This article originally appeared in Prog #60.
Harris is a huge fan of progressive rock, and particularly of that all- important first wave of now legendary bands that ruled the earth in the early 70s. Aside from the fact that Iron Maiden have covered both Jethro Tull’s Cross-Eyed Mary and Hocus Pocus by Focus – Maiden drummer Nicko McBrain’s demented channelling of Thijs Van Leer’s yodelling powers will haunt you forever, so approach with caution – the band’s penchant for elaborate epics and multiple mood and tempo shifts has always been a dead giveaway.
Iron Maiden have released at least one bona fide concept album and are renowned for their extravagant, eye-melting stage productions: both sturdy prog traits, of course, and ample evidence that growing up amid the original progressive era has indeed had a colossal effect on Harris’ notoriously uncompromising vision.
Never has that influence been more apparent than on Maiden’s new album The Book Of Souls. At an eye-watering 92 minutes in length, it is both the band’s first legitimate double album (or triple album, if you favour the lavish vinyl edition) and the most unashamedly ambitious record of their illustrious career. It is also, at certain points, magnificently adventurous and very plainly indebted to Harris’ prog obsession, particularly on the album’s lengthier and more intricate tracks. Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson – another prog aficionado, it turns out – also contributes to the record’s exploratory squall, most significant on 18-minute closer Empire Of The Clouds, an insanely grandiose and evocative recounting of the R101 airship disaster of 1930 that crams more twists, turns and orchestral flourishes into its duration than most supposed prog bands would dare to attempt.
Harris’ own songs aren’t exactly straightforward or succinct either, not least the grandiloquent bluster of the 13-minute The Red And The Black, and with artwork inspired by the imagery and iconography of Ancient Mayan civilisation and an underlying sense of soul-searching unease, The Book Of Souls may not be a textbook prog rock album, but its progressive credentials are unquestionable.
Despite this, and with typical humility and a dash of bemusement, Harris is surprised and delighted to be nimbly crossing over into the prog realm, if only for this interview.
“Well, I wouldn’t say it’s been my lifetime’s ambition to appear in Prog magazine,” he smiles, “but I must admit I’m really happy about it. I grew up with that stuff and I absolutely love all those bands, to this day. So this should be fun…”
People might be surprised that you’re a proper prog rock aficionado, but you were the perfect age to discover all that stuff.
Yeah, I guess I was. I grew up listening to all kinds of stuff, I suppose. I used to listen to The Beatles and The Who and stuff like that. I used to live at my grandparents’ house and my aunts would always be playing that stuff, whether it was The Doors or Simon and Garfunkel, a wide variety of music but all with loads of melody. I guess that’s where I picked up a lot of that sense of melody from. Then I started getting into more rock stuff and that led to Wishbone Ash and then onto prog.
What was your entry point into the world of prog?
I bought the first King Crimson album, but I got into that and early Genesis, the first ELP album, Jethro Tull, Yes and all that stuff around the same time. I used to go round a friend of mine’s house and we’d play chess and he started sticking a few albums on in the background. I was sure he was trying to put me off my chess game [laughs]. In the end, I said, ‘I can’t really listen and play at the same time, so could I borrow some of those albums? I’ve never really heard anything like it…’ So he lent me some albums and some heavier stuff too, like Black Sabbath, but also the Moody Blues and all the progressive stuff. It absolutely blew my mind.
Why do you think prog appealed to you so much?
All the bands were incredible. They had great songwriting, great musicianship, the whole kitchen sink, you know? I just loved it. The early Genesis stuff used to give me goosebumps. Take A Pebble by ELP too. Amazing stuff. I remember seeing Jethro Tull on Top Of The Pops for the first time. My mum hated it, which I thought was great [laughs]. But I didn’t like it just because of that. I just fell in love with that kind of music. I couldn’t believe that there was so much great music around. Looking at it now, I feel I was really lucky to grow up in that era when some of those bands were given carte blanche to just do what they wanted to do.
Do you think that level of artistic freedom inspired your own uncompromising approach?
It was an influence, without a doubt. If they could all do what they wanted to do then I was going to do the same. A massive key factor that influenced me big time was the Genesis logo from the Nursery Cryme and Foxtrot albums. I had that on the back of my denim jacket with a fox’s head and all that… the actual logo itself was so strong. As much as I loved the band, I was upset when they completely got rid of it and got a new logo, which in my opinion wasn’t very good, on the next album. I thought ‘Well that’s not what I’m gonna do with my band…’ and I made sure we got a great logo and that we would stick with it, because I think that’s what’s needed.
You briefly played with a band called Smiler in your pre-Maiden days… is it true that you left when they wouldn’t play your songs, because they were too complicated?
