Essay

Lifelong Dirtbag: The Eternal Importance Of Iron Maiden

This is a story about Iron Maiden. But before we talk about Iron Maiden, let’s talk about Lady Gaga.

You’ve heard of her, no? She’s a pretty big star. In 2010, she was named Billboard’s Artist Of The Year. In 2013, she was named the second-most influential icon of the decade by Time Magazine. Last May, she was named the RIAA’s first female Digital Diamond Award recipient. This past June, Forbes published its list of the World’s Highest-Paid Celebrities; Gaga came in at #25, with 2015 earnings of $59 million. And next week, she’ll appear on the cover of the biannual CR Fashion Book, for which she was photographed and interviewed. The issue isn’t out yet, but a few quotes were leaked to press in advance of its publication. Here’s one of them:

“I always used to say to people when they would say, ‘Oh, she’s the next Madonna’: ‘No, I’m the next Iron Maiden.'”

I love that line. That is a great line. Strictly speaking, though, it’s not exactly news. Gaga’s aspirations to be the next Iron Maiden date back (at least) to 2011 — when she went to a Maiden show in Tampa, Florida, and had a transcendent experience:

“We were dancing and singing and everyone was just so into it … Iron Maiden is all about, like, ‘We don’t care who our fans are. We love everybody.’ … I guess what I’m trying to say is, the devotion of the fans, like, moving in unison, pumping their fists, watching the show: When I see that, I see the paradigm for my future and the relationship I want to have with my fans. Iron Maiden has never had a hit song, and they tour stadiums around the world, and their fans live, breathe, and die for Maiden. And that is my dream. That is my dream … It was like, absolute, no judgment, no prejudice, freedom, and love for music. It doesn’t matter who you are; you don’t need to know anything about music to love it. And it was just awesome. Maiden changed my life.”

I love those lines, too. They’re all great lines, especially the last one. Because that’s exactly what Iron Maiden do. Iron Maiden change lives.

I’m speaking from personal experience: Iron Maiden changed my life. Although the word “changed” here feels a bit too insignificant, too nebulous. Iron Maiden defined my life. I was 12 years old when I bought my first Maiden album, their fifth LP, 1986’s Somewhere In Time. It was a very deliberate, deeply considered purchase: a purchase made after months spent deciphering and decoding the arcane graphics printed on T-shirts worn by the older kids at my school (a secret society that terrified and fascinated me); a purchase made with the awareness that such an action would almost surely result in substantially elevated degrees of concern and scrutiny from my parents (which it did).

And it was, instantly, a revelation.

With that record, with Iron Maiden, I recognized for the first time in my own life that music was something bigger than just songs; it was the first time I was able to embrace music as a part of my identity. Iron Maiden were the first band whose T-shirts I wore, the first band whose logo I scrawled onto textbook covers and desks, the first band whose imagery and iconography meant something to me. They were my first favorite band — the first band that ever belonged to me, the first band that ever spoke for me. They were the band on which I built my understanding of music, and as such, the band on which I built my whole world.

Next week, on 9/4, Iron Maiden will release their 16th album, The Book Of Souls. It’s a double album — the first studio double album of Maiden’s career — and it’s preceded by the lead single, “Speed Of Light,” which arrived a couple weeks ago. I wrote about the track when it dropped on 8/14. If I’m being honest, the best part about the song is the video, which is loaded with Easter Eggs for longtime fans: tiny hidden references to old album covers and well-known graphics. The song itself is … pretty good. It’s pretty good! Let me put it this way: It’s not gonna make any old fans forget “The Number Of The Beast” or “Aces High.” But maybe it’ll get some of them to remember “The Number Of The Beast” or “Aces High.” Maybe it’ll get some new fans to seek out “The Number Of The Beast” or “Aces High.” If it accomplishes either of those things — and it surely will do both — then it is indeed an object of great value.

As a song, though, it’s just pretty good. And at this point, well into the band’s fourth decade of work, that’s plenty good enough. But that shouldn’t be the takeaway here; that’s specious and maybe even irresponsible. You can’t just pick up one song — one song that’s only two weeks old — and use that as your basis for understanding Iron Maiden, the same way you can’t just pick up one leaf off the ground and use that as your basis for understanding the tree from which it fell. Iron Maiden are bigger than any song. Hell, Iron Maiden are bigger than any band. Iron Maiden are a goddamn redwood forest.

