"I said, 'Can we have flames coming out of it?'" Cyborgs, Samurai and gun battles: backstage and front row for Iron Maiden's massive Future Past tour

Iron Maiden Prague 2023
(Image credit: John McMurtrie)

Bruce Dickinson is excitedly waving a bow and arrow around in the bowels of Prague’s O2 Arena. As he’s doing it, he’s explaining the mechanics of the big, fuck-off machine-gun he’s going to aim at a 10-foot cyborg live onstage in about an hour’s time. 

“It’s just making sure the band don’t forget to move,” he says nonchalantly, outlining his tactical approach to ensuring he doesn’t blow his bandmates to smithereens later. If he had anything to do with it, the cyborg would be even more OTT than it is. “I originally said, ‘Can we have flames coming out of it?’” he says, grinning. “But they said no!” 

We’re standing in a corridor deep within this 20,000- capacity venue, where Maiden are about to play the second date on their current The Future Past Tour. Beside him, bassist Steve Harris is casually chatting to one of the band’s management team about his beloved West Ham’s chances in the upcoming Europa Conference League final that will be taking place just up the road in a little over a week’s time. 

In the background, drummer and class clown Nicko McBrain darts between doors in his pyjamas like he’s on the run from a Scooby-Doo villain. Unlike the gun, the bow and arrow Bruce is currently wielding won’t be making an appearance tonight. It’s actually a gift from a Maiden fan. “Some local guy that makes serious bloody bows,” clarifies the singer, looking match fit and dressed in a shirt, shorts and camo baseball cap. “I did once spend a long weekend in the woods in Suffolk making longbows,” he adds, playfully holding the weapon up and aiming it down the corridor. 

“I had better take that off you,” advises a roadie gently. 

Maiden are here to play the first of two consecutive shows in the capital of the Czech Republic. Prague itself is awash with fans - you can barely walk 10 yards around the city’s Old Town without passing a shirt featuring the band’s iconic mascot, Eddie. Tonight’s gig is the second stop on Maiden’s The Future Past Tour, celebrating 2021’s critically acclaimed Senjutsu record while also resurrecting some deep cuts and aesthetics from 1986’s futuristic Somewhere In Time

It’s a mash-up that poses some challenges; Bruce claims he has to sing no fewer than “3,000 lyrics” each night. He begins reciting Somewhere In Time album closer Alexander The Great – a song they’ve never played live – right in front of us as his eyes glaze over like some demented beat poet. Whatever happens, this show is going to be something else.

Prague is the perfect place to evaluate Iron Maiden in 2023. It’s a city filled with rich history, yet one that feels vibrant, alive and very much existing in the now. Maiden arrive here at a fascinating point in their careers. Two decades into metal’s greatest third act, they’re riding high on the back of a critically acclaimed new album, one that they’re gagging to play live, yet remain unafraid to celebrate their past while doing so. 

It’s what’s led to this unique tour; there’s no notable anniversary for Somewhere In Time or flashy reissue to plug. They just fancied digging out some classics and revamping one of their most celebrated stage shows. “We hadn’t hit on that stuff for quite some time,” Steve Harris later tells us, matter-of-factly. “So it just felt right to do something a bit left-field.” 

It’s resulted in a setlist that’s had Maiden fans drooling over their keyboards since it was revealed at the tour’s opening gig a couple of days ago, and the excitement in the air as UFO’s Doctor Doctor – the song that traditionally heralds that things are about to kick off – rings out over the O2 Arena’s PA before the first of the two Prague gigs is palpable. 

Fans of every age, gender and creed are in attendance tonight - veterans who were at the original Somewhere On Tour trek in the 80s, young fans eager to see some of those songs played for the first time in their lives. It’s what most marks Maiden out among so many of their peers; where other metal OGs have fanbases that have aged with them, there’s something about the timeless escapism of Maiden’s music that crosses generations, making era-hopping shows like these the perfect coming together. 

Soon, strips of neon lighting burst into life, bathing the arena in hues of greens and blues as Vangelis’s Blade Runner theme, the intro music for this tour, begins to play. Then, those screeching opening notes of Caught Somewhere In Time peel out, Britain’s favourite six-man heavy metal wrecking crew gallop out onstage, and we’re off to the races. 

