A heavy-metal band named after a medieval torture device sounds like a ready-made joke. But I’ve always had a soft spot for Iron Maiden. And it was 20 years ago today (to borrow a phrase) that Iron Maiden released its best album. I am referring, of course, to Powerslave.
When I was in the 9th grade, I listened to Powerslave so much I wore out the cassette. There was a lot to love: The crunching rhythms, the wailing guitars, the smart lyrics.
Smart lyrics? Bet you weren’t expecting that. A quick scan of Iron Maiden’s album covers doesn’t reveal many signs of intelligent life. Just about all of them feature a frizzy-haired zombie named Eddie, who looks like the artistic creation of a 16-year-old burnout with some inborn talent but little training and no sense of direction. The term “juvenilia” leaps to mind. And the titles don’t help, either: Two of the band’s first three albums are called Killers and The Number of the Beast. The crude appeals to dread and deviltry are a couple of the biggest heavy-metal clichés going. Everything about Iron Maiden appears patently ridiculous, at least on the surface.
It would be wrong to say that Iron Maiden was ill served by this packaging. After all, the band has experienced real commercial success in its native Britain, here in the United States, and around the world. A recent item on the group’s website notes that Iron Maiden just sold its 500,000th album in Finland. That’s not bad for a country of only five million people. (Can one in ten Finns possibly be wrong?)
In the loud and fast genre of heavy metal, Iron Maiden’s music is tough to beat. Listening to the band for the first time after many years–I more or less had stopped by 1987–I hear lots of strong riffs and melodies as well as impressive levels of musicianship. I don’t play the guitar, but I’ve strummed one before and taking in a Maiden solo now makes me tip my hat to the guy who spent a lot of lonely hours perfecting his craft.
For me, however, what always separated Iron Maiden from other heavy-metal bands were the topics of the songs. Despite those silly album covers and names, the group’s lyrical interests were downright mature–and several notches above everything else in the genre. If Iron Maiden ever wrote a song about sex, drugs, or rock and roll, I never heard it. The guys were too busy singing about literature and history. Here’s a sampling of song titles: “The Flight of Icarus,” “Alexander the Great,” “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.” Not all of their subjects are so transparent. “The Trooper” is Maiden’s version of “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” the poem by Tennyson. “To Tame a Land” is based on Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic Dune. “Stranger in a Strange Land” isn’t based on the Robert Heinlein book, but something else entirely. (Arctic exploration, if you must know.)
When Iron Maiden fans pick their favorite album, most settle on one of three from the band’s heyday in the early 1980s: The Number of the Beast, Piece of Mind, or Powerslave. Each has its strong points, though I’ve always preferred Powerslave, probably because it was the first Maiden album I ever bought–the one that turned me into a fan. The songs are magnificent. The first track, “Aces High,” is about as perfect a heavy-metal tune as there is. It’s about the Battle of Britain, told from the perspective of a British pilot. On tour in support of Powerslave two decades ago, Iron Maiden would begin its concerts by playing snippet from Winston Churchill’s “Never Surrender” speech–and then launch into this rocker.
The second song is one of Iron Maiden’s most familiar: “Two Minutes to Midnight.” It’s an anti-nuke tune whose politics aren’t exactly to my liking. Although the lyrics admit that “blood is freedom’s stain,” they also suggest that during the Cold War, both sides were deluded. The title is a reference to the Doomsday Clock, whose main purpose is to serve as a propaganda tool of the Left. None of this means that the boys in Iron Maiden are Commie symps–they aren’t–but a piece of me always has wished this song had been about Dunkirk or something. Still, the hooks are catchy and the lyrics are such that I enjoyed deciphering their meaning when I was 14 years old.
The other songs on Powerslave are about swordfighting (lead singer Bruce Dickinson is a fencer), a Ridley Scott movie called The Duellists (which in turn is based on Joseph Conrad’s novel The Duel), and Egyptian mythology (hence the album cover’s pharaonic motif).
The highlight of Powerslave, however, is its climactic final track, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Yes, it’s inspired by the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem of the same name. The song credit goes to bassist Steve Harris, who does a fine job of jamming Coleridge’s words into a rock song. Here’s the first verse (of the Iron Maiden ditty):
Hear the rime of the Ancient Mariner,
See his eye as he stops one of three,
Mesmerizes one of the wedding guests,
Stay here and listen to the nightmare of the sea.
That’s a pretty good summary of how the Coleridge poem gets started. In a few places, where summation simply won’t do, Harris transports Coleridge’s words directly into the song (and says so in the liner notes):
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship upon a pointed ocean,
Water, water everywhere, and all the boards did shrink;
Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.
These are some of the most celebrated words in all of English literature, and there they are right in the middle of a heavy-metal tune.
The whole thing goes on for more than 13 minutes, as Maiden runs through the story of the Mariner, the albatross, the ghost ship, and so on. By rock and roll standards, the song is an epic–and never tedious, thanks to all the tempo changes and the words filled with meaning. In a genre that often descends into morbidity, Iron Maiden’s rendition of “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” contains some of the most life-affirming lyrics you’ll encounter this side of a church hymn:
The Mariner’s bound to tell of his story,
To tell his tale wherever he goes,
To teach God’s word by his own example,
That we must love all things that God made.
Okay, a lot of people may find the song ponderous and the lyrics pretentious. I won’t argue with them. But for me, dude, it’s head-bangin’ poetry.
Happy birthday, Powerslave.
MEMO TO MAIDEN AFFICIONADOS: Yes, I know the release date of Powerslave is sometimes listed as September 3, 1984. But I’m sticking with September 15 because that’s what the liner notes inside my new CD say.