There you are, a sophomore in college, staring dully at another of those holier than thou liberal arts teachers trying to convince you that the eating habits of the indigenous peoples of Micronesia actually have a relevant role in your education when a thought crosses your mind. “I just want to be a freakin modern history major. Is this really the best way to go about doing it?”
In a word, no. It’s a pretty shitty way of going about getting an education. It’s time consuming and mostly useless. Fortunately, I’ve got the perfect solution for your predicament. Without any further ado, I introduce to you History 1101: The Iron Maiden Way!
Iron Maiden is not your run-of-the-mill metal band. They’re actually pretty intelligent. Bruce Dickinson, their lead singer, is an airline pilot and he flies their chartered jet whenever they go on tour. That’s hardcore legit. The majority of their popular songs are either about a work of literature or some event in history. Basically, you listen to one of their songs and then read the corresponding Wikipedia article, and instantly you have a working knowledge of some event in history. You can’t buy a better mnemonic. Let’s look at some examples…
Murders in the Rue Morgue – From the Killers album (1981)
This is an early song by the band and is based on the short story of the same name by Edgar Allen Poe. It features the original lead singer of the band, Paul Di’Anno, rather than Bruce Dickinson. It’s not the most literal of translations from the story, but you get the gist. There’s a reason Dickinson joined the band and remained for 20 years; he’s a far better lyricist and singer.
The Number of the Beast – From The Number of the Beast album (1982)
Like several other early Maiden songs, this one was misinterpreted and thusly, some labeled the band as “Satanic.” (Much like everything else in the early 80’s.) I assure you, they’re not satanic. The song was written after the bass player, Steve Harris, had a nightmare after watching Damien: Omen II late one night. The storyline follows that of the classic poem Tam o’ Shanter by Robert Burns. A comparison of the lyrics and the poem show striking similarities. This is one kick ass song.
Run to the Hills – From The Number of the Beast album (1982)
Twice in my life I’ve heard this described as the “most offensive song ever” usually because of these lines:
White man came across the sea,
He brought us pain and misery.
He killed our tribes, he killed our creed,
He took our game for his own means.
Soldier Blue in the barren wastes,
Hunting and killing’s a game.
Raping the women and wasting the men,
“The only good ‘Injuns’ are tame.”
The song follows the battle between the Native Americans and the Cavalry during the Sioux Wars. It’s written from the points of view of both sides, but essentially the message is that the Cavalry slaughtered the Native Americans needlessly. It’s easy to misconstrue this with a cursory listen to the lyrics, but a more thorough review reveals that the song is not nearly as politically incorrect as at first glance.
Quick aside: I almost got beat up for singing this song one time at a karaoke bar by two guys who earlier in the evening were rapping to a Juvenile song. Tell me, which is more offensive?
Where Eagles Dare from the Piece of Mind album (1983)
This song is based on the 1968 film of the same name. It’s a WWII action-adventure spy film starring Clint Eastwood. I’ve actually seen it, it’s pretty good. Check it out on Netflix or something.
The Trooper from the Piece of Mind album (1983)
The Trooper is based on the Lord Tennyson poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade. It’s about the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War and written from the viewpoint of the slain soldiers. This is really the only song of theirs to ever get a lot of airplay, and it’s one of my favorites.
Aces High from the Powerslave album (1984)
Yet another song written by Steve Harris, Aces High tells the story of a dogfight between the British RAF and the German Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain in 1940. Also, here’s a bit of trivia: The chorus contains an antimetabole. See if you can figure out what it is.
Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Part 1 Part 2)from the Powerslave album (1984)
Finally, we’ve reached my favorite song. In case you can’t tell from the name, Rime of the Ancient Mariner is based upon Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem of the same name. It very closely follows the text of the poem and contains two direct passages from it:
Day after day, day after day,
we stuck nor breath nor motion,
as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.
Water, water everywhere and,
all the boards did shrink.
Water, water everywhere nor any drop to drink.
One after one by the star dogged moon,
too quick for groan or sigh.
Each turned his face with a ghastly pang,
and cursed me with his eye.
Four times fifty living men,
(and I heard nor sigh nor groan)
with heavy thump, a lifeless lump,
they dropped down one by one.
This song is epic. I will not count your life as a success until you know verily, the dread of the Albatross…
Montsegur from the Dance of Death album (2003)
After a few years with a different lead singer and some mostly pointless experimentation albums, Iron Maiden returned to form with 2000’s A Brave New World. In 2003, however, they got back to their historical songwriting roots with the Dance of Death album.
Montsegur was written after Bruce Dickinson visited Montsegur, sight of the Cathars last stronghold during the Albigensian Crusade in 1244. Rather than being a direct tale of the event, the song is written as a modern day tale with flashbacks to the history of the fort. The song also makes mention of the Knights Templar, based on a supposed connection with the Cathars.
The Longest Day from the A Matter of Life and Death album (2006)
This song is often considered a sequel to Paschendale. It’s about being a soldier during Operation Overlord on D-Day during the Battle of Normandy in WWII. the song received a lot of critical acclaim and was described by one critic as “brutal.” Not bad for a bunch of 50 year olds.
There are a lot more songs I could have written about, but I tried to hit the high points of their most popular songs. You could literally write a book on the subject matter of Iron Maiden songs, and perhaps one day I will. The fact remains that I wish my History or Classic Lit professors had just handed me a couple of Maiden albums and told me to go drink beer and listen, then return with a paper in a month, because that’s essentially what I do now. Up the Irons!