FEATURE FRIDAY: End of the Classic Era part 1, 1986-1987

lineup1986All good things must come to an end, and there has never been a better thing in metal than Iron Maiden’s 1980s period. We take a two-part in-depth look at Maiden’s adventures in the late 80s! The first part jumps into the turmoil that was the making of Somewhere In Time.

If the above photo illustrates anything, it might be the state of Iron Maiden as they were heading into the final part of their glorious 1982-89 classic era. On top of the world, jubilant, proud, fun-loving, but also suffering the sense of lunacy that permeats the daily life of any touring rock band in the big league.

We’ve discussed earlier how the addition of singer Bruce Dickinson and drummer Nicko McBrain saw the band starting to conquer the globe with The Number Of The Beast (1982) and Piece Of Mind (1983).

That tale is told right here:

Dawn of the Classic Era, 1982-83.

Not stopping to catch their breath, Iron Maiden stormed headlong into the height of their classic era with the blockbusters Powerslave (1984) and Live After Death (1985).

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Iron Maiden’s classic era line-up, left to right: Steve Harris, Nicko McBrain, Bruce Dickinson, Dave Murray, Adrian Smith.

We all know it: Powerslave was HUUUGE, the World Slavery Tour was LOOONG, and Maiden found themselves completely burnt out at the end of 1985. No wonder! 5 studio albums and 1 double live record in less than six years. Think about that, and factor in a world tour for every studio album…

The pace Maiden set for themselves throughout the 1980s was incredible, and in the end it nearly tore them apart. Band leader and bassist Steve Harris thinks that singer Dickinson was particularly fried, being the one who had to run around the stage, singing acrobatically and fronting the band, while selling the proper emotion to go with every epic song the band performed.

“Obviously it’s a tougher gig for him, trying to sing up in that register for two hours every night, five or six nights a week.”
Steve Harris

Dickinson would never have a guitar or a drum set to hide behind, and it seems likely that the band didn’t quite understand how emotionally battered the singer would be after 12 months straight of making thousands of people believe every word. All of this without ever pulling an ego stunt like Axl Rose would have, but simply delivering on time, come hell or high water. Or in Bruce’s case, even come severe physical illness.

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Iron Maiden on the Piece Of Mind tour in 1983, but it was the 1984-85 Powerslave tour that would almost break them. (Note Bruce’s FOUR ARMS DRINKING, a typical syndrome of over-touring.)

POWERSLAVES
Bruce claims that the title track for Maiden’s fifth studio album, Powerslave, had slightly tongue-in-cheek lyrics. The band were slaves to the power of the tour at that point. They had become a machine, a hugely successful one, and every year started with the writing and recording of a new album and morphed into intense globetrotting with a properly hectic concert schedule overseen by manager Rod Smallwood.

“Now you’ll write for six weeks, now you’ll make a record for three months, now you’re rehearsing for two weeks, now you’ll tour for eight months.”
Bruce Dickinson

Eight months? Piece of cake. But the World Slavery Tour would get extended, and extended again, for a full year on the road with no significant time off at any point.

The band finally had to tell the manager to put a stop to things in the summer of 1985, or the consequences might be serious. As Harris remembers, “I thought it would be the last straw, basically, because Bruce was really in a bad way by then … Two hours of Maiden five nights a week for 12 months – that’s enough to put anyone in the funny farm!”

A sentiment the singer does not dispute.

“I was going stir crazy. Thirteen months on the road was not conducive to the state of my mental health.”
Bruce Dickinson

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Maiden with producer Martin Birch (in the back) and manager Rod Smallwood (far right) at the beginning of the Powerslave cycle that was nearly the end of the band.

The singer was not the only one in the band who felt a bit bonkers as the Powerslave tour finally came to an end. Guitarist Adrian Smith remembers that he knocked on the wrong door when he went to visit his parents after the tour’s conclusion! Iron Maiden had reached the top of the world, they had gotten exactly what they wished for, and now they had to deal with it.

