When Iron Maiden Dared to Bring Synths into Heavy Metal
“You can’t play heavy metal with synthesizers,” Bruce Dickinson told a Polish fan on film in the mid-‘80s. It wasn’t long before he’d have to eat those confident, brash words, when Iron Maiden entered a new phase of their development by playing heavy metal with synthesizers.
It was a genuinely controversial move in that decade. The relaxing of boundaries between genres that took place during the grunge era was yet to happen, and many people regarded synths as seriously forbidden in heavy music. So it’s easy to see why Dickinson would have been so vocal about it; but perhaps there’s another reason too: Maiden had experimented with keyboards in their earliest days, and it hadn’t gone well.
Bruce Dickinson on Synths
Tony Moore became a member for a brief period in 1977, but he only played one show, in a London pub, before bowing out. “I didn’t leave the band because I didn’t like anyone and I didn’t leave because I didn’t believe in these guys,” Moore said in 2006. “I knew that I wasn’t right for the band.”
It had taken a few more years for Maiden to find its voice, and the voice turned out to be a hybrid of punk and metal. It had acquired a larger scale with the arrival of Dickinson in 1981 and had continued to develop on a relatively straight path. That was until guitarists Adrian Smith and Dave Murray took delivery of guitar synths ahead of sixth album Somewhere in Time. The cutting-edge rack-mounted devices generated sounds from instructions received from the players’ guitars, offering what amounted to an extensive range of digital effects. From album opener “Caught Somewhere in Time” to closer “Alexander the Great,” with the notable exception of “Wasted Years,” the synths were loud and proud.
Iron Maiden - ‘Caught Somewhere in Time’
However, in the months ahead of the LP’s completion, Dickinson had once again distanced the band from going digital, saying: “This album is very different from the others; it’s the best one since The Number of the Beast… I don’t mean that we used drum machines or synthesizers, not at all, and we’re not going to do it.” He added: “There’s a lot of feeling, a lot of space, on this album.” Perhaps that’s where the guitar synths went in.
The experiments on Somewhere in Time having been felt worthwhile, Maiden made another leap. Instead of using guitar synths for 1988’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, the band employed keyboard synths. “If Somewhere in Time was a Claymation figure, it wouldn’t quite be painted yet. It would have the eyes, the arms, and the bits’n’bobs and you’d say, ‘Yeah… I can see where you’re going there!’ you know?” Dickinson told Classic Rock in 2013. “But what you get with Seventh Son… is a much more recognizable definitive statement. Right, boom, here’s the whole thing, all in one piece.”
With the keys adding more than just background washes – notably making a massive audio statement in the intro to “Moonchild” – and the band having no desire to automate their stage show, it was time to bring in a keyboardist, over a decade since it had last been tried. Steve Harris’ bass tech, Michael Kenney, was the new musician seen on stage. “As I have a keyboard background and Steve's rig is usually pretty low-maintenance during the show, he asked if I would do it, but only if I did it as ‘The Count,’ my nickname of the time,” Kenney told Keyboard magazine in 2010.
Noting that it hadn’t all been plain sailing, he recalled how one synth had broken down before a show, and they’d had to have a replacement rush-shipped via airplane, leading to frantic last-minute programming before the concert began. Another time, he said, he nearly fell off his 20-foot high stage platform. “I found it best to stand right in the middle to preserve a center of gravity. One night I was feeling a bit more comfortable and took a step to the right and the whole lift swayed a few feet. I had keys on both sides of me and the next thing I played was a very loud, very jazz chord. I think had to check my shorts after that one!”
Iron Maiden - ‘Moonchild’
Since then, keyboards have remained part of Maiden’s sound, both in the studio and on stage. “I guess some people were unhappy, but in the right place, keyboards can be really cool,” Halloween's Markus Grosskopf told Classic Rock, reflecting on his band’s ‘80s tours with Maiden. “They created a special mood on [Seventh Son]. Listen to the harmonies and the melodies. It takes you to another world and it’s very much Maiden’s style and theirs alone. The whole album is full of great moments, great guitar playing, great singing and amazing arrangements. It touches you and you have to go with it. The atmosphere was so strong.”
You won’t see Kenney on stage anymore, although he remains a part of the live show – where he’s not necessarily required all the time. “I only add parts to songs that didn't have them when I'm asked to, he said. “Bruce wanted a choir treatment to simulate something he did in the studio on Powerslave. Steve comes up with a bit every now and then, and a lot of the synth parts are reinforcing things that Adrian used synth guitar on.” He added: “The bass rig actually takes precedence over keys; if something is wrong I take care of it, even if that means not playing. The rig is pretty comprehensive; I have spares at the ready, so changes can happen relatively easily. I haven't had to miss too many parts.”
As for Dickinson – who, at one point in the late ‘80s would berate those fans who didn’t like the keyboards by telling them to “go and listen to some other shit” – he’s been known to repeat his “You can’t play heavy metal with synthesizers” line, but only in a self-deprecating manner, complete with comedy dullard voice. He is the man, after all, who wrote 18-minute epic "Empire of the Clouds" for The Book of Souls after he’d won a piano in a charity auction.
Bruce Dickinson on Synths (Revised)
Iron Maiden - ‘Empire of the Clouds’