Iron Maiden: What’s So Great About War?

TokoPyramid Iron Maiden What's So Great About War

Metal is always revered by enthusiasts like me as music for strength and resistance, not for love. The roaring guitars, pounding drums, screaming solos, and lyrics make everyone want to sing along. And perhaps the highest form of resistance is found in the battles of war.

TokoPyramid Iron Maiden in the Palais Omnisports of Paris
Iron Maiden in the Palais Omnisports of Paris

But it turns out, that writing music about war is not simple. While human nature tends towards competition and triumph, no one wants to appear to glorify warfare. Moreover, war always has winners and losers, and if not portrayed objectively, your music only serves to divide listeners even further.

Iron Maiden is undoubtedly a masterful band when it comes to composing music about battles. At least, they are the band I admire most in this regard. If you’re not familiar with Iron Maiden, their favorite topics include war, religion, death, and popular TV shows. They call their fans the “troops.” And they don’t write about love.

It’s truly difficult for a band to maintain the ability to write and perform music with consistently high standards over more than four decades (although they also had their downtime in the ’90s), but every time they become stuck on a topic or their musical style becomes predictable, Maiden always returns to the theme of war. Thanks to this, they explore stories from the vast depths of history and make their sound darker and more ominous when albums require a new angle. Furthermore, war provides an ideal setting to showcase their progressive musical expression, where Maiden’s passion for progressive music finds a stage. It would be impossible for a band that has released dozens of albums to continually find new playing styles or sounds, so instead, Maiden maintains their trademark style to continue telling new stories. Audiences feel transported into parallel worlds, never feeling exhausted as they’re swept along in adventures lasting over ten minutes, as Maiden has been doing since the 2000s.

Iron Maiden was originally formed in London in the late ’70s during the aftermath of Punk Rock (also known as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal or NWOBHM), with bassist Steve Harris, guitarist Dave Murray, and drummer Clive Burr. Their original singer was Paul Di’Anno, a punk-spirited vocalist with a strong, gritty voice. Di’Anno became Maiden’s singer despite never really liking metal until he heard Steve Harris’s music. Some say he joined Maiden after receiving oral sex from two girls in a toilet after a regular gig. The remaining member of Iron Maiden is the second guitarist, Dennis Stratton, a lover of Pop music rather than being involved in a band that would influence a generation.

Because of his Pop inclinations, Stratton was keen on harmonizing. The good news is that Dennis Stratton, along with Dave Murray and Steve Harris, created the distinctive three-guitar sound right from Iron Maiden’s debut album (1980). However, the bad news is that Stratton insisted on adding harmonized vocals to “Phantom of the Opera” alongside Paul Di’Anno. Iron Maiden never intended to sing music like Queen, so Dennis Stratton was let go just before recording the second album, even though his contributions to guitar in songs like “Phantom of The Opera,” “Transylvania,” or “Sanctuary” left a distinctive mark on Maiden’s sound. Some even say he was disliked by boss Harris because Steve wanted Stratton to wear denim, but Stratton refused. Truth be told, Maiden’s dress code back then was referred to by their London peers as the “Cunt Kit.” Adrian Smith, an old friend of Dave Murray from the band Urchin, stepped in as the second guitarist, and of course, didn’t mind being called “a cunt”.

Predictably, Iron Maiden’s debut album was a bit of a village feast like its members, not quite awake to delve into the nuances of war. Except for one consistent factor: the fusion of three guitars. Indeed, despite playing bass, Steve Harris’s playing was no different from that of a third guitarist in the band. It’s easy to recognize that Steve Harris’s bass is always prominently placed in the middle, and even closer to the listener’s ears than the guitars. Although naturally not a fan of Punk, Steve Harris learned what made this genre popular: speed. Therefore, he wanted the band to play faster and faster to heighten the excitement. Adding contrasting tempo changes, Iron Maiden’s music naturally carries a progressive and intriguing vibe.

Interestingly, despite NWOBHM being characterized by fast-paced playing, it may not have been a genre known for having exceptional guitarists. People went crazy over NWOBHM back then because it put an end to the boredom of Punk Rock, but honestly, most NWOBHM bands didn’t play guitar riffs that made listeners want to replay their music. Perhaps the dual guitar playing is what made Iron Maiden and Judas Priest the only interesting bands from NWOBHM, and partly explains the genre’s fleeting demise within about half a decade.

But initially, playing harmonized guitars only made Iron Maiden sound dull in venues with poor sound quality, especially when they hadn’t yet gained fame and had to endure opening for other bands – a reason why their sound seemed like buzzing flies.

