“Our legacy is up to you to decipher really,” Iron Maiden bassist Steve Harris says nonchalantly. This week, his band is embarking on a U.S. leg of its Legacy of the Beast tour, which shares its name with the band’s new mobile game. They’re focusing on fan favorites from throughout their nearly 45-year history, like “Run to the Hills” and “The Trooper,” along with what they’ve billed as one of their biggest-ever productions, complete with a plane that dangles over the stage for “Aces High.” But when Harris speaks with Rolling Stone on a call from Florida ahead of the tour’s kickoff, he isn’t keen on parsing what it all means.
To fans, Iron Maiden’s place in the metal pantheon is self-evident. The band emerged from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal with a much more upbeat sound than forefathers like Black Sabbath and Judas Priest. Their dual-guitar harmonies and galloping rhythms inspired Metallica and Slayer, and their progressive song structures have helped to launch a generation of adventurous bands like Dream Theater and Opeth. They’ve earned seven gold and platinum plaques in the U.S., and their two most recent albums both made it to Number Four on the albums chart. They won a Grammy in 2011 for “El Dorado” off their Final Frontier album. And through it all, their backbone has been Harris, who cofounded the group in 1975 and has been the band’s primary songwriter ever since.
But despite this, Harris remains humble, especially when it comes to discussing his band’s history and the stories behind some of their biggest hits. “If anyone was to say to me, ‘What would you want to be remembered for?’ I’d say just that we were a bloody good live band,” Harris says. “That’s mainly what I’m interested in.”
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Iron Maiden’s debut release, The Soundhouse Tapes EP. What do you remember about that time?
I remember it was snowing. We did it over New Year’s, because it was the only time I could afford to get in the studio. I just wanted us to have some kind of demo, ’cause it was really difficult getting gigs in pubs in those days.
The first song on it was “Iron Maiden,” which you still play live regularly. What do you remember about writing that one?
Everybody knows the title came from the name of a torture instrument in [Alexandre Dumas’] The Man in the Iron Mask.
Yes, but the lyrics aren’t about the torture device. They’re about how the band is going to “get you.”
Yeah, it was kind of the attitude we had at the time. We were just going to go out there and go for it and basically take no prisoners. We obviously were young and hungry and we had the adrenaline. We were just trying to get out there and play fast, heavy music with lots of melody. There wasn’t really anybody playing the stuff we were playing; we were heavily influenced by people like Wishbone Ash with the very melodic guitars. But we had a fire in it.
Were you influenced at all by punk?
No, some people mistook us for playing punky stuff, but we actually didn’t like punks at all. The punks back then couldn’t really play their instruments like the later ones.
Why did you want to play fast?
I think we were just naturally fast artists because of that adrenaline. It’s not like we sat down and said, “Oh, we’re going to play fast.” You start with the adrenaline and get onstage and it was even faster than it was when you recorded it. Sometimes it can get a bit out of hand, but the energy at a gig can be really quite amazing at times. It was never premeditated.
Within a few years of The Soundhouse Tapes, you penned the band’s breakthrough single, “Run to the Hills.” Did you feel a special connection to the American West?
We’ve always been fascinated with Western movies and books. I was interested in a lot of things but I had never been to America at that point. I just used to read a lot of books by an author [of Western novels] called Louis L’Amour and I got inspired. The first few lines of the song were definitely inspired by reading those types of books. Back then, you’d get what you could from movies, and I ended up realizing later what I thought was America was really just Arizona: people with cacti and dry areas and stuff like that [laughs].
That song has the sort of galloping rhythms Iron Maiden is known for. Were those inspired by Western imagery like horses?
Yeah, I think so, even if it’s just subconscious. When you’re trying to create imagery, you’re trying to create a feeling or a mood. It’s the same thing with “The Trooper,” where they’re galloping into the jaws of death. I think people like it when you take them on a journey into some sort of imaginary scenario.
What inspired “The Trooper”?
The Charge of the Light Brigade [during the Crimean War in 1854]. It’s the idea of someone being ordered to go and fight. In those days, you didn’t question it. They weren’t allowed to question it. You got on the horse and went straight into battle no matter how ridiculous it was, charging cannons firing at you. There have been a lot of crazy things people have been ordered to do in wars, and quite a few of our songs are about that.
Why do you think you’ve been so fascinated by war over the years and written so many songs about it?