Just so we’re clear, this isn’t an attempt to catalog every single tree in that forest, to measure their respective heights or count their respective rings. We did that already, last year. I didn’t write that piece — it was written by the great metal journalist and Maiden scholar Adrien Begrand — but it’s maybe my favorite thing we’ve ever published on Stereogum. You should read that. But this is not that. This is just an attempt to see the forest for the forest; an attempt to capture some of that grandeur in a snapshot.

This is a story about Iron Maiden. But before we get back to talking about Iron Maiden, let’s talk about … Iggy Azalea.

You know Iggy Azalea, right? Australian rapper, cultural appropriator, etc.? OK, so coincidentally, the same day “Speed Of Light” was released, Azalea appeared on the Spike TV series Lip Sync Battle, where she delivered a performance of “Teenage Dirtbag” — a 15-year-old hit by the band Wheatus. There’s a good chance you’re familiar with that song, but if not, here are the relevant details: It’s a driving power-pop number told from the point of view of its titular narrator — a shy, sarcastic, unhappy high school student who’s intimidated by his classmates, who can’t get the girl he’s crushing on to notice him, and who fucking loves Iron Maiden. His life is defined by Iron Maiden. In the song’s chorus, the narrator sings to the object of his unrequited affections (her name, by the way, is Noelle): “I’m just a teenage dirtbag, baby/ Listen to Iron Maiden maybe with me?”

Azalea delivered her performance as though she were David Lee Roth doing “Panama” in ’84: writhing and whirling, strutting and thrashing. It was completely cognitively dissonant, given the context of the song. Here was a brashly confident, magazine-beautiful 25-year-old woman unskinny-bopping and fake-singing from the perspective of an introverted, sexually frustrated 17-year-old boy — and Azalea took it way over the top, winking hard at the audience the whole time. There were so many layers of irony there that when Wheatus frontman Brendan Brown later complimented Azalea for going “full metal” (while lip-syncing a song that is not at all metal), it was legitimately hard to tell if he was disgusted, delighted, sardonically bemused, or genially supportive. But the song lends itself to such confusion. Even 15 years later, “Teenage Dirtbag” is a weirdly complicated, conflicted thing. It’s mocking and affectionate and sad and hopeful. From a distance, it might come off like a joke, but I don’t think it’s a joke. I think Brown was looking back with a keen eye at his own adolescence. I think he was writing about himself, 10 years removed from his teenage-dirtbag years — making fun of his younger self a little bit, sure, but lamenting a loss of innocence, too. I think he was celebrating teenage dirtbags.

I say this in part because I grew up blocks away from Brendan Brown, in the Long Island town of Northport (a place that even today is most famous for the heavy metal-associated “Say You Love Satan” murder of 1984, which might help to account for the aforementioned “parental concern and scrutiny” associated with bands like Iron Maiden), and I recognize the people in that song. I didn’t know Brendan Brown — we were about the same age, but went to different schools — but I knew a girl named Noelle. She was really cute. I never talked to her. I sometimes wonder if the Noelle from my school was the same Noelle to whom “Teenage Dirtbag” was dedicated. It could have been! But it doesn’t matter. Even if Brown wasn’t writing about me and my friends, he had nonetheless managed to produce a loving, sincere, and detailed portrait of me and my friends — and millions of other ’80s and ’90s kids around the world. Kids, for example, like this teenage dirtbag called Ryan Adams, who was 600 miles away, listening to Iron Maiden in Jacksonville, North Carolina. A few years ago, Adams did an acoustic cover of the Somewhere In Time track “Wasted Years,” one of Maiden’s most beloved songs. It’s beautiful.

Those are just a few isolated cases, anecdotes to illustrate my point, but they’re by no means a representative sample. The lives changed by Iron Maiden weren’t — and aren’t — limited to white boys in American suburbs. Iron Maiden’s popularity crosses all boundaries of class and culture. There is a huge amount of empirical data to support this. Maiden have released 12 live albums (and counting) over the course of their 35 years (and counting). Those albums, or portions thereof, were recorded in places like Chile, Denmark, Argentina, Japan, Germany, India, Australia, Brazil, and Russia. More directly, Maiden’s last album, 2010’s The Final Frontier, debuted at #1 in 28 countries: Austria, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, India, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the band’s native UK. (It debuted at #4 in the States, which was Maiden’s highest US chart position to date.)

