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Iron Maiden: World Slavery Tour '86

For a band whose history now goes back three decades, one of the most inspiring aspects of the Iron Maiden story is how well they have survived the years. One of only two bands (along with Def Leppard) to successfully outlive the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal phenomenon of the late-70s and early-80s, they have also stayed true to their musical roots through the advent of hair metal, thrash, grunge, nu-metal, emo, and anything else the rock fashionistas have put out there. There have also been numerous line-up changes, including four different guitarists, three vocalists, three drummers and even (hidden in the wings for a couple of tours) a keyboardist – and that’s just counting the musicians that have actually appeared on Maiden albums. Indeed, only bassist, founder member and chief songwriter Steve Harris and his longstanding friend and guitarist, Dave Murray, have appeared on every Maiden album since the release of their eponymous debut back in 1980.

Like all great rock bands, their career has also seen its peaks and troughs, sometimes all in one day, as with their first headline-making appearance before over 100,000 fans at the Castle Donington Monsters of Rock Festival in 1988 (an attendance record that would never be broken); a glorious crest that should have seen them celebrating for days afterwards but instead landed them in extreme emotional penury when they learned afterwards how two fans had tragically lost their lives earlier that day during a set by Guns N’ Roses, trampled to death in the thick mud caused by days of near-tropical rainstorms.

Similarly, while there was never a more successful, more globe-trotting, nor lengthier venture in the band’s history than their historic 1984-85 World Slavery tour – so named after the album they were promoting at the time, Powerslave. It was also during this tour that the seeds would be sown for the eventual departure of both guitarist Adrian Smith and vocalist Bruce Dickinson, thus bringing to a premature end what is now fondly regarded as the ‘classic’ Dickinson-Harris-Murray-Smith-McBrain line-up of Maiden.

Of course, as we now know, the Powerslave line-up would eventually reconvene in 1999 (albeit with the addition of ex-Gillan and White Spirit guitarist Janick Gers). Indeed, 2008 has seen the band touring the world with a replica of the same stage show – as well as much the same set-list – in recognition of the unique part the World Slavery tour would play in the iconography of the band. But what was it like to have actually witnessed the tour first time around? To have been there with the band as they started behind what was still the Iron Curtain, followed by equally groundbreaking first-time stops along the way in Rio de Janeiro, at the first ever Rock In Rio festival, a record-breaking five-night run at New York’s fabled Radio City Music Hall, a week of sold-out shows to over 50,000 people in Los Angeles, before they ended up back home in Blighty for some of the most exciting, heartfelt performances the band would ever give to their hometown fans at the Hammersmith Odeon in London?

C’mere, let me tell you…

Powerslave: The Album That Made It Possible

Having just started working for Kerrang! magazine a few months before, Powerslave was the first Iron Maiden album I ever reviewed. "I remember reading it on a beach in Portugal, where I was having a holiday before the tour started,” Bruce Dickinson would later tell me, "and I couldn’t believe how you seemed to just get it – completely.” The upshot was a sort of open-invitation to join the band on tour – for the rest of the year. Not something I was about to turn down, as Maiden was at that time the biggest and certainly the most popular heavy metal band in the world.

Already famous in Britain and Europe, their 1983 Piece of Mind album had now made them stars in America, too. As a result, the release a year later of their fifth album, Powerslave, found the band at its commercial zenith; enormous stars able to fill 10,000-seater arenas all over the world. While at home in Britain, where their albums now routinely went to No.1, a dozen more hit singles had turned them into household names, replacing Deep Purple and Black Sabbath as the familiar face of heavy metal to those who knew little about the music and, to those in the know, becoming the benchmark by which every subsequent metal-rock band would now have to measure itself.

With the benefit of hindsight – wedded to the knowledge that they would release so many good albums over a long period of time – Powerslave was a somewhat patchy collection of some of their best and some of their most throwaway material. Of the eight tracks, only three really ranked alongside their previous best efforts: ‘Aces High’, ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and ‘2 Minutes to Midnight’. The latter was the best example yet of the growing songwriting partnership between Bruce and Adrian, and a far more groove-laden affair than anything Maiden had released since ‘Sanctuary’ or ‘Running Free’ five years before. It was also the first single from the album, smashing into the UK charts at No.12, in August ’84, and winning the band yet more new fans. "I could knock out stuff like that all day,” Adrian would tell me. "But it didn’t always fit into the kind of fantasy-horror thing that Maiden had going for them. In the early days, I needed Bruce to help me make things more how Maiden would want them. ‘2 Minutes to Midnight’ is a perfect example of that. I had the right riff and Bruce had the right words.” 

