‘Die With Your Boots On’: Historical Militarism and Working Class Masculinity in the Music of Iron Maiden — Annabel Mahoney

Iron Maiden have forwarded characteristic archetypes of masculinity in a varied manner throughout their discography. Themes in Iron Maiden’s music vary from classical literature (Rime of the Ancient Mariner; Phantom of the Opera; The Murders in the Rue Morgue); mythology (Isle of Avalon; Flight of Icarus; Seventh Son of a Seventh Son) and histories of the Abrahamic religions (Powerslave; The Man Who Would be King; For The Greater Good of God). Other narratives present within their discography include that of Vikings (Invaders); colonisation and westward expansion in the United States (Run to the Hills); the Spanish Inquisition (Hallowed Be Thy Name); Atlantic submarine warfare (Run Silent Run Deep) and the Manhattan Project (Brighter than a Thousand Suns). I aim to analyse how cultural history is represented in five of Iron Maiden’s most popular songs, and how each of these narratives explores masculinity in both a historical context and its own right. Set against a backdrop of de-industrialisation, growing service employment and the decline of real wages, this representation of manhood offset a crisis of masculinity within their young, predominantly working-class male audience. At the same time, the historical representation of British masculinity in these songs allows the fabricated perception of the glorious military underdog – a long established cliché of British historical propaganda – to come to the fore. As well as celebrating the imagined past, these representations of which many focus on loss of life as a narrative arc, present deaths worthy of mourning as an act of nation-building.

This analysis will focus on The Trooper (‘Piece of Mind’, 1983), Aces High (‘Powerslave’, 1984), Tailgunner (‘No Prayer for the Dying’, 1990), Paschendaele (‘Dance of Death’, 2003) and The Longest Day (‘A Matter of Life and Death’, 2006). Each of these songs plays into the particular aesthetic of an era of British military history which is still prominent in Britain’s cultural memory. The Trooper is a fictionalised account of the charge of the Light Brigade; Paschendaele of the 1917 Third Battle of Ypres campaign and Aces High, Tailgunner and The Longest Day on the Battle of Britain, the firebombing of Dresden and Operation Overlord respectively. Iron Maiden play history as theatre. Their live shows are known for frequent historically-appropriate costume changes; frontman Dickinson performs The Trooper in a red trooper’s jacket waving the Union Flag, and Paschendaele in a First World War greatcoat and helmet on a set decorated with barbed wire. The brand of historical masculinity they perform ties into the performative cornerstones of masculinity – especially among young working-class men – of strength, machine work and patriarchal duty which began to decline in the labour market post-1970. These themes of masculinity are extremely apparent in the narrative of the five songs analysed.

For the ease of the reader, I have used the first section of this essay to contextualise the intersection between masculinity and class between the 1970s-2000s, the background against which these songs were written. I draw on social theorist Paul Willis’s scholarship on ‘working class kids’ and the parallels drawn by Ryan M. Moore between the Luddites of the early 1800s and the heavy metal subcultures of the 1970s-80s. Moore argues that metal was used to protest ‘reification’, a Marxist economic theory that is often embodied in the popular metaphor of the market’s ‘invisible hand’; how the loss of control over the production process and the ascription of social value is decided by economic forces – such as how much capital one can generate – is an inevitable consequence of capitalist society. Subsequently, I will examine how militarism in a historical context builds up a particular idea of working-class masculinity through the lyrics, imagery and context of Iron Maiden’s music, using the five aforementioned songs as case studies. This will lead into an examination of how their portrayal of history, despite appearing to rebel against the established power, is comparatively mainstream. The conservative nature of the history depicted allows the band’s audience to engage with their narrative, and either consciously or unconsciously use the models presented to evidence their own exclusivity.

Iron Maiden’s use of history ultimately aims to alleviate masculine anxieties about their place in society by reinforcing a narrative they dominate and are glorified by.



Deindustrialisation is a force which holds cross-sectional power in both class and gender boundaries. While contributing to the polarisation of class structure, the job losses and downward mobility present in the shift between a goods to a service-based economy in the 1970s-2000s in Britain was experienced as a crisis of masculinity, predominantly felt by working-class men. Their emasculation through both unemployment and the redefinition of work in a way which threatened preconceived ideas of masculinity coincided with increasingly visible numbers of women in the workplace. The skills of service-based labour, which saw a rise in employment of over two million between 1971-1984, requires an increased amount of customer-facing service which demands increased attention to personal presentation and emotional labour, which had previously fallen within the gendered paradigm of ‘women’s work’. Against a backdrop of de-industrialisation, growing service employment and the decline of real wages, this representation of manhood offset a crisis of masculinity within young, predominantly working-class male circles by refocusing their disillusionment on class critique.

