40 Years Ago: Iron Maiden Soars to Top 10 With ‘Flight of Icarus’
Iron Maiden were bona fide heavy metal stars by 1983 and soared even higher when "Flight of Icarus" arrived as a single on April 11.
They'd reached a high-water mark with 1982's The Number of the Beast, debuting fiery new singer Bruce Dickinson, scoring their first No. 1 album in their native country and infuriating religious zealots everywhere. Iron Maiden sacked drummer Clive Burr for Nicko McBrain in December 1982, and in January 1983 decamped to the island of Jersey, setting up shop in Le Chalet Hotel to begin writing their fourth album, Piece of Mind.
The LP proved another stone-cold classic, featuring several of Iron Maiden's most beloved anthems and set list staples, including "The Trooper," "Where Eagles Dare" and "Revelations." The group was firing on all cylinders during the writing process, churning out top-tier songs even during bathroom breaks.
"'Flight of Icarus' began life in a toilet," Dickinson recalled in his 2017 autobiography What Does This Button Do? "Adrian [Smith] was fond of playing guitar in bathrooms — he liked the ambience from the tiles — and, while he was noodling away, I heard a sequence of chords and started singing along to them. The chorus of 'Flight of Icarus' just started flying like an eagle as a result."
Watch Iron Maiden's 'Flight of Icarus' Video
The lyrics invert the myth of Icarus, who escapes from the island of Crete with his father Daedalus but succumbs to his hubris when he flies too close to the sun and melts his wax wings, falling into the sea and drowning. "The original Icarus story is, 'Do what your dad says, otherwise bad shit will happen to you,'" Dickinson told Rolling Stone in 2021. "I flipped it on its head, and I made the father the villain. I said, 'If you could give an adolescent wings and they would fly, what do you think they would do?'"
The taut, mid-tempo rocker was a notable departure from Iron Maiden's typical high-speed gallop, which Dickinson knew they could use to their advantage. "I quickly realized that we potentially had a song under four minutes that could do the unthinkable for Maiden: airplay on U.S. radio," he wrote.
Manager Rod Smallwood "had decided to go for broke in the U.S.A. and had gambled on us being able to do the business as an arena headliner. Social media did not exist. It was radio that ruled the roost, and if we could get a radio track away, we were home and dry — hard work and touring would do the rest. I told him that 'Flight of Icarus' was the one."
Dickinson first had to get the song past bassist and chief songwriter Steve Harris, who thought it needed to be faster. But Dickinson stood his ground, and Harris ultimately capitulated. Dickinson described the exchange with Harris: "'This is nothing to do with getting it on the radio, is it?' he demanded. 'Oh, no. God forbid. Of course not,' I lied."
Watch Iron Maiden Play 'Flight of Icarus' in Concert
Vindication followed when "Flight of Icarus" climbed to No. 8 on Billboard's Mainstream Rock chart, giving Maiden their first and only Top 10 hit in America. "As it happens, I think it is the right tempo regardless, but I'm sure Steve would disagree because we haven't played the song live for 30 years," Dickinson wrote.
Harris didn't mind playing "Icarus" in concert, at least not initially. "It's a really good song, but we much prefer it live," he said in 1983. "We tend to play it a little bit faster live. Looking back on it now, we feel we could have played it at the faster speed on the album. This little extra touch gives it a bit more fire."
"Flight of Icarus" remained a concert fixture for the next few years, but after being played a scant six times in 1986, Maiden retired it from their set lists until 2018, when the song returned for the Legacy of the Beast tour. Once again, Harris defended "Flight of Icarus" but said he preferred the live rendition.
"Well, there are a lot of songs that have been retired for long periods and then you bring them back," he told Rolling Stone in 2019. "As for 'Flight of Icarus,' I did think that the tempo was a little slow. The way we do it live now is way better, to me. I think it's how it should have been done in the first place. I'm enjoying playing it now. It's a different type of song, and I think it's good to do different stuff."
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