‘Aces…’ and ‘Rime…’ were both top-drawer Steve Harris compositions. The first, ‘Aces High’, was a soulful call-to-arms in the tradition of Piece Of Mind’s ‘Where Eagles Dare’, the rat-a-tat-tat of the guitars and Bruce’s swooping vocals uncannily like that of a mid-air second world war dogfight. While ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, remains, for this writer and many other Maiden fans, the most fully realised of all Steve’s self-consciously epic songs. Inspired by the famous 18th century poem of the same name by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and nearly 14-minutes long, it is a masterful evocation of a complicated mood-piece that would become the dramatic cornerstone of the Maiden show throughout the World Slavery tour.

Of the five remaining tracks, only Bruce’s scathingly autobiographical title track, ‘Powerslave’, and Steve’s suitably swashbuckling ‘The Duellists’ really cut muster, such was the standard the band had now set themselves. Bruce’s ‘Flash of the Blade’ just about qualifies, too, but surely one song about sword-fighting is enough per album? And no Maiden fan’s life would be any the poorer, surely, for having skipped Bruce and Adrian’s blusteringly histrionic ‘Back In The Village’, or Steve’s lamentably vacuous instrumental, ‘Loser Words (Big 'Orra)’, neither of which could claim to be anything but substandard album-fillers.     

"I think there are four stand-out tracks on there,” Steve admitted when we discussed it years later for the official Maiden biography, Run to the Hills. "All of which we did live, and that’s ‘Rime Of the Ancient Mariner, ‘2 Minutes to Midnight, ‘Powerslave’ itself, and ‘Aces High’. Of the other tracks on there, if you put the ‘The Duellists’ against ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner and ‘2 Minutes to Midnight… I mean, it’s just no way.” 

The Biggest Tour Of All

Powerslave had already become Maiden’s second British No.1 album, and their second million-selling album in the US, where it reached No.12, when I joined up with them for what would be the biggest, most successful tour they would ever undertake. Dubbed the World Slavery tour, Maiden would be on the road for 13 consecutive months, performing over 300 shows in no less than 28 different countries – a punishingly exhaustive schedule that would, by its conclusion, leave them all in a state of physical and nervous exhaustion. "It was the best tour we ever did and it was the worst,” says Bruce now. "And it nearly finished us off for good.”

The highlights, such as Rock in Rio, in January 1985, were unforgettable. "If you’d told me even a couple of years ago that one day I’d be standing here, I’d have thought you were completely mad,” said Dave Murray as we stood kicking a football back and forth together on Copacabana Beach the day after the band had played on a bill with Queen and Whitesnake to 250,000 people . "I always knew Maiden was good but I never for a minute pictured things turning out like this.”

Headlining their own major tour of America was also still a novelty. "Touring America is like doing a world tour within a world tour,” marvelled Steve Harris, as we stomped through the snow in wintry New York just a few days after Rio. "Not only is it the biggest place in the world, it’s also the weirdest! It’s not exactly the easiest place in the world to resist temptation, particularly if you’re in a touring rock band and your album’s anywhere in the charts.”

Later on in the tour, in Los Angeles, Adrian Smith regaled me with tales of the hardcore Maiden fans that had literally followed them across America. "Some of the American fans were so ingenious they’d find out where you were staying and turn up at your door,” he chuckled. "The Chicago Mutants were best at that. They would always book rooms on your floor, and you’d get knocks on the door at one in the morning. I remember getting out of bed one morning and opening the curtains, and there was a car park full of kids out there! Hundreds of them! There were cars with Eddie painted on them and kids with strange Maiden tattoos and a lot of weird stuff going on. It was mad.”

The World Slavery tour also featured one of Maiden’s most inspired and spectacular stage-shows, cleverly built around the Ancient Egyptian motif of the album sleeve. Bruce’s title song of power-lust amongst the pyramids had inspired resident sleeve designer Derek Riggs to create his most sophisticated artwork yet: Eddie’s ghastly immortal visage replacing that of the ancient pharaohs, as he sits, Sphinx-like, on his enormous sand throne, a monument to megalomania, self-absorbed as the sun. On stage, it was simply a question of bringing the album sleeve into three-dimensional life, topped off with a 30-foot mummified Eddie, eyes shooting immortal fire, to close the show with.

As far as Bruce is concerned, "It was the best show that Maiden ever put on: just the right combination of epic stuff but not too overblown. It wasn’t so hide-bound by the sort of technology, loads of hydraulics and inflatable things that occurred later, all of which had the possibility for Spinal Tap-type fuck-ups on a regular basis. Virtually everything on the World Slavery Tour, apart from the lights, was done Musical Hall style – it was all boxes and ropes and two blokes pulling levers. It was so simple, you could set it up in small theatres or big arenas and it would always look fantastic.”

As Steve says, "It could have been totally cheesy. ’Cos you think of Egypt and the pyramids and really, how do you portray that without looking like Hawkwind? But the set was really good, it looked fantastic, and it was probably the best stage show we ever did.” 