Furthermore, Maiden’s appeal didn’t end with ’80s and ’90s kids; it extends to ’00s and ’10s kids, too. I see teenage (and post-teenage) dirtbags in Maiden T-shirts every day in New York City — on the subway, on the street. I see them on music blogs, too. I’m not talking about young metal bands here, because every metal band worships Iron Maiden (we’ll get to that later). I’m talking about, like, Michael Clifford (age 19), who plays guitar for the Australian pop-punk band 5 Seconds Of Summer, and who has a wardrobe that seems to consist exclusively of vintage Maiden T-shirts. (Incidentally, 5 Seconds Of Summer covered “Teenage Dirtbag” in their pre-fame days. So too did the band responsible for helping 5 Seconds Of Summer to achieve fame: One Direction.) Or Frances Bean Cobain (age 23), who has a lotta those shirts, too. Miley Cyrus (age 22) has been clocked wearing Maiden shirts so many times that she once had to make a public statement confirming that she was genuinely a fan of the band. Said Miley:

I’m sure you guys have seen me rocking an Iron Maiden shirt lately. And I know there’s been some people saying, “Oh, she’s a poseur. She wants to be like a rock star.” You guys don’t know my life. You don’t know if I like Iron Maiden or not. I actually do like Iron Maiden. “Run To The Hills” — good song, you guys should check it out.

That was January 2009. Miley Cyrus had just turned 16. I’ve been a metal fan for nearly three decades, so I know all about its provincialism and border-policing, but man, reading that quote, I feel for Miley. I remember being that age, going to school and being forced to face down bigger kids and bullies who questioned my sincerity, who demanded I rattle off a bunch of song titles to prove that I was a real fan, to prove that I deserved to be wearing that T-shirt, that I wasn’t a poseur. (Actually, now that I think about it, this occasionally happens to me as an adult, too.) And I gotta say, there’s a pretty good chance I once said those exact same words to my own tormentors: “You guys don’t know my life. You don’t know if I like Iron Maiden or not. I actually do like Iron Maiden.”

Of course, I know how it feels to be on the other side of that exchange, too. Metal means something, and it’s absolutely disgusting when metal is soullessly co-opted for fashion. It happens a lot, and it’s infuriating. That said, I’m generally unconvinced by any accusations of inauthenticity or poseurism when talking about Iron Maiden in particular, primarily because: Who has to fucking lie about liking Iron Maiden? Who has to pretend to like Iron Maiden? We’re not talking about, like, Scott Walker or Ornette Coleman here: Iron Maiden write dynamic, exciting, Broadway-catchy bombast-anthems with face-scalding solos (intended to result in virtuosic air-guitar/-bass performances from the listener) and Star Wars-sized choruses (intended to inspire 80,000 people in South American soccer stadiums to sing along at full volume). Honestly, I’d imagine more people pretend to not like Iron Maiden than the reverse.

But there’s something else, too — something the gatekeepers surely recognize but refuse to acknowledge. And that is: Wearing a Maiden T-shirt is actually a pretty huge part of being a Maiden fan. That’s, like, one of the first steps. That’s how we communicate, how we identify one another among strangers. That’s how the legacy is passed down. Again: That is how I discovered Iron Maiden. I saw older kids wearing those T-shirts, and I was drawn in. And, look, I don’t know if that guy from 5 Seconds Of Summer knows every lyric to “Die With Your Boots On,” but I’d be pretty surprised if he hadn’t genuinely fallen in love with Maiden at some point on his path from puberty to professional musician. But even if that’s not the case — even if he’s a truly vile, burn-him-at-the-stake poseur — I bet he’s inspired a few thousand 13-year-olds to seek out Iron Maiden, and I bet a decent percentage of those 13-year-olds will be Iron Maiden fans for the rest of their lives. Think about this: The Maiden shirt Miley was wearing when she got grilled by purists? That shirt belonged to her older brother, Trace; he was the person responsible for introducing his little sister to the band. And isn’t that how the legacy is passed down, too?

So that stuff doesn’t bother me. I get it. Man, it doesn’t even bother me when Trace Cyrus puts his goddamn dog in an Iron Maiden shirt. It doesn’t bother me when I see a Maiden shirt on David Beckham, or Hilary Duff, or Justin Bieber, or Kelly Rowland, or Lindsay Lohan, or Juicy J, or Michael Fassbender, or Amy Poehler … I’m not saying they’re all Maiden superfans, but I’m also not so sure that they don’t love Maiden, or that they didn’t once love Maiden. They all went to school, they were all teenagers — maybe teenage dirtbags, maybe not. In any case, they’re passing down the legacy. They’re spreading the gospel. If it bothers you? I get that, too. They’re celebrities; fuck celebrities. But Gaga is right about this: “It doesn’t matter who you are; you don’t need to know anything about music to love it.” Of course, you have to find music. Music has to find you. Fuck celebrities, sure, but you gotta recognize: This is how we — real people in the real world — find each other.

