"Can't Be Bought, Can't Be Sought": Maiden, Priest, Sabbath, and Walt Disney: Metal In Middle Age

Watching Iron Maiden last week, I was struck by something that might seem like an odd thought: “Wow, people seem to *really* love Iron Maiden!”  This might seem like kind of a duh, but when you consider how thoroughly this audience knew every word and every lick of these songs, and when you consider that Iron Maiden shirt-wearing had saturated a good 80% of the audience market, you begin to get a grip on the sheer adulation this band gets from its audience.

A lot was made of how no one liked their last tour, where they played their new album in its entirety.  Although there was groaning from metal hipsters and ironists, though, at the show last year from my seats all I could sense was that everyone else around me had really done their homework: everyone there seemed to know every word and air-guitar riff from the new album.  As an aside, at an Iron Maiden show a few years ago, I witnessed a sight that I will definitely take to my grave: in front of me for most of the show were two teenage boys air-guitaring along to every moment; and in the middle of one song, I swear I witnessed one of the boys correct the other one’s air-guitaring, as in “No, it doesn’t go like this, it goes like this.”  Genius.

Anyway, my theory on Maiden is that they took the molten confusion of 60’s and 70’s rock culture and made a Disneyland attraction/ride out of it, with a degree of opera-derived camp that wasn’t far off from the then-ongoing Ice Capades craze and presaged the 90’s and 00’s Broadway musical trend.  They also aren’t far off from the intents of the original Disneyland: pillage folklore and myth and create a technically masterful piece out of each one.  The same way that a kid in the 70’s probably knew of Snow White and Pinocchio through the Disney animated films, a metal fan in the 80’s probably was more aware of “The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner”, “The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner”, and Winston Churchill’s infamous “We shall go on to the end” speech from Iron Maiden’s records than from their sources.

Maiden of course come from a pre-Internet world where knowledge of arcane tales was cool, and it was ultimately the same world where Dungeons & Dragons could flourish unironically.  It's hard to remember a time where Area 51 and Roswell was not common knowledge, and instead of wikipedia'ing "Alexander The Great" you might have to go to a library and look something up in an encyclopedia, which is pretty much what it sounds like they did when writing said tune.

Metal and indeed rock in general has always plundered history and culture for source material, but in some ways the brazen way in which Maiden appropriated/pillaged was just in line with the burgeoning culture of “metal” from its origins on.  We all know about Zep’s swipes from Lord of the Rings (not to mention Rush’s subsequent swipes from the same) and the way that Sabbath’s very name is from the 1963 Boris Karloff/Mario Bava horror flick (imagine how pretentious metal would have become if the Sabs had named themselves after the film’s original Italian title, I tre volti della paura) – but it’s arguable that neither of these bands had their sights set on the cohesive branding that a band like Maiden would later put together.  Although the Sabs did pull the hat trick of same-song-name/band-name/album-name on their debut (which Maiden would of course pull themselves), Satanism and black masses was surprisingly not necessarily an ongoing lyrical preoccupation for the band, and in the end they are essential celebrated for being a great rock/metal band.

If the genesis theory of metal begins with the holy trinity of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and (always in third) Deep Purple, then it’s pretty understood that the second coming involves the Beatles/Stones dialectic of Maiden and Priest.  And while Judas Priest were arguably campier, more flamboyant, and more aggressively “metal”, Iron Maiden have always stood for ideals that will forever define what metal is for generations of kids: large themes, grand scales, and straight-up fantasy.

You see, the rock crit line has always been that metal is part of a long line of androgynous sashayers drawing from such disparate sources as David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, Mick Jagger, etc: and indeed, you could pick a few points on the graph and show a straight line from, say, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to Freddie Mercury to Ian Anderson’s cod-piece to Rob Halford to pretty much any emo-metaller nowadays—however, this emphasis on androgyny only works if you think that metallers are all about creating confusion and exploring society’s grey areas and dark themes, which works fine until you attempt to fit Iron Maiden in the equation, and then it all falls to shit.  Why?  Because Maiden are the wholesome and unconfused literalists in a sea of metal fatigue and ephemeral metaphor-peddlers.

Black Sabbath’s most enduring hit is a song called “Paranoid”.  It was famously written quickly, lyrics and music, and as such it doesn’t entirely make a whole lot of sense.  The word “paranoid” is never used in the song, and indeed it could have probably been called any number of other names and worked just as well.  It isn’t a meditation on the concept of paranoia or anything, it’s a confused and emotional tune of heartbreak and emotional numbness; it’s lead guitar break is so fuzzed-out and jarring that it has always sounded, to me, like when you are trying to talk in a dream and can’t quite make the words out.  Ultimately, the underlying theme of the majority of Black Sabbath tunes is “frustration”.

This is no longer true by the time you get to Maiden and Priest.  Priest worked hard at being self-consciously “metal”, with lyrics and imagery that attempt to unite its teen fanbase in a leather-clad army of teen rebels.  Priest’s mascot is a creature called The Metallion: never mentioned in song but adorning the cover of “Defenders of the Faith” as an art deco demon, he is part of the overall attempt by Priest to create metal myths with intimidating creatures meant to represent the power of their teen following.  Songs like “United” especially lay bare the band’s naked thirst for fomenting teen rebellion.

Priest’s main weapon of coercion is sexual predation: if you didn’t know Halford was gay during Priest’s heyday, you would at least have known, by a cursory perusal of their tuneage, that the guy was as sexually aggressive as Freddie Mercury before him.  It’s just a fine line between the aggressive camp of Queen’s “Tie Your Mother Down” and Priest’s PMRC-targeted tune “Eat Me Alive”. “I’m going to force you at gunpoint!”

