“I believe we’ve made a huge leap forward this time. This is our Radiohead moment!”: how Iron Maiden made a 21st century masterpiece with A Matter Of Life And Death

Iron Maiden backstage at a festival in 2007
(Image credit: Mick Hutson/Redferns)

When Iron Maiden reunited with singer Bruce Dickinson and guitarist Adrian Smith in 1999, it marked the beginning of what would become the most successful chapter in their already illustrious career. With 2006’s A Matter Of Life And Death album, the rejuvenated band delivered a bona fida 21st century metal masterpiece. In this classic interview from around the album’s release, singer Bruce Dickinson and bassist Steve Harris look at the enduring appeal of these metal icons.

It’s December, 1979. In a pub lurking to trap the unwary in London’s East End, a young bassist metaphorically slams down his fist – and the butterfly effect is about to take flight.

“This band will never compromise, never. We could have had a record deal a couple of years ago. All we needed to do was cut our hair, and play punk. My answer to everyone who suggested it was always the same: No. We won’t betray our beliefs just to get a deal. In the end, it will work for us. I just know it.”

The band in question: Iron Maiden. The bassist: Steve Harris. And, in that one statement of intent, he lay down a immutable truth that has resonated throughout the metal world for nearly three decades.

No other band has ever had such a single-minded passion – some might call it pig-headedness – as do Maiden, in particular Harris, who’s come to be regarded as the leader of the pack. The man who had a vision in the late 1970s to emulate his heroes, and thanks to an unswerving self-belief and faith in the fans, has outstripped almost all of those whose inspiration drove the young bassist to fulfil his dreams, while many others fell at various hurdles.

Along the way, Maiden have experienced choppy waters. The sacking of Paul Di’Anno in 1981 had many wondering if Maiden could possibly survive losing their seemingly charismatic frontman. Only for Bruce Dickinson to come in, and help take the band to a new level. In 1993, Dickinson left, and Maiden – with former Wolfsbane singer Blaze Bayley in his place – seemed ill equipped to deal with the grunge assault. But again, Harris and his steeds rode through the bad times, and with Dickinson’s return in 1999, have become, if anything, even more celebrated.

The fact is that, in the 21st Century, Maiden are arguably the most influential metal band of all. Notwithstanding the claims of Sabbath, Metallica and Slayer, they are the ones who seem to have provided the blueprint for the Euro power metal surge, and for the New Wave Of American Metal. It’s been a remarkable transformation, from the perception of being anachronistic old crones 10 years ago, to formidable heroes of such state-of-the-art festivals as Download. Almost everything metal that you love in ’06 owes its roots to Maiden. Now, that is a charm, an honour, and a responsibility. 

In their lifetime, they’ve risen to the challenge of Judas Priest, seen off Metallica, brushed aside Korn, and now stand firm against the headrush of a new generation of wannabes…

“So, where are we?” 

A shrill voice cuts through the above thoughts, on Maiden’s place in history. And where are we, exactly? Geographically, at Hook End Manor, which was once owned by legendary Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, and is now a residential recording studio, set somewhere between Reading, Henley, Maidenhead and other such points on the Thames compass. It’s so tranquil down here that it’s more horticulture than whore-ticulture, if you get the drift.

Maiden have hired this location for several days, ferrying the global media in and out, to hear their outrageously strong new album, A Matter Of Life And Death. Today, it’s the turn of Metal Hammer, and in the usual tradition of a band who are never less than the perfect hosts, they’ve laid on everything. Not just booze and a buffet, but also all manner of entertainments, from a pinball machine to a full size snooker table. Later on that evening, they screen England’s World Cup game against Sweden, even ensuring a clutch of Swedish journalists are on hand to lend just the right frisson to the occasion.

