The Heavy Revolution
Why do Quebecers adore Iron Maiden, one of hard rock’s most quintessentially British bands?
Illustration by Alex Fine.
In October 2006, the legendary heavy-metal band Iron Maiden played at Montreal’s Bell Centre, one of two Quebec stops on the A Matter of Life and Death tour. I was in my third year at McGill University, and on the day of the concert I was mulling around an on-campus cafeteria, ordering a club sandwich, wearing my three-quarter-sleeve Killers shirt. (The snobby, rockist dictum that you can’t wear a band’s t-shirt to the same band’s show does not apply in metal fandom, where such items can comprise whole wardrobes.) Some stranger—a Québécois guy—approached me. He was also wearing an Iron Maiden shirt. This was his in.
I don’t remember precisely what he looked like, or even which Maiden t-shirt he was wearing. I do remember that we sat together for maybe fifteen minutes and talked about the band. Except not even. We really just named off songs, albums and members, and took turns effusively agreeing to matter-of-fact statements (or just proper nouns) disguised as questions. Like:
The entire tenor of this not-quite conversation was: yes, we both like this thing, big time. He was the most Québécois sort of metalhead, imparting in densely accented anglais that, ouais, his “best band” was Hirrron Maiden. But I’ve always wondered why, exactly, a Quebecer like this guy would love Iron Maiden so much. This is a band whose iconic zombie-skeleton mascot, Eddie, appears on the cover of 1983 single “The Trooper” in a torn redcoat, brandishing a bloodied sabre and waving a Union Jack. How could such a thoroughly and singularly English metal act hold such prominent sway in French Canada?
Quebecers love heavy metal—for proof, just walk down any street in Montreal and play Spot the ’Banger. But they really love Iron Maiden. As longtime manager Ron Smallwood has noted, this is where the band headlined its first major North American concerts in the early eighties; when it was still supporting acts like Kiss, Judas Priest and 38 Special elsewhere on the continent, Maiden played top-billed shows to six-thousand-capacity venues in Quebec. It was the band’s gateway into North America—and that remains true today. Just two years ago, the band performed before some eighty thousand people at the Quebec City Summer Festival, smack on top of the historically loaded Plains of Abraham.
There’s something knotty about this: a patent identity crisis playing itself out. Shaking the mentality of colonialism—the sense of inscribed inferiority that resulted from conquest by the British and the cultural dominance of English Canada—has long been central to Québécois nationalism. Doing away with this mindset was one of the fundamental aims of the 1960s Quiet Revolution, and it continues to inform the sovereignty movement today. So it seems contradictory—even treasonous—for the province to embrace a hard-rock act so steeped in the history and iconography of Britain.
But contradiction resounds at the heart of Iron Maiden. Just look to “The Trooper,” a signature Maiden number rooted in the band’s conception of British identity. Based on Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” a poem about the Crimean War, “The Trooper” thunders through the horrors of battle with equal nods to nobility and cruelty. It’s easy to read the song as narrowly propagandistic. If it strikes notes of God-save-the-Queen chest-beating, though, it does so in faithful recreation of Tennyson’s tone. It’s not a pro-British hymn, but a taut, literal-minded adaptation of an enormously popular narrative poem, one essential to the character of modern England. “The Trooper” is not an ode to King and Country, but to culture. It’s not about Britain, but Britishness; not about state, but nation. On the single’s cover, even Eddie, sabre drawn and tattered flag flailing in the wind, looks less like a battle-ready demon and more like an avenging spirit—a ghost of the fallen dead, from Balaclava or maybe the Plains of Abraham, charging into the present.
Pierre-Étienne Drolet was twelve when he first heard Iron Maiden’s 1990 album No Prayer For The Dying, a grungy effort that eschews the band’s usual high-flying operatics. Drolet, then a classical-guitar student, wasn’t exactly hooked. Then, in high school, a friend gave him the group’s 1986 time-traveling epic Somewhere In Time, a record that abruptly ends a song about Alexander the Great (“Alexander the Great”) with the clunky lyric “Alexander the Great! He died of fever in Babyloooooooooon!” and is excellent.
When he was fourteen, Drolet picked up an electric axe. He started playing in bands that slowly introduced more and more Maiden songs into their live sets. At sixteen, he played his first Maiden tribute concert. At eighteen, he was playing Maiden-only sets in bars around Quebec City. And at twenty-one, he founded the Power Slaves, which, today, is probably the most important Iron Maiden tribute act in the world. Drolet is now thirty-five and plays guitar in the Power Slaves full-time. His dedication to Iron Maiden may be superlative, but, for a Québécois metalhead, it’s not that odd.
“I remember I was in my house, on my chair, listening to the music of Iron Maiden, reading the lyrics and looking at the images, and I fell in love,” says Drolet, recalling the day he first heard Somewhere In Time from start to finish. For him, like many others, Iron Maiden became a “religion,” one replete with its own iconography, rituals and yowling evangelist, in the form of singer Bruce Dickinson. That this faith was born from a classicist, stuffy model of English culture (Tennyson, Coleridge, the Second World War) didn’t conflict with Drolet’s own Québécois identity. Curiously, and counter-intuitively, it reinforced it.