If Bruce’s backstage attire is understated, his fancy dress for tonight is typically on point: decked out in patchwork jeans, a long, green trench coat and goggled sunglasses, he evokes the sci-fi bounty hunter Eddie on the original Somewhere In Time cover. His voice - richer and heavier in tone as it’s evolved over the years - sounds fantastic. He and his bandmates are flanked by glistening LCD screens featuring two animated Eddies, one from Somewhere In Time (think an Evil Dead deadite crossed with RoboCop) and his Senjutsu descendent (a vampiric, undead monstrosity in samurai gear). 

In front of a DeLorean-esque backdrop, a crunching Stranger In A Strange Land follows, and we already get our first glimpse of Eddie in the flesh, dressed in his Stranger… trench coat and Stetson as he sneaks out to leer over his chums. “’Ello!” beams Bruce, directly addressing Prague for the first time. “Welcome to the Somewhere Back In Time… whatever… tour.” He pauses, laughing, realising his gaff. “Oh, I dunno!” 

As well as a set packing super-rare cuts, 10-minute epics and beloved classics, there are three more onstage Eddies to come, a couple of costume changes, pyro and fog machines. And, yes, there’s also that machine-gun, manned with purpose by Bruce as he gleefully shoots fireworks at cyborg Eddie during Heaven Can Wait

It isn’t just Eddie that takes pot shots from the frontman, either; any attempts by tonight’s audience to take it easy are met with fierce castigation from the singer, who labels an early response to his classic “SCREAM FOR ME!” rallying cry as “fucking pathetic”, before telling an entire section of the O2’s seated section to “fuck off” when their participation is deemed subpar. It’s all tongue in cheek, of course, but it adds to a sense of mischief and mayhem that underpins much of the show, emphasised by a couple of miscues that briefly leave the otherwise flawless metal machine scrambling. 

Clearly, some of the technical issues that hovered over the first show are still lingering, but it’s all par for the course this early in a major metal tour, and it doesn’t derail a triumphant evening, a jubilant Wasted Years putting the cherry on top of a fine performance.

Iron Maiden Prague 2023

(Image credit: John McMurtrie)

When we ask Steve Harris how he thinks the tour is going so far the following morning, he’s pretty relaxed about the whole thing. “It takes, usually, five or six shows for us to really get where we wanna be,” he offers modestly. “If you wanna just stand there like we do in rehearsals, we would probably play it note-perfect right from the very start, but you can’t be like that.” 

Hammer is sitting beside Maiden’s founder and commander-in-chief in the back of a blacked-out minibus currently making its way to a local football stadium, where the bassist will lead a team of staff, industry pals and ex-pro footballers in a full 90-minute, 11-a-side charity match against local team SK Slavia Praha. This is the same 67-year-old who, less than 12 hours before, was gallivanting up and down an arena stage and will be doing the same thing nine hours from now. Does he never wake up on mornings like these and think, ‘I need a day off’? 

“Not yet! Ha!” he chuckles in that relaxed East London tone. “But,” he adds somewhat hesitantly, “I haven’t played a competitive match since last year!” 

Dressed in a faded grey Jack Daniel’s t-shirt and grey camo shorts, Steve signs merchandise and takes photos with a host of fans that have amassed outside the band’s hotel before we leave - something he insists he’s “happy to do” whenever there’s time. 

The main thrust of our chat is the Somewhere In Time era. That album represented a pivotal point in Maiden’s career. Not only did it see the band incurring the wrath of fans by experimenting with guitar synthesisers, which allowed Steve and guitarists Adrian Smith and Dave Murray to alter the sound of their instruments to sound like synths (heresy in 80s metal terms), it found the band themselves at a point of burnout, knackered after the gruelling World Slavery tour, which took in 189 shows across 331 days. 

Commercially, the album was a success, going platinum and bringing Maiden closer than ever to breaking the US Billboard Top 10 for the first time. Internally, however, things were becoming fraught - Bruce Dickinson was famously so fed up that he sat out the record’s writing sessions. Presumably, there must have been an odd atmosphere in the camp. 

“The atmosphere was OK, but Bruce was ready for the funny farm,” Steve admits. “I mean, who wouldn’t be? We didn’t turn anything down in those days, so anything that got thrown at us, we were like, ‘Yes! We can do it!’ We were young, and you just wanna go out and play as much as possible. All that touring, album-tour-album-tour, constantly for that seven or eight years after being signed… it was the right thing to do, but it took its toll on certain people. Bruce… it took its toll on him.” 

