Interview: Steve Harris
The Iron Maiden founder isn’t sure anyone will turn up if he decides to tour his first-ever solo album. He takes nothing for granted and, as he tells The Stool Pigeon, it was no different when his band were starting out
Words John Doran
Illustration Shawn Correia
Finally, after 20 years of on/off preparation, Steve Harris’s side-project band, British Lion, are ready to tour… but only if the legendary metaller feels there is demand for it. When the founding member and de facto leader of Iron Maiden frets that maybe only 200 people per city would bother turning up to see him and his band, it’s clear that he’s not doing so out of false modesty. He says he would genuinely love to take his first ever solo album, also called British Lion, out on the road but is unsure whether he’d be playing to near-empty rooms or not. The idea that one of the most important and powerful people in the history of rock music has to think this way seems ridiculous until you consider what a bizarre, brilliant and maverick band Maiden actually are.
Harris formed the Irons on Christmas Day 1975, shortly after the demise of his previous group, Smiler, and he’s been at the helm ever since. By comparison, the most high-profile musician in the band, Bruce Dickinson, was actually their fourth vocalist, and took most of the nineties off to pursue a moderately successful solo career. Only guitarist Dave Murray — the Michael Collins of the group — has featured alongside Harris on all 15 studio albums (sales add up to approximately 90 million units) and he’s also been on every tour, comprised of 2,000 shows, taking in 65 countries. This massive number doesn’t even include one-off gigs, the biggest of which was 1985’s Rock In Rio, which saw them play in front of a live audience of 300,000 people. Iron Maiden have always come bristling with eye-boggling statistics. Their first — and best — live album, Live After Death, tells you everything you could ever want to know about the World Slavery Tour 84/85, in its calculator-melting liner notes. During the 100,000 miles travelled, 7,778 hotel rooms were stayed in, 6,392 guitar strings and 3,760 drum sticks were used, and 50,000 cans of beer, 6,000 pints of milk and 2,500 pints of orange juice were drunk.
But of course, in some respects, the most important member of the group doesn’t even exist as such. First drawn by Derek Riggs in the late-seventies (and originally called Electric Matthew), Eddie The Head (or ’Ed for short) is more than the band’s mascot — this desiccated zombie-like figure represents the band on stage, on artwork, on t-shirts, on posters, in videos and, most importantly, in the imaginations of their millions of fans. Between Eddie’s lumbering antics and Dicko’s exhortations for the stadia of the world to “scream for me!”, it feels like Harris, a former architectural draughtsman from Leytonstone, East London, has been almost left out of the spotlight to get on with making and maintaining the Irons as the world’s biggest operational metal band. Harris guides the Irons in the same way as Eddie pulls the strings on a puppet Satan on the cover of The Number Of The Beast. He is the chief songwriter, bassist, studio keyboard player, occasional producer and mixer, maker of music videos and editor/producer of live concert film for the group, as well as their ruling strategist. It’s hard to think of another high-profile band leader who happily cedes the lion’s share of attention to another member — let alone to another member and a puppet.
So perhaps it’s not that surprising that it’s taken him two decades to get round to putting his solo album out. The genesis of the LP occurred when an old work colleague gave him a cassette featuring Graham Leslie (guitar) and Richard Taylor (vocals). Harris enjoyed it so much he started mentoring — and also named — British Lion, who split before anything was released. Harris stayed in touch with Taylor, however, and the pair form the backbone of the new British Lion group, whose self-titled album of MOR/classic rock is out now on EMI.
Harris’s down-to-earthness is bizarre by today’s standards, but this probably has a lot to do with the Maiden’s longevity. Aged 56, he comes from a different era, when rock stars simply wished to achieve what their dads dreamed of — escape from the city to a nice satellite town, upmarket fishing, great seats at the football, a lot of travel and perhaps even one’s own pub inside the house for all their mates to drink in. During our chat, he compares himself to a cabbie and is very keen to find out what I think of the album. He speaks sadly of not being able to play that much football anymore, but how he now plays a lot of tennis instead, meaning hopefully the band can carry on touring for another five-to-ten years… not that he takes this, or anything else, for granted. Even when he tells me where he is calling from, he laughs gruffly like anyone born in Leyton would if asked the same question: “Where am I speaking from? The Bahamas… Yeah, terrible innit!”
