Iron Maiden did not merely emulate their success in the 1980s when they entered the new millennium, they surpassed it. In terms of global popularity and touring, Maiden’s second golden age was the peak of their career.
By late 2004, Iron Maiden had put behind them a five-year period which had seen them reunite with singer Bruce Dickinson and guitarist Adrian Smith and reconquer the hearts and minds of hard rock audiences worldwide. In a surprise twist, Steve Harris’ band not only did this by appealing to nostalgia (like KISS or Black Sabbath when they reunited their classic line-ups), but also charged ahead with new music that rivaled their old.
After a triumphant reunion tour in 1999, Maiden released Brave New World in 2000 and then Dance Of Death in 2003, records that oozed with the songwriting ambition, performance skills and production values that had been sorely missing from their output in the mid to late 1990s. The greatest trick that Iron Maiden pulled off in the new millennium, seemingly spearheaded by the returning Dickinson, was to alternate nostalgia-flirting retro tours (digging up deeper and rarely performed songs) and the uncompromising focus on making new music. In doing this, Maiden not only saw all their older fans return, they made millions of new ones.
A key to establishing this pattern was the release in late 2004 of a DVD collection titled The Early Days. Combining a feature-length documentary about the formative years of Iron Maiden with concert footage from the 1980-1983 period, the DVD signaled that on tour in 2005 the recharged Maiden would be playing songs only from their first four albums: Iron Maiden (1980), Killers (1981), The Number Of The Beast (1982) and Piece Of Mind (1983).
PAST AND PRESENT
It was truly exciting to be in the audience at a Maiden show in the summer of 2005 and hear that awesome intro piece from Killers bursting from the speakers: The Ides Of March. As the final note faded, Nicko McBrain started the snare-roll that kicks Murders In The Rue Morgue into gear, and it hit home with full force how Iron Maiden had now become the band a lot of fans had only dreamed they would be.
Whether you saw the DVD package The Early Days as a great cause or poor excuse, the outcome was that Maiden had found a way to construct a setlist and stage show that was not reliant on a new album of music. And the popularity of the concept showed that touring with a focus on old music in new wrapping, like they had already done for short stints in 1999 and 2003, was a great way to please old fans and entice new ones at the same time.
The 2005 tour of Europe and North America launched the period of Iron Maiden’s so-called History tours. This was a run of three seriously attractive tour concepts that revisited specific periods of their 1980s heyday: the 2005 Early Days tour followed by a Powerslave recreation called Somewhere Back In Time in 2008-09 and then the Seventh Son of a Seventh Son-centric Maiden England tour in 2012-14.
The new six-piece Iron Maiden, completed by guitarists Dave Murray and Janick Gers, thrilled audiences on the 2005 tour by performing the very rare Another Life, Prowler, Remember Tomorrow, Where Eagles Dare and Drifter, alongside the newly rediscovered Revelations, Die With Your Boots On and Phantom Of The Opera.
In retrospect, the impressive fury of Iron Maiden live in 2005 was the sound of a band that had discovered several new gears. The electricity in the air was proof that Maiden could deliver bigger and better than maybe even they had thought, and this kick-ass rendition of Phantom Of The Opera from Gothenburg, Sweden shows beyond doubt that Maiden and their fans had by then reached a new plateau of excitement:
The power of their past music as performed by this super-charged current line-up of the band, inevitably pointed ahead to endless opportunities for the future. Not only could Maiden set up even bigger tours built on upcoming DVD reissues of classic blockbusters, but their urge to create a new masterpiece of music had possibly not been this strong since the late 1980s.
Bruce Dickinson had found time during Maiden’s post-Dance Of Death hiatus to finish another solo record with composer, guitarist and producer Roy Z. Worked up in periodic bouts of activity since 2001 and finally released in May 2005, Tyranny Of Souls was not quite a match for the previous two Dickinson albums Accident Of Birth (1997) and The Chemical Wedding (1998), but the results clearly indicated a singer and songwriter with plenty of new ideas.
