Moving to Freedom, .Org(on)

Review: Iron Maiden Biography by Mick Wall

Run to the Hills: Iron Maiden, the Authorised Biography, by Mick Wall.

Cover, Iron Maiden Biography by Mick Wall

I’m not sure if I should mention this, since it could affect the willingness of people to loan me books, but I do a lot of my reading in the bathroom. Some books don’t grab me enough to carry out of the bathroom and it can take a while to get through them. This wasn’t one of those books.

(Oh, by the way, I’m giving you a review of a book that seems to be out of print. I don’t even see used copies at Amazon as I write this.)

I wouldn’t say the book is especially well written. (Much like this post and web site.) It’s a bit fannish in parts. It can be overly exuberant. But I think it also captures the excitement and passion of the band and its music and fans. I enjoyed picking up on some British slang along the way, although I doubt I can remember much now to try out in casual conversation. Which is probably a good thing. Overall, I had the sense that I was getting a good look at the history of the band, and I wanted to keep turning pages to learn what happens next.

I was very interested to learn about the early years of the band. How it all started and whatnot. One reviewer at Amazon complained about this part, that the book spent too much time on the early years. To me that’s the best part. I love learning about how people became successful at what they do. This is the story of Steve Harris, the founder and heart of Maiden. I could imagine what those early gigs were like, and wished I could have been there to see them play in the clubs. (Although I likely would have been afraid to go to that part of town and those kinds of dives. And assuming I wasn’t nine years old at the time.)

For a brief snapshot of my own Iron Maiden experience, I started listening to their music when I was about thirteen years old, around the time of Piece of Mind (released in 1983). I soaked that up along with Number of the Beast, and then Powerslave when it came out. Very much the Bruce Dickinson era. I also picked up Iron Maiden and Killers, although at the time didn’t appreciate them as much, and preferred Dickinson over Paul Di’Anno on vocals. I saw them play in Minneapolis on the Powerslave tour, probably at the old Met Center.

The wheels started coming off for me on Somewhere in Time, and I never really listened to Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. And then I lost touch altogether. Going through a Maiden revival after reading this book, I still can’t get into those two albums. One thing that really bothers me are the repetitive choruses on songs like “Somewhere in Time,” “Heaven Can Wait,” and “Seventh Son.” I jumped ahead and listened to a sample from “Brave New World,” and it seems to be more of the same with the repetition.

However, with the book fueling interest in Maiden’s beginning, I re-discovered the first two albums with Paul Di’Anno on vocals. The music is so powerful still and gets my blood pumping. A healthy outlet for aggression, I say. (And good “coding” music.) It still sounds fresh and exciting to me, almost 30 years after it was recorded in the studio. Some reviewers describe the first album as almost punkish. I don’t know much about punk, but I do think there’s something there other than what I think of as “standard” heavy metal. It has this amazing, raw energy. The guitar work is beyond super. And I really wish I could describe it better than with a bunch of vague platitudes.

My wife thinks it’s all perfectly atrocious, of course. This from the woman who used to read a lot of Stephen King and Dean Koontz and other icky books. I told her to think of it as horror music. She said, “I’ll say.”

Let’s close with a couple of excerpts from the book. The first is about when they hooked up with longtime manager Rod Smallwood:

Andy Waller put me in touch and I spoke to Steve on the phone and arranged to see a gig. They were playing in the East End most nights, but I wasn’t going there. You must be joking! I said, ‘Why can’t you do the Marquee?’ But they just couldn’t get into places like that then.”

Instead, they compromised, and Rod used some of his old booking-agent connections to get them a couple of gigs in west London, one at a well-known pub venue called the Windsor Castle, on the Harrow Road, and one at an equally well-populated pub called the Swan, in Hammersmith. Neither occasion, however, would go exactly to plan.

I didn’t introduce myself at first, in case they were crap,” Rod admits, “but I was quite impressed by the set-up. They had their own little PA and lights and smoke coming out of the Eddie death’s-head thing at the back of the stage. The only trouble was that they wouldn’t go on until all their mates from the East End arrived. The pub management wanted them on time and a dispute developed in which Steve eventually told them to stuff it and they packed up their gear and left without playing a note. Steve wanted the guy to give them 15 minutes, because they had mates coming from a long way, but it was one of those ego things where the manager wouldn’t give in. But you don’t play Steve like that. He’s always going to tell you to fuck off, which of course is what he ended up doing, as he still would. But it was quite funny, actually. I remember this guy saying he’d have them banned from playing every venue in northwest London. Wonderful, really, when you think they were playing Wembley Arena, down the road, just a few years later. But I watched all this and then eventually spoke to Steve and the others briefly, and I liked them straight away. They had a lot of charm and a lot of innocense and a lot of heart.

Steve apologised to Rod for the no-show and both men parted agreeing that the next gig, a few days later at the Swan, would go better. But there was trouble again when Paul Di’Anno got himself arrested for carrying a knife less than 30 minutes before the band was about to go on. “Steve sort of sidled up to me about five minutes before they were due to go on,” Rod recalls wryly, “and said, ‘I don’t know how to tell you this, but…’” Paul had been mingling with fans and friends outside the venue when two passing policemen decided to conduct a spontaneous stop and search and and frisked the hapless frontman for drugs. Paul wasn’t carrying drugs in those days, but what they did find was the flickknife that he’d taken to carrying around with him. He was immediately arrested, taken into custody and whisked, handcuffed, to nearby Hammersmith police station.

I explained that I was just about to go onstage, but they weren’t having any of it,” Paul remembers sheepishly. “I even offered to come straight over to the nick after the gig but they just didn’t wanna know.”

—Mick Wall: Run to the Hills, Iron Maiden, The Authorised Biography, p84-85

And I liked this description of the first album:

Still fondly regarded by many first-generation Maiden fans as one of the finest albums the band would ever make, Iron Maiden comprised eight classic Maiden originals, five that Steve had written alone (‘Prowler’, ‘Phantom of the Opera’, ‘Transylvania’, ‘Strange World’, and ‘Iron Maiden’), two that he’d written with Paul (‘Remember Tomorrow’, and ‘Running Free’) and one that Davey had come up with, ‘Charlotte the Harlot’, which was “based on a true story”. A more-or-less faithful representation of their early live set, all eight numbers had been brutally worked into shape by the endless parade of gigs that Maiden had performed over the past twelve months, and it’s a mark of just how immensely powerful and tempestuous those early shows were that, despite the brittle, rudderless production, Iron Maiden still jumps out of the speakers like a herd of angry elephants when you play it now, 20 years later.

—Mick Wall: Run to the Hills, Iron Maiden, The Authorised Biography, p144-145