“They are proud to be UK citizens,” Drolet says of the band. “They celebrate it. And I think that’s the same as the Québécois. Because many are nationalists. We work for Quebec. We don’t work for whatever else. This is our country. Maiden says the same thing.” The band’s pride isn’t colonial. Despite all the British symbology, Iron Maiden expresses a markedly anti-imperialist streak, from the hit song “Run to the Hills” (a cowboys-and-Indians narrative about the trauma of conquest) to the cover art for the band’s second single, 1980’s “Sanctuary,” which depicts Eddie squatting over a murdered Margaret Thatcher.
More pompous metal acts have copped what Maiden does, musically and thematically, but missed the satire. There was New York’s Manowar, one of heavy metal’s great joke bands, whose members squeezed into fitted leather vests and performed mawkishly Wagnerian anthems about hailing England (“Hail to England”) and killing with power (“Kill With Power”). There’s something cheeky to it: an American band embracing the jargon of the British Empire as allegory for its own metal métier. But by and large, it’s bands like this—who aren’t so much sinister as just stupid—that befoul the good name of Iron Maiden.
When Bruce Dickinson sings “Blood is freedom’s stain” on “2 Minutes To Midnight,” there is the imperative sense that he doesn’t mean it. For a band that slaughters politicians on record covers, such notions of duty and national sacrifice are the stuff of parody, fit for skewering—or shredding. What Maiden celebrates is Britishness as personality, not as policy. It’s a fluid ethos, one that can be transposed onto any other national context. During performances of “The Trooper” in Montreal, I’ve even seen Dickinson swap his Union Jack for a colossal fleur-de-lis flag.
This play on national identity is essential to understanding Iron Maiden’s primacy among Québécois metalheads. The band has actively courted the province: the massive concerts, Dickinson’s fleur-de-lis. But maybe there’s something else going on: a uniquely Québécois predisposition to the music of Iron Maiden.
Unlike the US, whose homegrown musical forms stem equally from blues and jazz, Quebec’s “native” music is of more Eurocentric stock; formative influences include both European classical music and the “folkloric” tradition of sovereigntist chansonniers like Gilles Vigneault and Félix Leclerc. Sam Dunn, who co-produced and co-directed the 2009 tour documentary Iron Maiden: Flight 666, says the echoes of folk music in the band’s songs have helped build its worldwide following. “One of the reasons Maiden has such a huge global appeal is because they’re really just a six-piece folk band,” he says, “with really big Marshall stacks and a whole lot of bombast.” (Outside of the UK and Quebec, the band is especially popular in South America, playing to crowds as large as 350,000.)
Perhaps it requires just that little leap of faith to connect a nationalist cri de coeur like Vigneault’s “Mon Pays” to Maiden’s own anthems of bondage (“Chains of Misery”), isolation (“Another Life”) and fraternity (“Blood Brothers”). The band manages to limn the language gap, too. Dunn calls Maiden “heavy metal’s all-time great sing-a-long band,” and it’s true. Even if you can’t make out Dickinson’s soaring choruses, the band’s classically melodic guitar riffs prove just as easy to hum.
“Iron Maiden makes the people dream,” says Drolet. Indeed, many Maiden songs are explicitly framed as hallucinations, visions, prophecies conjured in crystal balls. It’s not hard to imagine that, among Quebecers, the appeal of this music comes from how gracefully it dovetails with the preoccupations of rebellion: seclusion, frustration, an almost cosmic sense of persecution. In the Québécois context, such timeless themes acquire a double resonance, as the personal connects to the political.
“When you see what the songs of Iron Maiden say, it’s often about being small and going somewhere, even if you have the whole world against you,” Drolet explains. These are anthems of freedom, of breaking away—fables rebuilt around the charging, propellant structure of heavy metal. Folk turned up to eleven. This is music, as Drolet puts it, “about liberty.”
These days, Drolet’s focus is the Power Slaves’ Made in Iron show. A lavish replica of Maiden’s seminal 1984 World Slavery Tour, Made in Iron boasts a four-tier Egyptian-themed stage setup, a one-thousand-square-foot backdrop, period spandex, bulk orders of dry ice and a twenty-five-foot-tall Eddie replica. Vocalist Phillipe Harvey can’t really nail Dickinson’s high notes (who can?), and this Eddie looks more like a caricature scribbled in a middle-school cahier than the real deal. But the music is flawless and the effect is uncanny.
If Iron Maiden is a religion, then the Power Slaves are its ministers. The group is less a tribute than an all-out act of sanctification. Drolet and his bandmates efface themselves to consecrate something greater: that fleeting moment—one we’re all susceptible to—when you’re listening to something as seemingly inconsequential as a heavy-metal record about time travel and ancient Macedonian kings and somehow, out of left field, a fully formed image of who you are and how you fit into the world snaps into focus. When everything suddenly, if only for a split second, makes sense.