How Iron Maiden Wrote ‘2 Minutes to Midnight’ in Just 20 Minutes
Inspiration struck quickly and in an unlikely place for Iron Maiden's Adrian Smith and Bruce Dickinson when they wrote one of the band's most enduring anthems in less time than it takes to reheat a pizza.
"2 Minutes to Midnight" was released on Aug. 6, 1984, as the advance single from the group's fifth album, Powerslave. The song addresses the threat of U.S. and Soviet tensions blossoming into full-on global annihilation, and kicks off with a dramatic guitar and drum intro that every dedicated metalhead has mimed in their bedroom at least a couple dozen times.
"That's basically a hard-rock tune," Smith explained in Martin Popoff's 2 Minutes to Midnight: An Iron Maiden Day-by-Day. "I'm guitar-oriented. That's where my writing goes. I was sitting in my hotel room in a jersey working on this riff, and there was a banging on the door." It was Dickinson, who immediately demanded to be let in on the action. "So I played him the music to it, and he had a bunch of lyrics. He started singing, and we had '2 Minutes to Midnight.' We wrote it in about 20 minutes."
With Cold War tensions at a high, and then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan "expounding about the 'evil empire' of the Soviet Union," as Dickinson noted in his 2017 autobiography What Does This Button Do?, the lyrics also came easily. "The Doomsday Clock was ticking at two minutes to midnight," he remembered. "That sounded like a song title." (The clock was founded by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in 1947, and features hands that move closer and further away from midnight as world events warrant, estimating the likelihood of a man-made global catastrophe.)
"It's a song about the experience of war," Dickinson explained in The History of Iron Maiden Part Two. "And about the romance of it, and the horror of it, and the two things together, and the fact that, unfortunately, we're repelled and fascinated by it."
"2 Minutes to Midnight" was a big success upon release, hitting No. 11 on the U.K. charts, and No. 25 in the U.S. It has gone on to become Iron Maiden's sixth-most played live song of all time. It also spawned their first-ever conceptual video, which weaves a tale of spies, stolen warheads and an unsafely stored hand grenade.
Watch Iron Maiden's '2 Minutes to Midnight' Video
"These guys came in with this sort of high concept, with this guy on a computer," Dickinson recalled. "Back in the day, when this was made, they were the great unknown. Everything was computers. 'They're controlling you by computers,' you know? And the guy had glasses on and you could see his reflection on the scene, and we thought, 'Ohhh, that looks modern!"
While hunting for the perfect setting for one of the video's scenes, the directors accidentally uncovered a piece of Iron Maiden history, which served as a reminder of how far Dickinson had come since joining the group.
"They came with all these Polaroids of the locations, and one of the locations for the mercenaries, when there's a shot of them all having a discussion," the singer said. "The guy goes, 'Oh it's this fantastic, dingy, grotty flat in this horrible, slimy East End tenement on the Isle of Dogs. You know, it's all boarded up, there's cat piss everywhere and it's just perfect! Here it is, this is where they'll be.' And I looked at it, and I went, 'I used to live there.'"