Everyone can remember the first Classic Heavy Metal Album they ever listened to, right? Classic Metal Hawk can. It was Iron Maiden’s is-it-or-isn’t-it concept album ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’.
It got the Hawk hooked for life – and the story behind that album is super-interesting in its own right. Let’s have a read (and a listen).
It’s All About Battersea Dogs’ Home!?
First off though, we’ll cut to the chase, concept-wise. Is ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’ a concept album or isn’t it?
“Like most things, it got about halfway down the track and then sort of veered off at a tangent,” Bruce Dickinson noted in the ‘Maiden England ’88 documentary’ (A.K.A. ‘History of Iron Maiden Part 3‘.) “Because whenever we’ve done concept albums in Maiden, we’ve never followed the plot slavishly. We’ve got to about halfway through and then done a song about Battersea Dogs Home in the middle of it… or something. You think, ‘Why is that on there?’ Just ’cos it is!’
Well, that clears that up. If memory serves (and The Hawk is a bird getting a little long in the tooth these days), I never actually saw it as a concept album at the time or realized that’s what it was intended to be. I mean, sure, there were themes around clairvoyancy and the like running through a few songs, but connections were not made by The Hawk at the time.
But anyway, concept album is what it started out as, and concept album it probably remains, even if the edges got a little blurry as things went along. Apparently, bassist Steve Harris first had the idea sometime in 1987 while the band were ploughing through the tour for their previous album, ‘Somewhere in Time’. The celebrated (no, really) British psychic Doris Stokes had died in May of that year, and Harris found himself wondering whether she’d been able to foresee her own death.
That question turned out to be the inspiration for a new song, ‘The Clairvoyant’, but it was only after Harris had taken it to singer Bruce Dickinson that the ‘concept album’ idea really got off the ground.
1987 felt like a big year for the Iron Maiden. The (in)famous Powerslave tour had ended in 1985 with the whole band, and Dickinson in particular feeling burned out after the insane touring schedule. 189 gigs in 331 days covering Europe, North and South America (first ever Rock in Rio), Japan and even Australasia.
Dickinson wanted a change of musical direction for the band after that, suggesting more a more acoustic, progressive vibe. That got short shrift from the others, leaving Dickinson feeling creatively detached from the resulting ‘Somewhere in Time’ album – as the singer in the band, but not much else. And although it included some quality material, and a somewhat progressive slant musically (guitar synthesizers!!) it had a bit the feel of an in between album – somewhat of a departure from the previous Iron Maiden style, without actually arriving at a definitive new one.
The next album would need to put that right.
The Seventh Son of a Seventh Son idea wasn’t invented by the band – it crops up in various places across religion and folklore, before making an appearance in more modern literature via the fantasy novel ‘Seventh Son’ by the American author Orson Scott Card. That work is a comforting yet foreboding story of destiny set in a country that, like the book’s protagonist, is in its infancy, born in strife, with all of its hard lessons and growing pains yet to come.
The Seventh Son himself is a gifted child born in hardship to a pioneer family in an alternate America at the onset of the 19th century. As per the title, the boy is the seventh son of a seventh son, born with unusual powers in a world where natural magics are common, if held in mistrust and outright fear by the conventionally religious. Clearly destined for both greatness and adversity as his powers grow, the book charts his various adventures through life, including a meeting with the classical poet, William Blake who will go on to chronicle the boy’s life.
Iron Maiden’s work follows the same theme – a boy with supernatural powers who is seen as dangerous and a freak in his village for his ability to see the future. However, as the threats against him from his angry neighbours intensify, things go badly wrong. At this point, we must trade in the classic poetry of Blake for the musical stylings of the band to perform the chronicling – which is where, as per the opening paragraphs, the overall story gets a bit muddled. But you get the picture.
Bringing it Together
The album came together quickly, as Maiden albums typically have done over the years. In this case, ruthless taskmaster / band manager Rod Smallwood was already finalizing details of the next world conquering tour before most of the songs were even in existence. The band threw themselves into writing with their usual gusto (and this time with Dickinson fully on board and contributing heavily) and before long, they were ready to hit Musicland Studios in Munich, Germany, in February and March 1988, with long-time producer Martin Birch once again at the controls. (Musicland was a real Mecca for Classic Heavy Metal bands, with Dio, Deep Purple and Queen among many to have recorded there.)
