After watching these heavy metal mavens do their stuff, Judge Bill Gibron was overcome by an acute craving for tight leather pants and a shaggy new 'do.
"Won't you come into my room, I wanna show you all my wares.
Though fans of the group would frown on this statement, Iron Maiden is perhaps best known as a concept, or an image, than it is for its music. Unlike Judas Priest, with its cock-pop anthems "Breaking the Law" or "Living After Midnight," or Def Leppard and its radio-ready rockers "Photograph" and "Bringing on the Heartache," the musical moods of a typical Maiden song are multi-faceted and complex. The band really doesn't create the hummable hit bound for the Top of the Pops. Certainly, the group has had its fair share of fame, and even a few challenging chart-toppers to its credit. But Iron Maiden has always been irrevocable linked to its demonic, skeletal mascot "Eddie," and a revolving-door series of lineup changes that saw the band run through some 40+ members over the course of its career. From the mid-success switch of lead singers to the never-ending parade of guitar players, it wasn't until the mid-'80s before the group became a consistent set of individuals the public could relate to.
Now as the band moves closer to the 30-year mark in the business, the members have decided to undertake a monumental task. Under the tutelage of longtime manager Rod Smallwood, and with almost unlimited access to the group's wealth of archival material, Sanctuary (the band's current label) is determined to release a multi-part, multi-disc collection marking the entire history of Iron Maiden, from its earliest incarnation to its latest reunion talent pool. And if the first DVD is any indication, we are in for one hell of a ride. The History of Iron Maiden—Part 1: The Early Days is one of the best music-oriented titles ever to come out on the newfangled digital medium. It's a fierce, fascinating look at an amazing collection of craftsmen.
Facts of the Case
The History of Iron Maiden—Part 1: The Early Days is true to its terms. This overview of the band from 1976 to 1983 walks us through the very genesis of the group. It showcases the personal and professional dreams of the various working-class blokes involved, men who ended up creating one of the most enduring legacies in all the heavy metal hierarchy. Comprised of two discs, this visual and verbal history of the band is a Maiden maniac's wettest dream come true. Over the course of the DVDs, you will find four concerts, two documentaries, a plethora of photo and memorabilia galleries (including Steve Harris's diary from the band's earliest days), some music videos, a discography, and an amazing amount of supplemental material. And while it may seem like the group has shot its fully loaded wad with this overly plump presentation, the band promises more goodies to come in future installments. If they are all as wonderful as this, it will be well worth the wait.
Individually, we are treated to the following treasures on Disc One:
• Live at the Rainbow (1981)
• Beast Over Hammersmith (1982)
• Live at Dortmund (1983)
Disc Two contains the actual documentary entitled Iron Maiden: The Early Years. For nearly 90 minutes we move slowly, step by step, through the history of the band. We learn of Steve Harris's initial concept for the group (two words: Wishbone Ash) and begin to see the connections and convolutions that made up Maiden's first few years. We meet almost everyone who ever played in the band from 1976 through 1983, and get their perspectives as to why they left, or the lasting impressions they feel they made on Iron Maiden's myth. Through the use of outside sources—newspapermen from the era, individuals from record companies and clubs, we begin to see why Maiden became so big, so quickly. Words like "inventive," "novel," "original," and "explosive" are bandied about, indicating that, from the beginning, Maiden was seen as an outfit to be reckoned with.
Harris explains his drive to survive in the baffling business, while manager Rod Smallwood discusses his multi-year plan for the band. He plotted its career course over months, not days. From the members' first frugal allowance (30 pounds a week to start, 60 when their album hit #1 on the charts) to all the memories of playing before stadiums full of fans, this introduction into the first part of Iron Maiden's mesmerizing world is quite a remarkable trip.
Included on Disc Two, you will also find music videos (for the songs "Women in Uniform," "Run to the Hills," "The Number of the Beast," "Flight of Icarus," and "The Trooper"), a rarely seen 20-minute featurette on the band and its fans (from something called 20th Century Box) for Granada Television, appearances on Top of the Pops (playing "Running Free" and "Women in Uniform") and the Rock and Pop TV show (playing "Free" again).
Last but not least, we get a wobbly, handheld camera concert containing some
of the first known footage of Iron Maiden playing live. Captured at the Ruskin
Arms, the 45-minute rarity features the following songs:
But it wasn't always this way. In the beginning, there was one man, and his dream of rock and roll stardom. Since he had no room in his home for a drum kit, a young Steve Harris decided that being part of the rhythm section was better than not being involved in the backbeat at all. Taking up the bass and finding a few like-minded mates, the seeds of Iron Maiden arose almost as quickly as Harris's initial interest in music. Bucking the proto-punk trend of the time and exploring the more progressive elements of hard rock, this was not your normal blues-based black dog and pony show. Indeed, Iron Maiden was determined to make dense, experimental records, fusing divergent elements with an operatic flair for the dark and dynamic. The fact that people actually latched onto this patently derivative dinosaur during the dominance of the Sex Pistols and the Clash indicates how mesmerizing the music and musicianship really was.
