I’m open to arguments, but there is really only one possibility for the Greatest Heavy Metal Band of All Time: Iron Maiden.
The proof is in the galloping bass work of Steve Harris, the furious drumming of Nicko McBrain, the triple guitar assault from Dave Murray, Adrian Smith, and Janick Gers, and, finally, the soaring, operatic, tonsil-shredding vocals of Bruce Dickinson.
If the band were judged solely on musical quality, Maiden would still be a champion, but the group’s lyrics have always been steeped in fantasy, myth, science fiction, and a lore of their own creation. Indeed, Maiden’s mascot, Eddie — found in two video games, a series of comic books, and every one of their albums — is the alpha and omega of rock-related talismans. The Rolling Stones’ tongue is a cool logo and all, but can it do this?
Now, to promote the imminent release of Iron Maiden’s 17th album Senjutsu (its first since 2015) on Sept. 3, Eddie has been transformed into a post-apocalyptic magic-user laying waste to the one-percent in the animated music video for the new song “The Writing on the Wall.” The short is based on the Biblical story of Belshazzar’s Feast from the Old Testament’s Book of Daniel (where, in fact, the expression “writing on the wall” comes from) but is far more Ralph Bakshi, Genndy Tartakovsky, and Metal Hurlant than a typical Sunday school session. The story of avenging raiders liberating downtrodden masses from vampiric global tyrants is a graphic mix of 2D and 3D animation, with touchstones from Mad Max, The Lord of the Rings, and general sci-fi madness.
“The Writing on the Wall is all the brainchild of Dickinson, who is known for keeping busy outside of the studio. The licensed airline pilot (who flies the band when on tour), fencer, and brewmaster crafted the scenario himself, then collaborated with the animation studio BLINKINK and director Nicos Livesey. Pixar alum Mark Andrews (co-director of Brave) worked as creative director. The project took eight months to complete.
To celebrate this achievement, Polygon asked Dickinson to let it up on his sources of inspiration “The Writing on the Wall,” from the far-out to the all-too-close-to-home.
[Ed. note: This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.]
Polygon: You have made rock videos for decades, but “The Writing On The Wall” is cinema.
Bruce Dickinson: It’s my doing. Nobody else in the band had hands on this. I just plundered various Biblical stories in combination with binge-watching Sons of Anarchy in lockdown.
The video has 11 million YouTube views, and has sent fans going frame-by-frame looking for Easter eggs. It must be gratifying.
And it’s such a broad church of interpretations. You’ve got everyone from the “woke” left to the alt-right all claiming it. Maybe they should all get together and have a talk.
There’s lots of discussion. Biblical people claiming it’s all from the Bible, then there are apocalyptic people, New World Order guys, plus some saying “this video sucks — the American flag is upside-down!” There’s a lot in there. As a child of the moon landings — which, by the way, really did happen — as a kid who stayed up to watch Apollo 11 live and took notes, I love the one-legged Apollo astronaut as a symbol of our pointless technology as the world falls apart. But few people have picked up on that one for some reason.
For Maiden fans, there certainly are Easter eggs, including some that people are still “getting.”
There’s definitely a terrific blend of iconography and styles. The Four Horsemen, but on motorcycles, all the Mad Max influence. But what’s the deal with the multi-armed clown DJ?
I like real musicians with real instruments, who actually have talent. I despise DJ culture. It’s anti-human. People get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for plugging in a laptop. How did we get to this stupid state of affairs? So, vacuous DJ culture, yeah, let’s shove that in here, because that’s the type of shit these characters would like.
Every character in here looks like it has a story.
And the setting, too, which originally was going to be a broken down American arena, a little Planet of the Apes, with a Statue of Liberty buried up to its neck. But there was some discussion if people would interpret it as a massacre in an actual venue, and maybe disrespectful after what happened in Manchester [in 2017]. So we changed it to the “nasty elite” of the world in this sci-fi palace with H.R. Giger greens and pipes everywhere.
For the characters, Blinkink came with choices. We had a few DJs but clearly the clown was best; the multi-armed clown, whose head has to explode. Eventually we decided the evil denizens were best represented by silhouettes, like Gollum from Lord of the Rings. And eyeballs. You can’t make out the mass of people — it morphs into eyeballs all doing their shit.
Now, for the male and female in the tubes, who the Vampire King is feeding off of, we made them like a Mr. and Mrs. “Doctor Manhattan.” If we had a real cock and balls, and real tits, it would never get shown, so we had to do it the acceptable way. Doctor Manhattan is the acceptable face of Home erectus without the erectus, right?
So you are taking the Biblical story, and adapting the Four Horsemen into Nazgûl on motorcycles. When did you know you’d have Eddie in there?
Well, of course it’s Eddie. It’s Iron Maiden! But when he finally appears, in transformation, it’s a straight rip from Iron Man. All the scrap metal flying to him, right? So we made Eddie as a skeletal version of Daniel from the Bible, or Obi-Wan, or Gandalf — like Gandalf in the Mines of Moria, when he sacrifices into the abyss, and returns as Gandalf the White. He’s like “dudes, I’ve got superpowers now,” right?
So this is what happens with our figure. In the Biblical stories the Christians are thrown into the fire pit where, inconveniently, they do not burn. They come back out and say “I told you that you weren’t shit!”
