How ‘Aces High’ Took Iron Maiden’s Historical Bent to New Heights
Iron Maiden have often dipped into history for lyrical inspiration and frequently focused on the history of war. On a few occasions that inspiration has been matched with their trademark style. And while 1982’s “Run to the Hills” is a good example, “Aces High” is probably the best.
Released on Oct. 22, 1984 as the second single from the band's fifth album, Powerslave, “Aces High” was a fictional account of the Battle of Britain, which took place in the skies above England in 1940. It was the first-ever battle to be fought exclusively in the air, and saw the Royal Air Force successfully defend the U.K. from the German Luftwaffe in a series of confrontations over a period of months.
Strong material indeed, and it was reflected in singer Bruce Dickinson’s full-force use of his “air-raid siren” voice, while bassist Steve Harris’s racing, soaring music mimicked the action of a Supermarine Spitfire fighting for freedom.
Harris appears to have been partly inspired by the 1976 movie Aces High, which depicts a squadron of fighter pilots enduring a difficult period of the First World War. He may also have been inspired by the fact that the band had settled on the island of Jersey to work on Powerslave. Located between France and England, it had been occupied by German forces from 1940 until 1945, with physical and emotional scars remaining decades later.
Still, drummer Nicko McBrain once suggested he was the inspiration for the song. “At the time we were rehearsing the Powerslave album, Steve was writing this single [and] I’d started to learn to fly airplanes in Jersey,” he recalled during one of his monologues on The First Ten Years singles box set.
“I’d come home from the aerodrome and I’d have the old, you know, twisting the ends of the mustache … the hat and the goggles and the scarf, ‘Whoa, tally-ho, Biggles! You’ve bandits at six o’clock low, coming out of the sun, 12 o’clock high! Watch out! Full power! Bombs away, Biggles!” … And I think it sort of slightly influenced Steve to write this song about those Second World War Spitfire pilots.”
Band artist Derek Riggs created a suitably dramatic cover for the single, showing band mascot Eddie flying a Spitfire straight toward the viewer during a dogfight. Backed with a cover of the prog-band Nektar's song “King of Twilight,” plus a live version of Maiden's own “The Number of the Beast,” the “Aces High” single climbed to No. 20 in the U.K. chart and helped spur Powerslave beyond platinum sales.
Listen to Iron Maiden's ‘Aces High’
It’s always been Iron Maiden’s policy to open tour shows with the first track of their latest album. “Aces High” was no different on the World Slavery Tour, although it was preceded by wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s stirring “We shall fight on the beaches” speech. During the band’s 2019 Legacy of the Beast tour, it was once again at the top of the set, complete with a nearly full-sized Spitfire flying over the stage.
Given the vocal aerobatics involved in the song, you'd think Dickinson may want to leave it until later in the show, but in 2015 he suggested the contrary. “There's always at least one song in the set which is an absolute motherfucker to sing,” he said.
“Usually because of just where it is in the set. … On the last tour it was ‘Aces High,’ because it's a difficult song to sing anyway – it’s very vocally demanding. And of course where do we put the song? Answer, in the encores, right at the end of the show. So when you've been belting it out for the entire show, then you come back out, and boom, ‘Aces High,’ it's very vocally demanding. So if I get to the end of ‘Aces High’ and I've managed to hit all the notes, and it was all put to bed and squared away, I’m a very happy bunny. I‘m going to give myself an extra pat on the back, and go away and drink a little beer to celebrate. Dodged another one. Dodged another bullet.”