No one could compete with the majesty of Iron Maiden’s 1980s period. In part 2 of this chapter on Maiden History we take an in-depth look at the making of Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son and the end of Maiden’s classic era.
If Somewhere In Time (1986) signified a period of turmoil, with the band battling it out over direction and new sounds, Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son (1988) saw Iron Maiden consolidated, ending their extremely productive classic era on a high note that all band members seem very happy with in retrospect.
Our previous Maiden History article dug into the burn-out and conflict that resulted from the 1984-85 World Slavery Tour. Iron Maiden were on top of the metal world and there is little doubt that Somewhere In Time presented them with a new kind of challenge, now that Maiden were the overdogs. They had to follow up an incredible run of albums in the early 1980s while keeping the band from falling apart at the seams:
Maiden succeeded in finding their way through another classic album and tour in 1986-87, and singer Bruce Dickinson remembers thinking that things weren’t too bad when they got to the end of the Somewhere In Time cycle. “You know, having a little think about things. And then chatting to Steve and he said concept album, Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son. And that was it, I was off to the races then,” he says in retrospect.
In stark contrast to the singer’s behind-the-scenes conflict with band leader Steve Harris over the Somewhere In Time project, the two were completely simpatico as Iron Maiden started working on their seventh studio record in just eight short years.
SO IT SHALL BE WRITTEN, SO IT SHALL BE DONE
But what do you do? Where do you look for inspiration? After one album and one world tour every year since 1980, how do you do it all over again?
“I didn’t have any ideas at all. Then I read the story of the seventh son of the seventh son, this mythical figure that was supposed to have all these paranormal gifts, like second sight and what have you.”
The first thing that struck Harris was that a good title for the seventh album was located right there, and so he quickly got on the phone to Dickinson to talk about possibilities for Maiden’s next adventure.
The singer was fired up by the discussion with Harris and immediately started researching the theme and digging out old and unused ideas in addition to coming up with new ones. Looking back years later, Dickinson would make no secret of the fact that it meant a lot to him to feel included from the start, as he explained to Maiden biographer Mick Wall:
“Steve rang me to tell me about this idea he’d had for the next album, all about this seventh son of a seventh son stuff, and I thought, ‘What a great idea! Brilliant!’ And of course I was really chuffed too, because he’d actually rung me to talk about it and ask me if I had any songs that might fit that sort of theme.”
Indeed, it seems that Harris was very conscious about getting Dickinson on board right from the word go, probably anxious to avoid the schism that developed between the two because of their non-communication prior to recording Somewhere In Time.
One result of this is the large extent of co-writing for the 1988 album. Guitarist Adrian Smith quickly joined in, and the three main songwriters were soon busy cranking out some of their best ever music together. Dickinson highlights the mood and energy of the band during the writing sessions, when he explains how first single Can I Play With Madness came to happen:
“The beginning bit, the riff – with apologies to Pete Townsend! – was me on acoustic guitar at home. Then Adrian came along with some chords and I went, ‘Hang on a minute, I’ve got some words here that fit’, so we sat around and worked on it. […] That whole bit in the middle was just completely inserted, like plunk, stuck in the middle. And it was Steve’s bit. And he said, ‘Oh, this will work’, and Adrian absolutely hated it. I chimed in and said, ‘Actually, it does seem to work, guys.’ […] And we had a tremendous argument with Nicko saying, ‘Oh it won’t work, it’s too radical’.”
Harris turned in his best work since 1984, in this writer’s opinion, with the title track, The Clairvoyant and Infinite Dreams. Dickinson and Smith collaborated on sinister and spine-chilling album opener Moonchild, and the singles Can I Play With Madness and The Evil That Men Do. The latter two clearly built on Smith’s outstanding songwriting for the previous album, and also featured input from Harris.
The batch of songs would be rounded out with Dave Murray’s Harris-assisted The Prophecy and the harmony-heavy album closer Only The Good Die Young, one of the greatest ever collaborations between Harris and Dickinson.
