Music

Tremble with terror, ye unbelievers! No recording industry fortress can withstand the unstoppable musical force unleashed upon this mortal realm by the musical alchemists of Albion!

Iron Maiden are so much more than just an astonishing and amazing live spectacle. They're a living, breathing, libertarian resistance that glories in taunting an entertainment elite that long ago decided such louts were just too uncouth, too incorrect and generally unworthy to tread the sanctified and hallowed halls of the mainstream media complex.

Cast out and denied the limelight that was rightly theirs, Iron Maiden set about raising an army of fans and building an entertainment war machine the likes of which this world has seldom seen.

They have succeeded, and they have swept all before them.

My personal relationship with Maiden began way back in 1986, when I first saw them play live at Hammersmith. For any readers who remember, this was the gig that featured a brief appearance by some hapless kid who was placed there courtesy of Jim'll Fix It…ahem, moving swiftly on.

I've seen them four times in total, roughly once a decade, and on each occasion I've witnessed how this insatiable media monster has grown bigger, stronger and ever more ambitious with the passage of time. With musicianship, equipment and a stage spectacle second to none, Iron Maiden have first conquered and then colonised parts of this world where the corporate media machine often fears to tread.

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This is one band I was lucky enough to first witness in their pomp, way back in the 80s while they were still fronted by the legendary Fish and Misplaced Childhood rode high in the album chart.

I already knew that they were all first class musicians, but I had no idea just how tight and polished a band could be on stage. Anyone who bought Misplaced Childhood on vinyl back in the day will know that it's a full-blooded, unashamed prog rock creation consisting of only two tracks, side one and side two. As it was their latest release, I was understandably looking forward to hearing some album cuts performed live on stage. What I didn't expect was to witness the whole damned thing! Every last note and nuance, performed live, in sequence, with no breaks and no mistakes.

It was then I realised I wasn't just watching a kick-ass live band, I was in the presence of true musical greatness. Marillion's huge but tightly controlled energy dovetailed perfectly with the word-perfect recitals of the audience to produce a potent and mesmerising musical mix.

I'd had my first hit of the Marillion magic, and I knew had to have more…and so I did. I saw them twice more before the world came to an end when Fish left the band. After losing one of the finest lyricists this country's ever produced, the future looked bleak for the last and greatest performing proponents of prog rock's hugely demanding yet dying art.

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VNV Nation

Once in every decade or so, a musical movement or maybe a movie franchise appears that just looks, sounds and feels like nothing else. Like a brand new branch springing from a mature tree, this unexpected creative offshoot bursts out of the existing cultural body in a completely unpredictable way, yet somehow manages to look like it was pre-destined to appear all along.

VNV Nation arrived in our psyche in just such an unexpected yet predictable fashion during the creative drought of the mid 1990s; starting very small, but rapidly evolving into an entire musical sub-branch in their own right. This Anglo Irish duo somehow managed to blend an almost New Wave futuristic synth vibe with state of the art technology to produce a stunning series of auditory sculptures which are often imitated, but never bettered.

Working tirelessly both on the road and in the studio, VNV Nation have built up an impressive album catalogue as well as a hugely dedicated following, and all without the blessing or endorsement of the mainstream media machine.

Having been a fan of their music for quite a while, I was more than pleased to finally have the chance to witness a live performance.

They didn't disappoint.

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What better way to round off a multi-course musical banquet than something sweet, uplifting and not too heavy?

Everybody knows that one of the best and most enjoyable rituals of a live gig is the false ending followed by the (almost) inevitable encores, and naturally Marillion were only too happy to oblige. Being a Friars gig, there was no way they could sneak out of the building before delivering a rousing rendition of Market Square Heroes, their very first single from the dim and distant days of the early eighties. In fact, I'm pretty sure there are local bylaws compelling them to play it whenever they set foot in the smallish town where it all began. Although it's undoubtedly the most famous song about this unlikely musical mecca, Steve Hogarth did remind us that Bowie himself also tipped his hat to the very same square in the first line of Five Years.

Maybe it was because Marillion had played a mere forty-five minutes, or maybe it was the joy of going home early that gave Steve the energy to throw himself into the air with such gusto and abandon during the shouty bits of the song that launched them. Whatever the cause, he looked and sounded like he was having as much fun as the rest of us.

Naturally we were all awaiting the finale, which most of us figured had to include a Bowie number. My money was on Starman, which kind of fitted into the whole idea of the day.

Well, we did get a Bowie number, but not the one I'd imagined. Mind you, that hardly mattered less as the first unmistakable chords of Heroes filled the theatre, the sound rising to the rafters and somehow lifting us all with it.

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Ultravox

If there's a single band that encapsulates all that's best about the music of the late 70s and early 80s, then that band must surely be Ultravox. With a dark, new wave undercurrent, superb arrangements and a willingness to step off the pop reservation, Ultravox effortlessly bridge the language gap between mainstream music and the alternative counter-culture.

There's no doubt that they arrived on the scene with perfect timing, at the end of an era when unconventional and experimental tracks like Vienna and The Thin Wall still stood a chance of chart success. Seriously, does anyone believe singles like those would've gotten a look in five years later? I sincerely doubt it.

Like so many talented bands from that brief flowering of analogue alchemy, I wasn't able to catch Ultravox in their Monument heyday, but I was thrilled to finally see Midge and the boys performing live at Sheffield's O2 Academy during their highly regarded Return to Eden tour. This was doubly exciting for me as I'm already on record stating that Rage in Eden is my favourite album of all time.

I thought I'd died and gone to heaven as Midge Ure strode onto that stage in a silver-sheen suit and proceeded to blast out some serious hard-core guitar chords. Within half a minute those chords had morphed into the opening riffs of New Europeans, one of the great unsung new wave classics. Not only does it sound fantastic, but it perfectly packages the zeitgeist of that struggle between the printing press and the microchip, played out against a backdrop of grey concrete and glaring new neon.

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With the Dung Beatles and John Otway having set the bar incredibly high, there was a sense of palpable and growing excitement as the tech staff busied themselves preparing for the hugely talented Howard Jones to take the stage.

Now I can't have been the only one who had the image of a big-haired, bat-sleeved eighties keyboard wizard etched into his memory, so I doubt I was alone in my surprise when that techno minstrel's stripped down, almost lounge scale set up began to take shape. Perhaps somewhat naïvely, I'd expected banks of preassembled equipment to be wheeled onto the stage to deliver old favourites and new experiments. However, time waits for no man and so I confess my curiosity was piqued as that middle-aged but still very recognisable musician took to the stage behind a single keyboard, accompanied only by an acoustic guitar and some kind of new-fangled, multipurpose percussion pad.

Whether conscious or not, Jones' stripped down performance was a reflection of both the change and continuity experienced by most of his now older and hopefully wiser audience. In the same way that the concrete brutalism of Jones' heyday has been reshaped and remodelled, so his musical expression has adapted and evolved to blend in perfectly with its environment. Gone are the artificial colours and flavours of his synthesised eighties concoctions, replaced by a warmer, more organic and holistic musical output. All the old favourites were there, but reimagined in a more carbon-neutral and less overbearing package. Not too loud, not too abrasive; not too shrill and guaranteed not to upset anyone from anywhere. Yes indeed, Howard Jones' extremely competent and very watchable performance was a true reflection of the world in which we now live.

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