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The strange patriotism of Iron Maiden

Kate Mossman catches the heavy metal giants on their "Maiden England" tour, and is perplexed by their nationalist aesthetic.

Bruce Dickinson.
Lead singer Bruce Dickinson launching "Trooper" beer, in March 2013. Photograph: Ben Pruchnie/ Getty Images.

Iron Maiden
O2 Arena, London SE10

Last year, Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson appeared on the late-night discussion show Hardtalk on BBC News. The line of interrogation was: “How can you mix the hard-rock lifestyle of a metalhead with the clean living required of a pilot and an entrepreneur?” I’m not sure why the BBC still hasn’t figured out how to ask rock stars intelligent questions. It also surprises me that – after 40 years – people fail to understand that members of Britain’s rock gentry got where they did by being conservative and having an eye for wise investments in the first place.

Dickinson’s Cardiff Aviation Ltd (pilot training, hangar space, plane maintenance, and so on) was founded in 2012. His previous work as a commercial pilot included more heroic exploits, appropriate to a man who sings in “Aces High”: “Jump in the cockpit and start up the engines/Remove all the wheel blocks, there’s no time to waste!”

In 2006, he “rescued” 200 UK citizens from Lebanon during the Israel/Hezbollah conflict; in 2008, he brought back 221 stranded holidaymakers from Egypt after the collapse of XL Airways and flew some RAF crew home from Afghanistan. There’s no band more British than Iron Maiden, from the flags brandished by their mascot, the death’s head Eddie, to their cod-Shakespearean lyrics, Churchill voice-overs, war-film backdrops and the kind of enthusiastic nods to multiculturalism we get at the O2 Arena on 3 August. “Every gig, we see all nationalities together,” says Dickinson, surveying the crowd. “And you know what, that’s all great, because it’s one nation under a fucking maiden!”

“Metalheads” (whatever that means) are as much soldiers as they are rebels. One Maiden fan I knew at university – an extreme case, admittedly – was teetotal and shavenheaded; he polished his boots every morning and kept his CDs in alphabetical order. Walking into the O2, I am struck by the throbbing cohesion of this crowd: it pulls you in, making you long to be part of it, wearing the T-shirt – though you know you’d be a fake if you bought one.

It makes me happy just to think that these bands exist: powerful little worlds spinning on their own axes, free from fashion, running on evangelism and eccentricity. Iron Maiden are still massive. Their most recent album, The Final Frontier (2010), reached number one in 28 countries. In the last week of July, this “Maiden England” tour grossed more than Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber. And this O2 gig sold out in 12 minutes.

They formed in 1975. The main difference today, notes my friend, who last saw them in 1983, is the number of families in attendance. The band’s warped cartoon aesthetic always appealed to children; in the late 1970s, 12- year-olds drew Eddie on their school bags. Now they’ve grown up and the arena is filled with their offspring, a joyous illustration of a crunched generation gap in music.

There are two tiny girls in boxing boots and “The Trooper” T-shirts and a small boy wearing a six-foot-long flag as a cape. Dickinson uses the stage like Freddie Mercury did, a tiny, crablike silhouette scuttling at speed across a cartoon backdrop (Eddie against a landscape of fire and ice). Soundless explosions radiate from the stage – to use a cliché of rock journalism, “melting your face off”. The band’s bassist, Steve Harris, down on the right, is the founder and mastermind but the group appears, at least, to be an efficient and democratic machine – especially when not two but three axes play lead in unison on a song called “Iron Maiden”.

Every night, at the same point in the show, Eddie appears onstage in living, breathing form: a man on stilts in a tricorne hat and tailcoat, who would not look out of place at a Cornish folk parade. “I am hard of hearing,” says Dickinson. “With all due respect, that was such bullshit: scream for me again, London!” He has that brilliant, old-fashioned accent that all rock stars from Mick Jagger to Rod Stewart seem to have – a cheeky, Ealing-comedy London you don’t hear much any more.

He was born in Worksop, Nottinghamshire, to a working-class family and was raised by his grandfather, a miner, who died of black lung. By the time he was a teenager, his parents had raised enough money doing up property to send him to Oundle public school, where he became the president of the war games society and handled real firearms – and from which he was later expelled.

Britain’s rock stars moved up quickly in the world, fraternised with the titled, bought castles and suits of armour, colonised Mustique and appeared in Tatler’s society pages. They helped usher in the only kind of patriotism with which we are comfortable today: self-mocking, cartoonish, ridiculous, loose.

Eddie and his flags mean many things to many people. He was co-opted by the Ulster Defence Association in the 1980s and appears on some murals in Belfast. On the artwork for the single “Sanctuary”, he stood over the vanquished figure of Thatcher. Then, in that Hardtalk interview, Dickinson observed that all working-class people were naturally conservative and someone on YouTube commented: “Maiden for Ukip!”