In Learning to Labour, theorist Paul Willis documents how performances of masculinity manifest in self-described ‘non-conformist’ working class boys. Willis identifies that the lack of social mobility afforded to these boys after their rebellion in the education system leaves them with a failure to gain meaningful exam results couples with their embrace of the popular idea of ‘masculinity’ to prepare them for a future in manual labour.[i] This first generation of young men who went on to form the surplus working population after deindustrialisation diminished the amount of jobs available to them were the predominant receiving audience of heavy metal, Willis argues.[ii] The antecedent counterculture of the previous generation’s working class led to a search for symbolic forms of compensatory power. The ‘metalhead’ subculture therefore styled itself as anti-establishment but tended to adhere to traditional patriarchal gender roles looking back on an imagined past where hyper-masculinity was conflated with power and militarism.[iii] This is not to say that these ideals are directly reflected in the music of Iron Maiden themselves. While their production of a disproportionately large number of live albums (Live After Death, 1985; A Real Live One and A Real Dead One, both 1993; Rock in Rio, 2002; Death on the Road 2005 and Flight 666, 2009, to name only the ones certified silver or above in the UK and Commonwealth) belies an urge to transcend the traditional power dynamics of live music by including the audience as the integral selling factor in a branch of their discography.

Within the heavy metal genre – as with punk – much of the meaning ascribed to the music comes from a reciprocal flow between the artist and the audience.[iv]

Reification – the ‘phantom objectivity’ caused by the ascribing of a character to a relationship or similarly non-corporeal ‘thing’ – entered mainstream vernacular through Marx’s analysis of capitalist modes of production.[i] In Das Kapital, Marx argues that society’s creations are ascribed a life and value of their own outside of human control, often at the expense of those who create them.[ii] The relevance of reification in heavy metal, particularly in the portrayal of masculinity in the late 1980s, is made manifest in the prevalence of supernatural or preternatural beings within the genre which are made to act with impunity over a powerless public with no framework for which to understand them. Being left at the mercy of a process which is absolute in its execution and devastating in its consequence is, I would argue, a rationalisation of market forces upon a working-class demographic in a time of already unstable self-perception.[iii] This metaphor appears, reversed, in the words of Marx and Engels, themselves alluding to Goethe’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in The Communist Manifesto; ‘like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the netherworld whom he has called up by his spells’.[iv] Iron Maiden present these powers of authority in a manner increasingly reified through mythology, literature and history. Abstracted from their social and historical context Bruce Dickinson – frontman and qualified historian – and Steve Harris – the band’s primary lyricist – appropriate images of masculinity back into a context seen as ‘traditional’; that which is concerned with machine work, militarism and protectionism. The reversion to what is often perceived as a more straightforward time by a group of people who are undergoing a conflict or crisis of identity is one which is well-documented in mainstream historical thought. Iron Maiden’s exploration of young masculinity with carefully cultivated appeal towards traditionalist masculine domains is an attempt to affirm a masculine identity against the socio-economic reification of the 1970s-2000s.


The first point of evidence here is how young, working class males are depicted as victims of the moneyed class through explicit violence. One of the most straightforward examples of this is the 1983 single The Trooper from the band’s fourth studio album ‘Piece of Mind’, released the same year. The social commentary within the lyrical content – an enlisted man being sent to a pointless death by an administrative ‘blunder’ made by the aristocratic elite – is easy enough for a young, working class man who feels he is being mistreated at the hands of the state to relate to. Unlike Dio’s Holy Diver (also released in 1983) or Black Sabbath’s Black Sabbath (1970) where forces of evil are a metaphor for social power, The Trooper comments on contemporary power dynamics by giving an unembellished, or even under-embellished, account of an instance of catastrophic military failure through the misuse of the social framework of the time. The lyrical subject of the song is nameless, as are all the subjects in this analysis – the formation of the title through his rank (a private in a cavalry rank) and the definitive article ‘the’ present the audience with the impression that this is a definitive, or defined experience of the battle itself. Description is carefully generic, the enemy referred to only as ‘Russian’, by 1983 the enemy on the other side of the Cold War. There are also significant parallels to be drawn between the eponymous trooper and the soldiers of the Falklands War, which ended almost a year to the day of the release of the song as a single.[ix] The central theme of The Trooper is one of meaninglessness, being a part of a system which is designed without any perceivable benefit and which serves to destroy those at the base of it. The parallels between the lyrical subject of the song and the audience receiving it are striking. Nor is this a singular occurrence. Paschendaele, from 2003 studio album ‘Dance of Death’ instantly evokes the predominant cultural narrative of the First World War as a bloody and pointless waste of life.