Iron Maiden opened their 2005 Early Days tour in late May and soon found themselves performing as part of that summer’s Ozzfest tour in the United States, where a pissed off and insulted Sharon Osbourne launched an assault of eggs and bottle caps and continuous onstage interruptions of Maiden in front of the audience at the San Bernardino show on 20 August. Maiden had stolen Ozzy’s thunder, even playing their full set as a replacement headliner when Ozzy was indisposed.
Maiden battled on, refusing to be cut off or distracted, and their manager Rod Smallwood would later lament the “disgusting and unprofessional” indignity directed by Sharon Osbourne that night, saying that Osbourne’s antics ultimately made the show “a truly remarkable rock and roll event, even if for all the wrong reasons.” Sharon’s meltdown was apparently a reaction to challenges Bruce Dickinson had thrown her way from stage during the tour. “I hate reality TV,” Dickinson later stated when explaining his distaste not for Ozzy but for The Osbournes on TV, “and I’ll continue to say that, until someone jails me for it!”
The Ozzfest incident might have inspired the title of a new Iron Maiden track, These Colours Don’t Run, as soon as the band was off the road. Dickinson remembers a strong sense of purpose when the tour ended with another Clive Aid in support of ailing former drummer Clive Burr, at London’s Hammersmith Apollo (the Odeon of their many past British triumphs) on 2 September:
“Afterwards the writing urge was stronger than ever. Steve and I were starting to converge, and I began to get the same sort of goosebumps I’d had before the Seventh Son album. […] In fact, it was difficult to keep up with the number of ideas coming thick and fast.”
As usual, Maiden would write quickly. In a matter of three weeks, different combinations of band members had taken their ideas into writing sessions and come out with ten songs that would be rehearsed and recorded for the new album. An interesting aspect of the songwriting credits for what would become A Matter Of Life And Death (2006) is a degree of collaborations that Maiden had not seen since the Seventh Son album that Dickinson references. Most of the material on the album was cooked up between Harris, Smith and Dickinson, with both Murray and Gers adding quality contributions.
Anyone unsure about how much fuel was left in Iron Maiden’s creative tank needed only to check out the early 2006 release of the Death On The Road concert video. Filmed during the Dance Of Death tour in 2003, it was a spectacle of music and visuals that hammered home just how stirring Maiden’s new music could be when given the proper stage production and audio treatment. In the pantheon of Maiden concert videos, it’s one of a kind and seemed to promise much more to come from a band that was easing into their second golden age.
Producer Kevin Shirley had by now settled in as the regular Iron Maiden recording chief, and he joined the band in London in the early months of 2006 as they took over SARM Studios for the production of A Matter Of Life And Death. Recording would go smoothly, the band laying down their tracks live in the room together before moving on to overdubs and mixing, preserving that important performance energy that Maiden thrive on. Co-producer Harris decided against a conventional mastering, something Shirley resigned himself to: “I think some tracks could use a smidge more top end, and others a bump of bottom, […] but I must say I am pretty happy with the end result.”
So would the band be. And critics. And fans. In fact, in many people’s opinion, Iron Maiden delivered their best work since the 1980s with A Matter Of Life And Death, defying odds and expectations to create a modern Maiden masterpiece. The dramatics of some of the Dance Of Death highlights are built on to create an impressively cohesive collection of music, including majestic numbers like The Longest Day, The Reincarnation Of Benjamin Breeg, For The Greater Good Of God and The Legacy. If anyone was surprised at Harris and Dickinson staying together, even continuing to release new music, the bassist and band leader laughed when confronted with the notion that the two don’t like each other:
“Ha! That’s so far from the truth. I’ve had one row with Bruce in the studio during all the time we’ve worked together, whereas I’ve had some real belters with Nicko. We’ve actually been virtually nose-to-nose screaming at each other – and with his nose being so flat, that’s very close up!”
A consequence of Maiden’s longevity and productivity, this being their third record since reuniting with Dickinson and Smith, is the danger of being taken for granted. There was a chance that the public and even their own fans would jadedly shrug off just another Maiden album at this point, which makes the staying power of A Matter Of Life And Death even more impressive. The key to this achievement was clearly expressed by Steve Harris at the time: “Iron Maiden don’t have anything to prove to anyone, except ourselves. We all pushed to our limits. We’re hungry.”