Iron Maiden backstage at a festival in 2007

Iron Maiden in 2007: (from left) Dave Murray, Jannick Gers, Steve Harris, Bruce Dickinson, Nicko McBrain, Adrian Smith (Image credit: Mick Hutson/Redferns)

But, this is about a new Maiden album – an event. For trivia fiends, it should be pointed out that it’s the fourth time the band have used the word ‘Death’ in the title, following on from Live After Death, Dance Of Death and Death On The Road. And, to many, this isn’t just ‘another’ release from a veteran band, but something altogether crucial.

“Iron Maiden don’t have anything to prove to anyone, except ourselves. But this record just feels so right, because we all pushed to our limits. We’re hungry,” says Steve Harris a couple of hours later. However, before we get to him and vocalist Bruce Dickinson, there’s the music itself to tackle.

Most bands play back their new album on the biggest, most expensive sound system they can find. Not this lot. Having first been stripped of anything that might be used to illicitly record a note of the album – cassette recorders, mini disc players, mobile phones, iPods, gold teeth – we’re ushered into the state-of-the-art surrounds, to find separate consoles. Each has a comfy chair, and a laptop, perched on a flight case. We sit at the laptop, don headphones and listen to the album through this hi-tech system. It’s strange and a little disconcerting. Usually these sorts of events are a communal interchange. Glances are exchanged, a brief word is whispered as the delights of the new record are unfurled. But this… it’s as if each of us is isolated from the body of the occasion; even our innermost thoughts seem removed from reality. It’s an audio deprivation chamber – except that, at least, here we control the volume, although no facility exists for skipping through tracks, or even going back over them. It’s a one take ride, so strap yourself in.

A Matter Of Life And Death is stunning, that much is assured as soon as it kicks in. It develops the progressive nature of the band, but is also a damn sight heavier than they’ve been for some while. No, let’s re-phrase that last part: this is the heaviest Maiden have ever been. The album drips with ranting riffs, rampant drum fills, and the sort of maniacal rhythms that would invoke a steward’s inquiry on any racecourse in the land, if a horse were caught galloping in such a fashion. It’s almost priapic in its exuberance – surely unbecoming for a middle-aged band of family men.

But having just one shot at this complex album really only leaves a swirl of questions hanging pregnantly: what’s driven them to deliver such stellar performances? Is this a concept album about war and religion? Is the song These Colours Don’t Run about last year’s infamous egging incident on the Ozzfest tour? And why has Harris never become involved with his beloved football team, West Ham?

“Because I’m not daft!” laughs the bassist, when asked about the Happy Hammers. “I love to go to matches, and then leave. I don’t wanna deal with the politics that you’d get if you were to invest money in a football club. Finding out what happens behind the scenes destroys the myth.”

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Canny, yet wary, Harris is fully aware that the same also applies with bands. Maiden fans don’t want everything about their heroes exposed for public ridicule and examination. There has to be mythology, and dignity. 

“Our fans,” sighs Harris, “they’re the best in the world. Really, they are. No other band can have the same sort of devotion. We all know how lucky we are to have that global following. And the fact is that now a love of Maiden is being passed from fathers to sons. We’ve got kids turning up to shows now, having never seen what we’re about before. And they’re getting off on what they’re seeing.

“That’s the reason we chose to do the Ozzfest tour in America last year, and also to play in Reading and Leeds [at the Carling Weekend Festivals]. We headlined a lot of the same venues in the States as the Ozzfest two years earlier, but what that tour did was put us in front of people who’d never seen Maiden. It was a whole new audience. The same with Reading and Leeds. I’d say about 75-80 per cent of those who went to the Carling Weekend weren’t fans of this band as such, they were there for the general festival vibe. But we had so many teenagers coming up afterwards amazed at how we performed, and also at the crowd reaction. I just told them, ‘You think that was good? Try coming to one of our own shows!’”

