THE STORY BEHIND THE SONG: «Rime of the Ancient Mariner» by Iron Maiden - Rocking In the Norselands (2022)

THE STORY BEHIND THE SONG: «Rime of the Ancient Mariner» by Iron Maiden - Rocking In the Norselands (1)

Rime of the Ancient Mariner is one of the cornerstone tracks on the classic fifth Iron Maiden album Powerslave from 1984. It is a true epic, based on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s darkly foreboding poem with the same name which was written in the late 18th century. At 13:38 minutes, it would be the longest track in the band’s catalogue for over 30 years until it was surpassed by the 18-minute Empire of the Clouds from the 2015 album The Book of Souls.

The band recorded Powerslave at Compass Point Studios located in the Bahamas. In the late 1970s and 1980s, Compass Point was one of the great recording studios of the world, attracting major acts worldwide. Amongst the artists who recorded there, we find AC/DC, Judas Priest, Whitesnake, the Rolling Stones, U2, Dire Straits, Bowie, Marley, Clapton, The Cure, Duran Duran, ELO, Status Quo, Roxy Music, Thompson Twins, Paul McCartney & Wings, Bad Company, and many others.

And Iron Maiden, obviously.

They has first recorded their fourth album Piece Of Mind there in 1983, after previously recording in the rather less exotic surrounds of London. “We had so much fun doing Piece Of Mind out in Compass Point we had to go back,” says Steve Harris with a laugh. “That, and tax reasons!”

Rime of the Ancient Mariner is as much progressive as it is metal. It goes through several movements and changes, retelling Coleridge’s story about the cursed mariner by continually changing its colours to match the story.

It should surprise nobody who follows Iron Maiden with half an eye that the song was written by Steve Harris. The bass-playing ever-present band leader has written several Maiden epics inspired by literary sources, going back to the very first album which features the lengthy track Phantom of the Opera. A few albums later, a concept track about the Dune books followed, called To Tame A Land. For a long time, Maiden albums were expected to have at least one epic track per album that tackled some literary work or historic event of note.

“This was Steve’s mad idea,” guitarist Adrian Smith told Classic Rock Magazine. “In those days we used to head off to Jersey, to record things in this studio we rented as a bunch of tax exiles, basically. It was usually fucking horrible winter weather, I might add. Anyway, we had this system whereby we’d each come up with our ideas, then work with whomever to fill them out. Like I would often work with Bruce on lyrics to my songs or Davey on harmonies and guitar parts and that. Steve usually works on his ideas alone, and when they’re kind of 90 per cent done he’ll present them to the band. That presentation, if you like, was always at the end of the day in the main communal area, like a ‘show and tell’ at school! But when he put …Mariner forward I just knew we had to do it, because I’d never heard anyone do anything like it before.”

Typically, Steve Harris is a lot more down-to-earth when discussing the genesis of this remarkable piece of work. “I don’t know where it came from, actually,” he confessed. “I wrote most of it in the Bahamas where we recorded the album. I had an idea back in Jersey, but really it was at Compass Point Studios where it all came together.”

Adrian Smith adds, “I think when we recorded it in the Bahamas he had to hang the lyrics from the top of the wall all the way to the floor, there were so many. And Steve was so fired up about it he convinced everyone else. It’s so dramatic how can you not like it?”

“The funny thing is,” says Harris, “no one actually thought it was 13 minutes long at all. We were all so into making it work, and we all enjoyed it so much that we thought it was only eight or nine minutes long, maximum. When our producer Martin Birch timed it at 13 minutes we were all like, ‘Fuckin’ ’ell, 13 minutes?!’ And when we play it live, it never seems like 13 minutes at all.”

The original story had to be shortened quite a bit even for a song at nearly 14 minutes, but they managed to fit quite a bit into it, focusing on the overall scope and dramatic elements. They had permission to use some parts of the original poem verbatim, which also added a lot to the feel of the piece.

Retelling the full story here is not feasible, nor is it possible to do it justice with a brief summary. Still, here is a rough overview of sorts.

The poem (and song) begins as an old, grey-bearded mariner manages to stop a guest at a wedding ceremony to tell him a story of a sailing voyage he took long ago. The wedding guest is at first reluctant to listen as the ceremony is about to begin, but something in the mariner’s glittering eye captivates him and soon he has forgotten the wedding.

Hear the rime of the ancient mariner
See his eye as he stops one of three
Mesmerises one of the wedding guests
Stay here and listen to the nightmares of the sea

And the music plays on, as the bride passes by
Caught by his spell and the mariner tells his tale

As the story goes, despite initial good fortune the mariner’s ship was driven south by a storm and trapped in the icy waters of the Antarctic. An albatross appears – widely regarded as birds of good omen by sailors – and actually leads them out of the ice jam. The crew praises the bird and feeds it, which the mariner takes great exception to. He shoots the bird, which is regarded as a very bad omen. The crew is angry, especially as the ship now ends up adrift with the crew nearly dying of thirst.

Day after day, day after day, we stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.
Water, water, everywhere and all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.

After a “weary time” the crew are all in dire condition as the ship encounters a ghostly hulk. On board are Death and the “Nightmare Life-in-Death”, a deathly pale woman. Death plays dice with the mariner for the souls of the crew, tempting with salvation. Unfortunately, Death wins the lives of the crew members and Life-in-Death the life of the mariner. One by one the crew members die, while the mariner endures a worse fate as punishment for killing the albatross, being forced to live on whilst carrying the dead albatross around his neck. After many further days alone on the ship, the mariner accepts the error of his ways and his fate. At that point it starts raining, the rain awakening the dead crewmen who take up their positions on the ship, bringing it onward. The albatross falls off the mariner as the ship steers towards land. The mariner is allowed to leave the ship, just as it drifts into a whirlpool and sinks.