This should not be mistaken for a hunger to stay relevant. It is simply a hunger to be the best Iron Maiden that they can, and a refusal to live in the past. Indeed, after touring with the 2005 retro set, the 2006 A Matter Of Life And Death tour was a complete 180 degree turn: Maiden decided to play the entire one hour and twenty minutes of their new album live.
There were certainly a few people complaining about the lack of The Trooper, The Number Of The Beast or Run To The Hills in the setlist on this tour. But in retrospect this seems to be the point where Maiden truly liberated themselves from anybody else’s notion of what they should or should not be doing. As Dickinson would always insist, Maiden’s license to recreate past periods on stage when they want to do so, is earned by making and performing new music without compromise.
The stubbornly current Maiden show trekked through North America, Japan and Europe in late 2006, before being reconfigured as A Matter Of The Beast to commemorate the 25th anniversary of their breakthrough album The Number Of The Beast for short touring bursts in March and June of 2007. The next thing on the agenda had been heralded by Dickinson in interviews as far back as 2006: The Powerslave show was set for a modern-day return.
If the diversity and energy of the back-to-back projects Early Days and A Matter Of Life And Death had primed Iron Maiden and their audience, it was the spectacle of the immense Somewhere Back In Time world tour that pushed everything beyond even the popularity levels Maiden had enjoyed in the 1980s. In early 2008, Maiden added to their perfect storm by releasing the classic concert video Live After Death (1985) on DVD as the second part of their History series. There was an accompanying documentary about their Powerslave and World Slavery period and additional concert footage from Eastern Europe and Brazil’s Rock In Rio, and the release was timed to sync with Maiden’s new concert tour rolling out.
The tour kicked off in Mumbai, India on 1 February 2008, and wound its way through Australia and Japan, North and South America, before ending with a European leg in the summer of 2008 that saw Maiden playing to their biggest audiences ever in many countries. In the United States, Maiden were now back to headlining venues like New York’s Madison Square Garden, while their European pulling power proved impressive with two concerts at Paris’ Bercy, a homecoming at London’s massive Twickenham Stadium, and their strongest ever showing in Norway, where Oslo and Trondheim sold more than 55 000 tickets between them.
How could the tour possibly be bigger and more exciting?
“Rock’s peak touring time in the biggest southern-hemisphere markets is the late summer, in other words February and March. This is exactly the northern-hemisphere winter period during which a European airline such as Astraeus would chew its arm off to have an aircraft on a two-month contract. […] An airline that needed to do a deal, a band that needed to access markets to satisfy its fans and an income versus expenditure that meant the price was right. After crunching the numbers, it made unexpected business sense.”
To accommodate the globetrotting, certified airline captain Bruce Dickinson flew the band, crew and equipment around the planet in a customized Boeing 757 with the call sign “AEU666” and nicknamed Ed Force One, a move that certainly heightened Maiden’s media profile as much as the return of a classic 1980s stage set. In a career turnaround of mythic proportions, Iron Maiden were once again the biggest metal band on the planet.
The setlist, as well as the stage production, was heavily Live After Death-oriented, opening with Aces High, 2 Minutes To Midnight, Revelations and The Trooper. Absolute highlights of the show were stunning renditions of Powerslave and Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, the latter making its first appearance in a Maiden set since 1987. As the original plan for 2008 included capping the year (and the tour) with the DVD release of Maiden England, choice numbers from 1986’s Somewhere In Time and 1988’s Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son also appeared, most suprisingly Moonchild as the first encore.
“During the planning stages for this tour it never occurred to any of us that it could ever get this big. We’ve tripled the size of our audience in the last five years. We’re playing in Costa Rica tomorrow night to a football stadium full of people when we’ve never released a record or done one interview there before.”
This is where even Rod Smallwood must have been surprised at the sheer enormous success of the tour. Plans were rejigged, Maiden England would be held back for another tour a few years down the line, and the Somewhere Back In Time trek would be extended into the first half of 2009, with the set revised to include more Early Days era material and a little less of the late 1980s that Maiden now knew they would celebrate on a subsequent tour.