One of the most memorable experiences was when they opened for Judas Priest, an older and more experienced band, for the album Point of Entry. Judas Priest, also with two guitarists playing harmonies, taught Iron Maiden a lesson on who the Metal God really was, with their raw sound and extreme precision in playing high-pitched harmonized guitars. Since then, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest have become two British bands constantly eyeing each other. However, thanks to the assertive management of Rod Smallwood, Iron Maiden’s manager, the band’s rider always had specific requirements for stage size and sound. Judas Priest had a memorable moment when they were declined an opening slot for Iron Maiden at a later show, yet they calmly received their full paycheck because the stage allocated for Maiden was too small. Judas Priest had not carefully read the contract.

The second album, “Killers” (1981), was mostly composed by Steve Harris and largely consisted of leftover tracks from the previous album. Despite this, the sound of this record was remarkably improved with the debut assistance of the brilliant producer Martin Birch, who was then rising to fame after producing “Heaven and Hell” for Black Sabbath with the new vocalist, R.J Dio. Steve Harris planted the seeds of Iron Maiden’s music with the sound and themes prevalent throughout the album, while still maximizing the talents of singer Paul Di’Anno in creating songs centered around violence. Indeed, Paul Di’Anno’s robust voice and expressive singing ability in the mid-range made him the perfect fit to sing about killers and gruesome tales. Interestingly, two songs about war, guess what, are two instrumental tracks (“Ides of March” and “Genghis Khan”), meaning there’s no vocals by Paul Di’Anno.

Although “Killers” remains a unique album in its own right, it wasn’t very well-received at the time. Worse, even singer Paul Di’Anno didn’t agree with this musical direction – the songs lacked the rebellious spirit of Rock, while his bandmates were too mild-mannered. Paul believed that his singing voice, his rock and roll attitude (which the entire band didn’t fancy), contributed to 30% of the band’s success during his tenure as the lead vocalist. Paul Di’Anno also considered himself a diva, demanding a separate dressing room and the desire to chat with anyone at the desk.

Of course, from the perspective of “boss” Harris, he wasn’t too serious and partied too much. Paul Di’Anno’s physical condition also didn’t guarantee the band’s rigorous touring schedule as he continued to use drugs 24 hours a day. So, even during the recording of “Killers,” Steve knew that Paul Di’Anno would have to leave. The replacement for Paul Di’Anno, someone with a wider vocal range and more progressive sensibilities was targeted by the rival band Samson: Bruce Dickinson.

Whether intentional or not, Bruce Dickinson’s soaring vocals and confrontational personality significantly intensified Iron Maiden’s music after “Killers.” Paul Di’Anno, while appearing to be a rock star, wasn’t necessarily as combative as Dickinson. With a mischievous nature since childhood, Bruce was once expelled from school for urinating in the headmaster’s dinner. When he started performing with Maiden, Bruce Dickinson even practiced sword fighting and was skilled enough to represent England in the World Championship.

Iron Maiden’s next album, “Number of The Beast,” was released in March 1982, just 5 months after they changed singers. While Iron Maiden and “Killers” consisted entirely of songs Steve Harris had been preparing since the late ’70s, with “Number of The Beast,” they were able to debut a series of new songs with a fresh challenge.

More importantly, from this point on, Maiden had added firepower in songwriting with singer Bruce Dickinson and guitarist Adrian Smith sharing the burden with Steve Harris. Whether by coincidence or not, most of the songs about war or combat during Maiden’s peak in the 1980s had contributions from one or both of these individuals.

TokoPyramid Iron Maidens The Number of The Beast Album
Iron Maidens The Number of The Beast Album

The “Number of the Beast” album kicks off with a war-themed track, “Invaders,” and the song that made them more widely known in the US, “Run To The Hills,” is also a song about the war between white men and Native Americans. And although Bruce Dickinson was contractually bound by his former record label, preventing him from receiving credit on this album, insiders believe that such lyrics couldn’t be without Bruce’s input.

Iron Maiden then embarked on a trilogy of peak albums: “Number of the Beast,” “Piece of Mind,” and “Powerslave,” culminating in an extremely successful two-year record-breaking tour (resulting in the iconic “Live After Death” album), elevating them to the status of one of the world’s premier heavy metal bands. Or at least the most talked-about heavy metal band at the time.

And war-themed songs were never in short supply. In “Piece of Mind” (1983), we can immediately recall “The Trooper,” a song about a battle between the British and Russian armies in the Crimean War of the 19th century (spoiler: Britain lost miserably). Thanks to Iron Maiden, I learned more about a conflict that spanned across Europe and was perhaps only rivaled by World War I in grandeur. Then there’s “Sun and Steel,” a song about Miyamoto Musashi, the legendary swordsman and brilliant philosopher from distant Japan.