Mention of Ozzfest inevitably leads to talk about the song These Colours Don’t Run. This phrase passed into legend when Dickinson used it onstage in San Bernardino, California last August – the last night of Maiden’s stint with the tour. It became infamous, because the band were pelted with eggs during their set, something openly organised and encouraged by Sharon Osbourne, Ozzy’s wife/manager. It was claimed the reason behind this was that Dickinson had constantly, and publicly, slagged off Ozzfest, Ozzy and headliners Black Sabbath during the tour. This was the Osbournes’ revenge.

“You’d have to ask Bruce if his motivation for the song was the Ozzfest incident,” shrugs Harris. “I have to say that we’d been pelted with a lot worse by our own roadcrew during end of tour ‘fun’. And I want to go on record as saying that I like bacon with my eggs! But yes, it was irritating, more because the sound was turned off during the gig as well as the egging.”

But, did Harris personally apologise to Ozzy and Sharon, because of Bruce’s alleged behaviour?

“No I didn’t. What I actually said was that, if there was anything to apologise for, then I’d do it. But that was twisted round to make it seem like I’d said sorry – that never happened!”

“I suppose it’s inevitable that people will think the song’s about Sharon Osbourne,” adds Dickinson. “She thinks everything’s about her anyway! But it isn’t. It’s about men going off to war, and the fears and hopes they leave behind. In every generation, families have said goodbye to their men, who go off to fight not knowing whether they’ll see them alive again. It’s happening now. Soldiers go to Iraq, and some come back in body bags.”

“The phrase These Colours Don’t Run fitted the mood of the song perfectly. That’s all. I suppose our fans will chant along with that title for their own reasons, and I can’t help that. As for the truth about the Ozzfest… so much has been written about what I did, or didn’t say onstage. Did I have a go at Ozzy and Black Sabbath? No. Why would I? But I do find The Osbournes TV series loathsome, and the whole cult of reality TV celebrities disgusting. I hate reality TV, and I’ll continue to say that, until someone jails me for it!”

Iron Maiden performing onstage in 2007

Iron Maiden onstage in 2007 (Image credit: Mick Hutson/Redferns)

While we’re tackling thorny issues, let’s get to the bottom of the relationship between Harris and Dickinson, one that’s often been painted as, erm, uneasy. Do they really hate each other?

“Ha! That’s so far from the truth. I’ve had one row with Bruce in the studio during all the time we’ve worked together,” says Harris, dismissively. “Whereas I’ve had some real belters with Nicko [McBrain, drummer]. We’ve actually been virtually nose-to-nose screaming at each other – and with his nose being so flat, that’s very close up! The fact is that Bruce and I have both grown up a lot, and we get along fine.”

“The whole thing about Steve and me is such a comedy,” concurs Dickinson. “You’d have to dig very deep to find anything.  And these days we’ve got more in common than not.”

One of the problems that’s often cited is that Harris is said to run the band with a rod of steel. His word is the law – and there can be no dissent in the camp. 

“I don’t think that’s true at all,” demurs the bassist. “I know people think I’m totally hands on, but part of the reason for that was I taught myself about production, and about video editing, and I was the one in the studio overseeing everything. But that was never because I’m a control freak. If any of the others wanted to get involved with that side of things, then that wouldn’t be a problem for me. The fact is, though, it’s probably too late.”

“You’d be amazed how much we compromise within the band on things. I don’t dictate. Sure, as far as our relationship with the outside world goes, we have never compromised at all. That’s because we’re stubborn. But why should we? For instance, our new single, The Reincarnation Of Benjamin Breeg, that’s over seven minutes long. And people say, ‘You’ll never get airplay with a song that long’. What’s the difference? We don’t get on mainstream radio anyway. That’s what I mean. Why should we compromise when we’ll still be ignored?”

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In some ways, the new album is connected to The Number Of The Beast. When the latter hit in 1982, it was the band’s third record. Now, A Matter Of Life And Death is the third one for the current line-up: Harris, Dickinson, McBrain, guitarists Dave Murray, Adrian Smith and Janick Gers… or is that reading far too much into the situation?