That’s true, yeah. Not that they just flatly said, ‘We’re not playing your songs’. It wasn’t like that as such. They just said, ‘This material you’re coming up with, it’s just not us…’ They were a blues band. To be fair, I joined them. I auditioned and got the job and I was pleased to get it and I enjoyed the stuff they were playing. Once I came in with my own material, it didn’t go down too well because it was so far from where they wanted to be. So that was when I decided that I didn’t want to have those sorts of problems anymore, and the only way to go was to start my own band.
Most Maiden fans are well aware that you’re a fan of Jethro Tull, thanks to your cover of Cross-Eyed Mary…
It was a bit of a shame, really. When we recorded that, Bruce [Dickinson, Maiden singer] wasn’t there. I can’t remember where he was, but I spoke to him and said, ‘Are you alright with the key this song’s in?’ and he went ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah…’ So of course when it came to record his vocals it was suddenly… ‘Oh, shit.’ It wasn’t really the right key for him. He could either sing it really low or really high, so he went for the high one and it was a bit too high, even for him. He wasn’t 100 per cent happy with it. It came out okay, though.
Bruce Dickinson has worked with Ian Anderson before, so have you ever met the great man?
I’ve never actually met Ian. I sort of don’t want to meet him, in a way, because I love him and his music so much. I’ve seen Tull live so many times. I’ve admired him from afar, really. I just think the man’s a genius, as a songwriter. I think he’s unbelievable, the stuff he’s done over the years and he’s still out there doing it.
Do you have a favourite Jethro Tull album?
I love Aqualung, obviously, but the one I loved the most and probably still do is Thick As A Brick. I love A Passion Play and he got a lot of stick for that. Quite rightly, he got the hump with it. I love that album, though. At the time I thought I might be the only person in the UK that liked it, but I found a few more people over the years. It’s an acquired taste, isn’t it?
Did you see ELP live in your younger days?
Yeah, I saw them a couple of times. It was great. But I did think that the solos went on a little bit too long, to be honest. In those days it was the thing to do and I found it boring. What wasn’t boring was a band called Kraan, who supported Nektar in London somewhere. They were a German band and the guy was doing this bass solo and he was unbelievable. The crowd were clapping out of time, so he stopped in the middle of it and said [adopts German accent] ‘You are clapping out of time! It must be like this!’ I thought, ‘That took bottle!’ Hats off to him. And it was a bloody good solo as well. I’d just still rather hear the songs than a virtuoso of any kind.
Perhaps the most surprising thing we’ve learned about your taste in prog is that you’re a big fan of Be-Bop Deluxe…
Ha ha! Well, you’d probably be even more surprised if I told you I like Talk Talk. No, I love Be-Bop Deluxe. Oh, Sunburst Finish! What an album. But I hear something and I like it. That’s the end of it. If something takes my fancy then that’s it. But the songwriting on Sunburst Finish… it’s absolutely amazing. Every single song on there is brilliant.
Would it be fair to say that Maiden’s first blatant prog statement was your concept album Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son, which boasted keyboards for the first time in your history?
It was more about technology than trying to be a prog band. We started to use guitar synths on Somewhere In Time and we all got fed up of having to run back to press a button or kick a pedal, so we decided that for the next album we’d keep going with those sounds, so let’s just use keys. That was it, really. We didn’t sit down and say ‘We’re gonna write a prog album!’ For me, the prog influence is more obvious on something like Blood Brothers [from 2000’s Brave New World]. I think you can really hear the Jethro Tull influence on that song.
- The Top 10 Best Iron Maiden 21st Century Songs
- Steve Harris "I'm as happy playing Guildford as Madison Square Garden"
- ELP's Tarkus: The Story Behind The Album
- Jethro Tull: the story behind Thick As A Brick
With hindsight, how do you feel Seventh Son stands up as a concept album?
I think the story works really well, as much as you’re restricted when you’re trying to write music for a story. A lot of thought went into it. It was a good change for us and I think it worked really well. At the time, Bruce said he thought Operation: Mindcrime was more of a proper concept album, and that was a great album but I don’t think it was any more valid than ours.
The other great concept album of the late 80s was Misplaced Childhood. Were you ever a Marillion fan?
Misplaced Childhood was a great album too, but I’ve got to be honest, when I first saw Marillion at the Marquee I couldn’t get past the fact that they sounded so much like early Genesis. Obviously I embraced it later and I really liked them, but it was very tough for me as a Genesis fan, to get my head round a band that sounded so much like them. Once I got into the songs, they had their own thing going on as well. They’re great songwriters. But yeah, those were my initial thoughts [laughs].
Okay, so as a huge Gabriel-era Genesis fan, at which point in the band’s catalogue of albums did your interest wane?