It is worth noting that this was seemingly the point in time when Dickinson got seriously interested in the occult. By now, he had the means to build his own library of history, fantasy and alchemy. All of this came in handy for the seventh Maiden record, and would also be of use when his solo career turned towards the heavier metal of The Chemical Wedding in the late 1990s.
Interestingly, Harris states that it was in fact Dickinson’s idea to do a concept album, after Harris had presented him with The Clairvoyant (inspired by the death of the alleged psychic Doris Stokes) and the folklore legend of the psychic seventh son of a seventh son. As with all great creative endeavours, it might be hard to remember after the fact just who did what.
At any rate, Harris felt that the Seventh Son writing sessions in late 1987 and early 1988 were impressively productive, and that the band benefitted from having a clear concept to communicate throughout the record, even if this made the songwriting process more meticulous.
“The stuff we all started coming up with, once we’d agreed that we were definitely going for a fully fledged ‘concept’ album, really startled me. It was so much better than anything we’d done in ages…”
Of course, there is a fair argument that Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son is not much more of a concept album, in the narrative sense of the term, than Somewhere In Time had been. Dickinson himself has been outspoken about the album’s narrative shortcomings over the years, feeling that the band stopped short of what contemporaries like Queensrÿche were doing at that time: An advance cassette of their 1988 Operation: Mindcrime masterpiece prompted the Maiden singer to stop his car at the side of the road and bemoan his band being outdone…
“Somewhere in my dusty collection of mouldy scribblings I have the short story that tells the tale of the seventh son and his family issues and unrequited love that lead him to take a terrible and tragic revenge. We never really consummated the story relationship: my lyrics alluded to the story, whereas Steve’s didn’t.”
A bit harsh, perhaps, since Harris was the one who wrote the title track that most definitely told a part of the seventh son’s story. But whatever the case of unfulfilled storytelling might be, something that the fans would never care much about anyway, Maiden were certainly on a musical high.
This process of writing inspiring music that didn’t quite adhere to the narrative of the concept took place at home. Maiden ditched their regular writing haunt in the Channel Islands and assembled their new material in a rehearsal room on Harris’s Essex estate, in the barn where he would later build the Barnyard Studios that was Maiden’s exclusive workplace in the 1990s.
This meant that Iron Maiden, slowly coming to the end of their tax-escaping days, would be working in England for the first time since their 1982 breakthrough album The Number Of The Beast. Dickinson would praise the Maiden working environment at the time:
“If you wrote something you could go home afterwards and think about it. There was no obligation to try it out in the studio that night. That was important ‘cos when we wrote albums in Jersey, a ghetto mentality developed with everybody living on top of each other. You shouldn’t feel obliged to write songs, you should feel enthusiastic about it. We had the freedom to relax, the freedom to experiment.”
The band was in full flow, clearly reaching a creative peak. Songs were written and re-written, there was pull and tug in different directions but within a much more defined framework than on the previous album.
Can I Play With Madness is one of the songs that was shaped by this friction, as Dickinson explained earlier, and Smith (who had done three great tracks all by himself on the previous album) was happy to play along as Dickinson and Harris turned his ballad On The Wings Of Eagles into something much heavier and more subversive, with a new tempo and a much cooler title. Smith would say that, “I must admit, it did sound better that way.”
Writing completed, Maiden headed for Musicland Studios in Munich, Germany with longtime producer Martin Birch to record the final album of their unrelentingly prolific 1980s. It would also be the last album to feature their classic line-up.
TODAY IS BORN THE SEVENTH ONE
Recording sessions took place in February and March of 1988, according to the official Maiden biography, and by then the album had morphed from being a full-blown narrative concept album to simply being a collection of songs relating to the central theme of the tortured seventh son of a seventh son, a man with second sight and powers of healing who finds himself cast out and his warnings of disaster unheeded.