“The ‘difficult’ third album, eh?” smiles the singer. “Maybe there’s something to that. I believe we’ve made a huge leap forward this time. This is our Radiohead moment! Everyone was up for pushing things as far as they’d go, but the record was so easy to make. Kevin Shirley did an amazing job as producer – so good that Steve [Harris] as a co-producer was as much hands off as hands on this time. I’m so proud of the guys’ playing – it’s brilliant. And I didn’t do too badly for a part-time singer!

“You know how remarkable this process was? We finished the record with two months to spare. It went so fast. We ended up paying for that extra studio time, even though we didn’t need it. What a waste, eh?”

“A lot of what you hear are first time takes,” reveals Harris. “Did we have to push people to get performances? No. Everyone was on the same wavelength – we all wanted to take things to a new level. It is heavier than we’ve ever been, but also very progressive. And I don’t mean that in the modern sense, but like Dream Theater, more in a 70s way.

“Most of the songs here are about war and religion. About how we never seem to learn our lessons from history. But is it conceptual? Not in the sense of having a linking storyline.”

“We’re not a political band, or one that preaches,” contends Dickinson. “But we do have things to say. One song, The Legacy, is about how we’re turning this planet to cinders with all the fighting. And then we’ll hand the keys to the next generation, saying: ‘Here you go. Sorry it’s a mess, but our side won!’ Yet, I’m optimistic for the future. Global warming is now irreversible, the sea levels will rise, but humanity will find ways of adapting. We’ve done it before, and we’ll do it again.”

While the fate of mankind can’t be equated with the resurgence of rock and metal in the UK, Harris is equally as positive about the state of the artform over here, after so many years in the dark.

“Bands like Funeral For A Friend, Bullet For My Valentine… they’re really good. I know those are Welsh bands, but to me they’re British – and we should  be backing them. In the 1970s, the world looked to us for a lead, and that was such an exciting period for music. Then things turned, and it was America that got all the attention. I always felt everyone over here – and that’s definitely true of the media – just became obsessed with the US, to the point where homegrown talent was ignored. We lost a lot of good bands that way. Now, it’s turned again!”

All of which leads to the inevitable question – the dreaded one – just how long can Maiden keep going?

Dickinson ponders this thoughtfully: “I don’t know. For at least the next five years, anyway. In 2008, when we’re planning to take out the ‘Powerslave’ stage set again, I’ll be 50. And I’m the baby of the band. By the time I’m 55, Nicko will be 60. And you have to ask whether we’ll still want to tour. I’m not saying that we wouldn’t carry on recording, but… for me, the bottom line has to be that we’ll stop the moment all of us realise that we can’t maintain our own high standards. To do anything else would be to compromise – and that’s not the Maiden way.”

But all talk of retirement is for another day as we depart the Manor, and head into the darkness. One can’t help but believe that, with A Matter Of Life And Death, Maiden have begun a new chapter in their already illustrious history.

The difference between greatness and success lies in the fact that the greats continue to reach greater achievements again, and again, and again. Never resting on past reputation. Almost anyone can fluke a fleeting profile, but to become giants of your chosen field – that privilege is reserved for the elite. And Maiden define the metal elite.

Originally published in Metal Hammer issue 157

Malcolm Dome

Malcolm Dome had an illustrious and celebrated career which stretched back to working for Record Mirror magazine in the late 70s and Metal Fury in the early 80s before joining Kerrang! at its launch in 1981. His first book, Encyclopedia Metallica, published in 1981, may have been the inspiration for the name of a certain band formed that same year. Dome is also credited with inventing the term "thrash metal" while writing about the Anthrax song Metal Thrashing Mad in 1984. With the launch of Classic Rock magazine in 1998 he became involved with that title, sister magazine Metal Hammer, and was a contributor to Prog magazine since its inception in 2009. He died in 2021