The heavy-metal band Iron Maiden often starts its concerts or encores with a short lesson in history and rhetoric. As fans watch jumbo screens fill with black-and-white images of aerial combat from World War II, they hear an excerpt from one of Winston Churchill’s best-known speeches — the one that climaxes with “We shall never surrender!” Then the group’s six musicians burst onto the stage and perform “Aces High,” their loud-and-fast song about the Battle of Britain. Bruce Dickinson, a frontman with an operatic voice, bellows lyrics about air-raid sirens, Messerschmitt 109s, and Spitfires. In the audience, thousands of people who know the words by heart sing along.
In a lot of ways, an Iron Maiden show is an ordinary experience of heavy-metal sound and fury, with deafening noise, impressive pyrotechnics, and a head-banging audience. The members of the group tend to wear black muscle T-shirts, dark jeans, and studded belts. They sport hair that looks like it hasn’t been cut since the days of cassette tapes. The whole thing radiates self-parody, right down to the band’s name, which is a reference to a torture device — a fitting moniker, given the heavy-metal genre’s reputation for earsplitting levels of volume.
Yet for four decades — its latest album, The Book of Souls, came out in September — Iron Maiden has distinguished itself from competitors such as Judas Priest, Metallica, and Megadeth. Rather than playing thunderous songs about sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll, the band has played thunderous songs about history, literature, and mythology. Consider a few song titles: “Paschendale,” “To Tame a Land,” and “The Flight of Icarus,” which draw, respectively, from a gruesome battle in World War I, Frank Herbert’s popular science-fiction novel Dune, and the ancient legend about waxen wings and hubris. Total album sales, around the world, approach 100 million.
You don’t have to like the music — I happen to love it — to recognize that Iron Maiden is one of the most fascinating pop-culture phenomena of recent times.
Bass player Steve Harris formed the band in London in 1975. They began live performances the next year and in 1980 released their first full-length album, the self-titled Iron Maiden. This debut launched the group professionally and also established Iron Maiden’s iconography, including a unique logo whose typeface hasn’t changed, as well as “Eddie,” a cartoonish zombie who has become an enduring character in the band’s art and concerts.
Early on, it became clear that when Iron Maiden searches for sources of inspiration, it often turns to middlebrow culture, in the best sense of that term. The 1980 album contained “Phantom of the Opera,” a seven-minute piece drawn from the 1910 novel by Gaston Leroux and possibly the 1925 silent film starring Lon Chaney. (The musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber came out in 1986.) On a follow-up the next year, Iron Maiden offered “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which is also the title of a short story by Edgar Allan Poe that is often regarded as the world’s first detective tale.
Today, Iron Maiden’s oeuvre consists of 16 studio albums — and sampling them can provide an idiosyncratic education. A friend of mine has a son who participates in high-school quiz-bowl contests. About a year ago, the boy faced a series of questions about Alexander the Great. Who was his father? Philip of Macedon. What Persian king did he defeat? Darius the Third. Which city in Egypt did he found? Alexandria. He knew the answers not because he’d read Plutarch, but because he’d been listening to “Alexander the Great,” a song from Iron Maiden’s 1986 album, Somewhere in Time. Back when record stores stocked vinyl editions of Somewhere in Time, “Alexander the Great” shared side two with “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” sparked by Alan Sillitoe’s 1959 story of rebelling against welfare-state conformity, and “Stranger in a Strange Land,” which is not about Robert A. Heinlein’s novel of the same name but instead about the hazards of Arctic exploration.
Although these songs are topically interesting, they aren’t Iron Maiden’s best. One song that the band commonly plays in concert is “The Trooper,” a retelling of “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” the famous poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson (who wrote it after reading William Howard Russell’s newspaper account of the Battle of Balaclava in 1854). Another well-liked song is “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a 14-minute epic based on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem about a seaman who kills an albatross and suffers a curse. Harris penned the lyrics, though in several spots the song simply reproduces Coleridge, including one of the most famous lines he ever wrote: “Water, water everywhere nor any drop to drink.” At the end, the song lyrics summarize the moral of the story, with the mariner fated “to teach God’s word by his own example / That we must love all things that God made.”
