Sunday, 25 January 2015

Can I Play with Madness: How Iron Maiden Gave Me Music

A few nights ago, I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning 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 five hours long and featured a detailed look at the recording of their seminal third album The Number of the Beast (the highlight of which was lead singer Bruce Dickinson wandering around Portmeirion in Wales to illustrate the reasoning behind a particular song), their concert film Rock In Rio, filmed at the festival of the same name in 2001 in front of a crowd of 250,000 (the highlight of which was drummer Nicko McBrain breaking out in spontaneous Scottish country dancing behind his kit) and the documentary-cum-concert film Flight 666 that charted Dickinson flying the band on their 2008 world tour in a specially modified 757 (the highlight of which was Dickie Bell, their production assistant and general grumpy yet loveable sidekick). Saying that they were the three highlights does seem to detract from the band’s credibility, but don’t let it – 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 fan and artist. There are probably dozens of artists who could claim a greater connection to the masses but challenge that assertion to an Iron Maiden fan and you’ll be shot down with speed.
Iron Maiden at Twickenham Stadium, 2008

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.

Rewind to 2010. I'm not in a very good place; I've been through a rough patch in life during year 10, through no real fault of anybody. My parents are, and still are, very supportive of me, as are my friends and mentors. Some might dismiss it as teenage angst, and indeed for many, it may be that. But I never considered it that, and looking back on it after reflection and consultation, I still don’t. It was a dark time, a black chapter in my life. Regardless, it’s closed, the episode is over and summer awaits, something that does not fill me with any real feeling of delight. It’s a six week patch that I have little expectation for, yet will become a transformative period for me.

It’s the first day of the holidays and I'm lounging on the sofa, drinking squash and channel-surfing for something to occupy my mind. I catch the end of the video for Rainbow’s Since You Been Gone on the VH1 Classic music channel, a favoured song of mine, not that that means much. Music has never been a particularly big draw for me; my album collection consists of an Electric Light Orchestra greatest hits album and La Roux’s self-titled debut. Two albums. My music taste is my parents’; it’s not a form of expression for me, not something I'm invested in. That is about to change in ten minutes.

Rainbow is followed by a short advert break, and then a video for some generic nu-metal song from the turn of the century that I can’t remember. There’s nothing specifically offensive about it, but nothing spectacularly stand-out either. What it’s doing on VH1 Classic is somewhat of a mystery that I can’t really be bothered solving. It’s bland and I decide to try for one more song before I give it up as a bad cause and search for a power ballads countdown or just turn the TV off entirely.

That one more song is called Can I Play with Madness.

Steve Harris, founder and bassist of Iron Maiden

And in four minutes, my life has been irrevocably changed for the better.

The opening lyric is so unlike anything I've really listened to before. Music of the popular variety generally deals with unrequited love, or requited love, or heartbreak, or being free, or at least the lyrics always seem to be like that with a handful of generic clich├ęs knocked in 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, without music – it was as effective as if a fist had reached out of the television screen, grabbed me by the neck of the shirt and hauled me in.

Then comes the drums, the bass and the twin guitars. And I've heard this combination before, in Thin Lizzy in my dad’s car, but it’s never struck me in the way that it is right now. It’s an almighty cacophony of sound, of layers, of riff upon riff and a bass figure so unlike anything I've ever heard, with brushes of keyboard fleshing out underneath, before this klaxon, siren, call to arms 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 one single jot. That opening line (now revealed as the title of the song by the handy information bar at the bottom corner of the video) bursts back in, sung with such awe-inspiring force and brute strength that it seems to blow 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 fable 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) still don’t resonate with me nearly five years later. 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 seemed to equate to my mental state, and yet presented a way of managing and dealing far better than any well-meant words from strangers ever could.
Bruce Dickinson, lead singer of Iron Maiden

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 Messers 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 a name and a name I could pronounce at that. 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, but 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 – until then – distinctly poppy interior of my mum’s car, and with that, I hooked her and my sister too (my dad was already a bit of a part-time metal man, in between the bursts of Bob Dylan and Chris Rea). It was liberating – it bolstered my confidence to be able to look at the results of my love of a band impact others positively – and, in a somewhat strange twist of fate, my love for a band whose lyrical content painted stories that resulted in death, or possession, or more death, or supernatural premonitions – basically stuff that isn't very good for the mind – chased my 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 myself.

Iron Maiden at Motorpoint Arena, Sheffield, 2011

When I saw them live, at Sheffield’s Motorpoint Arena almost exactly a year to the date I discovered them in 2011, on their sell-out The Final Frontier World Tour, 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 kickstart for a new part. I was much happier that I had been a year prior, and that was in no small way thanks to Iron Maiden. They had widened my palate of musical taste; I owned several of their albums, and several more. Music had become one of my key interests, But in seeing Iron Maiden live, it almost felt like a goal achieved, a form of nirvana reached. What I didn't expect it to be was a gateway to a new passion. 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 my fingers are crossed that a new album – their first fresh material since that fateful summer of 2010 – and accompanying tour are incoming. I'm surely not the only one waiting with baited breath.

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.

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