Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Iron Maiden, Professor of Literature

You may know that Iron Maiden is one of the most successful heavy metal acts of all time.  They've been around for 35 years and have sold upwards of 100 million records.  But did you know that they are book lovers and often write bone-crunching metal songs about their favorite works of literature?  Neither did I!  Behold, five great Maiden songs that are based on literary works!

(Psst!  It's not all about Iron Maiden.  I snuck some Belle and Sebastian in there at the very end.)
1. "Flight of Icarus"

Now the crowd breaks and a young boy appears,
Looks the old man in the eye
As he spreads his wings and shouts at the crowd,
"In the name of God my father I'll fly!"

"Flight of Icarus" is an astounding song.  If you are unfamiliar with the Iron Maiden oevure (as I was, just a few hours ago), I highly recommend that you watch this video in its entirety.  This is a perfect introduction to what Maiden does best.  You've got operatic vocals, soaring dual guitar solos, and the most earnest presentation of a heavy-metal song based on an ancient Greek myth that you could possibly hope for.  I only wish I still taught mythology, so I could show my students "Flight of Icarus" and demonstrate for them the pervasiveness of the collective unconscious.

2. "Lord of the Flies"

I don't want existence to end
We must prepare ourselves for the elements.
I just want to feel like we're strong,
We don't need a code of morality.

Say what you like about the lads in Iron Maiden--at least they were paying attention in school.  Here they take on the post-war school-boy staple, Lord of the Flies, and they do a pretty good job hitting the themes of the novel.  There's disillusionment with modern life, the struggle to impose morality on mankind, and the notion that we are all animals and sinners beneath the shallow facade of civility.  And, if my memory serves, Simon played a kick-ass double bass drum in the novel. 

Well done, boys.

3. "Murders in the Rue Morgue"

I remember it was plain as day
although it happened in the dark of the night...
And then I heard a piercing scream
and I rushed to the scene of the crime
what I found were the butchered remains
of two girls layin' side by side.

If I had to write a song based on one of Edgar A. Poe's stories, I believe that "Murders in the Rue Morgue" would be pretty low on that list, just above "The Angel of the Odd."  But the Maidens took on this one with gusto, as this clip from them playing the song live in the early 1980s will attest. 

The lyrics branch off a bit from the story as I recall, having something to do with a man on the run from the law who travels south to Italy.  Still, you have to be proud of the lads for writing a song about the first bona fide detective story and not giving away the identity of the murderer.  

4. "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

The albatross begins with its vengeance 
A terrible curse a thirst has begun.
His shipmates blame bad luck on the mariner.
About his neck, the dead bird is hung.

I first read "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" in my gifted class in fifth grade.  My teacher read the entire thing to us, pausing at the end of every stanza to help us out with the events in the plot, and by the time we were done I swore I would never reread such a tedious, plodding, and frustrating work.

And at press time I still have not.

So, do I really want to sit through ten minutes of Iron Maiden basically doing the same thing that my gifted teacher did to me back in 1987, only with a mind-splitting double-bass drum throbbing in the background?  No.  No, I do not.  But if you would like to, here it is, in its entirety.

5. "The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner"

Keep the pace, hold the race
Your mind is getting clearer
You're over halfway there
But the miles, they never seem to end.

"The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner" is based on a story of the same name by Alan Sillitoe, about a misunderstood youth who chooses to lose an all-important track event in a misguided attempt to keep his integrity.  It was later adapted into a film starring Tom Courtenay (who has a song named after him, too) in 1962.

Iron Maiden released this song on their album "Somewhere in Time."  (A sample comment from youtube asks the question. "is it just me or is this the best metal album from start to finish!!!!!").  But what's most remarkable about this fact is that another British band was similarly inspired by this story and recorded its own song.  That band, of course, was Belle and Sebastian.

So, if you've followed along with this blog this far, and endured the righteous rocking of Iron Maiden, you deserve to kick back and mellow out for a moment as Belle and Sebastian performs "The Loneliness of the Middle Distance Drummer" on British television circa 2001.



  1. This is so cool. I'll be doing something similar with "The Fall of the House of Usher" soon. I love musical literature!

  2. I brought my high school english teacher a cassette of Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I, like you, thought it was funny. She remained humorless and unimpressed.

  3. Where does the name "Iron Maiden" come from anyway?

  4. It was a medieval torture device