Last night I stumbled on this video of Bruce Dickinson, from Iron Maiden, singing William Blake’s Jerusalem with Ian Anderson (from Jethro Tull) accompanying him on flute. It was performed at a Christmas concert at Canterbury cathedral last year. He performed GK Chesterton’s Revelations, the inspiration for Iron Maiden’s song of the same name, at the same venue, and this can be viewed on youTube as well. The performances are stirring stuff, though at times Dickinson over-eggs the pudding and you can tell he’s used to a slightly different venue, but if you like good British poetry and appreciate the New Wave of British Metal (NWOBM) then you’ll get a lot of enjoyment from these two short clips.

The songs also show very clearly the strong influence of British classical poetry on the direction the ‘Irons took under Bruce Dickinson. Listening to these songs is like listening to any of their more famous efforts, though obviously the lyrics are more skilfully crafted[1], and it’s clear that Iron Maiden drew heavily on their British heritage when they wrote their works. Their most famous songs are steeped in what could probably be broadly described as the cultural origins of modern Britain – the romantic poets, the modernists, and some of the key debates in colonial and Victorian Britain that shaped the growth of the post-industrial British world, all feature prominently as themes in Iron Maiden’s work. Sometimes these are direct translations to metal – as in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – and sometimes they are a pastiche of poetry and history, as in Revelations. In other cases they are merely inspirational material, as in The Trooper‘s interpretation of The Charge of the Light Brigade. But in all cases, these influences and thematic elements are obvious in the work.

British comedy, television and especially music is, I think, the strongest part of its modern culture, and even seemingly nihilistic and barbaric elements of it – like the NWOBM or modern genres such as britpop – can be seen as part of a cultural continuity stretching back 200 or more years. This continuity is often obscured by the blandishments of modern art – the gutter style of modern drama, the spandex and satanism of the NWOBM, or the very modern and superficial faux working class posturing of some of the reformed toffs of the britpop scene – and of course it is also unrecognizable in some of the less talented and more degenerate products of modern British culture. But at its finest, modern British art, comedy and drama shows a strong appreciation of, and indeed directly channels, that long cultural tradition. I think for those of us from newer countries like the USA or Australia, this long cultural continuity can be surprising and perhaps also something we can be envious of (hence Australia’s historic “cultural cringe”). It’s also something we don’t always notice or appreciate, being more focused on those things that are fresh or new. But I think Iron Maiden is a really exceptional example of this tradition, being on the one hand embedded in what is often seen as a nihilistic and cultural vacuum (heavy metal) while simultaneously enormously dependent on a long cultural legacy for its themes and artistic influences. It isn’t just a case of a diamond in the rough, but of the ability of a traditional and often conservative entertainment and cultural establishment to continually reinvent itself without losing its roots.

fn1: this may earn me a fatwa from the fan club.

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