I grew up loving history. It was one of my favorite subjects at school, so a lot of it stems from that. And it’s just a fascination with the awful things people are capable of doing to each other and the positions normal everyday people get put in that they wouldn’t normally have to deal with. I have respect for anybody that has to go and do whatever they have to do to protect their country.
You’re also still doing “The Number of the Beast,” which got you in hot water with the far right in America in the Eighties for its satanic imagery. How did that one come together?
It was things like watching The Omen but it was more inspired by a poem [by Robert Burns] called “Tam o’ Shanter.” I’ve just always liked reading books and watching horror films.
Another darker song in the set list that you wrote is “Fear of the Dark.” Is that something you’ve experienced?
No. I wrote it because I’ve lived for many years in an ultra-old Medieval house in the U.K. It isn’t a Medieval-style house; it actually dates back to the 1400s. My kids always used to say to me that the house could be a bit scary. I said, “Look, the scariest thing in this house is me.” We used to joke about it.
But it’s a wood house and there were lots of creaks. If it were hot or cold, the wood would move and all the different nooks and crannies in the house would creak. People used to be a bit weird about it. It didn’t bother me because I was living there, but people’s imaginations run away from them. People like scaring the wits out of each other. So there’s an element of that in there, but it’s also about the house, since some people seemed to think there were ghosts there. Maybe there was.
You have a lot of songs about religion and Christianity, including “For the Greater Good of God,” which you’re playing on this tour. How do you feel about religion these days?
I respect religion and all people’s ideas of it. I think everyone should be able to do whatever they want to do with their own life. I just don’t particularly like it when people try and force their ideas on others. With “For the Greater Good of God,” all I meant was that there are a lot of people who do things that are not for the greater good of God.
That song is off your 2006 album A Matter of Life and Death, which you played in full when it came out. What did you learn from that experience?
I think that our audience is capable of listening to the whole thing and that they didn’t get bored of it. Well, maybe one or two people might have, but I think it was quite a bold thing to do. We believed in that album at the time. When we were going through the set, we were thinking, “What are we going to leave out? Let’s not leave anything out. Let’s just do the whole thing and shake things up a bit.” It’s a bit of a challenge for the listener, yes, but it went fantastically well. I enjoyed it. I like a challenge.
When you’re writing, does the music or the words come first?
Nine times out of 10, it’s the music. The hardest part is trying to fit the words to the actual melody, because the melodies I have are quite regimented. They can’t meander in a jazzy sort of way, so sometimes you have to change words to the syllable to fit the melody. My argument has always been that a lot of people who listen to Maiden in the first place, English is not even their first language. But even if it was, you listen to the melody and that’s what catches your ear before you learn a lyric. You just always try to make sure the lyrics are good and mean something rather than just rubbish.
One song I was surprised to see you were playing is “Flight of Icarus,” which singer Bruce Dickinson wrote with guitarist Adrian Smith. In his book, Dickinson wrote about an argument you two had over the tempo of the song in the studio and he guessed that that was why you hadn’t played it live in 30 years. Is that the case?
Well, there are a lot of songs that have been retired for long periods and then you bring them back. As for “Flight of Icarus,” I did think that the tempo was a little slow. The way we do it live now is way better, to me. I think it’s how it should have been done in the first place. I’m enjoying playing it now. It’s a different type of song, and I think it’s good to do different stuff.
It was the same thing with “Wasted Years,” in the sense that it was a different song for us. Adrian wasn’t even going to show it to me. He buried it at the end of the tape. He was like, “I didn’t think it would suit.” I said, “Any song suits if it’s good.” [Laughs] I suppose it’s the gray area.
Are there albums in Maiden’s catalogue that you’re not as fond of? You haven’t played much off of No Prayer for the Dying in years.
People shouldn’t read into it if we don’t do songs off a particular album. I think there are some really strong songs on that one. I think there are some great songs on the one or two albums that have been mentioned as supposedly weaker than the others. I’d be happy to play most of the stuff off No Prayer. I think it’s a very strong album.
Lastly, on the topic of legacy, Iron Maiden have been eligible for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame since 2004 yet you’re not in. What do you make of that?
I don’t mind that we’re not in things like that. I don’t think about things like that. It’s very nice if people give you awards or accolades, but we didn’t get into the business for that sort of thing. I’m certainly not going to lose sleep if we don’t get any sort of award, not just that one, any award. I don’t think we deserve to have this or that necessarily. With what we do, whatever comes of it is great. Whatever doesn’t come of it is great, too.