In late March the world got their first glimpse of the album with the release of the Can I Play With Madness single and video, the latter of which includes one of the last performances by the late great Monty Python Graham Chapman:
To drum up media enthusiasm for the new album, manager Rod Smallwood arranged for journalists and TV crews to meet the band at Castle Schnellenberg in the German town of Attendorn. Much food and drink was had, new Maiden music was played at high volume, and the place seemed ideal for a Seventh Son preview any time of year:
Dickinson’s own enthusiasm for the new Maiden music was beyond doubt at the time, as he called the album “a heavy metal Dark Side Of The Moon, or as close as we’ll ever get!” The world was pretty much ecstatic too. Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son, released in April 1988, became one of Maiden’s biggest sellers everywhere on the planet. Except in the USA.
While Maiden enjoyed an extremely good year in Europe and headlined the festival tour Monsters Of Rock across the continent, their new album suffered a sales slump on the other side of the Atlantic. Somewhere In Time had reached double platinum in the States, Maiden’s biggest American sales achievement ever, selling over 2 million copies. Seventh Son would stop at around 1.2 million, a nice number but a clear drop-off.
Did the Americans simply don’t like Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son as much as they liked the previous album? Or had they bought Somewhere In Time and not liked it as much as they had liked Powerslave before it?
Somewhere In Time, released in 1986, was certainly well-positioned to capitalize on the massive Powerslave / Live After Death blockbusters of 1984-85, and would probably sell really well on the back of Maiden’s most popular albums at the time. On the other hand, the singles Wasted Years and Stranger In A Strange Land would have given the album considerable commercial appeal of its own.
A couple of years later, when Seventh Son rolled out, America was in the grip of heavier and edgier bands like Metallica, the rock scene was changing, and Maiden’s mid-80s status would almost inevitably be suffering from the competition.
Harris would of course agree with this analysis, maybe particularly because Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son is one of his personal Maiden favorites, and he wouldn’t easily accept what he perceived to be American rejection of Maiden’s latest studio creation.
“I thought it was the best album we did since Piece Of Mind. I remember thinking, ‘Fucking Americans. They just don’t fucking understand us.’ “
In any case, it was the first commercial sign that Maiden’s classic era, their first golden age, was about to come to an end at the close of the decade. As manager Smallwood recalls, “It was probably the first time that we didn’t move on a step in America. It just didn’t catch fire.”
A TIME TO LIVE
What Smallwood alludes to is the second of his Iron Maiden five-year plans. The first was set in motion in 1980 and designed to make Maiden the biggest metal band in North America by 1985. The second five-year plan kicked off with Somewhere In Time in 1986, an American success by all accounts, but the growth did not continue with Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son. In fact, the band’s US popularity decreased.
Even so, there was still life in the old Maiden. Their 1988 world tour, with a definite exception for the US leg, was as big as ever and featured one of their most impressive (and probably most expensive) stage productions as artist Derek Riggs’ breathtaking vision of Eddie and the frozen river of souls was brought to pyrotechnical life:
The band was so pleased with their latest studio work that they actually considered playing the entire new album live, which would have been a first in their career. They ended up playing 6 of the 8 new songs, including majestic live versions of Infinite Dreams and the title track, which was the most liberal dose of new songs in a Maiden set since the World Piece Tour in 1983.
The tour, not surprisingly titled Seventh Tour Of A Seventh Tour, started in North America in May, a first for Maiden who tended to begin their 1980s world tours either at home in the UK or in Eastern Europe. This time European dates were set for late August, through September, into early October.
The 1988 world tour even took Maiden to Castle Donington. After years of being offered a place on the bill, Maiden finally appeared at the UK’s biggest metal festival, headlining the Monsters Of Rock. This bootleg video of The Evil That Men Do, second song in the setlist, gives an impression of the great form of Maiden in 1988:
Headlining this huge festival in their home country, to a record attendance of over 100 000 people, was certainly Maiden’s crowning glory. But the triumph would sadly be tinged with tragedy as two young fans had gotten crushed to death in the mud during the Guns N’ Roses set earlier in the day.
