In 2018, a journalist asked Bruce Dickinson how he felt about the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The Iron Maiden singer inveighed, “If we’re ever inducted, I will refuse — they won’t bloody be having my corpse in there.”
A year later, Steve Harris — the band’s bassist and only consistent member since Maiden formed in 1975 — offered a more levelheaded take: “It’s very nice if people give you awards or accolades, but we didn’t get into the business for that sort of thing. … With what we do, whatever comes of it is great. Whatever doesn’t come of it is great, too.”
This year, the Hall considered for a second time to include Iron Maiden, who have been eligible for induction since 2005. And once again, the institution’s voters snubbed them — possibly because of Maiden’s antipathy, possibly because they just don’t like metal. But much like Black Sabbath, the Sex Pistols, and Axl Rose — artists who gave the organization the middle finger but were inducted (or is it “indicted”?) anyway — Iron Maiden deserve a spot in the Hall whether they want it or not. The continued rejections, after nearly two decades of eligibility, are emblematic of continued negativity toward heavy metal by the gatekeepers of musical taste.
Metal has long been rock’s outcast genre — often willingly so — but after more than half a century, it’s time to recognize the contributions the genre has made to popular music. It’s time to expand the canon. And while Rage Against the Machine’s induction into the Hall this year is a move in the right direction, even that band’s Tom Morello has called Iron Maiden a formative influence on him — a claim many musicians could make.
Almost immediately from the release of the group’s self-titled debut in 1980, Iron Maiden have expanded the vocabularies of heavy metal and, by proxy, rock. In The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, critic Lester Bangs described metal as “the aural image of a battering ram” and wrote, “as the Seventies drew to a close, it appeared that heavy metal had had it,” before directing readers to the nascent punk scene. But because the book came out in 1980, Bangs hadn’t yet had a chance to hear Iron Maiden, who sounded not just like a battering ram, but also a fighter jet, a thousand charging horses, and an air-raid siren all at the same time.
Where the genre’s forebears like Black Sabbath, Cream, and mid-Seventies Judas Priest dealt in gloom and doom, Iron Maiden introduced a charging (and supercharged) sense of hope, resilience, and measured abandon to the genre. They raced through the labyrinthine song structures of “Prowler,” “Phantom of the Opera,” and “Iron Maiden” with pure adrenaline, inspiring Metallica, Slayer, and the rest of the thrash-metal contingency to play faster and more intricately. Kurt Cobain used to doodle their soon-to-be-ubiquitous corpse mascot, Eddie the Head, and Eddie also inspired Chuck D to design Public Enemy’s instantly recognizable logo. Plus, thanks to Paul Di’Anno’s gravelly voice, they also sounded tough.
In 1982, when they replaced Di’Anno with Dickinson, a singer with a dramatic flair that’s equal parts Shakespeare and Doctor Who, their sound grew even bigger. Unlike Sabbath, Zeppelin, and Priest whose formative records took cues from the blues, Iron Maiden’s landmark 1982 album, The Number of the Beast, felt grand like classical music. The band’s most prolific songwriter, Harris, wrote Rossini-esque galloping rhythms, and he harmonized guitar lines for Dave Murray and Adrian Smith on “The Number of the Beast” and “Run to the Hills” that obeyed Bach’s rules of counterpoint. Add Dickinson’s theatricality — similar to what Ronnie James Dio was doing in Black Sabbath and his own band, Dio — to a song like “Hallowed Be Thy Name,” and it became opera. Very early in their career, Iron Maiden struck a balance between sophistication and aggression without losing its audience.
They spent the next decade refining their sound to play up speed (“Aces High”), melody (“Wasted Years,” “Can I Play With Madness?”), texture (“The Trooper”), and, for lack of a better word, pomp (“The Evil That Men Do”), all while building a dedicated fanbase eager to see them play arenas in and around giant stage sets. Hell, they even took Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and turned it into a headbanger that holds concertgoers’ attentions for 14 minutes. Name a high school English teacher who can pull that off.
Iron Maiden have also taken musical risks that would strike fear in the hearts of most mainstream rockers and thrived doing it. In 2006, when they released their album A Matter of Life and Death, the band played the whole opus in its entirety with just a few classic songs as encores — in arenas, no less — to captivated audiences. They’ve never had a hit song on U.S. radio, and they’ve probably never wanted one. The best songs on their most recent album, 2021’s Senjutsu, run more than 10 minutes each. Yet, as uncommercial as that sounds, that album and their three previous LPs all made it into Billboard’s Top Ten. Their music has even been played to the Pope in the Vatican.
Iron Maiden’s innovation, dedication to their craft, influence, and complete refusal to compromise their artistry should have made them first-year inductees into the Hall of Fame. They’re musical visionaries in the same league as Pink Floyd, Queen, U2, and even the Beatles — just louder.
The disrespect isn’t exclusive to Iron Maiden. Mainstream institutions from the Hall of Fame to the Grammys to Rolling Stone magazine (hi there!) have traditionally been slow to warm to heavy metal, writing the genre off as crude, brash, and angry. Also, thanks to movies like This Is Spinal Tap and Wayne’s World (which are both hilarious), the genre has gotten the reputation of being made for knuckleheaded dolts, which is unfair since smart, talented people from all walks of life identify with the genre.
So far, the only metal or metal-adjacent acts to make it into the Hall have been the genre’s biggest: Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Metallica, AC/DC, Judas Priest, Kiss, Van Halen, Rush, and Deep Purple. But so many other eligible and worthy acts (including Maiden) have been passed over, year after year: Slayer, Dio, Motörhead, Mötley Crüe, Ozzy Osbourne as a solo artist, Megadeth, Pantera, Thin Lizzy, Korn, Tool, Danzig, Anthrax, and Celtic Frost, among many, many others. These are musicians who have taken the foundational ideas of rock & roll and augmented them into something fresh. They’re also responsible for a sizable chunk of physical records sold every year since metalheads comprise one of music’s most dedicated fanbases.
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has made great strides in recent years of expanding the definition of rock & roll by recognizing how hip-hop, synth-pop, alt-rock, and country music have contributed to the spirit of the art form. Heavy metal should be included in the broad definition of rock & roll, and few bands embody the core tenets of the genre — individuality, rebellion, originality — as much as Iron Maiden. So if the opportunity comes around again to drag Bruce Dickinson kicking and screeching into the Hall of Fame, the institution’s voters should seize the opportunity. Up the Irons!
From Rolling Stone US