Iron Maiden was formed in 1976, the brainchild of bass player and chief songwriter Steve Harris. After three years of grinding metal in English pubs, a promotional single, Running Free, was published and reached number 34 on the UK charts. This bought them a spot on the BBC’s Top of the Pops, where they were ordered to do as every other self-loathing bullshit artist in the trade: namely to shut up and mime the goddamn song.
Putting their foot down and refusing to bow down to the bollocks, they became the first band since the Who in 1973 to play live on the show. Since then, they’ve only once mimed on a television show, a German live TV special. In the middle of the set they started to exchange instruments in a mood of insolent tomfoolery to the utter dismay of the German technicians, who reportedly didn’t find the gag half as funny as the band did.
In the year following the release of Running Free, their self-titled debut album was released, reaching number 4 in the UK. Iron Maiden was on the map, and producing one album a year in the following six years, including the double live album, Live after Death, in 1985, solidified their godlike status in metal history.
The band is more of a phenomenon than a mere band, a modern-day mythological entity incorporating an army of diehard fans with receding hairlines, protruding bellies and sweaty armpits – the godfearing followers of Maiden, a cult whose Jim Jones is a nine foot murderous monster named Eddie.
A common misunderstanding is that the name Iron Maiden is derived from Margaret Thatcher’s nickname, which is derived from a medieval torture device, a chamber of spikes. But Thatcher had not been given her famous moniker when Steve Harris named the band, getting it from the movie Man with the Iron Mask. With Thatcher having gotten the same name, before their first single was released, Iron Maiden played on this theme on the covers of two of their singles: The Sanctuary cover showing Thatcher ripping an Iron Maiden poster of a wall, and Eddie subsequently opening her up with a knife, and the Women in Uniform cover showing Margaret Thatcher, back to life, standing up against a wall with a tommy-gun, waiting to pass her judgment upon Eddie who approaches from around the corner with a pretty young girl under each arm.
Iron Maiden has a kind of working class approach to heavy metal, touring for 11 months on the Live after Death tour and still having time to go to the pub every night. It’s no-bullshit rock’n’roll at its best, that seems to proclaim that just because you’re an artist doesn’t mean you have to be a stuck-up loser, or a complete fucking sellout. And there’s no working class like the British working class, and these were boys bred by coal miners, the British answer to Icelandic fishermen. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) corresponding to our Guano Rock. They’re not just down-to-earth, the boys next door – they literally seem no different from just about every English pub-guest who ever lived. That is to say, until they put on the spandex, and turn into Maiden.
The first time I ever heard the music of Iron Maiden was during recess in my grade school in Ísafjörður. I was ten years old, and for two days my best friend had spent every recess with his headphones glued to his ears. At first I was hell-bent on ignoring this blatant disregard for the more classical use of recess, like playing soccer, pinching girls on the ass or rolling on skateboards. But eventually I gave in and asked what the hell was up. He asked me to wait a minute, rewinded his tape while I waited, and then handed me the headphones. I put them on and heard a raspy deep theatrical voice recite: “Woe to you, oh Earth and Sea, for the Devil sends the beast with wrath, because he knows the time is short… Let him who hath understanding reckon the number of the beast for it is a human number, its number is Six hundred and sixty six.” The opening words of the legendary song, Number of the Beast, otherwise known as Revelations, chapter VIII, verse 18, read by the best Vincent Price impersonator Maiden could find (Price himself turned out to be a bit… uhh… pricy?). In the next couple of years this initial fascination progressed into a full-fledged teenage crush, complete with albums, posters, a denim-jacket covered in Eddie-pictures, spikes and the like.
Thirteen years ago I was thirteen years old and Iron Maiden, my favourite band, played in Reykjavík on their Fear of the Dark tour. It was the first official gig of the tour, June 5 in Laugardalshöllin, though there had been a secret gig in London two days earlier. It was one of the saddest days of my childhood. I’d been lobbying, screaming, fighting and just plain performing every possible teenage antic I could think of on my parents, trying to convince them to let me to go. A year earlier I had managed to whine my way into a concert called Breaking the Ice, a glam rock multi-headliner concert in Hafnarfjörður, most notably remembered for being the concert that the glam-masters of Poison didn’t show up for – the bass player had evidently “broken his finger”, which is glam lingo for “we’re just too fucked up right now to give a crap.” Bear in mind that this is the band that claimed their sole musical ambition was to bed every woman in the United States. And to add insult to injury (or the other way around) this was before Icelandair marketed Iceland as the home of the most beautiful sluts in the world. They simply couldn’t be bothered to play a gig in a country that merely had 130,000 women. And so we were happily stuck with The Bulletboys, The Quireboys, Thunder, Slaughter, Artch and GCD. During their version of Tom Waits’ Hang on St. Christopher, I could swear that the guitar player from the Bulletboys pointed at me and smiled. I felt giddy for months afterwards, like a teenage girl clenching a finger-kiss from Paul McCartney in the sixties.