“It had just worn everybody out, and at the end we were feeling like we were going through the motions every night, which wasn’t very satisfactory since none of us are people who like faking it.”
Bruce Dickinson

Unsatisfactory ending or not, the peak of the classic era in 1984-85 was a period of unparalleled triumph for Maiden. Their classic line-up established itself as the one to beat, and the ever more impressive guitar partnership of Smith and original guitarist Dave Murray helped take the band’s music into areas of nearly cinematic scope and drama.

It really is the stuff of legend:

Classic Era Guitars, 1984-85.

This mid-classic period culminated with the release of the monumental Live After Death in 1985, as Maiden took a hiatus that was meant to be considerable. “We were supposed to have six months off,” Dickinson recalls. “Which quickly became four months.”

It seemed that Rod and Maiden simply couldn’t avoid starting a new cycle at the beginning of a new year. But this time the Maiden routine was in danger of leading to an unexpected line-up change…

When Iron Maiden started working towards their sixth studio album in early 1986, the obvious question was: What now?

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Bruce and Steve had lived through the biggest high of their career with the Powerslave album and tour. But they would have very different ideas about where to go from there…

THE BATTLE FOR DIRECTION
Maiden actually faced one of rock’s ultimate challenges: No longer the underdog, they had to follow-up a trio of incredible studio records in 1982-84, and a hugely successful world tour and live album, with another studio record. There are plenty of bands who crumbled at this challenge.

It might be a matter of opinion, but personally I think that Metallica lost their way when they tried to build on their …And Justice For All and Black Album blockbusters with Load and Reload in the mid-1990s. Likewise, it could be argued that Queensrÿche never recovered from their epic 1988 and 1990 records, Operation: Mindcrime and Empire.

In both cases, the band wanted to CHANGE.

As did Maiden. And Dickinson in particular. But his state of mind was an issue. Bruce himself admits, in retrospect, that he considered ending his singing career at that point, feeling that “I was just creatively done. Exhausted. Nothing left in the tank really.”

Author Joe Shooman points out that Bruce’s instinct would always be to rip up the rulebook and chase another challenge. So he envisioned something drastically different for Maiden’s next album…

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Exactly THIS crazy was how Bruce felt when he told the band he thought they should do more acoustic music for their 1986 album.

Maiden went to Jersey in early 1986 to write and rehearse, and then on to Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas, as was their routine in the 1980s. For the first time in their career, the band decided to take their time and not rush the process. It seems incredible today, but an album like The Number Of The Beast was recorded and mixed in just five weeks! The 1986 album would take much longer.

According to Dave Murray the band had 6 songs done when they arrived in the Bahamas, and he also reported at the time that “Steve and H have done the bulk of the writing.” So, where was Bruce in the mix? What had happened on the way to recording?

The band had 3 distinctly separate batches of songs with them. Harris, of course, had several numbers he had worked up on his own, all staying very true to the Maiden sound. Dickinson, on the other hand, came armed with a selection of tunes that made the rest of the band scratch their heads. And Dickinson feeling strange about what might have grown out of the top of his own body…

“I said, you know, we’ve done this big metal thing, should we go a bit more chill-out, maybe we should go a bit more acousticy? And everybody looked at me like I had two heads!”
Bruce Dickinson

Indeed! Harris admits that “I just thought he’d lost the plot completely.” The Maiden chief didn’t quite understand how burnt out the singer was, but he was very clear that the semi-acoustic songs Dickinson brought in were not gonna wind up on a Maiden album. No way. “It was kind of very Jethro Tull-y kind of stuff, which I love,” says Harris now. “But it just wasn’t really right.”

Some bands have done what Bruce wanted. Led Zeppelin certainly made it work with Led Zeppelin IV and Physical Graffiti, the very albums that Bruce wanted to use as templates for Maiden’s own “daring and audacious” adventures, as he put it.

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Iron Maiden in 1986: An epic battle for the band’s direction took place, with Harris and Dickinson in stern opposition to each other.

Bruce’s vision for late 1980s Iron Maiden was never to be. No one else in the band stood up for Bruce on this one, and Steve would win the battle over Maiden’s direction.

