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Steve Harris Interview
Steve Harris is stretched out across a bed of grass and clover beneath a tree that is part of a children's play area. Harris, the bassist, co-founder, and chief songwriter of Iron Maiden--currently one of Britain's hottest "heavy metal" outfits, had spent the morning playing tennis and swimming on a rare day off. Although the fans apparently have little trouble recognizing him, what with his distinctively long mane of dark curls, he bears little resemblance in many ways to the wildly charged musician who had performed on the previous evening. The same could also be said of the band's other members, Dave Murray, Clive Burr, and Adrian Smith, who are patiently perched by the nearby creek to try their luck, using bread, pickles, and hamburger for bait, with what Smith had referred to as "American" fish. Only vocalist Bruce Dickinson is out of sight in the whirlpool, after a bout of running through the adjacent hills. (No pun intended.)
It seems as though the "heavy metal" brand of rock has always drawn the bulk of its strength from the down-to-earth working classes, probably the major reason it has never really been stylish or fashionable, and also why it continues to maintain its massive appeal. On the surface, Harris, who still lives in the working class section of East London where he grew up, would seem to have the stereotypical background for a star of the HM genre, but further investigation reveals some surprising inconsistencies.
On the rare intervals that he has been home during the past two years, Harris' own past-times include soccer, tennis, going to the movies, and going out on occasion and getting drunk, "just like anyone else." His personal tastes in music range from Nectar, Todd Rundgren, Jethro Tull, and early Genesis, to early Who, Scorpions, and UFO. However, Steve says he first took notice of rock at the age of eight or nine via his aunts who were "heavy into the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkle, and Tamla-Motown. I wasn't a big fan of it or anything," he is quick to explain, "I used to listen to it so much because any asshole would be playing it!"
Surprisingly, he began playing bass ten years ago at the relatively advanced age of sixteen: "Sometimes I think it's better when you start late because you get too many preconceived ideas, especially if you get someone teaching you when you're a kid. I think it's wrong to get too many of those kind of ideas in the first place." Typically, he taught himself from records. "I used to listen to early Free, early Sabbath, stuff like that. I liked some of the Free bass lines, fairly simple, but really nice technique, you know what I mean?" With a smile he adds, "Of course you don't know anything about technique when you're first doing it!"
After a short while, he progressed to the beginnings of his first band. "When I first started playing we used to muck about in my house. I used to have a couple of guys comin' over from school, just sort of messin' about. This guy used to play guitar, and he was a lot better on guitar than I was on bass at the time, and I used to just try and jam in with him. Then we decided, 'Ah, well, we've got to get a drummer!' So we got this guy; anyway, he had this kit. He was pretty useless, but we didn't really know at the time. We thought he was alright, but as we started to progress and get a bit better, we realized he wasn't any good, and we sacked him."
According to Steve, the rest of the band "wasn't very good" either, and they played mostly covers. After about six gigs they broke up and he joined another band through an ad in the paper. "They were doing more rock-boogie sort of stuff, like Savoy Brown, early Fleetwood Mac. I wasn't really advocating the sort of stuff they were playing. I just thought, 'Well, it's good experience for me.' I played about sixteen gigs with them." The band was older, so Steve figured he might learn a lot, "Which I did. I think I was about 18 and they were 26--which I thought was really old at the time! (laughs) Only problem was, when I started writing my own songs, they didn't want to play 'em because they thought there were too many time changes and that sort of thing. So I figured, 'alright,' and I just left to form Iron Maiden."
It was seven years ago when he got together with the band's other original member, Dave Murray, and it took the first four of those years for them to land a record contract. During that time, Harris also worked a "regular" job as an architectural draftsman. "We were doing pubs and clubs on the weekends," he explains. "Then we'd go take time off of work--call off sick or something, that was the usual thing--to go up to clubs in the north of England." Understandably, he doesn't "miss" his former vocation, though he admits, "It was a good job. I mean, I used to like drawing anyway, although, obviously, that was using a straight line formula. . ."
