Powerslave – How Iron Maiden Defined The Sound of Classic Heavy Metal

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There’s probably no better example of the spirit and sound of Classic Heavy Metal in the 1980s than Iron Maiden’s ‘Powerslave’ – both the album itself, and the subsequent ‘World Slavery Tour’. Let’s dive into the whole story.

Locking In Success

Powerslave was Maiden’s 5th studio album, the second featuring the heavyweight line-up of Bruce Dickingson (vocals), Steve Harris (bass), Dave Murray and Adrian Smith (guitars) and Nicko McBrain (drums), and also the first to feature the same line-up as their previous record (‘Piece of Mind’).

‘Piece of Mind’ had already been somewhat of a breakout album for the band, with a single, ‘Flight of Icarus’ that had garnered some decent radio play for the first time, especially in the US. That allowed the bad to gamble (successfully as it turned out) on booking bigger venues and reaching more fans. ‘Powerslave’ would be the follow up, and the one which locked in those gains.

Riding The Storm

Iron Maiden had established a winning routine for themselves by this point. Following the conclusion of a tour, there would be a short break and downtime. Then, they’d gather in a hotel in Jersey, in the English Channel in the middle of winter. This was not a popular out-of-season destination for tourists – in February, the hotel would regularly be battered by Atlantic gales and rainstorms enough to make the windows rattle and the area had virtually no distractions to offer at all. For Maiden’s famously hard-taskmaster manager, Rod Smallwood, it was the perfect setup. He could book out the entire hotel for the band and set them a six-week deadline for writing new material confident in the knowledge that there wasn’t too much that could get in the way.

This proved to be the case, and the band left the island with a newly penned collection of songs that would become ‘Powerslave’.

For the actual recording, Smallwood sent them to the rather more inviting surroundings of Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Bahamas, where the banana daiquiris at the local beach shack were anyway a big hit – if not the occasionally rabid dogs wandering on the beach.   

Compass Point closed down a few years ago, which is a shame – click on the link to see some of the artists that recorded there over the years as well as Iron Maiden. Another popular drinking hole for the band – The Waterloo Club – does still seem to be in business however.

Standout Tracks

Back to the point. The songs on ‘Powerslave’ have stood the test of time, with probably 4 notable standouts. There’s ‘Aces High’ about RAF fighter pilots in action during the Battle of Britain, one of the most famous aerial battles of the second world war. ‘2 Minutes to Midnight’ paints a grim scenario of the lead up to a possible nuclear war, which of course was anyway a massive fear for many people during the mid-80s period, when Cold War tensions were still near breaking point.

Little Bit of Coleridge for ya!

‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ was the first epic to be featured on a Maiden album, clocking in at over 13 minutes, with many sections and moods as the story unfolds. The song is a retelling of the classic poem of the same name by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the song quotes directly from that original work in a couple of places.

In the poem, the eponymous ‘Ancient Mariner’ recounts a story of himself and his crew lost at sea. The Mariner had shot and killed an albatross, even though the bird had helped lead the ship to safety after it risked being trapped in an ice-flow. The mariner is cursed for his actions, and the ship is becalmed. The other sailors blame the Mariner for their torment and thirst, forcing him to wear the dead Albatross around his neck. Only when the Mariner starts to appreciate the beauty of the sea creatures he encounters, and sends a blessing to them does the curse lift, allowing the ship to proceed home.

The band brilliantly capture the light and shade of the story, complete with the creaking ropes and deck planks of a ship during the interlude.

Rock Star Slaves

Finally, there is the title track itself, ‘Powerslave’. The song was a fixture during the ‘World Slavery Tour’, and although band haven’t brought it back much as a live number since then, it was important as the source of the Ancient Egyptian imagery that formed the album cover and also dominated the set for the live show. Dickinson had a semi-ironic motivation behind writing the song – ostensibly about the Pharaohs, it might also be thought to cast Maiden themselves as ‘slaves’ – to the agenda; to the next album and tour; to the need not to lose momentum at any cost. As the line ‘Slaves to the power of death’ reminds us, we all end up in the same place eventually.

Another song, ‘Flash of the Blade’, nods to Dickinson’s love of fencing, showing the creative influence he was starting to display, with writing credits on 5 of the songs from ‘Powerslave’ altogether.

‘2 Minutes to Midnight’ and ‘Aces High’ were the 2 singles released from the album, with the first of those accompanied by the first ‘storytelling’ video the band had ever made, describing an evil, futuristic warmonger and a mercenary plot to overthrow him. The video production team were thrilled with the location they’d found to shoot the mercenaries’ hideout – a real nasty dump of a flat with peeling wallpaper and broken furniture. That turned out to be Roffey House in East London – the exact same block where Dickinson himself had lived earlier when still a student at Queen Mary University.

World Slavery Tour

But the real action was to take place during the ‘World Slavery Tour’ itself – an epic in its own right, covering 331 days, 189 gigs, and 21 countries in basically every populated continent on the planet.

The set design was immense – more ambitious than anything the band had attempted in the past. There was the Egyptian Sarcophagus dominating the stage, backdrops, hieroglyphics on the floor, high rises for the band to stand on, and of course, the 30-foot-long mummified Eddie. Only a torso with arms, Eddie would emerge from the sarcophagus and rise up over the drum kit with arms waving about on springs, looks for all the world like a Pharoah or even a resurrected Egyptian god. 