But alas, there was to be no satanic Iron Maiden metal concerts the following summer for me. No matter how I whined and screamed, my parents wouldn’t budge. In all fairness, they had a valid reason for not wanting me to be marked with the number of the beast at that particular time in my life. The concert was to be held on Friday, and I was to be confirmed on the following Sunday – which incidentally was Pentecostal Sunday. It was to be the father, the son and the holy ghost for me; absolutely no beasts, no Eddies and no longhaired pub-metal rockers. I gritted my teeth, donned a white frock, and bible in hand I took an oath to follow Jesus from that point on, no matter what.
Iron Maiden was the secret background music to my life in the following years. The first song I ever played in a band (consisting of me on guitar and a bass player – no singer and no drums) was Run to the Hills; the first poetry I ever read intentionally was H.P. Lovecraft, inspired by a quote from a Maiden poster: “That is not dead which can eternally lie. Yet with strange aeons even death may die.”; my first poetry reading was a performance of my own translations of some Maiden lyrics, under the pseudonym Játvarður Höfuð (Icelandic for Edward the head, Eddie the ‘ead, Maiden’s apocalyptic mascot); I became interested in socialism after listening to the anti-capitalist anthem Be Quick or Be Dead. I also kept a keen eye on what was happening in Iron Maiden, although I didn’t buy any of the albums after Fear of the Dark. I remember getting very upset when Bruce left the band for a lame nobody named Blaze Bailey (what the fuck kinda name is Blaze??? – had they completely gone bonkers?)
I first heard the news that Maiden were finally returning to Iceland last February, and immediately felt this was my opportunity to make up for the aforementioned disaster of my youth. But in the last couple of years I’ve missed quite a lot of gigs in Iceland I would have loved to see, mostly due to lack of funds and living either abroad or in Ísafjörður. And for a while I thought that this would also become the case with this concert. Until a series of strange coincidences started to dawn on me, the main one being that the date of the concert, June 7th 2005, fell on the 13th anniversary of the very confirmation that had kept me from seeing them in my youth – to the day – another one being that by coincidence I had a stopover in Reykjavík on my way to Ísafjörður from a literature festival in Edinburgh, on the very day of the concert.
Realizing all of this did, on the other hand, not change my incessant lack of money for such ventures. Sitting on my ass in Edinburgh, moaning as I recounted all this to a friend, a possible solution dawned on me. I immediately went out in search of an internet connection, and sent an email to the lords of the Reykjavík Grapevine, pleading my case, getting down on my virtual fours, seeing as this was late in the game and I realized that such an organized and professional editorship was bound to have chosen someone to cover the concert as soon as it was announced. And indeed they had, but hearing of my case he graciously stepped aside.
A week later I picked up my ticket at the Grapevine offices. The town seemed to be filled with English Maiden fans who had flown to Iceland with Bruce Air, flight AU666, the captain of the aircraft being none other than Maiden’s lead singer, Bruce Dickinson. Every other person in Hressó was English and overweight, with long hair and wearing a Maiden t-shirt. The artist Derek Riggs has made separate artwork for almost every Maiden song ever written, and most of those could be seen in downtown Reykjavík on the day of the gig.
That night I found myself standing in Egilshöll listening to the warm-up act, Nevolution, a decent enough band, which nevertheless had neither the fire, the force, or the power to make their evil take its course. With no explosions they could be nought but a disappointment compared to the metal-circus that was to ensue. I was there alone, sober, and feeling rather silly actually, a 26-year-old man trying to relive the parts of his childhood he missed in the midst of middle-aged sweaty people, wearing Maiden t-shirts, holding their 3-5 year old children up so that they could see. The ratio of men to women being about 99 to 1. Everything seemed to reek of testicles.