The frontman would later recall with some sense of self-deprecation, “I remember playing my serenades to Steve. Everybody was in stitches!” Harris concurs: “The stuff Bruce was coming up with wasn’t us at all. He was away with the fairies, really.”

How to resolve this? Thankfully, the third batch of tunes available, Smith’s bunch, met with everyone’s approval. As we’ve argued earlier, the Smith songs – Wasted Years, Sea Of Madness, and Stranger In A Strange Land – might just be the best on the album.

Some of this was almost by accident. Harris heard Smith’s “bits and pieces” on a tape, and at the end of the tape was a sound, a melody, an idea. “What’s that?”, Harris asked. Turned out to be the intro to Wasted Years. Smith was afraid it was a bit too commercial, but Harris said “I don’t give a shit about that.” A Maiden classic was born right there and then.

“That’s the beauty of having strong writers in the band. If one’s drying up, you’ve got other people who can take over.”
Steve Harris

Maiden had what they needed. Recording could go ahead.

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As Bruce Dickinson drifted too far away from Maiden’s proper direction in 1986, Adrian Smith emerged as Steve Harris’ co-pilot through a turbulent time. His songs and playing were fundamentally important to the creation and legacy of Somewhere In Time.

THE COURSE IS SET
The battle for Maiden’s direction that took place in 1986 would have consequences far into the band’s future. Many seeds were sown, and the three wills were revealed: Those of Harris, Smith and Dickinson.

Harris was intent on staying the course, keeping Maiden recognizable and true to the aesthetic of their previous albums. Smith had always brought a different angle to the songwriting, and would continue to do so with quite free rein. And Dickinson had discovered, and laid bare, a desire to do very different things from what Maiden had going for them under Harris’ leadership.

In many ways, this album project was Adrian Smith’s moment to shine, as first single Wasted Years demonstrates:

The resulting album, Somewhere In Time (1986), is a massive watershed in the band’s history, as it brought to light the differences in ambition and personality between Harris and Dickinson. The latter wanted to dream big and take a leap in the dark, while the former obviously felt he knew what Maiden was and wanted to stick with it.

Click here for our retro review of Somewhere In Time!

somewhere in time inner sleeve cover art

Somewhere In Time would ultimately become a fork in the road for Iron Maiden, the point where a decision about direction was made that would profoundly affect the band’s future.

It’s interesting to note that producer Martin Birch was wary not only of Dickinson’s radical selection, but also of Smith’s entries. He claims that songs like Wasted Years and Stranger In A Strange Land were certainly good, but that they walked the line.

“I always sensed a slight danger of too much input from Bruce and Adrian, because they were always in danger of kind of taking it away from what Maiden really was.”
Martin Birch

The producer points out the single B-side Reach Out, sung by guitarist Smith, as an example of where in the aesthetic landscape he had to put his very experienced producer’s foot down. “To have let the band put something like that on the album would have taken away from the whole point of Iron Maiden.”

As for Dickinson’s songs? Birch is firm in his opinion: “They had to go.”

AFTERMATH
Harris later stated, “I could see he would feel bad that his songs were rejected, but he seemed to accept it quite readily at the time.” A dig through the vaults supports Harris’ perception. Fan Club Magazine #17 reported, at the end of the recording sessions in 1986, that Bruce thought the album was the best they had done since The Number Of The Beast and that he thought it was the best his voice had ever sounded…

Talk about putting a happy face on things and supporting the hype!

A couple of years later, Dickinson still sounded close to cheerful about the whole episode, like it was no big deal: “I was talking to Steve about it and even he had a lot of head problems after the Powerslave tour, and nobody had really resolved them by the time we came to do Somewhere In Time. I think I came to terms with it more after we’d done the album.”

somewhereontour16

Bruce and Steve on tour for the Somewhere In Time album. Bruce’s story about how he felt during this period would change over the years.