A look at the classic 1985 Jim Yukich directed video, Live after Death, which captures the band on stage in America that year, will confirm that view. There would be bigger, more elaborate, even more eye-scorching Maiden stage-shows as the years rolled by, but never again would there be one quite so right for the moment. As Bruce said, "The song ‘Powerslave’ is more than just about the ancient Egyptians. It was also about us, the band, and what was happening to us. We were slaves to the power, whether, you know, musically, or in terms of just chasing success. We were both. Especially, as it turned out, on that tour. I never thought it was going to end.”

Having broken into the Top 20 for the first time with ‘Piece of Mind’, Powerslave was the album in America, as Bruce says, "That you just had to have, even if you never bought another Iron Maiden record again.” Maiden were the happening new band of the moment, and the American-leg of the World Slavery tour became the must-see rock event of the summer. Consequently, dates were continually being added to the band’s itinerary, until the band, led by Bruce, quite literally told their manager Rod Smallwood he would have to call a halt to proceedings, "or I was gonna jack it in.”

"I’m really surprised we got through that tour,” drummer Nicko McBrain would later admit, as we looked back on it over a pint together. "That was the heaviest scheduled tour I think we ever did, even today. It was like go, go, go, go, go, go … ’Cos we were at the height of the success, especially in America, and we were doing four shows on the trot, then one day off, four shows on the trot, one day off … I think there were a couple of times we did five shows running on that tour. It was insane! I remember about three quarters of the way through, we just went onto remote control, we were just in this no-man’s land, and by the end we were all completely burned out. Bruce was especially done in, I think. He was almost ready to give up playing and go home. When you get to that stage, it’s just not fun anymore… I mean, it nearly destroyed the band.”

Adrian Smith agreed. "These days, when bands take on thirteen-month world tours, they build-in gaps for recuperation. But there were no breaks on that tour, no real gaps, just a day off here and there… You’re gone for a year and your whole life goes out the window, basically. As for keeping long-term relationships going – whether it’s with friends or lovers, or whoever – I mean, forget it! I know it goes with the territory, but it was tough. By the end, you don’t know how to act properly any more, you don’t know who you are or what you’re supposed to be doing. I remember I went to see my parents when I got home and I knocked on the wrong door. Honestly!”

The original plan after the World Slavery tour finally came to an end in September 1985, had actually been to put the band back on the road again within a matter of weeks, in support of the subsequent live album (and video), Live After Death, released in November. But the band baulked at the idea.

"The thing you’ve got to remember is Rod is an ex-agent,” smiled Steve Harris, "and I don’t mean a secret agent! He doesn’t like to see an empty diary. But that tour was a bit like getting your darts out and throwing them at the board and that’s it, that’s where you’re going next, sort of thing. As a manager, he wanted to keep things really boiling. But we just told him in the end, ‘Look, we can’t carry on like this. We’re gonna be all right till the end of the tour, but if we carry on another, say, three or four months, then who knows what’s gonna happen’. I thought it would be the last straw, basically. ’Cos Bruce was really in a bad way by then. He sort of turned into a hermit after it was over …”

In fact, as Bruce would later reveal to me, the World Slavery tour "was the first time I really thought about leaving. I don’t just mean leaving Iron Maiden, I mean quitting music altogether. I really felt like I was pretty much basket-case material by the end of that tour, and I did not want to feel that way. I just thought, nothing is worth feeling like this. I began to feel like I was a piece of machinery, like I was part of the lighting rig.”

He continued: "Powerslave, for me, felt like the natural rounding off of Piece of Mind and Number of the Beast, that whole era. I remember listening back to it and I thought, ummm… I don’t know how much more we can do of records that sound in this kind of vain. It felt we had to come up with our Physical Graffiti or whatever. That we had to get it onto another level or we’d stagnate and just drift away.”

Fortunately, he says, the success of the Live after Death album (and video) that followed bought him some much-needed recovery time and he was soon chomping at the bit to get back in the studio with the band and do it all again.

"Yes. We were supposed to have six months off, which quickly became four months. I was just sitting around and I gradually started to come back to some sort of sense that, well, okay, as long as we’re not doing anymore of these crazy tours, you know, let’s see how we go. To me the touring thing just wasn’t enough. Going out and playing in front of ten thousand people, okay great, but that’s not what I got into music for exclusively. I got into music because I wanted to tell stories and I wanted to explore the inside of my head and communicate it to other people. And I thought, well, what would really give me a buzz to go off and do another 12-month tour would be if we had another fucking record that I really felt was ground-breaking, you know?”

Over 20 years later, Bruce admitted he was still "trying to make the perfect Maiden album. But that’s only as it should be…” Or as Steve said the last time we spoke, "We always try and make the next album the best we’ve ever done. The day we stop doing that is the day we stop being Iron Maiden.”

Mick Wall
Copyright 2008


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