What is implied in The Trooper is stated outright in Paschendaele; the lyrical subject is young (‘Many soldiers eighteen years’), he is being sacrificed to a hopeless cause (‘crucified as if on the cross’/‘battlefield nothing but a bloody tomb’). The sentiments present in The Trooper are reiterated again in Paschendaele, sometimes almost word for word; compare ‘we break to run/the mighty roar of the Russian guns’ to ‘Running straight at the cannon fire’, and; ‘into the jaws of death we go’, to The Charge of the Light Brigade’s ‘all into the valley of death’, which The Trooper draws heavily from.[x] In both songs, the destructive force is not the enemy side but the orders that are being followed. Dickinson and Harris do not miss a chance to remind the audience how the lyrical subjects are objects of the system; they have no names, no defining features and are only allowed to operate within their prescribed narrative. They are everymen. The subjects are driven to their death by the orders they are given; the enemies are the order-givers, the officer class. The Longest Day (‘A Matter of Life and Death’, 2006) elaborates on this point with the line ‘All summers long the drills to build the machine/To turn men from flesh and blood to steel’.[xi] While the point is reiterated that the men in play are pawns (‘to take a bullet for those that sent them here’), society itself is depicted as more malevolent, this time conniving to strip men of their individuality and their will to survive.[xii] I do not believe it is a coincidence that both Passchendaele and Operation Overlord took place well after the advent of conscription. The system described, a reification of society acting on the working-class man, is to use him to further its own agenda until he is destroyed completely. The fact that he is destroyed is not the point of the matter, it is the fact he is entrapped in a cycle which allows him no choice of fate. Society has been designed, and has in turned designed him, so that the working-class man can never win.

Working-class masculinity also posits itself in historical militarism in the imagery which Iron Maiden choose to present in these songs. Again, the classic point of contact is mascot Eddie on the sleeve of The Trooper. Adopted as the unofficial mascot of the Ulster Freedom Fighters, Eddie holding a tattered UFF flag in the place of a Union Jack features prominently on several murals around Northern Ireland, most famously in Derry where it was depicted alongside Douglas Haig’s 1918 ‘backs to the wall’ order until 2013.[xiii] Other famously politicised album covers include Sanctuary, in which Eddie murders Margaret Thatcher, and their cover of Skyhooks’ 1978 song Women in Uniform, which features zombie Thatcher in a beret preparing to get revenge on Eddie with a sub-machine gun.[xiv] The political inferences of these two pieces do not need spelling out. However, Maiden also present their narrative of historical militarism in a surprisingly conservative way. Famous for their energetic performances, 1984 single Aces High is often used to begin live sets, complete with the sound of aircraft overlaid with Churchill’s ‘we shall fight on the beaches’ speech, which also begins the song’s music video.[xv] As previously mentioned, Dickinson performs The Trooper and Paschendaele in period costume.[xvi][xvii] Amid all of the pomp and circumstance, these songs are presented in a way which does not challenge any mainstream historiographical thought, or indeed challenge the audience to apply any critical thinking. It seems to be a fancy dress setting in which to redress old narratives as new or theatrically exciting. The Trooper draws inspiration from Tennyson’s poem The Charge of the Light Brigade, which it also broadly follows in terms of content and narrative structure. Each of the pieces contains six stanzas; each of the six concern corresponding parts of the charge, from the marshalling of the cavalry (verse 1/stanza I), the giving of the order (verse 2/stanza II), the introduction of the cannon (verse 3/stanza III), the first casualties (verse 4/stanza VI) to the falling of ‘horse and hero’ (verse 5/stanza V).[xviii] Songwriter Steve Harris then parts with the song’s formula; where Tennyson used the sixth stanza of his poem as a summation of the events and draws it into the British narrative of the heroic defeat (‘When can their glory fade?…. Honour the charge they made!’), songwriter Steve Harris uses the closing verse of The Trooper to document the last minutes of the lyrical subject.[xix][xx] The digression allows Harris, and the band as a whole, to explore the event from a personal rather than a national perspective, encouraging the listener to make his discourse their own and tying into the above discussion about the inclusion of live audiences.