When promoting the subsequent Maiden album in 1988, the singer even seemed to think the experience had been a blessing for the band in the long term:

“The relationship between me and Steve gets better and stronger with every album. And probably me not writing anything on the last album made it stronger still. Because in some bands there would be a temper tantrum […] Obviously my nose was put out of joint a bit, but you have to behave like an adult; people aren’t doing it to spite you, they’re doing it for the good of the band. And that sort of situation just makes the whole unit stronger.”
Bruce Dickinson

There is of course the possible argument that this is truly how Dickinson felt about it when it all happened, and that his negative feelings towards Somewhere In Time where actually shaped upon entering the 1990s and having trend-minded journalists constantly telling him that Maiden’s late 1980s was a bit crap. After all, the singer only stated much later that he actually thought about leaving Iron Maiden for the first time in 1986, as a result of feeling rejected. Dickinson claimed in retrospect that he was creatively stifled and had some dark thoughts: “Shall I pack up my toys and go home?”

Smith thinks that this sentiment is overly dramatic, and he quite rightly points out that Dickinson “came in with some songs of his own, and it could have been those that were picked and then I wouldn’t have had anything on there, so I don’t think he can really complain about that.”

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Not the happiest time in Maiden for Bruce Dickinson, coming out of an album project that he didn’t fully believe in, and having to make the audience believe in it every night on tour. Adrian Smith, on the other hand, felt empowered and energized at this point.

Seeds of discontent were sown, and herein lies the catalyst for Bruce’s eventual departure from Iron Maiden in 1993. The ambitious and restless singer would from this point on be chasing other outlets for his energy through solo albums, novel writing, international fencing, and ultimately airplane piloting.

Click here to read more about Bruce’s departure from Maiden!

At some point, Maiden would have to give, since Dickinson no longer felt as immersed and connected. As the Somewhere In Time album and tour rolled out in 1986, Dickinson felt “squashed inside for a long time. I felt very much like a fly being swatted.” He resigned himself to just being the singer, he would always perform to the max of his ability and be loyal to the Maiden cause, but his heart was no longer in it the way it had been before. In short, Bruce was disappointed.

“I just felt that we should be leading and not following … That we had to get it onto another level or we’d stagnate and just drift away … We just made another Iron Maiden album.”
Bruce Dickinson

Now, for Maiden fans, “just another Iron Maiden album” might just be the best album in the history of metal, as guest writer Pål Ødegård explains in this lover letter to Somewhere In Time.

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Dickinson was not impressed with his own band’s latest album, and started thinking about other avenues of creative activity for the future.

Dickinson’s feelings were clear, whether one agrees or not. The diverging notions of direction within the band in 1986 were massive. It was a time and place for finding purpose, and in retrospect it was the friction between the three wills, the three different senses of direction, that formed Iron Maiden in their late classic era and ultimately beyond.

After struggling through the birth of their latest album, it was time for Maiden to get back on the road.

SOMEWHERE BACK ON TOUR
Trying to learn from their past mistakes, Maiden vowed not to over-tour this time. So, as manager Smallwood says, tongue-in-cheek, “This one was only 157 shows.”

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Eddie awaits the band on the Somewhere On Tour stage set.

Indeed, Maiden tours would still be huge, but there would be more days off in-between gigs, and thus more time for Dickinson to rest. It was probably crucial, as the singer changed his mind about leaving.

“We got to the end of that tour, and I thought ‘Oh, that wasn’t too bad!’, had a little think about things…”
Bruce Dickinson

As it turns out, Dickinson would be much more in tune with Harris for the next album project. But the tour they had undertaken on their way to that point, cunningly titled Somewhere On Tour, would be a bit of a black hole in the preservation of Maiden history.

As songs from Somewhere In Time have been lamentably absent from Maiden’s sets since then, with the now-and-then exceptions of Wasted Years and singalong romp Heaven Can Wait, so would the 1986-87 tour pass undocumented except for the footage in the Stranger In A Strange Land promo video:

Often derided by the band for Spinal Tap-ishness, the Somewhere In Time show nonetheless is unique in the pantheon of Maiden stage productions. Maiden Revelations have celebrated its inventive and exciting designs and effects in this previous BEST & WORST feature.