But perhaps most memorable for me is “Where Eagles Dare,” a song inspired by the 1968 film of the same name starring Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood, about these two leading a team of allies to rescue a trapped general from a German stronghold during World War II. The thunderous drum roll, spanning about 100 toms from left to right, by Nicko McBrain perfectly opens this album, as well as welcoming himself as the new member replacing Clive Burr. Just like Bruce Dickinson, who was challenged by Martin Birch to sing the first line of “Number of The Beast” to showcase all his life experiences when he joined the band, Nicko McBrain was challenged by Bruce to play the thunderous drum roll to match Cozy Powell’s style in “Stargazer.” Nicko initially considered declining because the roll had to be played with double bass pedals, but when Bruce hinted that perhaps only Deep Purple’s Ian Paice could pull it off, Nicko McBrain practiced for days and managed to play the lightning-fast drum roll with just a single bass pedal. And he’s been playing it that way, barefoot, throughout years of live performances.

By the time “Powerslave” (1984) rolled around, inspiration from battles was abundant in tracks like “2 Minutes to Midnight,” a song about the doomsday of humanity as a result of nuclear war. “Flash of the Blades” and “The Duelist” speak of intense sword fights. But the most memorable would undoubtedly be the opening track, “Aces High,” featuring the stirring words of Winston Churchill. I had the privilege of seeing Iron Maiden in Singapore in 2012, and indeed, when Churchill’s voice echoed through the venue, a spine-tingling sensation spread throughout my body. And as Nicko McBrain’s drums quickened just before the verse kicked in, it felt as though all the might of the world was coursing through me, and the entire audience, like a powerful army, was ready to charge into battle.

A common characteristic of all these types of songs is that while Maiden’s music always creates epic landscapes, the lyrics of the songs are always straightforward about the foolish and brutal aspects created by war. That’s what I always appreciate about Iron Maiden’s music: it doesn’t compromise in depicting the atrocities of war, but it also doesn’t shy away from celebrating the grandeur of battles. Perhaps that’s why we still enjoy playing war games as kids. Perhaps that’s why we still love playing combat video games even as adults.

There was a noticeable decline in Iron Maiden’s music in this thematic area when guitarist Adrian Smith left the band after the album “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son” (1987), followed by Bruce Dickinson’s departure after “Fear of the Dark” (1992). Steve Harris struggled to carry the team throughout the 1990s, although he managed to produce memorable war-themed songs like “Afraid to Shoot Stranger,” addressing the Gulf War, or “The Clansman,” about the uprising of the Scottish against English rule (just missing the title “Braveheart”). But Iron Maiden could have easily faded into obscurity in the late 1990s amidst a rock music world dominated by the emergence of introspective genres like Grunge and Britpop, or the simplicity of guitar playing in Nu Metal.

During this time, solo singer Bruce Dickinson endeavored to confront the depths of war by participating in a charity concert in Sarajevo amidst the Balkan conflict. Adrian Smith, on the other hand, set aside his guitar to engage in environmental conservation efforts and pursue his passion for sustainable fishing. Meanwhile, “boss” Harris grappled with invisible battles stemming from his divorce in the early 1990s, particularly the backlash from Maiden fans regarding vocalist Blaze Bailey, whose vocal range didn’t match that of their previous singer.

I hadn’t listened to Iron Maiden for over 10 years, a period between the albums The X Factor and The Final Frontier. I thought they had faded into obscurity until I unexpectedly came across their 2010 album. It prompted me to rediscover Dance of Death (2005) and especially A Matter of Life and Death (2006), another exceptional album.

Perhaps, during the time I wasn’t paying attention, Steve Harris realized that there was no need for further internal strife within Iron Maiden. Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith were invited back in 1999, and the guitarist replacing Adrian Smith, Janick Gers, didn’t have to leave. Steve Harris recognized that Iron Maiden accommodated everyone except those he disliked and that there was no room for ego in Maiden. The conditions set by Bruce and Adrian upon their return — recording in studios other than Steve Harris’s and relinquishing his self-production, which resulted in excessively prominent bass, in favor of producer Kevin Shirley’s control — were both accepted.

Iron Maiden didn’t need to conceal their passion for their battles, and they released A Matter of Life and Death in 2006. Without the need for standout singles to create hits, the entire album stands out as a collection of war-themed stories. With its heavy and dark sound, tempo changes, odd time signatures, and harmonic progressions previously unexplored by Maiden, tracks like “The Pilgrim,” “Out of the Shadows,” “For the Greater Good of God,” “The Legacy,” and especially “Brighter Than a Thousand Suns” showcased their musical evolution. The decision of Iron Maiden to tour with the entire album as a set, something they had never done with previous albums, demonstrated how fully committed they were to their passion and how confidently they presented what they wanted to the world.

And now, in 2021, they continue to release an album full of fighting spirit like Senjutsu (roughly translated as “Strategic Warfare”). It’s an album that truly encompasses all their strategic warfare techniques honed over their 40-year career, yet it still sounds fresh and engaging, never dull or repetitive.

Who can resist the grandeur of war stories?

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