The Stool Pigeon: I’ve enjoyed hearing the influence of bands like UFO and Blue Öyster Cult on British Lion…
Steve Harris: You’re the first person to mention them, but I’ve always loved Blue Öyster Cult. Before I was in Maiden, my band Smiler covered ‘The Red And The Black’.
SP: Why rock over metal?
SH: That’s the original stuff I was into. I suppose in Iron Maiden we evolved into being a metal group, if you like, but originally we always saw ourselves as being a heavy rock band with lots of melody. Over the years, as more and more hardcore and extreme bands have come along, they’ve made us sound more like The Moody Blues! But effectively, when we started, we were a heavy rock band and British Lion is not that far removed from it.
SP: Normally side projects seem to get cranked out in six months, but British Lion must have the longest gestation period of any side project album ever.
SH: Probably, yeah. [laughs] We’ve actually taken longer to get this album out than Guns N’ Roses took with Chinese Democracy. You say side projects are usually done in a six-month period, but I don’t get that amount of time available to me unfortunately. As most people realise, I’m probably the busiest one in Maiden and there’s always stuff going on. It would be a lie to say this album was done at a leisurely pace, even, but it was done at a snail’s pace — a little bit here and a little bit there. But that’s how it had to happen.
SP: Part of Iron Maiden’s success is that they appeal to the imagination, and even if the songs are set in a real-life situation like during World War One or Ancient Egypt, they are primarily about escapist fantasy and using your imagination. On British Lion, you seem to be dealing with the day-to-day struggles of life. Is Richard Taylor singing for himself or for the whole band?
SH: It’s both, really. We worked on the songs together. He wears his heart on his sleeve a little bit more than I do. I do write about some of these things sometimes, but I tend to disguise them in little stories. I think if you dive in a little deeper with Maiden, that stuff is there but maybe it’s more obvious to me. British Lion is more open in the lyrics, like The Who were. You’ll understand ‘Us Against The World’ if you support a sports team. It’s the vibe you get that makes you feel invincible. It’s a really strong and powerful feeling that can inspire you to fight and get through things, even when it feels like everything is against you.
SP: Are you going to play live?
SH: I’d love to play the album live, but I think we have to wait and see what the reaction is like first — I never take anything for granted. I’d love to start with some club shows in key cities in Europe and then see how we go. Obviously, it would be really weird because we haven’t played any clubs for years.
SP: You must be so used to big crowds now, would you actually find it more frightening to play in front of an intimate audience? Would the adrenaline be pumping more?
SH: I don’t know for sure, but yeah, I can imagine that once you step outside of the Maiden comfort zone, then you don’t know what to expect. I still do get a little bit nervous at the beginning of Maiden tours, but that’s mainly because of the new material. We will have rehearsed, but you can rehearse until the cows come home and the first few shows will always be a little bit rusty. Once you’re confident, it doesn’t matter so much. I used to get more worried years ago with Maiden about whether people were going to turn up or not. It’s different now. I may not expect every single show to sell out, but you still know you’re going to get a certain amount of people.
It would be a bit like that with British Lion. People say, ‘Ah, you’ll be alright.’ And I say, ‘Well it’s all very well saying that, but you can’t expect things to go your way and nor should you take anything for granted.’
SP: What’s the worst stage fright you’ve ever had?
SH: Again, this would be during the early times… The worst times I can remember would be going back to the pub gigs in East London. Some of our fans used to follow us about all over the place, but then once in a while we’d play somewhere off the beaten track and we’d be fretting: ‘God, I hope they turn up soon.’ You’d be more worried from that side of things than the actual physical side of playing. Those were the times that I remember being most physically afraid. You know, we did have gigs years ago where no one turned up. I’m thinking specifically of places like the Double Six in Basildon or Lafayette in Walthamstow. At that one, there were women punching each other out at the bar and we could see them clearly because there was hardly anyone else there. Just two women having a fight! I guess there’s an element of that fear with British Lion, but that’s also what’s exciting about it.
