(#451: 23 May 1992, 1 week)
Track listing: Be Quick Or Be Dead/From Here To Eternity/Afraid To Shoot Strangers/Fear Is The Key/Childhood’s End/Wasting Love/The Fugitive/Chains Of Misery/The Apparition/Judas Be My Guide/Weekend Warrior/Fear Of The Dark
Listening to the epileptic thrashing of “Be Quick Or Be Dead” with its then-topical pot shots at Robert Maxwell, the Bank of Credit and Commerce International scandal and the collapse of the stock market in Europe, we really are not that far away, musically or politically, from Carter, and it would be fair to say that Iron Maiden spoke for an equally unfashionable but equally determined section of society.
Fear Of The Dark usually just gets qualified critical approval, which I think a little unfair; TPL’s infrequent social calls to Iron Maiden always perk me up. There had, however, been some changes to the group since last I wrote about them. Guitarist Adrian Smith left the band in 1989 after disagreeing with bassist and bandleader Steve Harris about the group’s future direction; Harris wanted stripped-down, back-to-basics rock, whereas Smith wished to expand the band’s sonic palette further (i.e. more progressive rock input and more synthesisers). He was replaced by ex-Gillan guitarist Janick Gers. Similarly, 1990’s A Prayer For The Dying, kept out of Then Play Long only by entry #413, was indifferently received, despite its inclusion of two fantastic singles, “Holy Smoke” and “Bring Your Daughter…to the Slaughter,” the latter of which became, through clever marketing, Iron Maiden’s first number one single, and one of several candidates for the title of least-played number one of the nineties (and it’s a more crowded field than you might imagine).
That album had essentially been recorded in a converted barn which belonged to Harris, with the aid of the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio, but the results were considered below par, so Harris converted the barn again to become a proper recording studio. Fear Of The Dark was produced by Harris, in conjunction with the returning Martin Birch (who retired shortly thereafter), and was generally considered an improvement on its predecessor. Singer Bruce Dickinson, who in 1990 had found time to record an album of his own (Tattooed Millionaire), reckons that sonically this record still isn’t quite up to scratch, but doesn’t damn it.
Actually the album finds Iron Maiden stretching out a little and sounding all the better for it. There are reassuring headbangers in “From Here To Eternity” – the latest instalment in the adventures of “Charlotte the Harlot” – and “Judas Be My Guide” (if either can be deemed “reassuring”) and the closing title track is one of the band’s classic setpieces; Harris says that the song is literally about nothing more than his being afraid of the dark – it is, if you will, a grown-up “Enter Sandman” - but metaphors for human contact can easily be derived from its grain (“I have a phobia that someone's always there”).
But there is also thoughtful adventure. Long sequences of “Afraid To Shoot Strangers,” a song about soldiers in the Gulf War, could easily pass for shoegazing – and one has to remember that Bruce Dickinson’s cousin Rob was at the time the lead singer and guitarist of the band Catherine Wheel. But the switches from pensive ethereality to in-your-face rock are expertly negotiated. The grim state-of-the-world address “Childhood’s End” musically pirouettes in the fashion of a medieval estampie. “Chains Of Misery” moves between the twin poles of tension and release quite beautifully – and in his first enunciation of the song title, Dickinson does sound uncannily like Billy MacKenzie. “Wasting Love” is a very creditable extended power ballad; a relatively new field for the band back then but one which points directly to some of their future endeavours (see in particular entry #1057).
Lyrically “The Apparition” interrogates itself (“Is there someone out there that would die for you?/…Thought not!”) as straight-ahead rock alternates with a querulous guitar line directly out of R.E.M. “Weekend Warrior” is as cumulatively crushing a dismissal of part-time hipsters as “Sorted For Es And Whizz” (“What you gonna do on Monday?”) – it is ostensibly about football hooligans, but could apply to many other settings. Yet the most remarkable song here may be “Fear Is The Key,” a patiently and quietly angry song about Aids and also about Freddie Mercury which could easily sound contemporary if written this year, in a different context: “I hear your secret heartbeat/I can hear your silent cries/The kids have lost their freedomAnd nobody cares 'til somebody famous dies.”