There are countless different Iron Maiden T-shirt designs, but all of them feature the band’s mascot, easily the most recognizable such icon in rock history: Eddie. Eddie The Head. Ed Hunter. Eddie has his own lengthy mythology; his own video game. Eddie isn’t just a symbol of Iron Maiden; he’s an integral part of the band. Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson once said of Eddie: “He’s the most outrageous and the biggest rock star there’s ever been. And it’s great because we don’t have to be [rock stars]. We can just concentrate on doing what we do.” Countless other metal bands have recognized this, and some have tried to replicate it. The Swedish band Ghost chose to disguise their own identities to reduce the distractions of being rock stars, to eliminate the need to be personalities as well as musicians, but they created a frontman persona, an approachably scary cartoon character — Papa Emeritus — modeled after Eddie. The band admitted as much:

[Ghost] needed a face. First we wanted [the band] to be completely faceless, but the human psyche needs a focal point. So we got our own Eddie, singing.

That’s just one specific example of one specific metal band illustrating one specific aspect of Maiden’s influence. It would be literally impossible to catalog all such examples. As I said above, every metal band worships Iron Maiden. (I was talking about this with Doug Moore, who oversees Stereogum’s monthly metal column, The Black Market, and he noted, quite sagely, that he was hesitant to even write about the band, because, as he said, “When you criticize Maiden in public, people act like you’ve butchered their only child.”) For that reason, I’m not even going to attempt to track the band’s influence on metal, because to do so would be insane; Maiden’s influence on metal is almost infinite.

However, I did want to mention one other example — one tiny example — my very favorite one.

It’s from Metallica’s timeless Garage Days Re-Revisited EP. The EP comprises covers of songs by five of Metallica’s formative influences — Diamond Head, Holocaust, Killing Joke, Budgie, and the Misfits — and Metallica fucking assassinate those songs. This was recorded in 1987, when Metallica were, hands down, the best rock band on the planet. These covers are scorching, roaring, absurdly confident and assured; this is the work of a band that had thoroughly conquered its influences, fully and violently devoured them. But at the very end of the EP, after the final strains of the Misfits’ “Green Hell” fade to silence, the band starts up again: banging out the first few notes of “Run To The Hills,” a Stonehenge-level monument off Iron Maiden’s 1982 LP, The Number Of The Beast.

But here, suddenly, after 24 straight minutes of breathing pure blue fire, Metallica sound terrible … and it’s over in 10 seconds. From a distance, it might come off like a joke, but I don’t think it’s a joke. I think it’s an admission of fealty, a knowing display of tremendous reverence, a self-sacrifice at the altar of a mighty god. In 1987, Metallica could have wiped the floor with any band. But Maiden? Maiden were not any band. Make no mistake, Metallica could have slaughtered “Run To The Hills.” Or they could have declined to duel with it at all. Instead, they removed the sword from its scabbard, pointed it at their own hearts, and fell forward. Because even though Metallica towered above every other band in the world at that moment, they still looked up to Iron Maiden.

[Above: Skip to 24:42 to hear Metallica’s failed take on “Run To The Hills. Below: the definitive version. “Good song, you guys should check it out.” –Miley Cyrus]

In the final verse of “Teenage Dirtbag,” Brendan Brown shows some sympathy to his malcontent subject. It’s prom night — the narrator is in attendance, but, naturally, he is alone and resentful; “I feel like mold,” he tells us. Then, unexpectedly, Noelle approaches him. (This is where the song veers sharply from my own high school experience, incidentally.) The final chorus is sung in glimmering falsetto, from a new point of view. It’s no longer the teenage dirtbag talking to himself; it’s Noelle talking to the teenage dirtbag. Here’s what she says to him:

“I’ve got two tickets to Iron Maiden, baby/ Come with me Friday, don’t say ‘maybe’/ I’m just a teenage dirtbag, baby, like you.”

It’s a very sweet conclusion, delivering a message that echoes much of what I’ve tried to express above: People find one another because of Iron Maiden just as much as they find themselves because of Iron Maiden. However, I’m not excerpting it here to highlight the overarching message; I want to focus very directly on this particular detail:

“I’ve got two tickets to Iron Maiden, baby.”