SP: I want to talk to you about East London. You must have watched with interest what was happening in your old manor in the run-up to the Olympics?
SH: To be honest, I moved out of East London to Essex 27 years ago. I remember thinking when I was 19 that I was there for good. I remember saying to someone, ‘I’ll never leave Leytonstone.’ Ha ha ha! It’s weird, but when I moved out of London — and I’ve got to be honest — I didn’t really miss it. I mean, I didn’t move that far away so I could always visit if I wanted. And I had a grandmother who lived there until she passed away and I would visit her, but other than that I didn’t really go back. I may pass through there now and it’s strange. I know the place like the back of my hand. Sometimes my kids phone me up if their sat nav isn’t working right, or something like that. I’m like a cabbie — I can tell them where to go.
SP: Was East London rough when you lived there?
SH: I didn’t think it was that bad. There were certain parts of London which were a little bit dodgy but, really, to me, it didn’t seem that bad at all. Maybe that’s just what it’s like when you live somewhere — you don’t notice the trouble.
SP: What was your first gig at the Cart & Horses in Stratford in 1976 like?
SH: Actually, it was really good. We just pulled in as many people as we could — family and friends and there were a few regulars in. I don’t like leaving things to chance, so I put a few posters up and it ended up being pretty rammed out. There was a bit of a comfort zone for us to operate in, with it being packed out — it always makes it a lot easier. If you’re playing to a near-empty place, that makes it next to impossible. I can’t understand the mentality of people who don’t promote their gigs. I always say to people, ‘Have you advertised, put it in the local paper, put posters up, handed out flyers? How do you expect people to come if you don’t?’ In those days, with there being no internet, you had to. It doesn’t take that much time and effort and it’s amazing the amount of people who don’t bother.
SP: You’ve always said that you had nothing to do with punk, but you did share that ‘do it yourself’ sensibility with them, didn’t you?
SH: I didn’t share it with them. I wouldn’t share anything with them because I hated them! They were taking gigs away from us. They came along — the upstarts that they were — and most of them couldn’t play their instruments, which was annoying. And most of them were getting gigs and publicity and not letting us get a look-in. So we were lucky that we had a few places where we could play like the Cart & Horses, The Ruskin Arms in Stratford and The Bridgehouse in Canning Town. It was really, really tough. So no, we hated them and we hated what they were about. We had nothing in common with them. Most of them seemed to be kids from good backgrounds who were just bullshitting about being young and hungry, anyway. They weren’t for real, most of them.
SP: Did you get A&Rs in the late-seventies trying to get you to cut your hair and put on bondage trousers?
SH: Oh yeah, definitely. There was a record company that invited us down to do a gig in Fulham. Afterwards they said, ‘You’ve got some good songs but what you really need to do is to cut your hair and wear different clothes.’ I just laughed at him. I told him that my dad didn’t have a say in how long my hair was, so there was no way he was going to: ‘We aren’t going to change for anyone. We are what we are. You got us down here because of who we are — if you don’t like it, tough because we’re not going to change.’ People make it sound like it was some kind of defiant thing but it was pretty easy to say no to that kind of thing. If something feels wrong, it is wrong.
SP: When did you notice that heavy metal was becoming popular again?
SH: When we were playing gigs in pubs like the Cart & Horses in about ’76, basically we were pulling crowds that were getting bigger. We were playing our own stuff and if we did a cover, we did something really obscure, so people probably thought those songs were our own anyway. You could go and see covers bands then anywhere and they’d all be playing the same songs. We wanted to do something really different. So right from the start we got a hardcore following going. Before we ever made up our own shirts, our fans were making their own with the names of our songs on them… It was pretty amazing what was happening. We’d go and play somewhere like The Harrow in Ripple Road, Barking — which is not the easiest place to get to or from — and there were fans that would follow us all the way over there. And these were people who didn’t really have much money — they couldn’t just jump in a cab. They’d have trouble getting home. In fact, sometimes we’d give them a lift home. We’d stick them in the back of the truck with the gear! Our fans were really hardcore from day one. I think it’s because we had strong original material and other people weren’t doing that.