But from the opening bars of Murders in the Rue Morgue it was as if the entire world was up on that fiery stage, my eyes blew up and my ears grew wings as I felt year after year stripping off my soul, finally stopping at thirteen. Partly due to my morning flight from Edinburgh, I had hardly slept for almost 36 hours at this point, and in this mix of drowsiness, determination and fantastic metal I was completely mesmerized. Adding emotional overtones to the mix were the colourful theatrics onstage, the acrobatics of super-overachiever Bruce Dickinson (he’s a pilot, a renowned fencer, a historian, an ex-infantryman in her majesty’s army, a published author, a radio host, and has made several solo albums), bass-player Steve Harris prodding the head of his instrument towards the crowd with one foot on a monitor in a manner so unequivocally his own that he could practically patent it, guitarist Janick Gers swinging his guitar around his neck as if it was a hula-ring and throwing it high up in the air, while the other two guitarists, Dave Murray and Adrian Smith, turned their backs together smiling so joyously during voiced licks, solos and riffs that one couldn’t help but smile along. Yes, Iron Maiden has THREE guitarists – this is serious metal, mind you, the testicular scent doesn’t just appear out of nowhere. It’s intentionally manufactured.
In the next hour and a half they played songs from their first four albums, Iron Maiden (1980), Killers (1981), Number of the Beast (1982) – Dickinson’s first album with Maiden – and Piece of Mind (1983), changing the background for each song, replacing one huge picture of the ghastly Eddie with another, leaving the actual appearance of the monster himself for the 20 minute encore. Although these are probably Maiden’s most successful studio albums, many songs from later albums were sorely missed, most notably Be Quick or Be Dead, Fear of the Dark, Seventh Son of the Seventh Son, Can I Play with Madness, and Aces High.
As I stood there stunned during the opening riff of Run to the Hills, a song about the colonization of America, somebody put his hand on my shoulder. I turned around and didn’t quite recognize the face. “It’s me, Palli, don’t you remember? I had leukaemia, I’m writing poetry now. We should talk. I’m going to be in Djúpa Laugin [a dating show on tv] next week. I didn’t know you were a Maiden fan, doesn’t this feel just like being 13 again?”
That’s literally what he said, 13 again. I nodded and shouted something through the noise.
I was dumbfounded. Poetry, leukemia, Djúpa Laugin, Iron Maiden, 13 again – anyone who can reintroduce himself in 20 seconds with such a series of distant concepts is bound to become a great poet.
Up on the stage Bruce Dickinson was jumping around the stage, regularly climbing up on a bridge that reached from one end of the stage to the other (at one point it all caught fire) with a huge British flag, fire bombs going off… It all seemed just so fucking surreal.
Bruce worked the crowd like the seasoned veteran he is, organizing regular sing-alongs for the ten thousand people in the audience, getting everyone moving, shaking, jumping, waving their hands. Every two minutes he would shout at the top of his life-encompassing lungs, the Dickinson signature line: “Scream for me Iceland!!!” – and during one of these screamathons drummer Nicko McBrain played the part of a decibel meter, rising slowly up from behind his humongous 31-piece drum kit as the shouts got louder.
After the regular set was finished, some attempts were made to put forth a proper encore-cheer, but the consensus in the room seemed to say that a cheer was not really needed – which is probably due to the facts that a) there was no Bruce Dickinson on stage telling them how exactly to scream and b) that the Icelandic audience is becoming more and more worldly in the ways of concerts, they know how the golden rule of world tours: Given that one or more of the band-members is not hit with a case of acute cerebral palsy, or other gig-threatening illnesses, during the short interval, they will come back for an encore. It’s all a part of the plan. So the audience seemed perfectly satisfied with simply not leaving, and spewing a half-decent “More!” or “Iron Maiden!” every thirty seconds, until the confused band came back onstage – At which point the audience finally came back to life and, yet again, Iceland screamed for Bruce.
During the encore I moved back to the B-section of the room, admiring my childhood idols from afar, feeling the madness flow out of me; growing up again, feeling too silly to be sincerely into the concert any longer, while the no-bullshit metal continued unabated onstage. When the final notes were played I stood in the doorway, heading out to beat the predicted traffic jam.
Driving back into the city I witnessed a car crashing full-speed into a lamppost. As I slowed down and drove past, listening to Maiden’s Can I Play with Madness on my walkman, I saw the bewildered driver step out of the car, the blood on his forehead and the demented madness in his eyes reminding me of an Eddie poster. He stumbled into the arms of the six or seven better-than-me citizens who had stopped to assist, and I noticed that it was as if a yoghurt-bomb had gone off in the car – the windows were smudged with white excrement of some sort.
Can I Play with Madness ran out, and when the opening riff of Aces High sounded in my ears, I darted off again, passing the maximum legal speed to the words: “Jump in the cockpit and start up the engines, remove all the wheelblocks there’s no time to waste.”
Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl is a poet and novelist from Ísafjörður.