For most bands with as erratic a beginning as Iron Maiden, the notion of going back and revisiting the missteps and the breakups must seem like the uncomfortable folly of opening up old wounds. This is usually the fodder for tabloid takes with the focus on feuds and flaws. A curious crowd would be guaranteed a peek at each individual idiosyncrasy or collective crackup, all perfectly prepared for an episode of VH1's Behind the Music. Honestly, the history of Iron Maiden is just not that jaded. Sure, there are some sore feelings here and there, and an occasional nod to the nearly dictatorial nature inherent in the group's design (Steve Harris isn't the sole original member by accident). But overall, what we discover is that through hard work, a unified vision and a deep dedication to giving the fans exactly what they wanted, Iron Maiden overcame the odds and succeeded. And it did so by its members doing their best to put on a professional show. As Harris likes to say, Maiden knew how to give an audience some hand signs (read: classic heavy metal headbanger poses).
Anyone looking for backstabbing stories, arguments about royalties, or the inside scoop of substance abuse or personal disagreements needs to look elsewhere for his or her A Current Affair fix. Iron Maiden: The Early Years is a simple, sensational report on the formative years of one of rock's most enduring acts. Using a talking head mixed with archival material format, and bringing to the fore several current and ex-members of the group, this engrossing view into the rise and regality of Iron Maiden is a blueprint for following one's dreams and never saying die. Though members come and go, and the mood shifted wildly between success and stagnancy, Harris and his muse sustained Maiden through many a difficult time.
The documentary does give us insight into why the band had so many personnel changes. Some could blame Harris for having a certain sound in his head that his hired hands were never quite able to achieve. Some believe that the sudden flash of fame caused many to burn out far too quickly. But the truth is that Maiden was always a mostly one-man show, and if Harris held you in high enough regard (as he has with singers DiAnno and Dickinson, and guitarists Tony Parsons and Adrian Smith), your tenure in the band was guaranteed. Indeed, more people left of their own devices than actually got the sack, and it's because of the good-natured personalities of all the participants.
Throughout Iron Maiden: The Early Years, egos are held in check and truth comes out in torrents, as missed opportunities are lamented and personal failures rise to the fore. There will be a few fans put off by the lack of any in-depth musical discussion. We don't hear lyric interpretations or just what inspires Harris's uniformly disconsolate ideas (he does flatly deny a relationship with the Devil, if that's any comfort). True to its title, this is a history of the band—an elemental encyclopedia entry come to life. Seemingly dry and repetitive, this is more or less a line-up of ex-members all spouting their praise at being even the smallest part of Maiden's massive legacy. Any minor misstep aside, The Early Years is a consistently fascinating glimpse inside one of the most iconic acts in the history of music.
Matching the documentary in both entertainment value and insight, the four concert performances offered here give latecomers to the Iron Maiden fold a chance to see the band in full flower and/or flux, moving from the pseudo-punky spirit of the DiAnno years to the full-blown theatrics of the Bruce Dickinson shows. The first thing that strikes you about Maiden is what an incredibly talented and exceptionally tight live band it was—and still is, for that matter. Never missing a note, always in perfect sync and recreating even the most complicated collection of riffs with power and precision, one could mistakenly believe that the musicians had no passion or fire live, just mechanically moving through their material to make sure it was presented perfectly. Anyone spouting such nonsense has obviously never seen the band perform.
Combining a classic dueling guitar attack, both axes interweaving complicated lyrical lines behind the throbbing, thunderous backbeat, the typical Maiden tune was a creative composite of irregular time changes, non-linear chord changes, and intense verbal gloom. There were hints of the occult, love letters to prostitutes, and a strange obsession with mythology and American history ("Run to the Hills" focuses on how the US treated its native population during the days of the old West). Where other heavy metal acts sang about the holy trilogy of rock and roll—sex, drugs, and the manic music itself—Maiden told complicated, sometimes convoluted stories of sacrifice and survival, death and disaster. Like a symphony supercharged by gunpowder and testosterone, the music of Iron Maiden is at times classical and chaotic, melodic and mean-spirited. It soars with a sonic rage and washes over the audience like psalms from a heretical hymnal. In any incarnation, the sounds Iron Maiden made were distinct and different, hurtling the band light years beyond its nearest competition.
The difference between DiAnno and Dickerson is also obvious when watching these back-to-back performances. DiAnno is a street kid, a cocky dandy with a devastating voice. Unfortunately, he has little or no command of the stage, seemingly going through the verse/chorus motions in preparation for the next hollered high note. When he fronted Maiden, they recorded some amazing material (including their benchmark debut and its far more polished follow-up, Killers). But DiAnno represented only one phase of the band, a level of achievement that would be soundly surpassed when Dickinson arrived. Unlike DiAnno, who dressed like a leatherhead and wore a head full of chaotic curls, Dickinson looked the part of a manic medieval serf, the kind of fireplug fighter who would welcome any knock-up as long as he knew he could get in a few good blows. With a long mane of straight, straw-like hair and a wardrobe that screamed early Renaissance…festival, Dickinson personified Maiden, making every song he sang seem like a part of his own personality. When he took the stage, you were about to journey through uncharted, unsettling territory. And while he seemed to be a noble guide, there was a devious, deranged side just waiting to come out and feed.
