No one could compete with the majesty of Iron Maiden’s 1980s period. In the second part of this chapter on Iron 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 presenting a united front and 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. Maiden were on top of the metal world and there is little doubt that Somewhere In Time presented them with their biggest challenge thus far – following up an incredible run of albums in the early 1980s while keeping the band from falling apart at the seams. Click for the whole tale:
They 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 tour. “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
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.”
A good title for the seventh album was located right there, and Harris quickly got on the phone to Dickinson.
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. The wheels were starting to turn really quick on the new album project.
“Steve rang me to tell me about this idea he’d had for the next album, and I thought ‘What a great idea! Brilliant!’ I was really chuffed too, because he’d actually rung me to talk about it.”
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. And I said, ‘Can I write an instrumental bit in the middle?’ – because I normally don’t write bits like that since I don’t have to play them – and Steve came in with the time-change bit, the Zeppelin-y bit, 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 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 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…
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 no more a concept album, in the narrative sense of the term, than Somewhere In Time. 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.
“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.”
This process of writing inspiring music that didn’t quite adhere to the narrative of the chosen 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, working in England for the first time since their 1982 breakthrough album The Number Of The Beast.
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 shaped by this friction – it started life as a Smith ballad called On The Wings Of Eagles until Dickinson and Harris turned it into something much heavier and more subversive.
Writing completed, Maiden headed for Musicland Studios in München, Germany with longtime producer Martin Birch to record the final album of their unrelentingly prolific 1980s.
TODAY IS BORN THE SEVENTH ONE
Recording sessions took place in February and March of 1988, according to the official Maiden biography, but somewhere along the way the album 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:
Dickinson’s enthusiasm at the time was beyond doubt, 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 became one of Maiden’s biggest ever 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, selling north of 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? The truth is probably a little more complex. Somewhere In Time, released in 1986, was ideally positioned to capitalise on the massive Powerslave / Live After Death success of 1984-85, and would probably sell really well just because of the delay mechanism. 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 Rod 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
But the end was not there yet. Iron Maiden’s 1988 world tour, except for the US leg, was as big as ever and featured one of their most impressive stage productions as illustrator 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. It was the most liberal dose of new songs in a Maiden set since the World Piece Tour in 1983.
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 to a record crowd. It was their crowning glory, but sadly 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.
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:
Maiden had filmed nothing on the Somewhere In Time tour, probably because of the expense of film crews and post-production services in those days, as well as the relatively recent appearance of the Live After Death video. By 1988, Harris had built his own editing suite, bringing the production cost down considerably, one would assume, and 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, but for some reason Maiden decided against doing a proper live record. Fans would have to wait 25 years for the release of the Maiden England video 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 tour was the main focus of the Maiden England World Tour, a global trek that was the last of Maiden’s 1980s retro sets.
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 1989, and in early 1990 the band regrouped to begin work on their new album. Plenty of changes were in the air, and the full story of Iron Maiden’s first brush with the 1990s is told here:
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 he admits to feeling down about Maiden’s concerts in the late classic era. It’s clear that Adrian 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 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.”
Band chief Harris pinned the whole question of Smith’s unhappiness 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 at MaidenFans.com (1988), Kerrang! 183 (April 1988), Kerrang! 306 (September 1990), Metal Hammer no 20 vol 5 (September-October 1990), Stockholm, Sunday April 28 1996 (bookofhours.net, 1996), Run To The Hills – The Authorised Biography (Mick Wall, 2001), Bruce Dickinson – Flashing Metal With Iron Maiden And Flying Solo (Joe Shooman, 2007), Metal Hammer (April 2013), The History Of Iron Maiden, Part 3: Maiden England (DVD, 2013), Kerrang!: “Maiden Heaven” (2014), What Does This Button Do? (Bruce Dickinson, 2017), Classic Rock Platinum Series and Metal Hammer present Iron Maiden (Edited by Dave Everley, 2019).