Iron Maiden and I go back a long way. To the days of denim and leather, long hair that was barely on nodding terms with conditioner, bleary eyes and blurry nights when it just seemed so easy to burn the candle at both ends.
Plenty of water has gone under the bridge since I shared an unforgettable couple of weeks with the band on the now-legendary 1985 trip to Communist-era Poland in my capacity as cub reporter for Kerrang! magazine. You can see the 19-year-old me lurking on the 'Iron Maiden Behind The Iron Curtain' documentary, playing football, hanging out on the band bus, sporting a terrible haircut and generally having a ball. Yet despite the years rolling by I've always stayed in contact with the band's manager Rod Smallwood, thanks to a mutual love of Maiden, rugby and, would you believe, cycling!
Rod's charity bike rides are the stuff of legend and my legs know all about them, having pedalled for dear life in Egypt back in 2010 and Cuba earlier this year. Maybe it was because he felt sorry for my poor, weary, bones that Rod kindly invited me along to a few dates on the Final Frontier tour, to see what Maiden 2011 vintage is all about -- and to have a bit of fun along the way. It's the kind of offer only a fool would refuse...
After a quick hop across France, where I now live, to noisy neighbour Belgium I was ready to catch up with the Irons at the famous Werchter Festival. Held just outside of Brussels, attended by 85,000 people and rightly hailed -- alongside Denmark's Roskilde -- as one of Europe's premium crossover festivals. It's always a challenge converting a crowd that isn't entirely your own. And with the Kings Of Leon and Coldplay having headlined the previous nights it's clear that not everyone here is a heavy rock fan. But with more than a few metalheads inside flying the Maiden flag the boys are nonetheless in confident mood. Nicko wanders around the plush backstage area (boy, things have changed since my day), gives me a quick hug, introduces me to son Justin and is off to find a cup of coffee with milk. Not an easy task in Belgium! Davey steps outside of the Maiden dressing room for a fag and a chat. Rod keeps an eye on things like he always does.
When it's time to perform it's still light, but Maiden aren't fussed. Taking advantage of my prime viewing position just behind Dougie Hall's mixing desk I witness my first Maiden set since Twickenham 2008. And what a set it is. Classic numbers like 'The Trooper', 'Number Of The Beast' and 'Hallowed Be Thy Name' gets heads banging, while new numbers 'The Final Frontier', 'El Dorado', 'Coming Home' and the majestic 'When The Wild Wind Blows' prove that Harry and the boys have lost none of their bite. It's amazing to watch how Maiden still have the ability to convert a crowd one row at a time and by the time they're off stage following a two-hour monster show even Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas is waiting, camera at the ready, to grab a souvenir pic with the boys. When they said 'Iron Maiden's gonna get ya' all those years ago it seems they really weren't kidding!
It's a quick getaway from Werchter, executed with military precision, and with blue lights flashing in the Belgian night as police outriders clear the way we're off to the airport. I'm with Bruce and Rod and it's nice to catch up with the singer, whose hair may be shorter than back in the day, but whose barrage balloon lungs appear to have inflated even more. Bruce is off back home with Adrian and Nicko, while the rest of the party will fly by private jet up to the next gig in Oslo. Each member of the band has the luxury of touring how they want to these days, which is a right they've earned after over 30 years of intense gigging.
As our jet shoots off into the night sky heading northwards it's a real pleasure to see Janick, Davey and Harry again. We have a chat and some laughs before Rod's personal supply of Corona that I'd been offered back on the mixing desk kicks in. Before we land in Norway there will be a lot of excited jabbering, refills galore of white wine from Mr. Murray and an impromptu vocal rendition of Marc Bolan's greatest hits! Damn, it's good to be back!
Maiden's schedule means there are two free days in Oslo before the next gig, which is time enough for Harry to have organised a Maiden football match, of course. "I don't know how long I'll last," he frets as we head out of town to the ground. "I've got a problem with my thigh." The troublesome tendon has been worked on hard by Harry's masseur Peter Lokrantz, so there's always hope that the team's star striker will get through 90 minutes. Which is a good job, really, given that there's a sizeable crowd of Maiden fans who've turned up to support the team, made up of players from Steve's regular Sunday league outfit back in England and a couple of Grade A, former Norwegian international ringers. They played a team put together by the guys who run the magnificent new Oslo Opera House , a majestic super modern structure on the edge of the fiord, a brilliant example of modern architecture. One of the main guys there is an old mate of Steve's from the East End.
As it turns out there's nothing to worry about. Maiden's XI is far too strong for the opposition and runs out comfortable 13-1 winners. The only concern at 10-1 is that a certain S. Harris hasn't notched one and he won't be an 'Appy 'Arry if he doesn't get his name on the scoresheet. Fortunately he finishes off the game in style, scoring two goals, though neither of them, it must be said, is a patch on a wonderstrike from a certain H. Johnson! After the show we were all treated to a fine meal with wine back at the Opera House and took time to have a good look around this splendid structure
Oslo is a beautiful city, compact and exciting, if eye-wateringly expensive. So the wallet takes a bit of a hammering as we wait for show day at the Telenor Arena. Not that I expect any sympathy. I am, after all, on the road with Iron Maiden and many would kill for an opportunity like this!
Show day arrives, with Nicko, Adrian and Bruce having flown in from the UK, and the atmosphere is good. The venue is a very new modern indoor football stadium, a huge arena that the band have never played before, and the 20,000 or so fans are clearly excited about the prospect of seeing the legend that is Maiden in their own backyard.
Once again the band deliver the goods long and loud and it's another storming gig. In the car on the way back to the hotel Harry complains about a lack of air up on stage. "It was so hot I could scarcely breathe," he explains, but soon settles back in his seat, satisfied with another top show. It's amazing to see just how much energy the band can still summon up in any one performance. Having been going to Maiden gigs since 1979 I must say I would never have expected to be watching the band pulling out such dynamic performances today. But then again, what has Iron Maiden been about, if not defying expectations? Me? I'm happy as a pig in the proverbial and with two more shows for me to enjoy I'm intending to enjoy every last moment...
- Howard Johnson