Several years ago, I stayed up until the break of dawn to watch a marathon showing of documentaries and concert films on Sky Arts 1 focusing on the acclaimed British heavy metal group Iron Maiden. It was over five hours long and featured a detailed look at the recording of their seminal third album The Number of the Beast, their concert film Rock In Rio, filmed at the festival of the same name in 2001, and the documentary-cum-concert film Flight 666 that charted frontman and qualified pilot Bruce Dickinson flying the band on their 2008 world tour in a specially modified 757. They only served to reinforce my, admittedly biased, views of the band – Iron Maiden are phenomenally talented musicians, on record and live, with an eye for a philosophically violent lyric and an ear for an insatiable pop melody underneath the pomp and circumstance of heavy metal. Flight 666 shows them at their fiercest, their fans at their wildest and a showcase for that connection between the two. There are probably dozens of artists who could claim a greater connection to the masses but challenge that assertion to an Iron Maiden devotee and you’ll be shot down with speed.
The marathon viewing session served to remind me of all this, and to remind me of the impact Iron Maiden have had on my life. Some people scoff at the notion of music being a force for good that can change lives, but I’ve seen so many people, friends and strangers alike, transformed by it that I can’t agree with the view that music has no effect whatsoever. For me, Iron Maiden were that band; a musical entity that changed the way I live my life, and indeed, shaped the present and direct elements of my future.
Let’s rewind to 2010. I’m coming out of the bleakest period of my life, during year ten, through no real fault of anybody in particular. That is the thing with depression; there need not be a catalyst for it. One day, your outlook on life, your self-identity, they just crumble. It makes you question everything you thought you knew, intellectually and socially, and robs you of your self-respect. I’ll be the first to admit that I never dealt with it effectively – to admit that you need help is a big step for someone barely comfortable in their own masculinity to take, particularly at fifteen – and it wasn’t until an intervention from my parents and closest friends that I was finally able to admit it to myself. I have become much more direct in dealing with the, thankfully brief, reassurances that strike occasionally in my adult life – but I know what it feels like to hit rock bottom and I know how important it is, in these periods, to not be judged and to find a light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak.
That light first came to me in the summer of 2010, between school years, when I was lounging on the sofa during the first day of the holidays, drinking squash and channel-surfing. It’s an ordinary day I have little expectation for, yet it will kickstart a transformation in my life I hadn’t even entertained the notion of. I catch the end of the video for Rainbow’s Since You Been Gone on the VH1 Classic music channel, and for some reason, decide to keep watching. Music has never been a particularly big draw for me; my record collection consists of an Electric Light Orchestra greatest hits album and La Roux’s self-titled debut. It’s not a form of expression for me, not something I’m invested in. Regardless, I decide to stick it out and see what comes next.
That next song is called Can I Play with Madness.
And in four minutes, my life has been irrevocably changed.
The opening lyric is unlike anything I’ve heard before. Pop music generally deals with unrequited or requited love, or heartbreak, or being free, or any number of generic clichés mixed up for good measure. But for a leather-lunged voice to howl out in an animalistic scream the notion of flirting with insanity in five words – it was as if a fist had reached out of the television screen, grabbed me by the neck of the shirt and hauled me back in, such was the physical impact.
Then comes the drums, the bass and the twin guitars. I’ve heard this combination before, through Thin Lizzy in my dad’s car, but it’s never struck me the way it does now. It’s an explosive wall of sound, riff upon riff layered over galloping bass and keyboards and drums, before this siren of a voice bursts back in with lyrics that seem to make very little sense to a fifteen-year-old, whose main interests at this point in life are Sonic the Hedgehog and sausage rolls.
But it doesn’t matter right now. That opening line bursts back in, sung with such awesome force and brute strength that it blows me backwards, burying me deeper into the cushions as I stare, mouth hanging open, transfixed, as though a miracle has just been performed in front of my very eyes. The video is hypnotic, an unfolding tale of a schoolmaster discovering, underneath the ruins of an abbey, a vault of strange treasures, including a refrigerator in which a grotesque, undead creature leers at him from a frozen wasteland. It is utterly mental, utterly metal.
