You've never experienced "The Trooper" or "Run to the Hills" until you've heard Iron Maiden perform them in front of 15,000 screaming Muslim metalheads in Dubai. Or so I thought as I stood in the middle of an ecstatic crowd in the sands of the Dubai Desert Rock Festival a few miles outside of the city center in the middle of a crowd of fans who knew every word to every song the band played. So powerful was the sense of community and shared identity the band's music brought to the audience on a hot March evening in 2007 that many audience members were crying.
Standing only a few hundred miles from Iraq, in a region that has experienced more than its share of colonialism, oppression, and meaningless violence, it seemed natural that the complex and ambivalent visions of war, death and imperialism that characterizes some of Maiden's most famous songs would be more resonant in the Middle East than almost any other place on earth.
Or so I thought.
Last Thursday night I learned how myopic my vision of Iron Maiden's impact has been. I was lucky enough to be invited to attend a screening of the soon-to-be released documentary, Flight 666, produced by the team of Scott McFayden and Sam Dunn, who've seemingly singlehandedly brought the power of metal to the world's attention with their films Metal: A Headbanger's Journey and Global Metal.
Flight 666 is not merely a concert film, although there is more than enough music to keep even the most ardent Maiden fan head banging throughout its two hours. In fact, the timing of the film's release couldn't be more perfect, as only days before the screening the band surprised the music world by winning a prestigious Brit award for best live band -- Not U2, not Coldplay, Radiohead, or the other relatively anemic performers at last month's Grammy's or the equally milquetoast new generation of British and American bands, from Green Day to Kings of Leon -- Iron Maiden.
Beyond the music, the film is about the global community that is the Iron Maiden family, half a million of whose members Maiden was determined to visit in an unprecedented 45 day world tour that encompassed 23 sold out stadium and arena shows in 13 countries, covering over 40,000 miles as the crow--or in this case, 757--flies.
It turns out that what I thought was unique to the Middle East is equally or even more strongly felt in such diverse locales as Mexico, Colombia, India, and Australia. Especially Latin America, which, we might remember, was colonized centuries before the Middle East (as the lyrics to "Run to the Hills" should have reminded me), and India, not too long ago the Jewel in Crown of the British empire. While most of the mainstream music media have ignored the band, Maiden has worked relentlessly, year after year, to build a global fan base whose powerful identification with each other and the band should qualify them as their own ethnographic category. A global musical tribe, whose members can truly feel happy and at home whenever they gather together, regardless of how difficult or (for the obviously wealthier fans in places like Australia, North America or Europe) mundane the rest of their life might be. It's not surprising that it would take an anthropologist-turned-filmmaker like Sam Dunn to capture the essence of Maiden phenomenon.
But the music is the motor of the movie. Parts of most of the songs from the tour are featured during the film. The concert scenes veer from the spectacular to the intimate and back again, often in the space of a few seconds. This could have given the audience a sense of vertigo, especially during the nearly two-hour running time. But filmmakers McFayden and Dunn, who have now worked with Maiden on three films, clearly have an eye for portraying the band. It was striking how well they captured the full range of experiences of the typical Maiden show, which hardly anyone can get to see from one vantage point.
Shot with what at times seems like a dozen cameras, the concert scenes give a good sense of how complicated Iron Maiden's music can be, and how hard it must be to pull off one of their high energy shows night after night, continent after continent.
Bruce Dickinson's voice is one of the best known in rock. But few fans, even from the front rows, have ever gotten a close up of the movement of his adam's apple as he adds an extra bit of vibrato to one of his classic vocal sweeps. Equally powerful are the many angles from which we get to see drummer Nicko McBrain, who most fans never get to see during the songs, because he's hidden behind his monstrous drum set. It's hard to imagine heavy metal, and especially its more extreme forms, having developed the forceful, bass-heavy sound without his drumming style. What I never realized until seeing McBrain play from above, behind, and somehow below during the film's many close-ups is that he achieves the same speed and rhythmic complexity with a single bass pedal that most of his acolytes. Lars Ulrich of Metallica (who heaps praise upon him in a backstage interview) requires a double bass pedal to reach this.
That and other musical discoveries are worth the price of admission alone. But even non-musicians will appreciate the precision of the music, the interplay of the musicians--whether its McBrain and bassist Steve Harris, or the trio of guitarists, Dave Murray, Adrian Smith and Janick Gers--who give the band its rich harmonic sound, and the behind the scenes glimpses of how the band's production crew keeps the complicated stage show running largely disaster free.
The sound of Flight 666 is equally important to its overall feel. Rather than trying to balance and otherwise mix the audio from the concerts to achieve the polish of a live album, the filmmakers, working with long-time Iron Maiden producer Kevin Shirley and the band, wisely decided to keep it a bit raw around the edges. What you hear during the movie is very close to the sound and feel of a live show. In fact, as different camera angles from different parts of the arenas are shown, the sound seems to change accordingly so that you are hearing what someone standing where the footage was being shot would hear.
The same care went into the visual narrative of the film. In recent years super-groups like U2 and the Rolling Stones have put out concert films using the latest 3D technology or hiring Martin Scorsese to direct an intimate concert (the Stones at the Beacon Theater in the film Shine a Light).