Oh man, it was never the same after Gabriel left. I remember that day. I bought Melody Maker and it was on the front page and I was devastated. They were my favourite band at the time. They did Trick Of The Tail and I went to see them on that tour and that was a fantastic album. They did their best and Phil Collins did a really good job. What else can you do? Someone leaves and you just get on with it. But for me, after Steve Hackett left it sort of lost its way for me. It wasn’t really like Genesis anymore.
Your own side-project, British Lion, is a much more straightforward affair than Iron Maiden. Were you not tempted to go the other way and do something extravagantly proggy?
Yeah, I can see why people might have expected that. British Lion is meant to hark back to the old 70s rock stuff, the more song-based stuff. Maybe if I do something else in the future it might go that way. I don’t know. That’s the beauty of sitting down and writing songs. You never know what’s going to come out.
After Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith rejoined Iron Maiden in 1999, the band’s sound remained as familiar as ever, but the material has become more and more progressive. Has that been deliberate, or is it just instinctive at this point?
I don’t really know the reason for it. It’s not like Bruce came back and said he wanted to go in that direction, and it’s not like we said anything to him or Adrian either. It was just the way it naturally evolved. We just sit down and write and whatever comes out comes out.
Your new album The Book Of Souls is certainly generously proportioned at 92 minutes, and with a closing track that clocks in at 18 minutes…
On this album we do have a lot of long songs. Hopefully we’ll make another album and if we do, I don’t know what we’ll do. Maybe we’ll do a load of four-minute songs. Who knows? It might be significant that my two favourite pieces of music of all time are Supper’s Ready and Thick As A Brick [laughs]. But I wouldn’t sit down and try to write something that long, to be honest. I wouldn’t try to beat the length of Bruce’s song, Empire Of The Clouds. That would be daft. I’m sure he didn’t sit down and try to write the longest song Maiden’s ever done. It just worked out like that.
Was there just the slightest twinge of annoyance that he had written something longer than Rime Of The Ancient Mariner?
No, not annoyance, I just had to say to him ‘You’ve outdone me, you bugger!’ [laughs] It doesn’t matter to me because it’s a Maiden song. There’s loads going on in that song. It’s an interesting piece of music for Maiden. It’s a departure for us. To me it almost sounds like a West End rock opera. Right from the start, when Bruce played us some of the melodies, I knew it was going to be great.
As someone who seems almost relentlessly busy, have you had time to discover many new prog bands over the past few years?
Yeah, there’s a few bits and pieces. Around the time of writing an album I don’t really listen to anything because I don’t want any subliminal things going on. But for me, a lot of the Nightwish stuff is very proggy, those big arrangements. I love them. I’ve discovered a few things from way back, too, like Spock’s Beard. That happens a lot… I find a band and someone says ‘They’ve been going for 20 years!’ [laughs].
Do you think Maiden’s reliably explosive stage shows might have been slightly influenced by the prog gigs that you went to in the early 70s?
[Laughs] Yeah, maybe, but then when I used to go and see Genesis back in those days, some of the props they were using were hardly what you’d call expensive. During one of the songs, I think it was The Musical Box, Gabriel would just step into the light, a single white light under his chin and he had a mask on too, and he’d step in and out of the light and it was unbelievable. At the time I remember thinking ‘That’s fantastic!’ but it was just a very simple, cheap trick. And that’s another good band! [laughs] Genesis were mind-blowing in those days.
Have you seen any of the contemporary Genesis tribute bands?
Yeah, I saw one in Paris recently, called The Musical Box, when we recording The Book Of Souls, and they were great, too. Nothing’s ever going to be as good as the original but they were bloody good. They use some of the old Genesis props, the actual bits and pieces, so it’s brilliant. I’d wanted to see them for ages and they were fantastic.
Given Iron Maiden’s theatrical tendencies, are there any stage costumes you’d rather forget?
[Laughs] There’s plenty of those, I suppose. I must admit, there are some photos that came back to haunt me. I was wearing some blue Spandex [leggings] at a show somewhere and afterwards I thought ‘They weren’t very comfortable…’ and I never wore them again, but of course there are photos out there of me wearing them. My kids used to take the piss out of me, ‘Dad, what were you thinking of?’ and all that. What can you do?
You’re lucky in one respect, that you have a singer who is perfectly happy to put on a daft costume…
As a frontman you’ve got to be prepared to make yourself look slightly more daft than the rest of the band. Bruce is a larger-than-life character and he’s got to go out there and do what he does, so luckily he’s like that.
As a fan of progressive rock, what is the most important thing that listening to those bands taught you?
It just taught me to do whatever the hell you want to do and to go in any direction you want to. That’s a pretty good lesson. And it’s all about the songs, at the end of the day.