The mariner is saved by the hermit on a nearby island, to which he tells his tale. He then starts wandering the land to find others he can tell it to. He understands that he was kept alive to wander the earth, telling his story over and over, and teaching a lesson to everyone he meets that all life is precious. Having told his story to the wedding guest, the mariner takes his leave. The wedding guest returns home, waking the next morning “a sadder and a wiser man”.

The story is very fascinating and well worth investigating beyond this painfully truncated summary.

The story is highly theatrical, which lead vocalist Bruce Dickinson has no problems with. “I make my own lyrics as visual as I can because I think that way. I visualise every lyric when I’m writing it and, truth be told, I sing in pictures too – as I sing I see the picture in my mind of me standing on the deck of a bloody great boat in Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

Given the band’s history with epic retellings of classic works, they were well equipped to do a story with the magnitude of Rime of the Ancient Mariner justice. This time they went further than ever before. Harris realised that they needed different pieces of music to accompany different parts of the story. The dramatic sequence with the shooting of the albatross needed different music to the section when the crew were lying on the boat slowly dying of thirst, which again needed something different than the end section which depicts the mariner walking the lands ever retelling his tale. Harris was – and is – a prog rock fan at heart, and was completely comfortable taking the approach from progressive music in devising different musical sections and combining them as needed, just giving them the Maiden treatment.

The resulting work is a song with several distinct sections which can be broken down like this:

Part 1 (0:00-3:02) – Main melody and first part of the story
  • The first part is made up of a good, semi-progressive yet typical Iron Maiden band arrangement. This part could have been turned into a typically good Maiden track of normal length. It has a good mid-tempo charge and lovely twin guitar segments.
  • The mariner is introduced and starts telling his tale to the wedding guest. The tale goes on all the way up to the killing of “the bird of good omen” and the ship’s helpless drifting on the ocean. The song builds urgency as thirst and despair sets upon them. “Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”
Part 2 (3:02-4:14) – Tempo change and a developing, progressive riff.
  • Less typical Maiden rhythm to this section. Dramatic musical punctuations here and there. The music responds more to what goes on in the story.
  • The crew encounters Death’s ship and have their fateful dice game, leading to the death of the crew and the Life-in-Death fate for the mariner.
Part 3 (4:14-5:09) – Dramatic instrumental passage.
  • Storytelling by music. A dominating bass riff drives the first part of this passage, before it the band comfortably puts the section to bed.
  • The mariner and the crew are done for. The mariner is suffering a fate worse than death.
Part 4 (5:09-7:35) – Adrift and doomed.
  • Atmospheric piece, complete with the sounds of a ship creaking and water splashing. This section also features narrated passages from Coleridge’s poem. In isolation, certainly the most unusual piece of music Maiden has offered at that point, but an incredible part of the overall story.
  • The ship is adrift on the ocean, the crew dropping dead one by one until the mariner stands alone, the albatross hanging around his neck.
Part 5 (7:35-9:01) – Crouching bass, hidden band.
  • More insistent playing primarily by the bass, with guitars adding spice as well. Dramatic vocals from Dickinson.
  • The mariner discovers his fate. Eventually, the initial curse is breaking and the albatross falls from his neck.
Part 6 (9:01-11:06) Instrumental passage featuring guitar solos.
  • This part of the song allows for some nice guitar soloing, including a lovely twin guitar section. Maiden are well known for very melodic and tasteful guitar work, and this section really does not disappoint.
Part 7 (11:06-13:38) – Main melody and end section
  • The song moves back into the music from the first part of the song as it moves into the final part of the story.
  • The mariner is saved by the hermit and the final part of his curse begins: to ever wander around, telling his story to whomever he meets. As he leaves, the wedding guest feels sad and wiser. And the tale goes on and on…

The mariner’s bound to tell of his story
To tell this tale wherever he goes
To teach God’s word by his own example
That we must love all things that God made

And the wedding guest’s a sad and wiser man
And the tale goes on and on and on and on and on

Rime of the Ancient Mariner remains, for this writer and many other Maiden fans, the most fully realised of Harris’ conceptual epics. There have been many great ones over the years, but none of them have captured so eerily and accurately the strange, other-worldly place summoned up in this track. It is a masterful evocation of a complicated mood piece that would become the dramatic cornerstone of the Maiden show for many years to come.

“The theatricality was sensational,” said Bruce Dickinson in his autobiography. “For Rime of the Ancient Mariner, we turned the stage set into an old galleon. This was old-school painted backdrops, trompe-l’æil effects and props. It was proper theatre rather than insubstantial gimmicks. It was theatre of the mind.”

Martin Birch had been the band’s producer ever since he came onboard for their second album Killers (1981). He was an integral part of capturing their instantly recognisable sound and always made them sound organic and great, although the credit for arranging the music goes to the band.

“Martin was comfortable to work with,” Harris adds. “We knew each other very well by that point. But he never arranged anything; we’ve always done all the writing and arrangements. Martin was there to capture it.”

Powerslave was released on 3 September 1984, reaching #2 in the UK charts and #21 in the States. The subsequent tour was easily the most lavish and adventurous of the band’s career so far, lasting 11 months and touching 28 countries. It propelled Maiden to the next level and was documented with the landmark Live After Death live album and concert movie. Rime would have a very central place on that tour, with the fans being totally into it from beginning to end.

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