A thoughtful Adrian Smith talked to Metal Hammer on board Ed Force One, pondering the incredible rise in Maiden’s fortunes and the fact that he ever got back together with the band he left in early 1990 as they started working on the record that would become No Prayer For The Dying (1990).
“There isn’t much I regret in terms of the decision that I made. Maybe if it were possible for me to have had a conversation with my younger self at a few crucial times then maybe I wouldn’t have done certain things in terms of leaving the band. That said, I knew I needed to leave because I was burned out and I needed a break. […] Now I’m enjoying every moment that comes my way.”
Smith felt that it was “really excellent playing some of that old stuff again” on the 2008 tour, a sentiment echoed by the man who once replaced him, Janick Gers: “It’s great to be able to play some of these songs that haven’t been heard in 20 years, songs that still feel as powerful and as exciting as they did 20 years ago.” And even the soft-spoken Dave Murray would express the emotional weight of proud achievement:
“We had a moment the other day looking at the plane on the tarmac at LAX Airport with a sold-out LA Forum behind us, when I think I said to Steve, ‘It sure beats the crappy Fiat 500 we used to take the gear down to the Cart ‘n’ Horses in, doesn’t it?'”
As Iron Maiden were flying around the globe on their current blockbuster tour in 2008, another compilation album was released, Somewhere Back In Time: The Best Of 1980 – 1989. For fans it held very little interest, but it might serve as a sampler for people who were new to Maiden at the time. A much more impressive release would be the following year’s Flight 666, a documentary film and also a live album and concert video. The power of Iron Maiden in their second golden age was undeniable in their performance of classic tracks like Powerslave:
Back on top of the world, Iron Maiden now faced an unusual challenge: Making a new album that would confirm their position as overdogs. Maiden had previously done this to great success with Somewhere In Time in the 1980s, but since then they had effectively always punched from an underdog position, particularly through the 1990s and into the 2000s. As the 2010s dawned, following writing sessions in Paris in late 2009, Iron Maiden headed to a familiar place to record their new album.
“Bahamas was not the place it had been in 1983. Most of the charm had been replaced by American concrete. […] The studio was run down and it was obvious that it was nearing the end of its life. […] We had to bring in large amounts of equipment to record, and we ended up barely using any of the existing studio kit. […] It was a sad but symbolic way of consigning the eighties to ancient history.”
Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Bahamas had been the tax-shelter recording hideout for Iron Maiden in the 1980s, the place where Piece Of Mind, Powerslave and parts of Somewhere In Time had been recorded. In early 2010 it was a much different Maiden that once again trod its “same carpet … same everything”, as Dickinson would comment. The band put down the songs they had written and rehearsed in Paris, and producer Kevin Shirley would then take the recordings back to his own The Cave studio in Malibu, California for vocals and mixing.
Released in the summer of 2010, The Final Frontier did not succeed in following A Matter Of Life and Death the way that Somewhere In Time had done in following Powerslave. In fact, the drop in songwriting quality that wears down The Final Frontier is similar to the diminished force of No Prayer For The Dying compared to Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son before it.
But commercially speaking, the world did not seem to care. The 2010 leg of Maiden’s tour rolled out ahead of the album’s release and only incorporated El Dorado in a set that was primarily focused on their post-2000 output as a counterweight to the retro set of the previous tour. In 2011, more The Final Frontier tracks would be worked into the set, as Maiden set out on another Ed Force One campaign titled Around The World In 66 Days. But although the tour was a great success in terms of attendance, it was also notable for being the point where many fans and critics started to feel that a certain setlist sameness and production anemia was setting in.
Some memorable highlights were captured on the En Vivo! (2012) live album and concert video, but the Iron Maiden juggernaut did not seem to inspire quite the same energy and excitement as we had gotten used to over the past ten years or so, and particularly the 2005-09 run of touring concepts that mixed the hardcore old with the uncompromising new. One of very few songs from The Final Frontier that was a welcome addition to the set was the soaring ballad Coming Home:
The lack of one or two less predictable deep cuts in the set, and the presence of too many predictable mainstays like The Trooper, 2 Minutes To Midnight and Fear Of The Dark, created a worry that Maiden’s second golden age was running out of fuel for invention. It was not quite the case, but the next History tour would aim a bit higher than it delivered.
