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‘Powerslave’: The Story Behind Iron Maiden’s Epic Fifth Album
Warner Music
In Depth

‘Powerslave’: The Story Behind Iron Maiden’s Epic Fifth Album

They’d already brought metal to the mainstream, but the ‘Powerslave’ album showed that Iron Maiden still had ambition to burn in the mid-80s.

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By the mid-80s, only the sky could enforce any kind of limit on what Iron Maiden could achieve. With their landmark third album, The Number Of The Beast, having made them bona fide superstars, the band maintained their grip on the mainstream with 1983’s masterful Piece Of Mind, but then took it to another level altogether with their grandstanding fifth album, Powerslave.

Listen to ‘Powerslave’ here.

The backstory: “It will all sound totally fresh”

Fittingly, for a band now officially capable of filling the world’s biggest arenas, Powerslave contained some of the most dramatic, widescreen music of Iron Maiden’s career. However, when they first convened to write it, the iconic metal outfit had no idea how the album would sound, as they were literally starting from scratch.

“We have no clue what we’re gonna write for any album – there are no leftovers or parts of songs lying around,” bassist and band leader Steve Harris told Metal Hammer in 2022. “It’ll all be totally fresh and come out of that next designated writing period, because we never write on the road. We never come up with a direction for an album. We just write a bunch of stuff and see what comes out.”

At this point in the band’s history, the “designated writing period” began when Iron Maiden checked into the Le Chalet Hotel on Jersey, in the Channel Islands, at the dawn of 1984. Using the same methodology they’d employed while making Piece Of Mind, the band embarked on a six-week writing spree while in residence, which produced the eight songs that would make up Powerslave. And yet again, they collectively worked up material which still sits among the best Iron Maiden songs of all time.

The writing: “It was so dramatic, how could you not like it?”

For starters, Powerslave’s two signature hits emerged quickly. The marauding, Battle Of Britain-inspired Aces High came from the pen of Steve Harris, while the nuclear Armageddon scenario put forth in 2 Minutes To Midnight was co-written by guitarist Adrian Smith and vocalist Bruce Dickinson.

“That’s basically a hard-rock tune,” Smith said of 2 Minutes To Midnight in the Martin Popoff book 2 Minutes To Midnight: An Iron Maiden Day-By-Day. “I’m guitar-oriented. That’s where my writing goes.” While writing the song in his hotel room, Smith was interrupted by Maiden’s frontman, Bruce Dickinson, and the two began to collaborate. “I played him the music to it, and he had a bunch of lyrics,” the guitarist explained. “He started singing, and we had 2 Minutes To Midnight. We wrote it in about 20 minutes.”

At the other end of the spectrum, the writing sessions also produced lengthier epics such as Dickenson’s Ancient Egypt-themed Powerslave and Harris’ truly epic Rime Of The Ancient Mariner. Inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s lauded, 18th-century poem of the same name, the latter song clocked in at 14 minutes, and it remained the longest track in Iron Maiden’s repertoire until Empire Of The Clouds ran to over quarter of an hour on 2015’s The Book Of Souls album.

“When he put … Mariner forward I just knew we had to do it, because I’d never heard anyone do anything like it before,” Smith enthused. “I think when we recorded it in the Bahamas, he had to hang the lyrics from the top of the wall all the way to the floor, there were so many. And Steve was so fired up about it he convinced everyone else. It’s so dramatic, how can you not like it?”

“It’s OK to write simple pop songs… But if kids went out and checked into Coleridge just because we wrote a song about it, then that’s really something,” Steve Harris added in an interview with Kerrang! “The same sort of thing happened with To Tame A Land on the last album [Piece Of Mind]. The amount of people who went out and read Dune by Frank Herbert, which inspired it, was amazing.”

The recording: “Martin could get the best out of people”

Again following the plan that had brought out the best of the band for Piece Of Mind, Maiden left Jersey for the sunnier climes of Compass Point Studios, in the Bahamas, for the recording sessions proper. With significant input from master producer Martin Birch, they nailed the songs for Powerslave with a minimum of fuss.

“Martin was comfortable to work with,” Harris told Metal Hammer. “We knew each other very well by that point. But he never arranged anything; we’ve always done the writing and arrangements. Martin was there to capture it.”

“Martin understood where Maiden wanted to be,” Smith agreed. “He did get the best out of people and he was a lynchpin in bringing out all those ideas, enabling us to make records that sounded so strong.”

The tour: “If you’re going to put on a show, make it a bloody good one”

Though Powerslave was rich in lyrically gripping and vividly portrayed songs, it wasn’t a concept album per se. Indeed, while its centrepiece was the nautically inclined Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, the Valley Of The Kings-inspired imagery rife in the album’s title track influenced the way its remarkable, Derek Riggs-created sleeve – which still stands as one of the best Iron Maiden album covers in history – and its supporting world tour were both presented.

“Bruce came up with the Powerslave concept,” Adrian Smith recalled. “He’d done the Piece Of Mind tour with this horrible little Japanese four-track machine full of ideas, riffs, arrangements and whatever, and the Egyptian thing was on there. Everyone he spoke to about it was really taken by the theme, so that’s where we went.”

“When it comes to doing a Maiden tour… we always want to have a purpose or a theme to it, so that’s where album art comes out in order to make a show,” Steve Harris added. “I’ve never had a problem putting on a big show; I don’t understand it when bands don’t put an effort into the stagecraft or put on a show. Four blokes who look like they’ve changed in the khazi before they go out onstage don’t interest me. If you’re going to put on a show, make it a bloody good one, that’s my view, so that people will remember it!”

The release and legacy: “We released a high-quality record”

Iron Maiden certainly put on a remarkable stage show for the subsequent World Slavery Tour, with props including gigantic sarcophagi and the band’s legendary mascot, Eddie, swaddled as a 30-foot-long Egyptian mummy. The extensive, 11-month trek took in a massive 189 shows, including the band’s first tour in what was then the Eastern Bloc and their first-ever South American show, at Brazil’s enormous Rock In Rio Festival.

However, the ambitious, widescreen music contained within Powerslave more than merited this lavish production, and it all caught the imagination of the wider public. Indeed, at the time of the album’s release, on 3 September 1984, Maiden’s profile was arguably at its highest, allowing Powerslave to speed up to No.2 in the UK. It later went gold in the UK and platinum in the US, and it remains one of Maiden’s key album releases to this day.

“I think this album is superior to the previous one,” Bruce Dickinson reflected in an interview with Metal Attack magazine at the time of Powerslave’s release. “We took what was best in [Piece Of Mind], while stressing the aggressive style of Number Of The Beast and we released a high-quality record, artistically speaking, of course!”

Find out which ‘Powerslave’ tracks rank among the best Iron Maiden songs.

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