Iron Lion Scion: Steve Harris Interviewed
, October 15th, 2012 05:51
The Crown Prince Of Heavy Metal and founding member of Iron Fucking Maiden speaks to John Doran about going back to his roots with solo project British Lion. This is a longer version of the feature that initially ran in The Stool Pigeon
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 - the crown prince of heavy metal - 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 90s 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, whose sales add up to approximately 90 million units and has 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 70s (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, given that he is the chief song writer, 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 so much surprising that it’s taken him two decades to get round to putting his solo album out but that he has managed to find time to do it at all. The genesis of the LP occurred when an old work colleague gave him a cassette featuring Graham Leslie [guitar] and Richie 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.
It is Harris’s very down-to-Earthness which is bizarre by today’s standards but this probably has a lot to do with the group’s longevity. He comes from a different age 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 any more 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!”
I’ve enjoyed hearing the influence of bands like UFO and Blue Oyster Cult on British Lion…
Steve Harris: You’re the first person to mention them but I’ve always loved Blue Oyster Cult. Before I was in Maiden, my band Smiler covered ‘The Red And The Black’.
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! [laughs] But effectively, when we started we were a heavy rock band and British Lion is not that far removed from it.
Normally side projects seem to get cranked out in six months down time 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… 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.
And of course you weren’t working on it the whole time because there was a major hiccough in the middle.
SH: Originally, going back a long time ago, I was working in an architect’s office and I met a guy there who was really into rock music. Later on he gave me a tape. It had great songs and great playing on it so I met up with the guy and we took it from there. Originally I was just trying to develop them really. Then I started managing them in the early 90s and just got more involved with them until I was producing them as well. Unfortunately, as usual, musical differences and god knows what else got in the way and there was very little I could do from stopping it from imploding. The best thing that came out of it was the idea to do something else in the future – and that’s what this is.
British Lion isn’t that different from early Maiden material essentially in the style of song writing at least. But there is one way in which it is very different. 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 singing for himself or for the whole band?
SH: Well 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 sing about some of these things sometimes but I tend to disguise tahem 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 a little bit 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.
Are you going to play live?
SH: I’d love to play the album live, I think we have to wait and see what the reaction is like first though, 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 I know we haven’t played any clubs for years.
When was the last time you were actually phased by playing in front of an audience? 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: Well, 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 and I never take everything for granted 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.’
What’s the worst stage fright you’ve ever had playing a gig?
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 really. 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 really 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.
I wanted 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.
When I first moved to Stratford 15 years ago there was a story on the front of the Newham Recorder that a man got stabbed in the Swan on the Broadway and a nurse celebrating passing her exams did an emergency tracheotomy on him with the knife they used to slice the lemons behind the bar and a biro. Was it rough when you lived there?
SH: I didn’t think it was that bad really. We didn’t have anything like that happen to the best of my knowledge. 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.
What was your first gig at the Cart and 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 anyway. 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 fliers? 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. It’s amazing the amount of people who don’t bother.
You’ve always said that you had nothing to do with punk but you did share that real 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 and 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.
Did you get A&Rs in the late 70s 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.
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When did you notice that heavy metal was becoming popular again?
SH: When we were playing gigs in pubs like the Cart And 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! So 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.
There’s a shot during the recent Flight 666 documentary which has a clip that 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.
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.
I’d say you’ve certainly moved on positively from the days of Bruce Dickinson’s harlequin tights…
SH: [sounds unsure] Hmmmmmmm.
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 that had an earlier logo. It was boring really. I drew it because I was a draughtsman myself. We had a phantom character at the time and the Iron Maiden logo was in an Olde English style.
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 blond 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.
You did your first ever world tour after Killers . 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 going round the UK on tours. By the time we got to the second album we’d already toured Japan and done a couple of UK tours, 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 and they don’t get chance to grow. They get things thrust upon them too early.
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 one, 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.
Obviously in Iron Maiden you’re all really fit, you play football, the gigs themselves are obviously work outs. Is there any reason why you can’t keep on doing this for another ten years?
SH: I don’t know about ten years but I think we’ve certainly got another five years in us but it’s hard to say. As you get older it gets doubly hard to keep yourself fit and in shape. We do work really hard on doing that. It’s important to us. We’d be selling ourselves and everyone else short if we didn’t, so we do look after ourselves. It does get tougher. I don’t play football much any more but I play a lot of tennis. Partly because I’ve had so many problems with my back that I can only play the odd match here or there. Unfortunately it’s five years since I’ve played a full season of football and that’s something that I miss a lot but I had to make a decision.
You’ve seen heavy metal become revived from a fading sub genre of heavy rock to take over the entire world and become the biggest type of music there is globally. Where is there left for Iron Maiden to go, which territories would you like to invade?
SH: I’d love to go into China. Up to now they’ve not let us go in or if they did let us, it wouldn’t be in the way we wanted. They’d want to look at lyrics and they’d be worried about Eddie…
You could have a communist Eddie in a Chairman Mao outfit.
SH: [laughs] Yeah. I mean I’d love to go to China anyway as a tourist but I’d also love to get paid to tour there. We’ll see.
Given how abrasive heavy metal is with image, sound, philosophy, lyrics etc, how do you explain it’s huge global appeal?
SH: Because it really means something to the people who listen to it. It gives them an identity where they can feel part of it. And it’s appealing that outsiders don’t understand it. And if people from the outside do check it out properly, then I think a lot of people end up thinking, ‘You know, there’s a lot more to this than meets the eye.' And you know what? There is.