Despite this Christian message, Iron Maiden isn’t a Christian-rock band. Its third album, 1982’s The Number of the Beast, even sparked accusations of devil worship. The cover art depicts a crimson-red demon, complete with horns and a pitchfork, in the foreground of a scene that recalls Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings of hell. The title song begins with a short prologue, as a voice actor who sounds suspiciously like Vincent Price reads from the Book of Revelation, splicing together two passages about the devil and the number “six hundred and sixty-six.” The song blends the story of the 1978 horror film The Omen II with “Tam o’Shanter,” a 1791 poem about witchcraft by Robert Burns. Its narrator suffers from nightmares, worries about his sanity, and eventually recognizes that he’s the Antichrist. The song concludes with this line: “I have the power to make my evil take its course.”
Musically, it’s a great rock song — a miniature masterpiece of wailing guitars, pounding drums, and catchy choruses. Yet it’s easy to see how its lyrics might raise eyebrows, especially in Christian homes. Upon its release, a predictable round of denunciations and record-burnings followed. Controversy sells, and the flare-up probably fueled commercial success: The Number of the Beast became Iron Maiden’s best-selling record. The next year, on the album Piece of Mind, the band seemed to offer an amused response in a backward-masked message — that is, one that sounds like gibberish until it’s played in reverse. The hidden line was a recording of drummer Nicko McBrain as he tried to imitate the thick accent of Idi Amin, the Ugandan dictator: “Don’t meddle wit tings you don’t understand,” followed by a belch. The album also carried the song “Revelations,” whose first verse comes, word for word, from a hymn by G. K. Chesterton, the Christian apologist.
I came to know Iron Maiden in the 1980s as a teenager — the target demographic for heavy-metal music, then and now. When I first heard “The Number of the Beast,” I liked it but knew little of The Omen II and even less of Robert Burns. So the lyrics caused some anxiety. I was careful not to play the song when my parents might overhear. Then a strange thing happened: “The Number of the Beast” led me to pick up the Bible and read the Book of Revelation for the first time, in a search for meaning — and offering proof, perhaps, that the Lord works in mysterious ways. Other songs drove me to different sources, as I tried to decipher “The Prisoner” (based on a British television series), “Where Eagles Dare” (from an Alistair MacLean war novel that became a hit movie with Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood), and “Two Minutes to Midnight” (about nuclear doomsday). This fall at Hillsdale College, where I teach, a group of professors and I offered a one-credit seminar course on Iron Maiden’s lyrics. For a class on “The Flight of Icarus,” one of my colleagues started with Ovid’s treatment of the myth, then moved on to Dante, Bruegel’s painting, and James Joyce, plus a close reading of Iron Maiden’s version. The point was not to suggest that Iron Maiden belongs in this artistic pantheon but for students to learn about the evolution of myths and metaphors, including the ways in which pop culture might convey them.
In the next few years, the members of Iron Maiden will turn 60, but they haven’t slowed down, even though Dickinson, the lead singer, just battled his way through throat cancer. The Book of Souls, released to favorable reviews, clocks in at 92 minutes. The title song, perhaps influenced by the 2006 film Apocalypto, describes the end of Mayan civilization. “Death or Glory” is about the Red Baron and triplane combat in World War I. The 18-minute album-closing “Empire of the Clouds” recounts the rise and fall of the R101, a massive British dirigible that was once the world’s largest flying object — and was destroyed in a fiery crash in 1930, killing almost all on board. It’s an interesting story from the history of aviation, and I knew nothing about it before hearing the song.
In February, Iron Maiden embarks on a six-continent world tour. I’ve already got my tickets.