Bruce’s enthusiasm took a further hit when his early contributions to the album were rejected - even if for good reason. Put frankly: at that point, with Maiden reaching the peak of their 80s powers, it just was not the time to turn off the amps.

“He was coming up with a lot of acoustic stuff,” Steve explains between bites of a pre-match banana, “and it just wasn’t the right thing to do at the time. I think he was disappointed, obviously, but what can you do? I have to go by my gut.” 

If you’ve assumed that Steve Harris has developed the kind of heartless, steely resolve required to make tough calls and disappoint his bandmates, think again. The bassist is quick to admit that it’s a process he still finds absolutely agonising. “It’s very, very difficult,” he sighs. “It’s the hardest thing in the world when someone comes to you with an idea, and you have to say to them, ‘It’s not suitable.’ It’s really tough! If they think it’s good enough to bring to you, they must believe it is. So how do you tell them it isn’t?” 

It was a battle worth waging. Divisive upon release, Somewhere In Time is now regarded as a vitally important Maiden record. Those guitar synthesisers, controversial as they were at the time, paved the way for the introduction of keyboards on 1988’s follow-up album, Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son. For the most part, those keyboards been present ever since. 

Whether it’s Steve Harris making tough calls or the band being prepared to challenge their fans’ expectations, Maiden’s steadfast refusal to let any outside influence permeate their world has consolidated them as metal’s - maybe all of music’s - most single-minded success story. 

Be it producers, critics, peers or their own followers, over their near-50-year lifespan, they’ve caved to no one. They’ve never tried to court the mainstream. They don’t chase critical respect. They certainly don’t care about awards or industry recognition; their absence from the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame continues to outrage the metal community, but talking to Steve, it’s clear the band themselves couldn’t care less.

“I’ve never been worried about it,” shrugs Steve. “If people get recognised there, that’s fine, but we’ve never done music to be in some ‘Hall Of Fame’. If it was a thing that was voted by fans, that’d be OK, but the way it works… it doesn’t really represent anything. I don’t know how I’d feel about it if we did actually get in.” 

It’s getting toasty as we pull up to the football ground, with temperatures sailing towards 25˚C. A handful of ex-pros are in attendance, including former Manchester United winger Karel Poborský, ex-Liverpool midfielder Patrik Berger and one-time Scotland international – and longtime Maiden fan – Colin Hendry. Steve bids us farewell as he heads towards the changing rooms to pow-wow with his teammates; he’ll go on to score a cracking goal in an emphatic 10-6 win. 

The bassist looks like he’s barely broken a sweat as we climb back into the minibus, and, despite tonight’s concert looming, he still takes the time to snap more photos with the fresh batch of fans that are waiting as we arrive back at the hotel. There’s a whiff of Beatlemania whenever Maiden come to town, but like most things, it doesn’t faze them much. 

You might not know it from the elated reactions the Future Past setlist has been getting, but even when it comes to picking which songs to play on tour, Maiden listen to one voice and one voice only: their own. 

“This might be blunt and brutal, but we don’t do it for the audience,” Steve notes. “We do it for our own thing. We’ve gotta feel comfortable with what we’re playing and enjoy it, and then, hopefully, they’ll like it. That’s always been our stance. All the way through.”

A little later, inside the hotel, we find Adrian Smith, one of Maiden’s three guitarists. He sat out the football game, preferring to watch from the sidelines. Dressed in a sports top and black Formula 1 cap, he’s relaxed and reliably honest, pulling no punches in his assessment of the slight malfunctions the tour has experienced so far. 

“I think the first show we did was probably the worst first show we’ve ever done!” he says, as we perch on some plush sofas near the hotel’s reception. There were, apparently, a couple of technical “train wrecks”. “It’s a complex set,” he explains. “Coming out and opening with Caught Somewhere In Time is a real handful, and it’s difficult to settle yourself down in front of an audience that just wants you to go mad all the time.” 

The guitarist has fond memories of Somewhere In Time itself - not least because, in part thanks to Bruce taking a back seat, he was able to flex his creative muscles more, contributing three tracks of his own, including what would become the record’s hallmark anthem, Wasted Years

“It always feels good to get your ideas on an album,” he says. “You have five, six [members] now in the band, and creatively you have to be strong to get your ideas across, because everyone’s got ideas. On Somewhere In Time, creatively for me, it was fantastic.” 

