The Highs and Lows of Iron Maiden’s Massive ‘World Slavery’ Tour
By 1984, Iron Maiden were well on their ascent to rock superstardom. Albums The Number of the Beast and Piece of Mind had brought the band to an international audience. For their next LP, Powerslave, the group decided to embark on its largest and most exhaustive run yet, the World Slavery tour.
The band created an entirely new set design, production and aesthetic for the tour. Gleaning inspiration from the album’s artwork, Iron Maiden decided to go with an Egyptian theme. It would become one of the most elaborate stage setups of its time.
“We wanted something that would tie in with the theme of Powerslave, which is Egyptian mythology, so we put together the idea of constructing an Egyptian temple complete with hieroglyphics and tombs,” singer Bruce Dickinson told Hit Parader magazine in 1984. “It’s quite spectacular to look at and even more fun to play on. That’s an important factor for us. When you’re working in the same environment every night, you might as well enjoy where you’re working.”
“I was asked to do things that I’d never done before, on a scale I’d never done before,” recalled set designer Alan Chester in the documentary The History of Iron Maiden: Part 2 Live After Death. The stage would include massive backdrops, a giant sarcophagus and multiple risers. Even the stage floor, unable to be seen by a large percentage of the audience, was decorated for the tour. “The floor was very, very complicated, intense Egyptian pattern,” Chester revealed. “And we just put in lots of little messages in hieroglyphics.”
Watch Iron Maiden Perform During the World Slavery Tour
“I just loved that set,” Dickinson said of the World Slavery stage, noting that he was especially fond of the abundance of pyrotechnics. ”You had to be careful if you were standing the wrong way and the wind was a little bit wobbly," the singer noted. "I did singe my nose hairs on a couple of occasions."
Still, like most Iron Maiden shows, the real visual star was Eddie, the band’s mascot that was re-imagined as a mummy here, its giant figure emerging from backstage to hover above the band. “The centerpiece, of course, was Eddie, which I just thought was a masterpiece of kitsch,” Dickinson admitted. “No legs, just this huge torso. The arms were on the big motorcycle springs so they wobbled.”
“I remember the first time we pulled Eddie out,” drummer Nicko McBrain recalled. “Out he comes in all his splendor, the mummy. These great big arms and they were on these springs. And they put him too low. And his freaking hands hit me on the top of the noggin! And all me cymbals have gone flying. ‘Oy, he’s too low! Pull him up a bit!’ ‘Can’t -- we’ve got no room!’”
Eddie’s popularity proved to be a double-edged sword when, one night, part of the mascot disappeared. “After the show, somebody stole the torso -- I mean, it was huge!” McBrain laughed. “You can imagine two guys running down the street with this big mummified body.”
With its mascot MIA, the band had to get creative. “We went out and we bought a lot of bath towels, and we layered them to make up another body until we replaced the foam torso for Eddie,” McBrain revealed. “I remember we’d be standing at the side of the stage, and every night it would come off. And we were always saying, ‘There’s Ed. He’s out of the shower again.’”
Despite some occasional hiccups -- and mummy disappearances -- the World Slavery tour began well for Iron Maiden. The band notably kicked off its trek with five shows in Poland. Fans came out in droves for these rare performances by a western band in the Eastern Bloc nation.
“It was hysteria, really,” bassist Steve Harris said of the Poland performances. “It was just incredible. I mean the reaction of the fans was just unbelievable. I’ll never forget it because it was quite goosebump time, really.”
Even the band’s longtime manager, Rod Smallwood, could sense the importance of those concerts. “It was a phenomenal vibe, and you just felt like you were doing something,” he acknowledged. “In some ways you felt like you were gonna weaken the wall.”
The tour spent three months winding its way throughout Europe before heading to North America. A packed schedule left the band with few days off. Slowly, the rigors of life on the road began to take their toll. “It was relentless, one after the other after the other after the other,” Dickinson said of the group’s performance schedule.
While word of Iron Maiden’s amazing live show continued to spread, pressure to deliver on a nightly basis also mounted. “The band was getting very big very quickly, and it was a bit scary,” admitted guitarist Adrian Smith. “The responsibility every night of walking out and playing to those people for months and months and months. It did wear you down.”
Watch Iron Maiden Perform During the World Slavery Tour
The stresses of touring wore especially heavy on the band’s frontman. “Radio City Music Hall … we were doing seven shows and I started to feel crap,” Dickinson recalled. “And after about the third or fourth one I said to [manager] Rod [Smallwood], I said, ‘I feel really ill.’ And he goes, ‘How ill?’ I said, ‘I’m feeling really ill.’ And he said, ‘Well, you can do it tonight. You’ve got a day off tomorrow.’”
The singer tried to power past the exhaustion, but struggled to do so. “I went onstage, just felt dizzy and I couldn’t move," Dickinson said. "I sat, I did most of the show ... just sitting on the drum riser.” The band would cancel four shows in late January, as its singer recuperated.
“I know that it really got to Bruce, more than anyone in the band,” noted McBrain, adding that the singer nearly “jumped ship” due to the tour’s strenuous demands.
Performances continued. Days turned into months. “Your whole reality shifts,” Dickinson said of life on the road. “You read the stories and you think, ‘The guy sent out his private jet to go and get him a curry. What a wanker.’ But if you’re in rock 'n' roll reality shift, there’s a bizarre logic whereby it’s like, ‘I want a curry. If I don’t get a curry I’m gonna go mad. I don’t care how much it costs. Get me a curry!' After you’ve had about six months off you go, ‘Oh, did I spend that much on a curry? I could have bought a car for that!’”
Iron Maiden hit Japan and Australia before returning to the U.S. for even more extensive touring. “I don’t think we realized how far we pushed ourselves,” guitarist Dave Murray said of the arduous schedule. “It was starting to take its toll on the band after a while. It’s just, when it got into the 12th, 13th months, there was a few chinks in the armor. We were starting to sort of lose it.”
The final performance of the 'World Slavery' tour took place on July 5, 1985, in Irvine, Calif. By this point, the entire band was exhausted. “When we got to the end of the Powerslave tour," Harris recalled, "that was the first time where we actually said, ‘All right, let’s take some time off or else we’ll all end up in the funny farm.’”
Dickinson, it turns out, was already at his wits’ end. “I came very close to quitting after the Powerslave tour,” he later admitted in his autobiography What Does This Button Do?. “I was in no mood for any more backstage politics or solitary confinement in tour buses.”
Iron Maiden took more than a year off from performing following the conclusion of the World Slavery tour. Their next trek, Somewhere on Tour, launched in September 1986.
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