The actual lyrics of the song (concerning prophecies and mystical hellfire and death and other nasty things that form the basis of ninety-five percent of Iron Maiden lyrics, I would later find) are gothic Hammer Horror and not for everyone. But the title can tell a story more than any lyric needs to; to the fifteen year old, a reference to being able to control a mental state so frowned upon, so much as to play with it, struck a chord with me. After the previous year, it presented a way of managing and dealing far better than any well-meant words from strangers ever could.
With one song title and one hell of a brilliant melody, Iron Maiden spoke to me in a way that no music had.
For the rest of the summer, I set about tracking down the discography of Iron Maiden online; I read of Harris and Murray, of Smith and Gers, of Burr and McBrain, of Di’Anno, Dickinson and Bayley and, of course, Eddie. I discovered it was Dickinson’s voice that had enlightened me on that first lesson, that Harris was the driving force behind the group, that they were the first heavy metal band to top the UK Singles Chart and that the zombie-like creature I saw on black t-shirts with regularity had an oddly blokey name. I discovered the classic tracks – Run to the Hills, The Trooper, Aces High – and the new hits – The Wicker Man, Rainmaker, Different World. I discovered that their fifteenth studio album was due for release in August, their first effort since 2006. I bought it on the first day it was out and became one of the thousands across the country who propelled it to #1 in the UK Album Chart.
Iron Maiden were the first artist I had discovered and truly fallen in love with that hadn’t been through the instigation of either of my parents. They were both somewhat surprised that after a diet of ABBA, Shania Twain and James Bond themes that I had fallen into a decades-old metal band who were as renowned for high camp as they were for crushing guitar work. Nevertheless they were both incredibly supportive of my love for the band. The Final Frontier, despite its eight-minute-plus progressive metal epics, found its way into the distinctly poppy interior of my mum’s car, and with that. It was liberating – for the first time, something I had found myself chased the black clouds of the past year away. Iron Maiden gave me new life. Between them, my family and close friends, I was able to pick myself up, move on and become a stronger individual with more respect for myself, for others and for life.
When I saw them live in Sheffield almost exactly a year to the date I discovered them, it was my second live concert ever. It was the culmination of a journey, the end of an era in some ways. And yet, it was the beginning of a new chapter. I was much happier that I had been twelve months prior, and that was in no small way thanks to Iron Maiden. They had widened my palate of taste; music had become one of my key interests, with albums ranging from Suede to the Sugarcubes. But in seeing Iron Maiden live, it felt like a goal achieved, a nirvana reached. I stumbled out of the arena after 11PM, feverishly clutching my friend’s arm, gibbering about the spectacle we’d just seen. She kept on reassuringly propping me up and raved as much as I did – not bad for someone who had only known three songs on the whole setlist.
I’ve seen plenty of better live shows since then, but Iron Maiden was the gig that truly started off the live music craze for me, the search in life to see the perfect live show by the perfect musical artist. They’re one of the very few to come close to that ultimate goal, bested by only a select handful. I missed them on their last tour due to my refusal to go near tents and an instance of double booking on the dates of their only indoor shows. But with a UK tour planned for 2017, the long wait is almost over, and I’m ridiculously excited.
So, there we have it. When it comes to history in a hundred years’ time, Iron Maiden will no doubt be considered one of the most successful heavy metal bands of all time, and one of the most successful British exports in terms of music ever. But for me, they were so much more than that. For me, they were the band that helped me, taught me, ignited my love in music and ignited my love in live shows too. For that, they will always hold a cherished part of me without ever knowing, and I too will hold a cherished part of them without them ever knowing.
Iron Maiden, ladies and gentleman. Thank you.