As good as these movies are, they don't bring you close to the bands. U2 remains larger than life, impossible to connect to personally--the band's sense of its own grandeur make it even more impermeable in 3D. And even as they show themselves to be the ultimate blues bar band, the Stones don't form an intimate, visceral connection with the audience. They are consummate entertainers and showmen, but they don't make you cry.
In one of Flight 666's most intense moments, the filmmakers catch sight of a fan in Colombia who caught one of Nicko's drum sticks at the end of the show. The camera freezes on his reaction as he breaks into tears, literally sobbing, for what feels like several minutes. Several of the people around him are also crying.
These are not preteen girls squealing at the site of the Beatles or the Jonas Brothers. These are adults who have experienced something quite profound, something beyond music. It's not surprising that "religion" and "gods" are heard from fans around the world with reference to their devotion to the group, and too each other.
But music is only the starting point of Flight 666--or perhaps runway is the more appropriate word. You know you're in for a unique adventure when the lead singer of a renown rock band is not only the pilot of the group's custom 757, but the plane's call letters, as used by air traffic control when radioing the pilot, are 666.
Indeed, the majority of Flight 666 is about what happens between gigs. The filmmakers clearly understood that it's been the band's off-stage camaraderie, at least since the present line-up reunited in 1999, that has grounded its success and longevity. Much of the film is taken up with interviews featuring members of the group, their manager Rod Smallwood, and production crew, in which they describe what it is that makes the other members crucial to the overall chemistry of the group.
Such self-congratulations could easily have come off as contrived or even trite, but there is little doubt that the words and sentiments are genuine. When you put them together you realize why it is so rare for any band to stay together and continue to write and perform relevant, high-quality music for three decades. Ultimately each member has to have a unique function -- psychologically as well as musically -- within the larger make-up of the band for their to be enough space for everyone to operate freely yet harmoniously.
"Edforce 1," as the plane is called in honor of the band's mascot-demon Eddie, is not Led Zeppelin's Starship or the private jet where naked groupies coupled with members of the Rolling Stones and their entourage during the infamous documentary Cocksucker Blues. It's a passenger jet with half the fuselage converted to a cargo hold so that the band and crew can travel with its equipment over long distances in the shortest possible time. Instead of groupies on the plane, these days the band brings their kids, who pass the time on board feeding them thousands of pictures, to sign one after the other for fans. (What the scene on the plane would have been like in 1985 is an open question).
In fact, it was the creation of Edforce 1 that made the unprecedented world tour possible, as it could have never happened if the crew and equipment had to move overland across Asia or Latin and South America between shows. But increasing efficiency did not equal improving comfort. There were few if any champagne filled limos to whisk the band from concerts to the nearest trendy club. Instead, there was a steady fare of 8-passenger tourist vans and take-out pizza of varying quality being scarfed down after shows on the way back to the hotel, interspersed with bouts of food poisoning that required buckets on the side of the stage after the band played across India, and oxygen tanks to help them through the high altitudes in Colombia.
No matter how much money there is still to be made, there is no way these guys would be putting themselves and their families through what the film reveals to be a pretty grueling schedule (albeit one that occasionally has time for visiting local ruins or playing tennis or golf with the likes of Aussie Wimbledon champions) if the music still didn't matter as much to the band as it does to the fans. While Maiden's music has always had a larger-than-life quality to it, the band is decidedly working class in its work ethic and attitude towards its fans. And this is no doubt what engenders such loyalty to them in return.
When U2 3D was released Bono explained to an interviewer, "When people are screaming and roaring and shouting, the humbling thing is to realize it's not really for the band or artist on the stage. It's for their connection with the songs. A song just can own you ... . I think that's why concerts are so powerful. If that song is such a part of your life, and you hear it, it's too much almost."
When you see, no feel, the fans' experiences across the world tour covered by Flight 666, you realize that, with nary any publicity, and even less hype (or regular radio play), Iron Maiden have achieved a similar impact within the rock 'n roll world, if not the broader public consciousness, as have U2. Well into their 4th decade, with 70 million albums sold, its fan base is not just growing each year, it's growing younger, as fans from the early years increasingly bring their often quite young children to concerts today.
Actually, the first question that popped into my head as the credits started to roll at the end of the film was: Why is Iron Maiden not in the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame? It's been over twenty-five years since the release of their first album, and it is undeniable that the band has achieved a "demonstrable influence and significance within the history of rock and roll," as the Hall defines the primary criterion for election.
Maybe the industry heavyweights who control the nominations don't pay much attention to the band because, as Flight 666 shows, Maiden refuses to play the corporate media, radio and publicity game, and at least to some degree probably don't really care what the industry heavy weights who decide such things think of their place in rock history.
Their concern, as the film clearly shows, is their fans and the music. As a clearly exhausted Bruce Dickinson says to the camera at the film's close, "If we can give people hope, something to believe in, something to hang onto, then we might look back at our career one day and say 'Perhaps we actually achieved something' - Wow!"
Flight 666 provides a powerful glimpse of the scale of Iron Maiden's achievement.