. A great big joke we all shared in.
We love these bands because they’re what we knew, what we were into, when the world was explosive and filled with new and exciting chemical reactions and experiments. They stay with us, through changing times and new experiences. They might fall out of favour occasionally, but you still love them, like a sibling.
At the merch stall, it’s twenty-five quid for a Killers T-shirt, possibly not of the same quality as the one I got for Christmas when I was 14. The price difference might well reflect the extra cloth required to cover my back and belly. So it goes.
One day there won’t be an Iron Maiden, but I can guarantee you that it won’t be anything to do with playing at working men’s clubs or village halls. Will they still be touring at seventy-five, or eighty? Will it be tough to distinguish between them and Eddie? They’ve gotta go some day, and so do we, but not yet, and hopefully not for a long time, either. I’d love to see them again.
Iron Maiden forever, is the take-home message. Until they’re not.
(c) Pat Black 2018