Singers always garner the sharpest focus from fans, but this doesn't mean the rest of the Maidens are simply backing-band wallflowers. Indeed, Harris is as much a stubborn-headed strutter as his hired front men (Dickinson tells a wonderful anecdote about having to battle with the leader for his share of the limelight during his first few forays in front of an audience). A truly gifted bass player with a distinct drone to his low-end additions, he provides another layer of melody to the maelstrom surrounding the stage. As the main songwriter for the band (he wrote almost all the material on the group's first three albums), Harris can come across a bit like a conductor, looking at other members while performing, indicating approval or nodding in silent direction when elements need to change. And yet, the results feel like a unified effort. What we see are five mates trying their damnedest to make the best possible noise with a certain level of incendiary intensity.
A Maiden show is never low-key (not even during the occasional slow number) and the group members pour everything they've got into every single note they play. With the twin twiddling of Parsons and Smith and the kick-starter strength in the drumming (by either Clive Burr or Nicko McBrain), a show is more like an assault on both your senses and your sensibilities. One cannot watch the Maidens work a room and not be impressed with their instrumental skill, crackerjack timing, and attention to even the smallest sonic detail. All throughout the concert presentations of The History of Iron Maiden—Part 1: The Early Days, we get nothing but spectacular performances and youthful bravado. In combination with the fascinating documentaries and wealth of Maiden mementos, this DVD easily surpasses all other releases of its kind.
On the technological side, you have to excuse some of the less-than-stellar offerings on these discs. This is a storehouse of special, rather antiquated material, so aside from the documentary proper (which looks just amazing in its 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen clarity), the transfers and prints for the concerts are a very mixed bag. Live at the Rainbow has that retro look and feel, as it featured video recording at its most basic. The image is clear and colorful, but you will also experience bleeding and flaring throughout the full screen presentation. Though it was captured on film, Beast Over Hammersmith looks a little worse (the band even apologizes for the crappy picture in the linear notes). Still, it has a lot to recommend it. The details are sharp, and there is very little grain or obvious defects in the image.
Live at the Ruskin is about as homemade as you can get. The tape image wavers and shifts, the colors collide and crash, and the whole thing feels cobbled together and nearly incomprehensible. Still, you can feel the force of the band and its ideas, even in this incredibly varied version. Live at Dortmund looks the best, as it comes from a pristine version of the European broadcast tape. The image is color correct, filled with fine contrasts and vibrant with aggressive ambience.
Sonically, there will be some who sigh when they discover that plain old Dolby Digital Stereo is the only audio option on the DVD. Each concert is offered in this two-channel format, and the documentary also employs this limited auditory element. While a 5.1 surround sound experience would have been perfect (and one hopes that such is coming in future installments of this series), the lack of such an immersive environment really doesn't hurt the aural attributes of the discs. Each concert sounds amazing, filled with spectacular spatial elements and terrific treble/bass ballistics. The conversations in the main feature are clear and concise, with every comment completely understandable.
As for extras, well, this DVD has far too many to feature individually. There are interesting galleries, a discography of the group's efforts up and through 1983, the aforementioned music videos and TV clips. Clocking in at nearly 40 additional minutes, the total running time for The History of Iron Maiden—Part 1: The Early Days is nearly 315 minutes (that's five hours and 15 minutes). But every single second is worth it. This is an amazing DVD presentation that bodes well for the future installments in the series.
Certainly, there are bands out there whose history makes that of Iron Maiden seem like kids' stuff by comparison. They are the drugs, drinking. and dying kind of groups, made up of musicians who seem to think that the only way to have any lasting impact in their chosen profession is to follow Pete Townshend's "Generation"-al theorem of dying before they get old (or, in the case of some groups, popular). Not known for their ODs or their insane infamy, Iron Maiden merely went about the business of being the best band it could be, following the blistering ambition of its founder and bowing to its own—not public—pressures. The result is a rarity in the pantheon of pop culture—a group that made it solely on its own terms, never once giving in to the guiding principles of fad or flavor of the month.
This is the main reason why Iron Maiden has stood the test of time. Its music may recall the more arcane aspects of prog rockery, and its mascot may look like something fresh from the grave, but Maiden is a masterwork of determination and ability. Maiden is the thinking man's metal, and is damn proud of it. The History of Iron Maiden—Part 1: The Early Days is an astounding DVD presentation for fans and the unfamiliar alike. It will introduce you to an incredibly unique voice in rock and roll. And once you experience it, you'll be an admirer for life. Long live Eddie! Up the Irons!
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