This is crucial. This is why Iron Maiden matter in a way that bands like Led Zeppelin and Nirvana and even the freaking Beatles cannot. Here’s what I mean:

  • Noelle could have bought those two tickets to Iron Maiden in 1990, which would have been the year Brendan Brown attended prom, and the year Maiden released their eighth studio album, No Prayer For The Dying. Noelle would have then been 17 years old.
  • She also could have bought those tickets in 2000, which was the year Wheatus released “Teenage Dirtbag,” and the year Maiden released their 12th studio album, Brave New World. Noelle would have then been 27 years old.
  • Or she could buy them next year, when Maiden tour behind The Book Of Souls. Noelle will by then be 43 years old. Maybe she’ll offer the second ticket to her own teenage daughter?

Regardless of which of those shows she were attend, she’d see the same men on stage, the same lineup, the same band, the same Iron Maiden: bassist Steve Harris, guitarists Dave Murray, Adrian Smith, and Janick Gers, drummer Nicko McBrain, and vocalist Bruce Dickinson. She would have seen that same lineup if she’d gone to see the band in 1983, touring behind their third album, Piece Of Mind, or in 1984, touring behind their fourth album, Powerslave, or in 1986, touring behind Somewhere In Time … (Okay, technically she wouldn’t have seen Smith on the No Prayer For The Dying tour, because he took a sabbatical from the band at that point, and Gers didn’t join the band till 1990, but again, this is intended to be a meditation on the forest, not a detailed study of each individual tree.)

She would have seen Eddie, too, of course. Eddie is always there.

That sense of continuity is important because it enhances the sense of community. That’s what Gaga was recognizing at that Maiden show in 2011. Unlike so many longstanding “bands” whose latter-day incarnations can seem like bastardized caricatures of the genuine article, Iron Maiden don’t feel like a bunch of mercenaries; Iron Maiden feel like an army, like an entity that is entirely without ego. They feel like a physical and musical embodiment of unity.

While Maiden’s influence is infinite, though, their continuity is not; it cannot be. This past February, it was announced that Bruce Dickinson had been diagnosed with cancer. That same announcement came with the news that Dickinson’s cancer had been successfully treated, thank God (or Satan?) — but the story served as a subtle reminder of Maiden’s eventual expiration date. It feels like they’ve been with us forever and they’ll be with us forever, but they haven’t, and they won’t.

Their music, though? I believe that will survive. I think Maiden’s records will last in much the same way I think the Harry Potter books will last. I think the appeal of both those canons will continue to cross demographics and find new fans for a very long time, and for many of the same reasons: because they are deftly constructed, addictively thrilling works of art; because they are populist without being pandering; because they engage imaginations in ways that are unusually, uniquely vivid; because you can fall in love with them at any age and continue to feel that love for the rest of your life without embarrassment or regret; because you can share them, and your love for them, with so many people in so many places; because you don’t grow out of them so much as they make you grow.

There’s something else, too, that Iron Maiden have in common with Harry Potter; something that is actually important — like, important for humanity, for the world; something that is (if you’ll forgive my use of the word) magical. I’m not sure if I can adequately capture that magical something, but I’m going to give it a shot. Here goes:

There’s a famous old canard, attributed to Brian Eno in 1982, that says: “The Velvet Underground’s first album sold only 30,000 copies over the course of its first five years in print, but everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.” That’s total hyperbole, of course, but it feels true — and every now and then, someone will update, amend, or add to that legend with some hyperbolic truism of their own. For instance, in the 1995 Spin Alternative Record Guide, Eric Weisbard wrote of Big Star: “Unlike that Velvet Underground saying, everyone who heard Big Star didn’t go out and form a band. They just became critics.”

To be clear, it is the rare and valuable artist who can inspire others to create. Before one can get to that point, though — before one can be receptive to that inspiration — one has to care.

That’s the thing Maiden gave us, the thing they give us, the thing they give you. They make you feel like you’re part of something bigger — a hidden kingdom accessible only to the true believer who’s found and followed all the clues — but in the real world, they actually make you part of something that’s much bigger still. I don’t know how many people have bought an Iron Maiden album at some point in their lives, but there are many, many millions of us. (That not hyperbole; it’s quantifiable — as of 2010, Iron Maiden had reportedly sold 85 million records.) Many of us, naturally, formed bands. And yes, some of us became critics. But that came later. Something else had to happen first. This is what happens first:

In much the same way a person — a person who, y’know, reads — might one day pick up Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone and from that moment forward, for the rest of his or her life, be a reader, every single one of us who bought an Iron Maiden record — every single one — had his or her life changed, too. Every single one of us became a passionate music fan.

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Iron Maiden’s The Book Of Souls is out 9/4. Pre-order it here.