“When we did Donington that year, it felt like the cap on all our achievements. But my main memories now are pretty tragic, because the deaths of those two kids just overshadowed everything. It’s got to. But we weren’t told until right afterwards, so my main memories of the show itself is of it being such a big gig. I remember it started to rain again just before we went on and the stage was real slippy – I thought I was gonna come on for the biggest gig of my life sliding across the stage on my arse. Afterwards they just gave us a chance to catch our breaths and then someone came in and broke the news.”
Whatever memories Maiden have about that day now, it will always be a milestone in their career. The footage for The Clairvoyant video was captured during the intense concert, and this would likely mean that there is quality footage of the entire show buried in an archive somewhere:
There is no doubt that this was Iron Maiden’s commercial peak in Europe, and particularly in Great Britain. The Seventh Son album and tour in 1988 added up to the band’s biggest UK year: A number 1 album, three top 10 singles, headlining Donington, and selling out a UK arena tour in early winter to cap it all.
Maiden (or more precisely manager Smallwood) had decided against filming a concert video on the Somewhere In Time tour, probably because of the expense of film crews and post-production facilities in those days, as well as the relatively recent appearance of the Live After Death video. Harris would later come to regret this, as there is no complete concert footage from the 1986-87 world tour.
By 1988, however, Harris had built his own editing suite in his Essex home, presumably bringing the production costs down considerably, and now he wanted to direct and edit a rougher concert feature that would contrast the slicker and more expensive Live After Death.
The 1988 tour would be captured on film as it climaxed on home soil at the Birmingham NEC in late November. By this point, Maiden had decided to shake up their setlist a bit by dropping The Trooper in favor of the rarity Killers, and also adding Still Life and Die With Your Boots On for good measure.
Since half of the Seventh Son material that was performed on this tour would not reenter the setlist for two decades or more (or in the sad case of Infinite Dreams, never), the show that was captured for the 1989 Maiden England video was essentially full of what would come to be known as deep cuts.
As a companion to Live After Death it was superb, sharing only the most obvious tracks: The Number Of The Beast, Hallowed Be Thy Name and Iron Maiden, plus the encores that were added to the 2013 DVD release. An awesome performance of the ultra-rare Piece Of Mind track Still Life proves that Maiden can do the unexpected really well when they want to:
But for some reason Maiden decided against doing a proper live record to go with the video, or quite possibly they didn’t even consider it. Back in those days live albums were rarities, and fans would have to wait 25 years for the release of the Maiden England soundtrack as a double live album.
Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son remains one of Iron Maiden’s most celebrated albums, and one of their biggest sellers even with the US sales dip taken into account. From 2012 to 2014 the album and its accompanying tour was the main focus of the Maiden England World Tour, a global trek that was the last of Maiden’s extremely popular trilogy of 1980s History tours.
To savor the vibe of what would go down in Maiden history as one of their most mythical tours, one can enjoy the Birmingham performance of Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son from Maiden England, currently available as a remastered and remixed DVD, a true career highlight at the very end of the band’s classic era:
Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son also remains one of band leader Steve Harris’ absolute Maiden favorites, which makes it ironic that the Seventh Son aesthetic turned out to be exactly the thing Harris wanted to get away from just 2 years later.
WHAT A DREAM, WHEN WILL IT END?
The segue from one decade to another happened with the release of the Maiden England concert video in November 1989, and in early 1990 the band regrouped to begin work on a new studio album. Plenty of changes were in the air as Iron Maiden were about to have their first brush with the 1990s:
The ultimate end of Maiden’s classic era would be the choice of direction and production that Harris and Dickinson made for their Seventh Son follow-up. Adrian Smith’s departure from Maiden at the start of that album project brought down the curtain on the band’s classic era.
