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.

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!”

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

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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Okja begins as a buddy flick – but ends up in the slaughterhouse

Korean director Bong Joon-ho works with British co-writer Jon Ronson on this tale of genetically engineered superpigs.

If Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio responsible for Spirited Away, were to branch out into live action, the result might be something like Okja – at least in part. It’s the tale of a genetically engineered breed of waddling grey superpigs, not so much porcine in appearance as manatee or hippo-like, created by the twitchy, imperious CEO of a multinational corporation, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), in the hope of solving a global food shortage.

Each of these docile beasts is despatched to a different corner of the planet to be reared. The enormous Okja grows up in rural Korea, gambolling in the fields with her young companion, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun).

Okja is no dumb animal – she saves the child from falling off a cliff by using a rope to improvise a sophisticated pulley system. She should be working in crisis management, not ending up on someone’s fork. But eventually the day comes when Mirando’s representatives arrive to claim their several thousand pounds of flesh.

The early scenes borrow the leisurely rhythms of Mija’s idyllic days with Okja; she snoozes on the beast’s vast belly, softly rising and falling in time with her pet’s breathing. Yet once she follows the kidnapped creature to Seoul, where they are taken in by a band of animal rights activists, the film lurches from one style to another. What begins as a tranquil buddy movie finishes up in the blood-soaked slaughterhouse where Okja is due to end her days; it’s as though My Neighbour Totoro had morphed into Fast Food Nation.

The film’s Korean director, Bong Joon-ho, and his British co-writer, Jon Ronson, present viewers with a transaction that reflects the ethical and ecological implications of the story.

We can have our heart-warming tale of the bond between human and animal, but only if we accept also those parts of the plot which demystify that relationship and take it to its industrialised extreme. It’s a bold strategy that has worked before for this film-maker – in The Host and Snowpiercer he used the genres of horror and action, respectively, to smuggle through political and environmental messages.

But Okja risks falling between two stools. Young children who might enjoy the first third (and can see Okja on Netflix the very day it is released in cinemas, easily bypassing the 15 certificate) would be alternately bored and traumatised by the rest of it. Conversely, adults will have an awful lot of whimsy to wade through before reaching the meat of the movie.

There are compensations. The film is sumptuously designed by Lee Ha-jun and Kevin Thompson, and crisply shot by Darius Khondji. Swinton, who played the villain in Snowpiercer as a grotesque northern schoolmarm with oversized gnashers, puts in the distorting dentures once again in Okja as both Lucy and her sister, Nancy, with whom she is locked in an irresolvable rivalry. Lucy is bleached (pink skin, platinum hair, white robes) to the point of invisibility, whereas Nancy is a harrumphing Penelope Keith type in a quilted jacket.

Other capable actors are undone by the unreasonable demands placed on them. Shirley Henderson, as Lucy’s assistant, has been directed to talk at comically high speed for want of any actual funny dialogue, and Paul Dano would be more plausible as a winsome animal rights activist if he weren’t leading the Animal Liberation Front. The group’s portrayal here as a group of touchy-feely flower children (“This is a non-lethal chokehold, OK?” one member says, as he disables a security guard) is laughable.

But no one comes out of Okja quite as badly as Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of Dr Johnny Wilcox, a wacky nature TV presenter who is like Steve Irwin trapped in Timmy Mallett’s body. The film is at its most wrong-headed in scenes where Dr Johnny, left alone with Okja, first forces her to mate with another superpig (a pointless episode that serves no plot function) and then tortures her.

It’s that risky trade-off again: enjoy the knockabout chase sequence in which Okja fires turds at her adversaries, and later you must endure the darker side of the same narrative. It will be a forgiving audience indeed that doesn’t recoil from this approach, which is too much stick and not enough carrot.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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