Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Iron Maiden, and the power of doing your own thing

Not long ago on their podcast, authors J. Thorn and Zach Bohannon talked about the power of brand identity as it applies to the heavy metal band Iron Maiden. They pointed out that Iron Maiden has never really changed its secret sauce. The band was formed in 1975 and is still going strong. (The band members are now in their sixties.) There are new Iron Maiden fans who weren’t even born yet when the group was playing its first concerts. 

Iron Maiden has never achieved sweeping mainstream popularity, as did Sting in the 1980s, Michael Bolton in the 1990s, Britney Spears in the 00s, and Taylor Swift today. Almost everyone, regardless of whether they’re into music or not, has at least heard of Sting and Bolton, Spears and Swift. Lots of people have never heard of Iron Maiden. 

You rarely hear Iron Maiden on the radio. You certainly aren’t going to hear one of their songs on the overhead soundtracks at your local restaurant. (Taylor Swift’s “Mine” plays constantly at a restaurant I patronize. Sometimes the song will pop annoyingly into my head. I often suspect that Taylor Swift has done something deliberate and subliminal there.)

And yet, Iron Maiden keeps on trucking. When the band began, heavy metal wasn’t even popular. The disco craze was just getting started. Rock music was a hodgepodge of 70s acid rock, and the bands that were still hanging on from the 1960s. Ted Nugent’s Cat Scratch Fever (1977) was a typical 1970s rock album: quirky, melodramatic, and forgettable. And then there was KISS, another band that became a genre unto itself. 

Iron Maiden didn’t become Ted Nugent or KISS. They rode out the disco craze so that they could ride the heavy metal wave of the 1980s. Then they survived the eras of grunge, rap, and whatever it is that young people—always the most ardent music enthusiasts—are listening to now. 

Iron Maiden is an unusual band by the standards of any era. I can still clearly recall the first time I saw an Iron Maiden album in the Camelot Music store in the mall near my house. It must have been late 1981 or early 1982. 

Every Iron Maiden album cover features a scowling zombie, which the band affectionately calls “Eddie”. Think about that for a moment. A zombie as the mascot for a musical act. And they were doing this decades before The Walking Dead.  

This would understandably lead you to wonder about the quality of Iron Maiden’s music. Herein lies another surprise, another aspect of Iron Maiden’s uniqueness. 

Iron Maiden has often written and performed songs that are amazingly literate, even erudite. No, I am not exaggerating here.

Unlike most rock bands, Iron Maiden doesn’t sing about their hormones. Nor are there any ballads to the glory of rock and roll. Iron Maiden’s song topics include the Crimean War (“The Trooper”), the Battle of Britain (“Aces High”), Greek mythology (“Flight of Icarus”) and an epic poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”). 

Bassist and chief lyricist Steve Harris is the band’s driving intellectual force. He is well aware that the music he writes for Iron Maiden defies the norm. Iron Maiden’s music contains none of the expected “tropes” of rock music. Iron Maiden is in a different galaxy from the one AC/DC (a more mainstream heavy metal band) inhabits. 

I recall seeing an MTV interview with Steve Harris. (This was years ago, back when MTV still focused on music, instead of goofy reality shows and daffy celebrity news.) Acknowledging Iron Maiden’s uniqueness, even strangeness, Harris said that he would “rather sweep the streets” than write and perform music that he didn’t believe in. 

I’m a writer, not a musician, so my natural instinct is to apply this example to the writing of stories. At present, there is a tendency among writers (especially indie writers) to yammer and speculate endlessly about the questions of “what’s trending?” and “what’s popular right now?” 

It’s called “writing to market”. Some of these indie writers would serve themselves—and the world—much better if they would stop writing stories, and write toothpaste commercials for Procter & Gamble instead.

Performing art that you “believe in” doesn’t mean pure self-indulgence, of course. Too many literary writers go to the opposite extreme, writing rambling tales about their childhoods, their neuroses, and their sex lives. 

The artist should send nothing out into the world that doesn’t have some aspect of universal appeal. The verbatim story of my life is endlessly interesting to me. Inside my head, I am  trapped within my own autobiography. But my life story wouldn’t be very interesting to you without some considerable embellishment. 

But good art comes from the creative voice, the subconscious. It doesn’t come from an impulse to create knock-offs of “what’s popular”. If Iron Maiden had written their music “to market” in the late 1970s, they would have become a knock-off of the Bee Gees or Ted Nugent. And the group would be long forgotten today. 

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