Monday, January 20, 2003

Video-A-Go-Go II
Heavy-metal music videography has always stood apart from other music video production styles, and Iron Maiden's 1990 compilation of 16 videos, The First Ten Years: The Videos, offers an interesting look at the evolution of the genre as it highlights the successful design elements of the band and its various music video tactics.

Opening with the 1980 video for "Women in Uniform," which was shot at the Rainbow Theatre in London, the video is an example of one of the first promotional music videos. Featuring Maiden's original singer, Paul Di'Anno, the video telegraphs many of the tactics future videos will employ. For the most part, Maiden's videos are performance videos, capturing the band on stage with full light show and stadium theatrics. The video also includes light narrative segments, however, seemingly to introduce Maiden's undead mascot Eddie, but also to remind viewers of the song's title as the segments feature heavily made-up women in nurse and military uniform. Live, the band lacks energy and stage presence, making for a relatively uninteresting video that may promote the song or record but certainly doesn't sell the live concert experience. If this is a Maiden concert, I don't need to go.

"Wrathchild" fares slightly better, featuring Di'Anno again but with a more mature, meatier delivery. The video, devoid of any narrative, documents what was probably an actual concert instead of a staged show. That improves the performance, presence, and passion of the video, much more effectively promoting the concert experience.

It's not until the third video, "Run to the Hills" that viewers are introduced to Bruce Dickinson, the prototypical Maiden frontman. With this video, the band holds onto live performance documentation but adds black-and-white stock film footage to bolster the song's cartoony content about the mistreatment of Native Americans. This is an intriguing aspect, as the band -- or the video's director -- avoids actual direction or narrative storytelling while including the grainy footage. Narrative enough, I suppose, although the silent comedy selected undermines the thesis of the song more than it adds to the video.

Maiden's use of stock footage -- with a Vincent Price voiceover to boot -- continues in "The Number of the Beast," which introduces dramatically lit camera-oriented posed performance, costumed extras, and narrative segments to the expected live stage settings. The live footage features a large Godzilla model on stage, and the stock footage incorporates some Godzilla imagery as well, smartly linking the two devices.

"Flight of Icarus" only confuses the progression, however. While the video employs cheesily produced costumed extra-cast narrative segments, the live performance is replaced with in-studio recording session shots. Perhaps because of the opening hallway shot, viewers might read the in-studio sequences as narrative, as well, especially because a man sitting at the mixing board morphs into Eddie and then a costumed extra (Icarus himself, perhaps). In a way, the two streams do intersect, with Icarus lowering his head to the board before the closing guitar solo, but in the end, viewers are left with no real narration, only costumed cameos.

Stock footage and live performance return for "The Trooper," interspersing title card and narrative establishing shots with stadium footage once again. But for the most part, this is "Run to the Hills" all over again. While the footage of calvary horses falling down is confusing enough, the prolonged use of title cards, even at the very end to close out the video, is even more confusing. Horses fall down. Is the song about the futility of war? If the content of the song isn't clear, no amount of silent film footage or title cards will help.

At the same time, this video leads me to think that the relative success of Iron Maiden might be built on several elements: the live-show spectacle, consistent branding through the ongoing presence of Eddie, heavy-metal humor via found footage of violence and destruction, and pseudo-literary and -historical allusions that give the band a pretense of depth.

That case is helped by "2 Minutes to Midnight," a song that appears to be about the countdown to nuclear war and the price of the political decisions that are made to reach that point. Here, the narrative segments almost dominate the live performance, representing a statesman anguishing over his choices -- and his timely end. The video introduces the neo-arcane ephemera of Eddie's fantasy world as the statesman explores a manuscript rife with runes and esoteric script. Adding to the representation of mediated experience supported by the use of stock footage, the statesman turns to a computer to scry the manuscript's meaning. Just to highlight the limited budgets available, however, it's notable that the producers had to mock up a stenciled cover to the fictional "Fortune and Glory" magazine.

