On Christmas day in 1975, song writer and bass player Steve Harris and guitar player Dave Murray formed the band that became Iron Maiden. The name reportedly was inspired by a book by the name of The Man in the Iron Mask, which reminded the musicians of the Medieval torture device known as the iron maiden. This began a four-plus-decades-long process of borrowing from cultural and historical references, including Satanism, to produce a new sound, style, and inevitable iconic persona. > Read more
The band began in England, with a hint of punk heritage that soon gave way to more heavy metal leanings, featuring uncomplicated guitar riffs, gut-wrenching chords, and metal's signature screaming vocals. Iron Maiden underwent relentless roster changes over the years, so you can always spot a fan's favorite era by which musicians they most identify with the band.
Iron Maiden Begins
The first of their albums was released under their own label, beginning with The Soundhouse Tapes. Officially, Iron Maiden's debut album for a major record label didn't come until 1980, a self-titled album that shot to the top 5 in Britain's charts. They followed up the next year with Killers, which made it to #12.
The U.S. was a bit slower to embrace their screamo style, which borrowed heavily from movies, books, and pop culture, leading to more than a few critics claiming they were Satanic. Productions like "Children of the Damned," "Number of the Beast," and "Hallowed be Thy Name" did nothing to help that image, although the members of Iron Maiden have consistently denied any actual interest in or association with Satanism on a personal level.
The History of Iron Maiden's Imagery
What set Iron Maiden apart from their metal counterparts was largely their easily-discernable lyrics, which weren't always what the more sensitive music listeners wanted to hear. Another distinctive factor was their employment of the somewhat grotesque mascot, Eddie the Head, usually shortened to just "Eddie," who appears on all their album covers, as well as most of their band merchandise. Eddie is a rotting corpse designed by an art student and friend of Dave "Lights" Beasley. Beasley said the first incarnation of Eddie was made using a papier-mâché mold of his own face.
The Man in the Iron Mask, the book that prompted the title of the band, is a somewhat romantic novel by best-selling author, Alexandre Dumas in1847. In the story, King Louis XIV had a twin brother, born first, who was the rightful heir to the throne. Instead, Louis sentenced his brother to wear an iron, in which he could not be recognized nor lay claim to his throne. The movie was later adapted into a popular film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, John Malkovich, and Jeremy Irons.
The iron mask in the movie reminded the band of the torture device called the iron maiden. An iron maiden is rumored to be a medieval implement of torture and execution, wherein the victim is encased in a coffin-like case, filled with spikes, that upon closure, pierces the victim, maiming or killing them. The first known reference to such a device was in the 1800's, but legend has it that such devices were employed as early as the 1400's. A few actual iron maidens are viewable in museums, especially those in Europe, where they were reportedly used specializing in the macabre. The iron maiden was a German invention.
Iron Maiden: The Men Behind the Iron Masks
Iron Maiden's revolving door of musical performers has included:
• Doug Sampson on percussion ('77 to '79) • Paul Di'Anno as lead vocalist ('78 to '81) • Dennis Stratton on guitar ('79 to '80) • Clive Burr on percussion ('79 to '82) • Blaze Bayley on lead vocals ('94 to '99)
Currently, the official lineup includes:
• Steve Harris on bass • Dave Murray on guitars • Adrian Smith on guitars and keyboards • Bruce Dickinson as lead vocalist and on keyboards • Nicko McBrain on percussion • Janick Gers on guitars • Michael Kenney as a touring musician on keyboards
Steve Harris takes care of most of the songwriting for Iron Maiden.
Iron Maiden, like most musical acts, borrows heavily from those who have gone before them. According to Harris, much of Iron Maiden's inspiration comes from Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, Genesis, Yes, Jethro Tull, Thin Lizzy, and others.
Guitar players Murray, Smith, and Gers also borrow from guitar greats like Hendrix, Johnny Winter, and Ritchie Blackmore, among others. Here you can see the blues heritage of their styles, with more melody than the usual metal fare.
Dickinson is also very much his own man outside the band, making his mark as amateur beer brewer, airplane pilot, internationally-acclaimed fencer, and cancer survivor. He reportedly detests fame, believing it to be the less-savory side of getting to do what he loves for a living, which is make great music.
We Aren't Satan Worshipers, Honest
About that Satanism ... The first round of heavy criticism came from many in the Christian community following their 1982 release of The Number of the Beast. In the book of Revelation (the last book in the Christian Bible that deals with the end of earth and mankind) the "number of the beast" is a mark issued by the Antichrist to mark his followers. This mark denotes you not only as a follower of the Antichrist, but an avowed enemy of God.
The controversy over the title and imagery associated with the band led to a few record burnings, and even some hammer-smashing sessions. The protests weren't limited to the U.S., either, with the nation of Chile banning the band's performance there in 1992. According to Harris, they got it all wrong, and even a cursory listen to their actual lyrics would have prevented the misunderstanding. Drummer McBrain converted to Christianity in 1999.
Iron Maiden Now & From Now On
Nevertheless, the band's earliest releases remain their most successful, a success they achieved with virtually no radio play to back up sales. By the 1990's, most of the heyday of the original metal bands like Iron Maiden gave way to different sounds, and many of the band's former members went on to successful musical careers outside Iron Maiden.
One thing that always remained constant was the band's sound. Aside from the addition of keyboards and guitar synthesizers, Iron Maiden's performances today sound much the same today is it did back in the day. Except, you know, they have more songs to play.
As for the future, Iron Maiden doesn't even seem to be slowing down. With their Legacy of the Beast tour slated for next year (as of this writing), Eddie and company seem poised for even more success, as they blast past their 42-year mark. Wasted Years? Not many.