But the band’s memories seem to center on the problems of Eddie’s inflatable head and his equally inflatable hands, which caused many dramatic moments to turn into comic relief. “This was the ‘Great Inflatable’ tour,” remembers Bruce. “Dave Lights was still doing our lighting stuff, and he had a bit of an inflatable megalomania, in fact.”

Steve would have close encounters with these problems.

“Me and Bruce stood in the palms of the inflatable hands. On one night a lamp was too close and burnt a hole in it. Consequently it was like [makes deflating noise] … I felt a right plonker being up there like that.”
Steve Harris

In any case, there was never a concert film from this tour. Harris regrets not filming the show properly, but manager Smallwood admits he “thought it was a bit too soon after Live After Death.” What exists in the band’s vaults now are bits of it but no full record.

“I really wanted to film that tour, and Rod went ‘No, we’re not bloody filming this tour’, and we’ve regretted it ever since.”
Steve Harris

HISTORY REVISITED, OR NOT
In 1999, upon his return to Iron Maiden, Dickinson stated that he and Harris had simply agreed to disagree about Somewhere In Time. With so much else from the golden age to focus on, this probably made sense as a peacekeeping device. But one can always ponder what might have been, as guest writer Adam Hansen does in this previous feature.

In 1986 the band presented a united front, and Harris’ remarks at the time would indicate either a lie or him not being aware of Dickinson’s feelings: “I honestly think this must be the first time we’ve ever done an album where we’ve all come out at the end and all felt happy about all the songs.” This was some way from the thruth, and Harris himself would be more critical of the album in retrospect.

The differences of opinion about Somewhere In Time within the band is possibly why the album never got the same spotlight in later years as the other classic era albums did. Of all the 1980s albums, it is the one that is most ignored in setlists. It might be harder to understand why songs from Piece Of Mind are so underplayed, with the exception of The Trooper, since everyone in the band loves that particular album. But for fans, Somewhere In Time is probably the most glaring omission.

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1986-87 live action. Not captured on film or tape, never granted an official release of any sort, beyond the Stranger In A Strange Land promo video.

Anyway, by the summer of 1987, the Somewhere In Time era was behind them, and Iron Maiden could take stock.

For all of the trials and tribulations of 1986-87, things turned out just fine. Maiden cemented their position as one of the most productive and successful metal bands ever, they delivered one of their best-loved albums, sold double platinum in the US, Dickinson decided to stay in the band, and everything looked to be on an even keel.

They would soon turn their attention to studio album number seven:

End of the Classic Era part 2, 1988-89.

Primary sources: Fan Club Magazine #16 (1986), Fan Club Magazine #17 (1986), Uncredited interview (1988), A Conversation With Bruce Dickinson (1996), Run To The Hills – The Authorised Biography (Mick Wall, 2001), Bruce Dickinson – Flashing Metal With Iron Maiden And Flying Solo (Joe Shooman, 2007), Classic Rock’s “Iron Maiden: Hope And Glory” (Paul Elliott, 2011), Metal Hammer (April 2013), The History Of Iron Maiden, Part 3: Maiden England (DVD, 2013), Kerrang!: Maiden Heaven (2014).

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5 thoughts on “FEATURE FRIDAY: End of the Classic Era part 1, 1986-1987

  1. Great article! Very in-depth and there were some bits and pieces I didn’t know before, so from a fan’s point of view, extremely interesting stuff. Lots of Maiden revelations indeed.

    Cheers!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Rantsu! The article has now been updated with some more info that people might not have been aware of. 🙂

  2. One thing id have mentioned is how little the SIT songs have been played live over the decades. Only really Heaven Can Wait and only really since Smith rejoined, Wasted Years. I never understood why Stranger was never a staple in the set. Alexander is phenomenal. The title track would have made a change from opening with Aces on history tours. Why did the band ignore this record over & over?

    • That’s why we linked this feature by Adam Hansen into the article.

      But surely, they only opened with Aces on one of the history tours, to be fair. And they couldn’t possibly have picked a different opener for that particular tour.

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