Funny stories abound from the period. Dave Murray took up conjuring to relieve the tedium of the long hours of waiting around. Dickinson, also suffering from boredom, decamped from Munich to Bonn once mixing was underway to train at a local fencing club. The training was good, and the club members super-friendly. One of them offered Dickinson an enema to relieve the symptoms of a heavy cold. He doesn’t say in his autobiography whether he accepted the offer, but maybe the clue is in the book’s title: ‘What Does This Button Do’ – that is to say, try anything once.
Kings of the Castle
With the album nearing its release date, Maiden emphasized the somewhat spooky subject material by holding a boozy launch party at Castle Schnellenberg in Attendorn, Germany. Journalists were flown in from across the globe flew to hear the new recording being belted out from loud speakers in the castle’s grounds and to interview the band.
The event, with its diverse invitee list, also marked the fact that the album was seen as something of a shift by the band towards a more commercial, mainstream sound.
This was wearyingly controversial at the time.
In fact, Classic Metal Hawk can vividly recall gushing out praise for the album at school after listening to it for the first time, only to be cut dead by older Classic Heavy Metal Fans who had been Iron Maiden aficionados for longer. They announced that Maiden had clearly sold out, end of discussion. The album was polluted by the use of keyboards, and the lyrics for one of the singles, ‘Can I play with Madness’ were rumoured to have been dictated by some suit at the record company.
The description of the album by Dickinson as “a heavy metal Dark Side Of The Moon” merely put the cherry on top of that particular cake.
Well, the Hawk didn’t care. One advantage of hearing a band only after they’ve already sold out is that you can then plough through the rest of the back catalogue without feeling bad. The Hawk duly did so, and his conversion to Classic Heavy Metal was complete.
Monty Python Comes On Board
Back in Seventh Son of a Seventh Son world, the record company forked out big bucks for the video to the aforementioned ‘Can I play With Madness’ and even brought in Monty Python’s Flying Circus alumni Graham Chapman and Julian Doyle to star and direct respectively. Presumably the bean counters got a decent return though, as the single hit number 3 in the UK singles charts at No.3. following its release in March 1988. It was to be one of Chapman’s last performances before he passed away from throat cancer shortly afterwards.
So, The Hawk’s first ever Classic Metal album was proudly sitting by the stereo at home, shortly followed by his first Classic Heavy Metal live video – ‘Maiden England’, recorded at Birmingham’s NEC arena. The live pictures only served to highlight the musicianship on display even more that on the album.
Favourite songs from the album? To begin with, it could only be ‘The Clairvoyant’, especially after seeing that Maiden England performance on video. But since then, a couple of new favourites have overtaken it – the album’s title track because the arrangement just has everything you could wish for musically in a classic metal number.
And ‘Infinite Dreams’ because of the evocative lyrics and progressive riffs. The hawk also has a soft spot for ‘The Prophecy’, which I don’t think has ever been rolled out live. (Write in to correct me if I’m wrong.) But it, like the rest of the album has stood the test of time.
Back Down To Earth
Maiden’s tour to promote the album culminated in a headlining the Monsters Of Rock festival at Donnington – their first ever appearance at that event. 107,000 people turning up to see a bill of Classic Heavy Metal royalty – KISS, David Lee Roth, Megadeth and Guns N’ Roses. Sadly, any sense of triumph at what had seemed at first to be an incredible performance was not to last.
A combination of sodden ground following heavy rain with a crowd surge caused the tragic deaths of 2 fans stampeded under foot. A sombre footnote to the story – and a reminder that immortality is only a fictional theme of the album – not a reality.
This was more of a personal story for The Hawk to write, since it covers his own very first Classic Heavy Metal album. What was yours? And how does it rate compared to Iron Maiden’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son?
Share your thoughts in the comments below, or send feedback direct to The Hawk.