It’s clear that Halford, closeted at the time, was trying to test the bounds of what he could get away with without giving the game away, and his hypersexuality in the band lent them their individuality and force.  The opposite is true of Maiden: their tunes are completely devoid of any sexual content at all (unless you count a song about Jack The Ripper as sexual).  Instead, Iron Maiden systematically work through coherent themes, and attempt to turn those themes into exciting showpieces.  This approach worked to limited means with first singer Paul Di’Anno on their first two albums; although Di’Anno had a powerful presence that worked within the milieu of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal that Maiden ostensibly came out of, his limited range meant that he could never take the songs to the stratospheric heights of Maiden’s 70’s heroes, bands with banshee shriekers like Zep, Deep Purple, UFO, Uriah Heep, etc.

(As an aside, I’d like to offer a quick defense of the rock band Uriah Heep.  Sometimes people don’t realize that in order for the rock behemoths of today to exist, many others had to fall by the wayside to make the current ascendancy possible.  This is especially true for a band like Heep, whose supernatural lyrical preoccupations, impossibly tight arrangements, blazing fretwork, extended themes, and glass-shattering approach to vocal histrionics not only laid a straight-up blueprint for Iron Maiden, but for metal itself.  Laugh all you want, but the Heep delivered.)

Anyway, once Maiden had Dickinson, they finally had everything in place to take "satanic" metal mainstream: compare “Number of the Beast”, from Dickinson’s first LP with the band, to, say, the self-titled Sabbath tune, and you can see Maiden’s genius: whilst Sab’s tune is a dirgey testament to self-flagellation and eternal damnation, with a lone tri-note theme encapsulating seven centuries of banned music into a singular ode to one man’s shame and torment, Maiden’s tune is pure voyeurism: the protagonist witnesses the sights and sounds of a black mass.  “6! 6! 6! / The number of the beast! / Sacrifice is going on tonight!”

In song after song, Maiden created self-contained worlds that act as adaptations of themes.  "Flight of Icarus", "The Prisoner" (after the 60's British TV show), "Transylvania", "Quest For Fire", "To Tame A Land" (a ditty about Frank Herbert's Dune), "The Phantom Of The Opera", etc are straight-forward stories being told, with no real metaphor or hidden meaning at all.  "Number Of The Beast" isn't an investigation of evil, or a metaphor for the modern day's banality of cruelty, or any of those things: it is a straightforward account of a black mass.

This is unusual for the world of the pop song, where everything is buried within symbolism and hidden meanings; but it is not unusual for the world of musicals and opera, which is really aesthetically where Maiden are coming from.  From where I was sitting last week, Maiden's pagaentry of themes and settings is like nothing so much as when one enters the hallowed halls of Disneyland, and sees this:

Rock, and metal in particular, is about harnessing the power of rock, and presenting that power in as big a way as possible.  In a post-Disney world, where spectacle, imagery, symbolism stripped of context, and the history of the world and its mythology can be reshaped and represented at will, is there really anyone better at harnessing this power than Iron Maiden?  It doesn't seem like it.  Bands before Maiden attempted to harness this kind of power of imagery, but they all tended to get lost amidst their own personalities and emotions: whether it was Jim Morrission attempting confusing crowd manipulation, or Led Zeppelin sending conflicting messages of power, authority and fey sensuality, rock titans pre-Maiden tended to miss the untapped market of straight-forward arena-filling adaptation-rock.  Think of "Run To The Hills" as similar to Disney's "Pocahantas": it presents the European/Native American interface from both sides equally (only the Maiden song has a lot more bloodshed and a lot fewer cute animals).

If you go outside of the US/UK rock market, you will start noticing that the only visible indication that rock culture exists at all are the constant flurry of Maiden t-shirts.  Like the ending of Spinal Tap, smart money for post-baby boomer rockers is on exporting to the world at large, something that Maiden has always done exceedingly well.  Last week's show was introduced with a video of Maiden piloting a jet to what appeared to be Rio for a series of mammoth concerts that made the Mansfield gig look like a weeknight at the Abbey by comparison.

The set proper, pre-encores, closed with "Iron Maiden", a kind-of clunky punkish number from their debut that still, to me, sounds like their baby steps in attempting to write the kind of epic historical pieces that they would later become famous for.  "Oh well, whatever" is a pretty half-assed line to begin the chorus of a signature song of a band, and the final line of "Iron maiden can't be bought/Iron maiden can't be sought" doesn't make much sense whether you are talking about the band or its eponymous "medieval" torture device*.  But perhaps it only sounds out of place when played at the end of a set by a band of Maiden's calibre 30-some-odd years into their career.

-Daniel Brockman

* Kind of like the band Anthrax, most metal fans probably didn't know what an "iron maiden" was when they first placed Maiden at the forefront of the N.W.O.B.H.M.-- but by the first Bill and Ted's movie, the saturation of the meaning of the name was pretty much complete in metal culture.  Oddly enough, some research into the history of the "iron maiden" as a medieval torture device reveals that it is actually the result of a bizarre hoax.  From wikipedia here:

Historians have ascertained that Johann Philipp Siebenkees created the history of [the iron maiden] as a hoax in 1793. According to Siebenkees' colportage, it was first used on August 14, 1515, to execute a coin forger.[2] The Nuremberg iron maiden was actually built in the late 18th century as a probable misinterpretation of a medieval "Schandmantel" ("cloak of shame"), which was made of wood and tin but without spikes. Accounts of the iron maiden cannot be found from any period older than 1793, although most other medieval torture devices were extensively catalogued.

 Meaning, I suppose, that the power of the imagery was enough that the thing didn't need to actually be used in order to represent the horrors of the Dark Ages to those in the 19th century and beyond.  Bogus!

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