Steve has some difficulty recalling the earliest lineups of Iron Maiden. "There's been so many different changes. We had so many changes before we actually went professional, 'cause, you know, they didn't want to put money into the band, or they didn't want to spend the time--that sort of thing." Some of the personnel changes have been fairly recent and unavoidable, as Steve notes: "Changes are a pain in the ass, but there's no way you can carry on under certain circumstances. When you do make changes, you have to make sure they're for the better. I think the changes we've made have been for the better--but then I'm biased!"
Clive, the drummer, has been with them for three years and has appeared on all three of their albums. Adrian, the second guitarist, has been with them for two years, and Bruce, the newest member, has been with them for nine months since replacing Paul DiAnno, who ominously is said to have disliked touring. All three had been members of well-established English bands, as Steve recounts: "Bruce was with a band called Samson, and he made a couple of albums with them. Clive was also with Samson. Actually, we didn't notice when he joined, but apparently he was on their first single. Adrian was with a band called Urchin. They had a single too--two or three singles."
It was after the release of their own first album, "Iron Maiden", which shot straight to #4 on the British charts, that the band got it's first taste of success--and visions of broader horizons. "You're sort of narrow minded at first," remembers Steve. "You don't really think too much about the rest of the world; you don't look that far ahead at the time. All we wanted to do was make records and go out and play. But then when things started really happening ..." Following a European tour with Kiss, their debut album also went gold in several other countries such as Sweden, France, Canada, and--especially--Japan.
In fact, Iron Maiden made the national news in Japan prior to their tour there last year when three Tokyo dates sold more tickets in a shorter length of time than any band since Led Zeppelin. At the site of their live EP, "Maiden Japan," the group was greeted with neo-Beatlesque enthusiasm: "Everywhere we travelled, there were loads and loads of screaming girls. I mean, it was unbelievable, just screamin'! Guys, as well, would run right down the road and and start bangin' on the windows...It was absolutely ridiculous!" At one point they stuck a tape recorder out a window to capture a bit of the delirium, because they doubted people back home would believe it. "I didn't think that sort of thing went on anymore," he says, still incredulous. "It's just the way they are; totally crazy!"
Along those lines, it's natural to wonder how family and friends have reacted to the band's initial success and the ensuing celebrity-type treatment. "It was like a 'what's happening!' sort of thing," Steve recalls. "I think it freaked them out a little bit, mind you, it freaked me out as well. I think they find it a bit strange, really, 'cause, well. . .we're pretty big in Britain now, and they come to the gigs and they see all these fans going crazy and you're signing autographs...Well, you saw what it was like here. It's still pretty strange for me when I sit down and think about it."
It's true that witnessing the wild fan reaction the previous night, both before and after the show, gives some second-hand understanding of the ambivalent feelings that Harris speaks of. However, Steve appears to be as approachable and affable to the fans as anyone can be and still keep their sanity, and it is clear that he maintains a down-to-earth attitude towards the "rock star" treatment that has left more than a few lesser individuals with permanently oversized craniums. On the subject of fans, he says there are some who "don't sort of regard you as being human. They're liable to sort of go over the top and start talking and talking, and talking, either that or they just go really go really quiet and don't know what to say...Maybe they think you're different, which you're not--no different than anyone else."
All things considered, he says, "That's the just the way it is. I can't complain. I'm enjoying all this 'fan' business!"
Not surprisingly, one of the things (in addition to the inimitable English pubs and beer) Steve enjoys most about returning home from all the touring is hanging out with his old "mates," because, he explains, "You know where you stand with them." While some of them, like his brother-in-law (Steve Lazarus), whom he once sat next to in school, still treat him the same as always--"That's really good"--others, he concedes, have been affected. "They think that because I've done a lot, and there's so much going on, that whatever they talk about is going to be boring, which is not the case. I LIKE to hear it. It's like exciting because you're in a band--or they think it is. To me it ain't that exciting. . .it gets a bit embarrassing sometimes. They make you feel different and you're not, and you don't want to be. I'm not complaining about it; that's just the way it is."