There are two quotes from war poets in the opening four lines of Paschendaele; ‘in a foreign field he lay’ from Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier and ‘tell the world of Paschendaele’ from Siegfried Sassoon’s Memorial Tablet (The Great War).[xxi][xxii][xxiii] In live shows, it is often introduced with a passage from Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth. While each song differs in its musical technicality, lyrically they all follow a very similar arc; the beginning of conflict, a show of violence and of suffering and, typically, the death of the lyrical subject at the song’s end. Tailgunner and The Longest Day, themselves never released as singles, differ from this arc along with Aces High in that no death is made explicit; each narrative ends on a precariously hopeful note; ‘no more bombers/just one big bomb’; ‘’til we finally make it through’; ‘live to fly, fly to live, aces high’ respectively.[xxiv] [xxv] [xxvi]While initially seeming to go against the trend, these songs all tie unquestioningly into the mainstream of how Britain sees itself through conflict. They reflect the Second World War of the public imagination, that of Britain as an underdog fighting valiantly on against a larger enemy and succeeding. These songs still remain carefully general in how they describe their lyrical subjects; ranking young men acting as part of something bigger than themselves in the face of very real danger. It sends, to me, a very clear message. The men of Britain are brave and selfless, but they are denied the chance to show it, trapped in a society which has removed all the paradigms in which they can show their worth.


This lack of historical nuance is to be expected from music about historical events. However, by framing the working-class man in this veneer of historical militarism, sending the message ‘this could have been you!’, Iron Maiden’s music takes on a peculiar new usage, whether intentional or not. By portraying these young fighting men in the manner that they do, they are building the foundations for a grieveable set of events, which itself plays an important part in building a national historical narrative. In her 2004 essay ‘Violence, Mourning, Politics’, Judith Butler posits the idea of mournable versus unmournable lives. Written in the wake of 9/11, Butler describes how the last few minutes of the World Trade Center are established at the centre of a humanising narrative, not only humanising the lives lost but providing the framework to establish the narrative of ‘the human’ and how a ‘grieveable life’ is maintained.[i] Butler argues that in order to feel grief, the subject must identify with the concept of suffering. They must ask ‘Who have I become?’, ‘What is left of me?’ in order to orientate themselves; grief is focused around the loss of the effect the deceased has on the life of the griever, not on the deceased themselves.[ii] I would add to this argument that in order to make grief political, the first person pronoun can easily be substituted for the first person plural ‘we’; who have we lost? What is left of us? In order to grieve, one must identify with those that were lost; in Butler’s hypothesis, if the person was not known personally, grounds for familiarity must be established. These run primarily through lines of gender, nationality and race.[iii]

The culture of commemoration built up around the war dead of the First and Second World War means that many members of the public will feel connected to its participants in one way or another. This could be through familial relations, through war memorials, through literature and film. Iron Maiden present the perfect victim in the lyrical subjects of these five songs. He is either implied or explicitly stated to be young. He is placed in an overwhelming situation with little chance of a way out. Like the Unknown Warrior, he has no name, no family, no background and no problematic past with which to sully his memory. He is the perfect sacrificial lamb. One can either imagine themselves as him or mourn him as if they knew him. By inspiring this sense of both empathy and pity in the audience, the act of engaging with these songs unconsciously becomes an act of nation building. The ‘grieveable life’ is established, the familiarity for the paradigm of grief maintained. The epithet of the Glorious Dead remains intact, without any desire to engage with the events outside the fictious histories presented, and to commemorate is to forget. The use of military history in Iron Maiden’s music attempts to alleviate masculine anxiety by upholding a narrative in which they are both dominant and glorified.