So our version — also similar to Ripley in Alien 3 when she makes the Christ pose — our version transforms into the Avenging Eddie, with Four Apocalyptic Bikers who crash in with perfect timing to the guitar solo. Right at the first notes … I get goosebumps every time.
Then we had the idea that these bikers would all be Eddies. But we can only have one Eddie, so we decided they would have masks.
I was nervous about bringing this up, because obviously I respect you and humble myself before Eddie, but when I saw this, I was like, Wait? Are there plural Eddies?! Over the years, his look has changed on each album cover, but I interpreted this as an evolution, like the new Samurai Eddie for Senjutsu. But is there an Eddie multiverse?
No, but that’s not a bad idea! If you look, you’ll see there are steel masks representing four previous identities from the albums. And how they kill people is in line with that identity.
The Somewhere In Time mask kills with a ray gun blaster [representing Death]. The biker representing War [with the mask from Dance of Death] has a scythe. Pestilence [holding the hatchet from Killers, and a mask from Book of Souls] has the cloud of gas that kills the Chinese emperor. Or is that Famine? I forget if it’s Famine or Pestilence, they are kind of interchangeable. No, Famine [the Pharaoh Eddie From Powerslave] has the poisonous Eddie locusts.
It attacks the British tea drinkers and makes their heads turn into goo.
The faceless civil servants who screw up everybody’s lives, and who think there is still an Empire; but they’ve got the arses of their trousers out. Who’s gonna’ tell them about the Emperor’s New Clothes?
That’s the whole idea, really. Get over your Empires, and start living in the real world. The real world is all we’ve got.
The Chinese Emperor is holding, like, a kangaroo robot? I didn’t quite know what to make of that.
Well … OK, I’m gonna’ give it away now, because nobody got it. Here goes: it’s supposed to be Winnie the Pooh. A robotic Winnie the Pooh, because someone made fun of Xi Jinping, saying he looked like Winnie the Pooh, so he banned Winnie the Pooh.
I did not see that answer coming.
There’s more in there that people haven’t found, but I’m not telling you.
Listen, there are a lot of us who learned a lot of their history from Iron Maiden songs like “Alexander the Great” and the like.
This isn’t history, though, it’s our modern day nightmare. You have these poor Asian-looking slaves towing a nuclear missile from the mouth of a traditional Chinese dragon. It’s an allegory for games nations play.
Iron Maiden has always had this extra element, this lore, with Eddie, who made his way into video games, comic books, and now this short film. Do you think there is something inherent in the music that lends itself to this additional text?
Yes, absolutely, if you have the budget and willingness to do it. Not everyone in the band gets it —and this specifically is very much my project.
I’ve always been interested in film. I’ve been in the shadows with script writers and have had projects produced. I’ve developed a screenplay about Sarajevo and the war there with Sacha Gervasi, who made the film Anvil! The Story of Anvil and wrote The Terminal for Steven Spielberg. And he introduced me to Kurt Sutter from Sons of Anarchy, and we’ve been outlining the structure for a graphic novel.
Another one of the tracks on the new album you co-wrote is called “Days of Future Past,” of course very similar to the legendary Moody Blues album.
Yeah, but it’s got nothing to do with that. Adrian Smith just loved the title.
It’s also the name of a clutch X-Men comics run, with Wolverine and Kitty Pryde.
Oh, that’s bizarre! Because I based it on a comic, but not that one. It’s based on, well, see, it went like this [hums]. “And then Days of Future Past/[hums more]/wander on the shore/[hums more]/wasteland/wandering [hums].”
So, it’s a wasteland. Who is wandering? And he’s gotta be pissed off? Maybe he’s gonna live forever? Who’s that gonna be? Oh, shit! It’s Keanu Reeves’ Constantine.
It’s a great story, Constantine. I even thought it existed in the Bible, but it doesn’t. It should, though. Someone should write The Book of Constantine and put it in the Bible.
So many great Iron Maiden songs are based on classic films, or epic poems or science fiction books like Childhood’s End or Stranger in a Strange Land. If it’s one written by one of your colleagues, and you don’t know the work, do you think, “oh, Christ, now I have homework”?
No, not at all. If I don’t know the book, I just take the lyric, I close my eyes, I paint a picture, and I sing.
Plus, you can’t do like every other rock star and read books while you are touring, because you’re the one flying the plane!
Ha! That’s right. Well, not anymore, we’re not touring. But fingers crossed, fingers crossed, we’re back soon.
Another Iron Maiden tune with sci-fi connection, written by Steve Harris, is “To Tame A Land,” based on Dune. This is very topical now, with the film about to come out. Any wishes for the new movie version?
Listen, if they can get in “He is the Kwizatz Haderach/He is born of Caladan/And will take the Gom Jabbar” and say it with a straight face, that’s fantastic! I, frankly, have lost pieces of my tongue singing that song.
Listen, there’s a whole world out there that goes “Oh, God, are you ever gonna’ do ‘To Tame A Land’ again?!? What about ‘Alexander the Great’?!?’” Oof, that’s another one. “His name struck fear into hearts of men/He died of fever in Babylon.”
We recently went back and listened to it and you know what we said? We said, “what the fuck is this bit? I don’t remember it!” This jazz-rock bit in the middle with guitars! I remember looking over at Adrian, and he’s looking at me going “shit, do I have to remember how to do that?!”
Hey, man, you guys are complex musicians, that’s why we love you. Not because these songs are easy, but because they are hard!
Yeah, you are right. And there’s a lot of that on this new album.