The topic shifts to the band's music in general, and Steve's songwriting in particular. Much of the subject matter of their songs deals with fantasy-type themes and fiction, so it's not surprising that Steve gets much of his inspiration from films and books. "I try to read quite a few books whenever I can," he notes. "Murders of the Rue Morgue," "Phantom of the Opera," and "Children of the Damned" were derived from movies, while others, like "Invaders," is about "an invasion of England as seen through the eyes of a Saxon." He adds, "'Hallowed Be Thy Name,' well, it's a bit morbid, but it's about a prisoner who is in the death cell. He's sort of had these real strict beliefs all through life, and then, with about two hours to go, he's not really sure. There's one line in it that says, 'If there's a God, then why does he let me die?' It's just conflicting ideas in your mind, I suppose. Well, I mean, I never want to be in that position!"
Does he think that any of his songs could be considered "romantic?" (Not that any of them appear to be, which is rather unique, considering how romance seems to be involved, in one way or another, with the majority of other band's material.) "No, I wouldn't say that; not really," Steve confirms. "I don't think we've ever written anything that is romantic. I know what you mean, actually. Everyone writes about how they want to love their 'baby,' and all that! People write about how hard it is on the road, which it is hard, and how lonely they get, which it is true what they're saying. They miss their baby and they want to love them, and all this business...But I find that a bit boring. I mean, frankly, it's a bit sort of . . wimpy, I think. That's not to say I don't sort of have any romance in me at all. It's not that. But I just don't think something like that is what I particularly want to write about."
Steve also agrees that, unlike most other current bands, Maiden's songwriting doesn't focus primarily on personal experiences. "Yeah," he adds, "another thing everyone writes about is all this macho screwin' of women, which I think is quite laughable, really." Steve notes that anything that Iron Maiden does in that vein, like "Charlotte the Harlot" (and "22 Acacia Avenue"), is meant to be very tongue-in-cheek: "It's a bit...sort of having a go at all the bands that really, you know, sort of go over the top about all that shit! I think it's quite funny, actually."
As he says this, it serves as a reminder that many of the band's other numbers have an underlying sense of humor about them that is often missed or misinterpreted. This is especially true since the release of "The Number of the Beast," which has subject matter which has apparently been taken too seriously by those of a Bible-brandishing persuasion in certain regions where the band has toured. "We've had some maniacs, we've had some religious nuts," Steve says, relating one incident in the South where "some idiot was shouting, 'Rot in Hell! Rot in Hell!'" as the band were
coming off the stage.
Steve says it was also true, and not a publicity stunt, that the band had all sorts of unusual problems during the taping of the album: "It was nothing to do with the 666 thing; that was exaggerated. We had loads of things going wrong. We had to get a completely different tape machine because it wasn't recording the stuff properly as it was going down. But, I mean, those sort of things can happen. It's just that we had more of it this time than any other time..."
There was also an even stranger incident involving Iron Maiden producer Martin Birch, who had a car accident toward the end of the taping, involving a sort of religious fanatic, and the bill came out to exactly 666 pounds. "People don't believe this, but he changed it to 667 pounds," Steve says. "I mean that was only the one song we did, but he's done a lot of work with Black Sabbath, and apparently, they're into that sort of thing. So, I don't know, maybe there's something to it ..."
When I ask him if there is anything important about the band that I might have overlooked, Steve says, "Well, we're definitely not satanists." With a pause and a smile, he starts to add, "Well, sometimes we do like to run around and raise H....," and the tape recorder suddenly clicks off on its own. Our mouths agape. . ."it's just coincidence," we finally conclude, laughing.
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