Iron Maiden’s music uses sustained imagery of historical militarism to appeal to and allay the anxieties of working-class masculinity. In The Trooper and Paschendaele, they present the order-giving upper class as the enemy of the people, forcing them into a scenario designed to break them from which they cannot escape. The imagery associated with these five songs is classically masculine, and the way the band plays on these images with a live audience includes them as something of a whole. However, the presentation of historical militarism in a working-class context is not as radical as it may appear, embedded in a very mainstream and countercritical school of nationalist historical thought. Aces High, The Longest Day and Tailgunner all use the singular narrator and incorporation of cultural cornerstones to recreate the narrative of the British underdog; Paschendaele re-invents the Blackadder school of thought of the First World War and The Trooper reminds us that the Charge of the Light Brigade was an accident arising out of a poorly-managed military campaign. That does not mean that these narratives cannot be presented as a metaphor. By presenting a conservative view of history – one where white working-class men were among the front-and-centre – the perceived climate of animosity against working class men and the ideals of working-class masculinity can be critiqued. Iron Maiden have done what Dio, Black Sabbath and Judas Priest have all done; use their narrative to criticise the status quo. They have simply done it by trying to keep the status of the past much the same.

Annabel Mahoney is the Editor-in-Chief of the Wellington Street Review and the Creative Director of Royal Rose Magazine. She has been widely published in a number of literary journals and anthologies and shortlisted for poetry and prose prizes by the Human Rights Watch and The Literary Association. Her first collection, Wyf-King, is forthcoming from Lapwing Publications. In October, she will join the English Department at the University of Durham, researching the intersection of touch, trauma and masculinity in exploration and combat literature of the 20th Century. You can find her tweeting at @Annabel_Mahoney

Featured Image: Charge of the Light Brigade, Richard Caton Woodville, Jr. [Public domain]

The Trooper image by Ralph_PH, used under a Creative Commons license

Spitfire image by RalphFPL, used under a Creative Commons license


[i] Ryan M. Moore, ‘The Unmaking of the English Working Class: Deindustrialisation, Reification and the Origins of Heavy Metal’, in Heavy Metal Music in Britain (ed. Gerd Bayer), (Abingdon, 2016) p.146

[ii] Moore, ‘Heavy Metal’, 146

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Moore, ‘Heavy Metal’, 147

[v] Gajo Petrović, A Dictionary of Marxist Thought eds. Tom Bottomore, Laurence Harris, V.G. Kiernan, Ralph Miliband), (Cambridge, Mass. 1983), p.411

[vi] Karl Marx, ‘First Metamorphosis, or Sale’ in Chapter 3, Section 2: The Medium of Circulation in Das Kapital (Moscow, 1887) trans. Moore & Aveling, digital copy accessed 6/10/18 (https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch03.htm)

[vii] Moore, ‘Heavy Metal’, 148

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] AllMusic.com

[x] Steve Harris and Adrian Smith, Paschendaele, ‘A Dance of Death’ 2003/Steve Harris, The Trooper, ‘Piece of Mind’, 1983

[xi] Steve Harris, Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith, The Longest Day, ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, 2006

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] https://extramuralactivity.com/2013/02/22/the-trooper/

[xiv] Sanctuary, ‘Iron Maiden’ 1980/Women in Uniform, single released 1980

[xv] Steve Harris, Aces High, ‘Powerslave’ 1984

[xvi] ‘Death on the Road’ DVD, (EMI, 2006)

[xvii] Mick Wall, Iron Maiden: Run to the Hills, the Authorised Biography (London, 2004), p.380

[xviii] Alfred Lord Tennyson, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, 1854

[xix] Ibid, stanza 6

[xx] Steve Harris, The Trooper, ‘Piece of Mind’ (1983), verse 6

[xxi] Siegfried Sassoon, ‘Memorial Tablet’, 1920

[xxii] Rupert Brooke, The Soldier, 1915

[xxiii] Paschendaele, 2003

[xxiv] Steve Harris and Bruce Dickinson, Tailgunner, ‘No Prayer for the Dying’ 1990

[xxv] Harris, Dickinson and Smith, The Longest Day

[xxvi] Harris, Aces High

[xxvii] Judith Butler, ‘Violence, Mourning, Politics, in Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence, (London, 2004), p.38

[xxviii] Butler, ‘Violence, Mourning, Politics’, 30

[xxix] Butler, ‘Violence, Mourning, Politics’,31