HoJo's Diary - Helsinki to St Petersburg

Scandinavia sure loves its metal. There's something in that Viking heritage that seems to subconsciously recognise a real connection between their warrior past and the present intensity of rock music. And if Scandinavia loves its metal, then it really loves its Maiden. Rightly recognised as standard-bearers for a music that has never been fashionable, but has always been there, there's an almost tangible love for the band wherever we go up here. At Oslo airport following the band's show there it's no different, as fluorescent-jacketed ground staff jostle around our plane to get autographs and photographs. Iron Maiden has always seemed to me like the world's biggest underground band and this is the proof right here.

Once airborne we're off in the direction of Finnish capital Helsinki and a gig at the open air Olympic Stadium. With Scandinavian promoter Tor joining us we have a free night before the gig, a night that ends up with a bunch of us drinking beer and wine in a bar on the sidewalk of Helsinki's main street, simply watching the world go by.

The Olympic Stadium the following day is full of thousands upon thousands of hardcore Maiden fans. It's a little easier backstage, though, and I'm thrilled when all of a sudden my old mate Ricky Warwick turns up in catering. I've known Ricky for 25 years and a nicer man in rock would be hard to find. Following many years as the power behind The Almighty, a mighty powerful band, he's now frontman with Thin Lizzy and the band have just arrived in town from Russia for a gig the following night and all turned up for the show. The Maiden boys are all huge Lizzy fans and Adrian is big mates with Scott so so plots are hatched to meet up in town after tonight's show.

After an entertaining opening set from Alice Cooper (who gave Rod a few golf tips when they went off for a game together in Oslo), I take Lizzy boys Ricky, drummer Brian Downey and keyboardist Darren Wharton up to the mixing desk to watch the show. I let them nick a Corona from Rod's personal stash and they settle in to watch Maiden do what Maiden do best. "Scream for me Helsinki," shouts Bruce in time-honoured fashion and the crowd does the rest. The connection between band and audience remains every bit as strong today as it was when Maiden first started out and Ricky nods his head approvingly.

It's another winning performance and to celebrate we're off to drink a beer or two with Lizzy. As we wander on foot from hotel to bar Adrian tells me what an influence guitarist Scott Gorham has been on his playing and so when we arrive and Scott is already sat down with a beer in hand, H makes the most of the opportunity to plonk himself down beside him and get lost in a world of anecdotes. Harry and Nicko are having fun too, enjoying the company of fellow musicians and getting their round in like the good men they are. It's a cracking way to end our time in Helsinki and everyone goes to bed happy.

The heavily-tattooed customs guy who comes on board our plane at Helsinki airport to check passports before we leave for Russia looks like he knows a thing or two about rock. "Good luck in Russia," he says in perfect English and with an evil look in his eye. Having never been to Russia I wonder if he knows something I don't...

Once arrived in St Petersburg it looks for a few worrying minutes that we might never get to enjoy Russia after all. On the bus that takes us from the plane to border control Harry suddenly realises that he's left his passport on the plane. Frantic calls are made to see if one of the band's crew is still on board and can retrieve the missing document. It's panic stations -- until Adrian suddenly realises that he picked up Harry's passport as well as his own by mistake on the plane! He's had it in his bag all along! Calls for the guitarist to be sacked immediately are turned down by our benevolent bass player.

St. Petersburg is a city that defies description, a bustling metropolis of nearly five million people that looks like it's ready to party on the Saturday night when we arrive. There are plenty of Maiden fans milling about outside the hotel and their enthusiasm is infectious. One poor bloke is so excited about meeting the band that he can't stop shaking as they sign autographs. "Calm down son, it's only me," says Nicko as we sneak off for a bite to eat, together with H and tour film director Andy Matthews. The sound advice doesn't really seem to be taken on board!

The following morning and ahead of the gig, Davey, Harry and Rod head out with assorted folk like me for a spot of sightseeing. "Well worth getting out of bed for," says Davey as we check out the world-famous Hermitage Museum, home to more than three million works of art, and the imposing Winter Palace. Ah Davey, a man of few words, but always well-chosen!

Touching the feet of Atlas for good luck!

The SKK Arena is a vast, vast, vast hall, a Communist-feel venue that's as dark as it is foreboding. Not that Maiden's Russian audience looks intimidated. This is the first time that the band have played in the famous city and the crowd is visibly excited before the boys have even played a note. Once the show gets underway, with the impressive opening sequence from 'The Final Frontier' married to a short, futuristic-looking film giving way to the new album's title track, the place goes absolutely doolally. The band feed off the energy of the crowd and St. Petersburg does, indeed, scream for Bruce. One particular fan goes one better, though, circling the part of the hall where I'm standing dancing some kind of improvised solo mosh that would get three for artistic content, but a definite 10 for enthusiasm! He's so lost in the moment and the music that it's really quite touching. If Maiden can still do this kind of thing to people then no wonder Bruce is happy to tell people from the stage that the band has no intention of chucking the towel in for a long, long time!

The following day it's time for me to leave and return to France and for the band to depart for Faro in Portugal. They're off to the airport before me, so I head down to the hotel's basement garage to say ta-ra. It's hugs all round and promises to catch up in London at the O2 on August 6, when I should be in England for work. "Try and get to Birmingham," says Harry. "We've got a game there!" You just try and stop me, mate. You just try and stop me!

- Howard Johnson