MAIDEN ENGLAND, AND RECONQUERING THE WORLD
When Iron Maiden had first risen to the top, in the 1980s, it had everything to do with manager Rod Smallwood’s long-term planning, and also the fact that Maiden took their business as seriously as their music. Smallwood later said, “We had strong merchandising from the word go. If we hadn’t, we couldn’t have toured the way we did.” The fact that Maiden raked in money from clothes and collectibles with Eddie on them made it possible to subsidise touring to a greater extent than other artists would be able to, and thus to reach more people on the road that would buy more Maiden albums and merchandise.
Smallwood had established Sanctuary Management to take care of Maiden’s business, and in 1982 he enlisted his friend Andy Taylor to co-manage them. Eventually the company would grow and diversify into a huge and sprawling organization for artist management and record production, but both Smallwood and Taylor would be forced out in the wake of Sanctuary incurring massive losses in the period from 2004 to 2007. The duo later set up Phantom Music Management exclusively for managing Maiden, announcing their renewed dedication to being Maiden-obsessed in early 2012.
In the period of ups and downs during their Sanctuary era, Smallwood and particularly Taylor had been part of developing the structure of the modern music business. Nose-diving record sales after 2000 gave traditional record companies a strong incentive to diversify into other areas of the business, and Sanctuary would be one of the forerunners in embracing this change. In what is generally labeled the 360 degree model, a company would now offer more comprehensive support to an artist than a traditional record company would have done, in return for taking a cut of revenues in all areas of activity.
In short, this meant a new emphasis on touring over recording, taking advantage of the culture of music festivals worldwide and the vastly growing economies of Europe, North America and Asia to keep artists perpetually in front of much bigger audiences than what was common back in the Maiden heyday of the 1980s. The outcome for our favorite band: The gaps between new Iron Maiden albums would become wider and wider, while the income from touring and merchandising would make them, as well as their business partners, richer than ever before.
One of the business consequences of Iron Maiden’s climb back to the peak of rock in the period from around 2000 to around 2010, was visibly and audibly apparent to Adrian Smith when Maiden started their The Final Frontier tour in the USA in June 2010. The guitarist had been out of the band for most of the 1990s and had a unique point of view when he looked out at their audience.
“I noticed it when I came back to the band in ’99, that there were a lot of new fans in Europe but America didn’t seem to have changed. But on this tour there seems to be a lot of younger fans and the response has been a lot more European, if you like.”
Iron Maiden had not only succeeded in recapturing and expanding their fanbase in Europe, South America and Asia, but had also managed the achievement of reigniting their North American glory and attracting a new generation of fans in the notoriously tough and fickle market of the USA. This resurgence would be showcased when Maiden opened their next campaign, the Maiden England World Tour, with a North American leg in 2012.
It had been obvious since the postponement of the Maiden England DVD reissue back in 2008 that there would be another History tour. A modern recreation of the Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son stage production, very satisfying in terms of pyro but admittedly a little slim on the set design details that we expected, the tour was launched with a two-month jaunt through the USA and Canada in the summer of 2012. Europe and South America would then be visited in 2013, before a second European leg in 2014 made this the first Maiden tour to stretch over three calendar years.
As would be expected, Maiden opened their new show with Moonchild, included the long-ignored The Number Of The Beast track The Prisoner (as on the original 1988 tour and the classic concert video), and they set fans’ hearts racing with a modern-day rendition of Steve Harris’ monstrous title track from the Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son album:
It was certainly a commercial triumph, but like the previous tour it left something to be desired in artistic terms. Iron Maiden had by now re-established such an incredible standard for themselves that the Maiden England tour would become known among fans as something of a missed opportunity, the point where nagging doubts about The Final Frontier and its less-than-inspired tour grew into a worry that Maiden had lost the spark of interest and creativity that had marked their post-2000 era so far.
