British heavy metal powerhouse Iron Maiden lands in Oklahoma City June 19 

click to enlarge JOHN MCMURTRIE
  • john mcmurtrie

Earlier this year, as President Donald Trump fought a media war over aerial photography comparing attendance at his inauguration to that of President Barack Obama’s swearing-in ceremony in 2009, a new meme began to circulate. The first two entries in the triptych of photos showed the inaugurations, but then the final entry showed a sea of humanity that unquestionably dwarfed both presidential celebrations.

The caption read, “Iron Maiden: Every Show.”

For those who weren’t paying attention or simply moved on from their fist-pumping teenage obsession with heavy metal, the meme probably read like joking hyperbole, but Iron Maiden, which performs 7:30 p.m. Monday at Chesapeake Arena, 301 W. Reno Ave., performed for over 2 million fans on each of its last two world tours. This level of global popularity is generally presumed to be reserved for solo superstars like Beyoncé or Taylor Swift, but neither of those acts play 100 shows per tour.

Discussions over the primacy of bands in their respective genres can grow contentious and tiresome, but in any verbal battle royale over which group towers over the varied and sectarian world of heavy metal, Iron Maiden is the name that usually shuts down all arguments. Formed by bassist Steve Harris in London’s East End in the late 1970s, the band gigged heavily and went through a few lead singers and guitarists while it honed its musicianship for maximum brutality, becoming the standard bearers for the subgenre known as the new wave of British heavy metal (NWOBHM).

Rising at the same time as the British punk movement, NWOBHM bands were far more apolitical than their punk counterparts. The punks lashed out at the social and economic injustices of the Margaret Thatcher era with blunt music and brutal truth. Meanwhile, NWOBHM bands provided a kind of escape through precise musicianship deployed with operatic grandeur and jet velocity. Iron Maiden split the difference; the cover of its second single, 1980’s “Sanctuary,” featured the band’s ghoulish mascot Eddie crouching over Thatcher’s lifeless body.

World domination

Iron Maiden secured a strong following with 1980’s Iron Maiden and 1981’s Killers, but singer Paul Di’Anno did not possess either the vocal chops or the resistance to cocaine needed to achieve long-term success with the group and was fired by the band following the Killers World Tour. His replacement, Bruce Dickinson, proved instrumental in crafting Iron Maiden’s signature sound, and with 1982’s The Number of the Beast, Iron Maiden became godheads of metal.

From that point, the band won the concert T-shirt domination sweepstakes in the 1980s and, at least for a while, also won the ire of record-burning Christian groups who took “The Number of the Beast” as a glorification of Satan.

The group’s next album, Piece of Mind, continued the winning streak thanks to the heights scaled by the single “Flight of Icarus,” which further proved that Iron Maiden could create indelible melodies that expanded the band’s audience beyond the metalhead core. Throughout the 1980s, Iron Maiden dominated critically and commercially with 1984’s Powerslave, 1986’s Somewhere in Time and 1988’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, an enviable run of first-rate metal albums that hold up shockingly well.

Fickle fortune

But by 1990, Metallica had ascended the metal mountain and Iron Maiden contended with a near-total loss of mojo. Early 1990s albums such as No Prayer for the Dying and Fear of the Dark suffered from a lack of material and imagination that seemingly departed with guitarist Adrian Smith, and after Dark, Dickinson left as well.

For the next several years, Iron Maiden existed in a purgatorial state, having lost its major-label deal with EMI and two core members. The group recruited singer Blaze Bayley of Wolfsbane and signed with CMC International, a kind of boneyard label for down-and-out metal bands capsized by the grunge wave. The two albums with Bayley, The X Factor and Virtual XI, neither sounded nor sold like Iron Maiden, eschewing the Dickinson-era prog leanings in favor of a stripped down, entirely unheroic sound.

Bayley lost his voice on the Virtual XI tour and lost his job in January 1999. Within weeks, Iron Maiden’s manager, Rod Smallwood, convinced Harris to approach Dickinson about returning. After Dickinson agreed at a band meeting, Smith rejoined via phone conference a few hours later.

The reconstitution of the classic lineup revitalized Iron Maiden’s music, performances and fortunes. Back on a major label with a new Sony contract, the band released Brave New World in 2000 and received its best reviews in a dozen years. Iron Maiden tours became massive undertakings with Dickinson, a commercial pilot in his downtime, taking the helm of a 747 dubbed Ed Force One to fly the band and its crew to huge concerts in South America, Asia, Europe and anyplace else with a massive metal head population.

Iron Maiden’s latest album, The Book of Souls, earned the group some of its strongest accolades since the 1980s, a rare feat for a band in its 42nd year of existence. It might always be “2 Minutes to Midnight” for Iron Maiden, but now it seems like the band has all the time in the world.

Print headline: Maiden voyage, British heavy metal royalty Iron Maiden defied the odds and got bigger with age.

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