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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The world has entered a new Cold War – what went wrong?

Peter Conradi’s Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War traces the accumulation of distrust between the West and Russia.

In March 1992 an alarmist “secret” memo written by Richard Nixon found its way on to the front page of the New York Times. “The hot-button issue of the 1950s was, ‘Who lost China?’ If Yeltsin goes down, the question ‘Who lost Russia?’ will be an infinitely more devastating issue in the 1990s,” the former US president wrote.

Nixon’s point was well made. At that time, Boris Yeltsin, who had acted as the wrecking ball of the Soviet Union, was desperately struggling to hold the splintering new Russian Federation together. An empire, a political system, an ideology and a planned economy had all been shattered in a matter of weeks. Western diplomats in Moscow feared that millions of starving people might flood out of the former Soviet Union and that the country’s vast nuclear arsenal might be left unguarded. Yet the West seemed incapable of rising to the scale of the historic challenge, providing only meagre – and often misguided – support to Yeltsin. Between 1993 and 1999, US aid to Russia amounted to no more than $2.50 per person. The Marshall Plan II it was not.

Even so, and rather remarkably, Russia was not “lost” during the 1990s. Yeltsin succeeded in stumbling through the decade, creating at least some semblance of a democracy and a market economy. Truly it was a case of “Armageddon averted”, as the historian Stephen Kotkin put it.

It seems hard to remember now, but for many Russians 1991 was a moment of liberation for them as much as it was for those in the Soviet Union’s other 14 republics. The Westernising strand of Russian thought briefly flourished. “Democratic Russia should and will be just as natural an ally of the democratic nations of the West as the totalitarian Soviet Union was a natural opponent of the West,” the country’s first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, proclaimed.

When Vladimir Putin emerged on the political scene in Moscow in 1999 he, too, made much of his Westernising outlook. When my editor and I went to interview him as prime minister, there was a portrait of Tsar Peter the Great, who had founded Putin’s home city of St Petersburg as Russia’s window on the West, hanging proudly on his office wall. President Putin, as he soon became, was strongly supportive of Washington following al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in 2001. “In the name of Russia, I want to say to the American people – we are with you,” he declared. Russian generals instructed their US counterparts in the lessons they had learned from their doomed intervention in Afghanistan.

Yet the sediment of distrust between the West and Russia accumulated steadily. The expansion of Nato to former countries of the Warsaw Pact, the bombing of Serbia, the invasion of Iraq and the West’s support for the “colour” revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine had all antagonised Moscow. But Putin’s increasing authoritarianism, hyperactive espionage and propaganda activities abroad drove the West away, as did his interventionism in Georgia and Ukraine.

Given the arc of Russian history, it was not surprising that the pendulum swung back so decisively towards the country’s Slavophiles. As a veteran foreign reporter for the Sunday Times and former Moscow correspondent, Peter Conradi is a cool-headed and even-handed guide to the past 25 years of Western-Russian relations. So much of what is written about Russia today is warped by polemics, displaying either an absurd naivety about the nature of Putin’s regime or a near-phobic hostility towards the country. It is refreshing to read so well-written and dispassionate an account – even if Conradi breaks little new ground.

The book concludes with the election of Donald Trump and the possibility of a new rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. Trump and Putin are indulging in a bizarre, if not grotesque, bromance. But as both men adhere to a zero-sum view of the world, it seems unlikely that their flirtation will lead to consummation.

For his part, Conradi does not hold out much hope for a fundamental realignment in Russia’s outlook. “Looking back another 25 years from now, it will doubtless be the Westward-looking Russia of the Yeltsin years that is seen as the aberration and the assertive, self-assured Putin era that is the norm,” he writes.

But the author gives the final word to the US diplomat George Kennan, a perpetual source of wisdom on all things Russian. “Of one thing we may be sure: no great and enduring change in the spirit and practice of Russia will ever come about primarily through foreign inspiration or advice,” Kennan wrote in 1951. “To be genuine, to be enduring, and to be worth the hopeful welcome of other peoples such a change would have to flow from the initiatives and efforts of the Russians themselves.”

Perhaps it is fanciful to believe that Russia has ever been “lost” to the West, because it has never been fully “won”.

John Thornhill is a former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times

Peter Conradi appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 23 April. cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi is published by One World (384pp, £18.99​)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times