- John McMurtrie
In a pivotal scene from the 1989 time-travel comedy Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Bill S. Preston, Esq. (Alex Winter) and Ted "Theodore" Logan (Keanu Reeves) find themselves face-to-face with many "royal ugly dudes." After a pregnant pause, one R.U.G. orders the guards to put the two doofuses in "the iron maiden." Naturally, he means the medieval torture and execution device that encloses someone in a spike-filled cabinet. Not realizing their predicament, Bill and Ted believe they're about to join one of the greatest metal bands of all time. Their response, "Iron Maiden ... excellent!" is not only one of the best catch-phrases of '80s film, but also one of the most succinct and accurate appraisals of the English heavy metal band.
By Bill and Ted's simpleton reasoning, heavy metal is excellent because it's heavy, loud and badass; therefore, the same applies to Iron Maiden. And if Iron Maiden is excellence, then excellence itself is Iron Maiden. That's some sound, fallacy-free logic. But if you're having a hard time wrapping your head around it, here are some reasons that the band is most triumphant:
Punk and Metal Cred
Although Maiden is a heavy metal legend, some early critics asserted that the band's first two full-length albums, Iron Maiden (1980) and Killers (1981—both on EMI/Capitol), displayed a heavy punk-rock influence. The band begged to differ, but that didn't dissuade punks from getting into them—which is why you sometimes see Iron Maiden patches among the Dead Kennedys and T.S.O.L. ones on those studded leather jackets. Also, there's no denying original singer Paul Di'Anno's vocals were raw and rough compared to Bruce Dickinson's operatic majesty, and Dave Murray and Adrian Smith's guitar playing was wonderfully sloppy on those albums. That's punk enough.
The band's use of horrific imagery blew up the bloomers of so many Cold War-era puritans. Since they couldn't be bothered to actually read the lyrics, they resorted to hysterical histrionics, unfairly maligning the band (and perhaps dozens of other rock groups) as Satan worshippers. The band's skeletal mascot Eddie (originally "Eddie the Head"), with his baleful grin, is on countless album covers, T-shirts, posters and stickers—not to mention immortalized in textbook doodles and restroom graffiti. His ubiquity, and the fact that he was depicted on the cover of The Number of the Beast (1982) pulling Beelzebub's puppet strings, didn't help. The album cover sent Jerry Falwell Sr.'s Moral Majority's heads a-spinning and they tried to, as they say online, "Kill it with fire!" burning copies of the band's albums. It, uh, backfired, only increasing awareness of the band.
Maiden had the last laugh when bassist and songwriter Steve Harris revealed that the hair-raising imagery of songs like "The Number of the Beast" and "Children of the Damned" was simply a consequence of his horror film fandom, whereas songs like "Run to the Hills" are in fact about mass murder—but inspired by historical events like the Wounded Knee Massacre and the Charge of the Light Brigade. Harris, you see, is also a history buff, but the band has songs about Greek myths ("Flight of Icarus") and nuclear brinkmanship ("2 Minutes to Midnight"), too. So if detractors were going to blame the band for corrupting young minds with blood 'n' guts 'n' boogeymen, they'd have to acknowledge Maiden probably helped enlighten others.
Fly the Metal Skies
Bruce Dickinson is a pilot. But he didn't get his license just so he could take groupies up for a mile-high action like some hot-and-bothered Icarus. The dude flew passenger jets for the now-defunct Astraeus Airlines. Yes, that means you might have been flown over oceans by the singer from Iron Maiden—and lived to tell the tale, if only you'd known. When the band is on tour, Dickinson flies them around in their own Boeing 747 called Ed Force One. It's simultaneously badass and Saturday-morning cool, like Scooby and the gang cruising around in the Mystery Machine.
Three Lead Guitarists
When Adrian Smith left the band in 1990, they welcomed Janick Gers into the fold as Dave Murray's counterpart. When Smith returned nine years later, Gers remained in the band, forming a three-headed heavy metal hydra. They weren't the first band to have a trio of six-stringers (Skynyrd!), but the sight and sound of three ace players made Maiden an even mightier presence.
No band makes it through four decades without delivering the real goods—tunes that get you pumping your fists in the air, singing along, playing air guitar, genuflecting and spitting superlatives in their honor. Iron Maiden's 16 studio albums aren't necessarily all gilded platters of excellence, but they all show a group of guys not content to be a simple rock band—or rely on a rote catalog. From the 1979 debut EP The Soundhouse Tapes (Hard Rock) through last year's The Book of Souls (Parlophone/Sanctuary/BMG), Iron Maiden has delivered heady, high-concept music and epic stage shows to their fans. You can recite a litany of reasons explaining the band's greatness, but some things really do look better when reduced to simplest terms. Iron Maiden? Excellent.