Despite being delighted at getting stuck into the creative side of Somewhere In Time, he acknowledges that it came at a time when things in the band could have been better. “There were a few cracks there,” he admits. “I think Bruce was disappointed that he didn’t get any ideas [accepted], and I can fully understand that. He was probably unhappy and that showed in different ways. It put a strain on things.” 

Both Adrian and Bruce would be gone from the band within a few years, returning in ’99 to help usher in Maiden’s second golden age. The guitarist’s departure in 1990 came down to creative differences, but he reveals that there’s another staple of Maiden’s ID that, shockingly, he’s been conflicted over in times gone by: their ever-present mascot. 

“I had mixed feelings about Eddie over the years,” he says. “I thought, ‘Is this overshadowing the band? It’s a big puppet, is it a bit questionable?’ We’ve had a few really dodgy Eddies over the years where I’ve thought, ‘Oh my god…’” 

He came round to Eddie’s place in Maiden’s world a long time ago, though. So much so, in fact, that the band’s latest stage show ranks among his very favourite. “With this new show, we’ve found a great balance,” he notes. “It’s got a modern edge with the screens, and the Eddies look really good. The walk-ons look great!” 

That big bastard samurai Eddie at the end of the show looks alright too, Adrian. “Yeah,” he concedes amiably. “It looks powerful!”

Iron Maiden Prague 2023

(Image credit: John McMurtrie)

Luckily for us, Maiden have another chance to show it all off tonight - and if last night’s concert was a fun (if occasionally unruly) affair, this evening’s sequel is special from the off. Everything feels tighter and more certain; from the second the band come charging out for another blast of Caught Somewhere In Time, the atmosphere feels that bit more charged, more elevated, more fun. 

Both onstage and off it, everyone is having an absolute blast; even Bruce Dickinson is quick to note that the crowd feels more “alive” than the previous night. “Welcome… to The Future Past Tour!” he grins, jovially quizzing his audience on its age. “I feel really old,” he jokes, before introducing a blinding run-through of The Writing On The Wall

As great as it is seeing so many old and rare cuts get their dues over these two shows (and yes, Alexander The Great is immense), it’s startling just how vital and vibrant the Senjutsu material is. The Writing On The Wall’s imperious, half-time stomp sounds colossally heavy, while the twin epics, Death Of The Celts and Hell On Earth, are magnificent, the former bolstered by rolling walls of fog and the latter powered by relentless bursts of pyro. 

The singer is in his melodramatic element throughout, though that’s not to say there isn’t still room for silliness. At one point during Alexander The Great, Bruce finds himself wearing a cloth Roman helmet that someone has brought to the show, bouncing around the stage, laughing like a kid who’s huffed too much Dip-Dab.

Barely a minute later, he’s belting out the song’s stirring chorus, as some of the fans around Hammer who have been waiting decades to hear the song live begin to tear up. It’s that mixture of the ridiculous and the sublime that make Maiden so very beloved and so very enduring. 

Maiden gigs are a place where we can marvel at the power of an amazing riff or a soaring chorus, where we can hug our mates in joy as songs that defined our youths blare out around us. They’re also a place where can watch a 64-year-old man shooting fireworks at a big, scary cyborg. 

“Every fucking day we do this is the best day of our lives,” Bruce shouts as Wasted Years brings things to a close once again, the emotion around the room practically peeling off the walls. Looking around, the feeling is more than mutual. Maiden’s past might be tussling with the future tonight, but their place as heavy metal’s definitive band is timeless.

Tickets for Iron Maiden's Future Past tour are on-sale now. For dates, see the band's official website. Iron Maiden play Power Trip festival on October 6. 

Merlin Alderslade
Executive Editor, Louder

Merlin moved into his role as Executive Editor of Louder in early 2022, following over ten years working at Metal Hammer. While there, he served as Online Editor and Deputy Editor, before being promoted to Editor in 2016. Before joining Metal Hammer, Merlin worked as Associate Editor at Terrorizer Magazine and has previously written for the likes of Classic Rock, Rock Sound, eFestivals and others. Across his career he has interviewed legends including Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy, Metallica, Iron Maiden (including getting a trip on Ed Force One courtesy of Bruce Dickinson), Guns N' Roses, KISS, Slipknot, System Of A Down and Meat Loaf. He has also presented and produced the Metal Hammer Podcast, presented the Metal Hammer Radio Show and is probably responsible for 90% of all nu metal-related content making it onto the site.