A grainy screenshot of a mixing console early in the tour offers a glimpse and a heartbreak. Listed on the pre-programmed display screen is Infinite Dreams, a track that failed to appear when Maiden hit the stage. For some reason it was replaced with Afraid To Shoot Strangers from 1992’s Fear Of The Dark album, in itself a welcome return but woefully out of sync with the 1980s theme of the tour. The other absentee was Hallowed Be Thy Name, not at all rare but undoubtedly popular. It might have had something to do with the plagiarism lawsuit that bothered Maiden at the time, but on the other hand it was evident at the end of the previous tour that Dickinson was having trouble singing the song.
In fact, when Maiden toured The Final Frontier in 2010 and far into 2011, the band came to a point that started to remind them of the burn-out that happened at the end of the Powerslave tour in 1985. Perhaps the reasons for what many observers deemed to be a downturn in the band’s energy and enthusiasm at this point are to be found in what Dickinson recalls in his memoir:
“It was a 35-date fourth leg of the tour and, frankly, I think we were all feeling a little fried at the end of it. Unlike the Powerslave tour, we acknowledged it to ourselves, and I had a particularly robust evening with Rod Smallwood. […] I had no intention of retiring unless I had to. I made the suggestion that ‘little and often’ was a better strategy than trying to reconquer the world every year.”
One of the most audible signs of a band that works too hard, of course, is a vocalist losing their power and range towards the end of a tour. Whatever the behind-the-scenes reasons were, for the 2012 tour Hallowed was replaced with the less-than-thrilling Running Free.
The 2012 Maiden England setlist would have been mind-blowing ten years earlier and under any other banner. The problem was the reasonable expectations that came with the title and the stated late-1980s period focus. Dropping Infinite Dreams was a hurt that would never heal, and the band also dismissed the rare tracks Still Life, Die With Your Boots On and Killers, all featured in the Maiden England video that the new tour was built on. On the other hand, they included the not-featured tracks 2 Minutes To Midnight, Afraid To Shoot Strangers, The Trooper, Phantom Of The Opera, and even an encore of the great but thematically irrelevant Aces High. And there was only one song from the late 1980s classic Somewhere In Time, the unsurprising Wasted Years, which was one less than the already disappointing two featured in the video, where Heaven Can Wait was a centrepiece.
Plainly and frankly, this setlist is a head-scratcher.
The Maiden England World Tour actually happening was a fan’s dream coming true, but ultimately the experience ended up being on the slightly disappointing side, a watered-down proposition in light of the tradition of History tours that Maiden had built since 2005. None of this affected the popularity of the band, but it did make many fans wonder what the future would hold. Had there been a loss of enthusiasm? Were they out of inspiration? Was the band winding down?
From the inside this might all have looked very different. Iron Maiden had reconquered the world, and it now seemed that they couldn’t put a foot wrong. Their tours were celebrated and attended in record-breaking numbers, and their new albums (although rarer as time went by) were met with gushing receptions worldwide. The sense of gratitude was keenly felt by Adrian Smith, who would later recall in his memoirs that this second golden age was far more enjoyable than the first:
“The band had continued to grow and I’d been determined to savour every minute of it. I won’t say I didn’t have my down moments but they were far, far outweighed by the ups. I’d been given a unique opportunity, a second bite of the cherry.”
Iron Maiden were off tour by the summer of 2014, but fans started hearing rumblings of activity in the later months of the year. Several members of the band were sighted in Paris, including the two screen-muggers seen above at a tennis match. When producer Kevin Shirley also revealed that he was presently in France for a project, no more clues were needed to know for sure that Maiden were working on a new studio album.
As much as Maiden’s lack of public commitment to future plans had made fans start to think that maybe the band wanted to consider retirement, inside the camp there was no such inclination. Back in the summer of 2010, McBrain had scoffed at the notion that Maiden had an end in sight, insisting there was no plan to stop, “Not unless the good Lord turns round and tells one of us it’s time to go!”
By the end of 2014, the danger of an imminent end to Maiden’s adventures would be as real as it gets, in the form of a deadly illness growing in their singer’s throat and neck.
Sources: Run to the Hills: The Authorised Biography of Iron Maiden (Mick Wall  2004), “Iron Maiden: Hope and Glory” (Paul Elliott, 25 May 2011), 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, May 2019), Monsters of River and Rock: My Life as Iron Maiden’s Compulsive Angler (Adrian Smith 2020).