The seeds of his discontent was sown long before, though, and Smith freely admits to feeling down about Maiden’s concerts in the late classic era. It’s clear that he was immensely proud of what the band was doing in the studio when crafting Somewhere In Time and Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son, but he felt that the music didn’t get the treatment it deserved on stage.
“We used to play the songs too fast. When you come off stage and the audience has gone mad but you’re not feeling satisfied, it started to get a bit of a thing of mine and I felt like I was being a drag.”
It seems clear that Harris didn’t understand Smith’s point of view. In a 1990 interview he talked at length about the guitarist leaving the band, without mentioning the band’s performances at all: “We’d come off stage after a fucking great gig, and Adrian would be in the corner, depressed because the sound hadn’t been right or whatever.”
In retrospect, Smith would admit that his issues with Maiden’s onstage sound was a demotivating factor for him throughout the 1980s, restricting his enjoyment of the band’s immensely popular world tours:
“I used to have terrible sound issues. Sometimes in the old days Steve used to play so loud that the monitoring system couldn’t cope. When Bruce first joined the band he was competing with Steve and it became a bit of a battle – all you could hear was piercing vocals and thundering bass. It was a nightmare and it used to really get me down. I’d always make a face and stand at the back next to my amp and make it obvious that I wasn’t enjoying myself. I wanted to say, ‘Fuck, look what I’m having to deal with,’ which I suppose wasn’t very professional.”
Indeed, even if other aspects of touring (physical and emotional exhaustion) and performing (excessive speed) were bothering Smith, band chief Harris pinned the whole question of the guitarist’s unhappiness in 1988 on sound issues: “We don’t even bother doing soundchecks anymore. On the last tour he’d be the only one there, soundchecking for hours by himself. I just don’t know what he was trying to achieve soundwise.”
It’s a melancholy image, the misunderstood Adrian Smith all by himself at a soundcheck, wishing against odds to give Maiden’s recent material the live performance he felt it deserved…
Everyone else would be shrugging Smith’s worries off, because the audiences were going nuts for Maiden’s concerts everywhere they played. Drummer Nicko McBrain recently said, matter-of-factly, “I spoke with Adrian about [the Maiden England video] the other day and he wasn’t happy. But he wasn’t happy when we made it.”
Back then, the guitarist could not shake his feelings of discomfort.
“We came up with some really interesting songs at the time, but we were just kind of choking the life out of them.”
Arguing his point got Smith nowhere. As the feeling of dissatisfaction got coupled with a feeling of helplessness, Smith got depressed about the situation. What could be the outcome? As Smith says, “You know, a year later I wasn’t in the band.”
The classic era ended with a bang, a great album and a great tour capped by a classic concert video. But the aftermath saw a distinct decline, one that Maiden would not arrest until the return of Dickinson and Smith in 1999. The dream, at least from a certain perspective, seemed to be over.
Sources: Uncredited interview logged at MaidenFans.com (1988), Kerrang! issue 183 (April 1988), Kerrang! issue 306 (September 1990), Metal Hammer issue 20 vol 5 (September-October 1990), Stockholm, Sunday April 28 1996 (bookofhours.net, 1996), Iron Maiden: Infinite Dreams (Dave Bowler & Bryan Dray, 1996), Run To The Hills: The Authorised Biography of Iron Maiden (Mick Wall,  2001), Metal Hammer presents “Iron Maiden: 30 Years of Metal Mayhem” (2005), Metal Hammer (April 2013), The History of Iron Maiden, Part 3: Maiden England (DVD, 2013), Kerrang!: “Maiden Heaven” (2014), Bruce Dickinson: Maiden Voyage (Joe Shooman,  2016), What Does This Button Do? (Bruce Dickinson, 2017), Classic Rock Platinum Series and Metal Hammer present “Iron Maiden” (Edited by Dave Everley, 2019), Rock Candy issue 19 (2020).