SP: There’s a moment in the recent Flight 666 documentary when the camera focuses on one fan after you go off stage and he’s having what looks like a religious experience, with his eyes shut, clenching his hands in front of him. So you’ve always had that kind of hardcore fan from day one?
SH: It’s amazing. It’s a phenomenon. Maiden fans are renowned round the world as being the best fans, and rightly so. I can’t think of any other bunch of fans to touch them.
SP: How strong has the visual presence of the band been? I don’t mean the way you dress…
SH: Certainly not that! We’ve not been pathfinders in fashion terms, let’s be honest.
SP: I’d say you’ve certainly moved on positively from the days of Bruce Dickinson’s harlequin tights…
SH: [sounds unsure] Hmmmmmmm.
SP: What about the logo? You seem to have had that since day one.
SH: No, actually there was another one before that. When we were really just starting out in Stratford, we put up posters around and they had an earlier logo. It was boring, really. I drew it because I was a draughtsman. We had a phantom character at the time and the Iron Maiden logo was in an old English-style.
SP: Even before you had Eddie The Head, you had this genius idea of having a mascot that represents the band and, in a way, is more important than any one member. And I’ve seen footage of you on stage before you were even signed, with a weird face hanging from the pub wall with stuff pouring out of its mouth.
SH: That originated from a guy singing in the band at the time — Dennis Wilcock — who was heavily into KISS. He used to put a red heart over one of his eyes and he had blonde curly hair and he was into sword fighting, funnily enough, so he would have an épée on stage and he would put that through his mouth, bursting loads of blood capsules. He was only in the band for a short while and after he left we thought we’d love to carry on doing that sort of thing, so we came up with the idea of having this thing behind the drummer. We’d hang this face on the wall behind the drummer and it had the pump from a fish tank in it. During the song ‘Iron Maiden’ it would pump ‘blood’ out of its mouth. It would go all over [Doug Sampson] the drummer’s head. He used to love it! It was the highlight of his evening… We had a bubble machine, we had a dry ice machine made out of an old kettle — it was great. We were trying to put on something a bit different — not just to get attention, but to put on a show which was different to what you’d normally get. I used to go to pubs and watch bands all the time and I wanted our show to stand out from the crowd.
SP: You did your first-ever world tour after Maiden’s second album Killers came out in 1981. Did you feel ready for it?
SH: We’d been going for four-and-a-half years before we got signed, so we’d had a lot of time to get ready. By the time we got to the second album, we’d already toured Japan and done a couple of UK tours, plus we’d done a support tour with Judas Priest and another with KISS. We were ready for it. And that’s half the problem these days. You get a band with any kind of promise and they get shoved up to the front too quick — they don’t get chance to grow. They get things thrust upon them too early.
SP: Was there a gig or a tour where you thought, ‘We’ve made it, we’re now among the greats…’?
SH Well, that wasn’t after the Killers tour. Although it was great when we turned up at the Stadsgehoorzaal arena in Leiden, Netherlands and people had banners with our name on it, even though we’d never been there before. That’s when we thought, ‘There’s something going on here.’ When we released the third album [The Number Of The Beast, 1982] and it went in at number 1, I think that’s maybe when we thought, ‘We’re here to stay!’ [laughs] I think the success of that album helped us get over the worry of [vocalist] Paul [Di Anno] leaving. It was really worrying for us to think that all of that hard work over the previous seven years could just have gone to waste. We just couldn’t let that happen. I couldn’t let that happen — I just couldn’t. So when Bruce came in, it was worrying. We knew he was good and we knew he could handle it, but whether people would take to him was another thing altogether. But take to him they did — in a big way. And I think that was the big turning point for me. When people took to Bruce, I thought, ‘Well, we’re here to stay now.’ Because then I knew, longevity-wise, that he could cut the mustard.