Remember the Vincent Price voiceover? There's a Winston Churchill voiceover opening "Aces High." That means it's another song with political and historical allusions -- and that Maiden will back them up with stock footage of World War II-era news reels and films of fighter planes. For the most part, the video is live performance, with the stock footage puncuating solos. The song's lyrics remind viewers of the masculine, heroic context behind Maiden's stage performance. Regardless of whether it's the Native Americans, Icarus, soldiers, or pilots, so far, the main character's in Maiden's videos are heroes or thwarted heroes. That might be another ingredient in the band's recipe for success. Or perhaps it's an aspirational element of heavy metal's appeal to the disenfranchised in general.

The role of place pops up again in "Running Free," an entirely live performance in which Dickinson mentions spending a night in a Los Angeles jail. An interesting counterpoint to Di'Anno's mention of flying to London on a 747 in "Wrathchild"! Was Maiden one of the first NWOBHM bands equally at home in the United States as well as the United Kingdom?

If "Wasted Years" is any indication -- much less the Somewhere in Time album in its entirety -- Maiden's also at home in outer space. Interspersing live performance and candid backstage footage with animated segments and album-cover closeups, as well as representations of Eddie's many guises, the video also reuses stock footage from earlier music videos. By repurposing segments of the "Women in Uniform," "Run to the Hills," "The Trooper," "2 Minutes to Midnight," and "Aces High" videos, Maiden adds another wrinkle to its historic, heroic video representations. Now there's inter-video band history, which appears to be more than NWOBHM nostalgia, to consider. Heavy-metal band as hero.

Dickinson's mic-stand antics during the live introduction to "Stranger in a Strange Land" is as cartoony as Eddie's undead mug, and this is the first live footage that feels false. Oh, there's an audience, a large audience, but Dickinson's delivery was better when it was not so polished, thoughtfully dramatic, or oriented to the camera. "No brave new world," indeed. However, the allusions to being lost "in a land of ice and snow," the increased distance between performer and audience that's brought with better production, and the hero-worship gaze seen in the audience shots only add to the heroic aspirations and fantastic elements of Maiden's music. Eddie's goggled visage on stage underscores the science-fiction aspects of Somewhere in Time-era Maiden.

The all-live "Stranger in a Strange Land" makes "Can I Play with Madness"' full-on narrative all the more disturbing, if not a backward evolutionary step. With the introduction of synthesizers on Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, many hardcore Maiden fans accused the band of going mersh and selling out. That this is the first fully narrative video in the collection lends credence to the evident commercial evolution of the band. Interestingly enough, just as the arcane manuscript element of "2 Minutes to Midnight" pops up again in this video, so does the role of the monitor and the magazine. Here, a glossy metal fanzine is used as a torch, and the only live footage of the band is seen by video characters on a cobwebbed television. Another indication of commercial distancing and mediated experience.

Maiden make a point of returning to a concert video for "The Evil That Men Do," opening the video with slow-motion backstage and audience footage, contributing to the nostalgic history established in "Stranger in a Strange Land." While the band would have used stock footage or light narrative to bring home the song's message in the past, this is a purely live video, a radical response to the singular success of "Can I Play with Madness," and perhaps an attempt to hold onto the band's heroic past more strongly.

The band returns to the grassroots even more with "The Clairvoyant," which includes footage taken on the green hills of Donington. Smoke machine going, British flag flying, this video is all about the show and the audience's presence and response. The story is there, in the song, as well as in the stage set. Why use stock footage or narrative devices? With Iron Maiden, there's little need, and attempts to add depth only draw attention to the band's lack of depth.

In the end, the collection closes with another live video, seemingly from Donington ("Infinite Dreams") and a more heavily produced video directed by Steve Harris ("Holy Smoke"). The latter, a topical song addressing the political foibles of Christian evangelists such as Jim Bakker, combines friendly studio footage and goofy staged performance footage shot in a field of flowers. Commenting on the mediated duplicity of the PMRC and similar efforts, the video's cartoony shenanigans -- contrary to those in "Run to the Hills"' stock footage -- only bolsters the song's message. Here, Maiden says "We're a heavy-metal band. This is fun. We're serious, but we don't take ourselves too seriously."

That, I suppose, is what I've done by writing this video analysis. While Maiden falls prey to the violent stock footage tendencies of Headbangers' Ball and flirts with fully narrative pop music video styling, in the end, the band refocuses on the live concert and fan base experience, effectively stepping away from the edge of selling out and closer to the band's roots.

Even if those roots are shallowly planted.

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