After one show in St Louis, some over-enthusiastic fans managed to steal Eddie – all 30 feet of him. The theft was never solved, and Eddie never recovered – he may still be sitting in a fan’s garage to this day as the ultimate keepsake for all we know. It nevertheless presented a logistical nightmare for the roadies to replace him at short notice. They managed to rig up a replacement consisting mainly of bath towels to add bulk, and nobody seemed to notice at the subsequent gigs – just a day in the life of an enterprising road crew.

At one point (starting in Santa Monica, Los Angeles) a feather facemask was incorporated into the show after Dickinson found one in a local sex shop.

THAT Polish Wedding

The band set real precedents on this tour, starting with shows in Poland and Hungary, which were still behind the Iron Curtain at the time, and thus generally seen as off-limits by most touring bands. The band made a loss on that leg of the tour, in part due to the Polish insistence on paying in their local currency, the Zloty, which couldn’t be exported or converted due to capital controls imposed by the government. But it was a memorable experience that outweighed the financial concerns.

The fans went wild, even inviting the band to a wedding after one of the shows, where they got up on stage and played a few numbers – ‘Smoke on the Water’ was captured for posterity. Security at the gigs was provided by the military, creating an ominous backdrop, until it turned out that many of the rank and file were also Maiden fans. Even the head of security assigned to the band, an ex-special forces soldier injured in a parachute accident turned out to be very amenable to Maiden’s world view, and was happy to accept a puff on a joint someone had found. So, the whole thing was unforgettable, and yet eye-opening for everyone – from the visit to the industrial slaughterhouse of Auschwitz to the empty shelves in a late Communist department store. Change was probably already in the air, although it would be a few years before the blue touchpaper would be properly lit.

The rest of Europe was comparatively sedate in comparison, save for a drugs bust in Germany. A few fines were handed out for minor league marijuana possession, but the police thought they’d hit the jackpot with 2 kilos of heroin. Sorry guys. Turned out to be flour, so that one of the truck drivers could indulge his bread baking hobby.

Rocking in Rio (and Longbeach)

Another tour highlight was the inaugural Rock in Rio in 1985, back then a multi-day rockfest that packed in 350,000 fans for the biggest days. Nobody in any of the appearing bands could leave the hotel because there were so many fans camped outside, and a helicopter was laid on to ferry musicians from hotel to venue.

Dickinson inadvertently provided a visual highlight to the show. Furious about the poor-quality sound, he wrenched off a guitar, cutting his forehead open in the process. That, and the bollocking issued to a sound engineer failed to fix the problem, but the blood pouring down Dickinson’s nose was a delight to the TV audience – here’s the footage (skip ahead a couple of minutes if you can’t wait to get to the blood).

After the show, Dickinson caught some rays on the hotel’s private beach alongside Brian May, guitarist of headline act Queen. (Queen as headliners of the first ever Rock in Rio? That surely qualifies them as a Classic Heavy Metal Band, no? Well, they’ve made at least one appearance on here, so Classic Metal Hawk thinks so.

What else? Well, there were the 4 consecutive night at Long Beach Arena in California, which ended up as Maiden’s first live album, ‘Live After Death’, with a video as well.

The Infamous Mission

And there’s the infamous ‘Mission from ‘Arry’ in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Steve Harris’s bass gear broke down during a drum solo being performed by Nicko McBrain.  Harris grabbed a passing crew member, and gave him the mission – to tell McBrain to extend his drum solo so that there’d be time to render repairs before the next song. Passing on this message in the middle of a drum solo proved to be a difficult task. Too difficult in fact. McBrain failed to get the message, ending the solo with (he claims) a screwed up section and a huge expletive into the nearest mic. He was still burning by the end of the show, starting an argument that continued into the dressing room.

On and on it went – whose fault it was, who should apologize to whom. Dickinson was secretly recording the whole thing and, delighted by the comedy value, made strategic interventions to ensure tensions remained high. Eventually time was called by the discovery of the recording device by, followed by the memorable conclusion: ‘Some cunt’s recording this’. The whole thing is now preserved for posterity as a classic B-side, and also serves as a warning of how 6 months on a tour bus (representing the US part of the tour) can cause a few cracks to appear for anyone.

Burnout

The band all felt badly burned out at the conclusion of the tour, and insisted on a proper break before embarking on yet another recoding project. Dickinson was especially badly affected, ad according to his autobiography, ‘What Does This Button Do’, he seriously considered quitting music for a time. His lack of creative input into the following ‘Somewhere in Time’ album was basically an attempt to carve out a bit of personal space for thoughts and activities outside of rock stardom. He would stay somewhat withdrawn from that creative process until the Seventh Son of a Seventh Son album.

More of that in the linked article. For now, Classic Metal Hawk returns to his original point – that for all the personal ups and downs experienced by the band at the time, there is no better example of the spirit and sound of Classic Heavy Metal in the 1980s than ‘Powerslave’. Let’s have a quick recap on why – look out for the squalor of Bruce Dickinson’s student flat while you watch.

Where does ‘Powerslave’ rank – as an Iron Maiden album, and in the context of Classic Heavy Metal history. As you may have guessed, it’s one of The Hawk’s all time favourites, but it’s a crowded field.

Share your thoughts in the comments below, or send feedback direct to The Hawk.

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