Blaze Bayley springs and snarls into a storm of teenage boys. It is a fake kind of spring and a contrived kind of snarl - the moves of the nerd with the air guitar in front of the bedroom mirror. But the boys are with him. They want him to win. And a sea of their fists joins a chant "Maiden...Maiden." He shakes his forearms in mock rage at the sky.
It's 10pm and on stage at the Tel Aviv Cinerama, Israel, the old war-horses of heavy metal, with 40m albums sold, are confronting their fans for the first real test of a decision that was tougher than steel. Two years ago, a row over the creative chances and huge spoils of top-line rock saw the band's legendary vocalist, Bruce Dickinson, walk away "to pursue a solo career".
Now they have Blaze and tonight is his baptism: opening his first world tour.
The upbeat view is that the line-up has altered and yet things remain the same. The band's managers, who with founder and bass player Steve Harris own the trademark "Iron Maiden", think that, as with "Manchester United" or "Chevrolet", you can change the bodies as much as you like and the name will continue to sell. After all, since its launch, 20 years ago next month, a startling 19 Maiden musicians have experienced a parting of the ways.
Tonight, as the band ran out onto the stage to meet 3,000 boys and maybe 50 girls, however, they were more than freaked out by the risk. The music press says that metal is dying and that the 1980s glory, when names like Maiden and Def Leppard could knock even Streisand out of the charts, was now just history. An age gap is yawning, as these men in their 40s seek to pump up fans who are typically only 17. And the sexism, racism and homophobia of the genre is being challenged by new attitudes. The agony of this evening is that the verdict could yet be cruel.
Blaze was nervous, to say the least, as he went through his warm up motions. He had been plucked from obscurity by Harris during lucky-break open auditions - and at least 1,000 rivals had since gone bitching that they were better than him. His old (mainly support) band, Wolfsbane, had never been further than a trip to Germany, where half its gigs fell flat. In a decade of singing he had yet to receive one ego-boosting royalty cheque. But as the band steamed into the first song on the running order, their latest single, Man on the Edge, he breathed hard and settled his stomach for the hour-40-minute set. At 31, he was a decade closer to the boys than the guys around him - and in metal those years could count. When he gripped his hands round the mike and pushed his elbows wide, he could feel the force behind his voice rise from somewhere near his knees. It swelled full inside his black T-shirt before belting past his chords into space:
- "A briefcase, a lunch and a man on the edge.
- Each step gets closer to losing his head.
- Is someone in heaven? Are they looking down?
- 'Cause nothing is fair as you look around."
From the narrow pit between the band and the boys you could see Blaze looking around. His brown eyes, cast into hollows by racks of red and yellow lighting above the stage, were flicking across the sea of faces as if searching for some special friend. From the pit, too, you could see his sweat break, as Harris's bass galloped and the guitars blasted. You could see strands of his hair matting with sweat as they gathered around his sideburns. You could see trails of sweat: spotting the stage, like OJ Simpson's blood. The power now was turning him on: the grinding beat, the loud pumping riffs. There was something seductive about it. Like drinking whisky until it washed his brain and his eyes turned cloudy and dark.
He felt it dig into him and, like with some drug that has yet to be invented, he was out of any ordinary existence. On stage, now, he felt the music bringing out his beast. But it was a beast on a leash, like a pack of mutant Dobermans. Everything grinding, under control. With his legs apart and his forearms straining. He could feel the power. His snarl was real.
But were the boys out there with him, for him, he wondered? Was he making a real connection? Two days earlier, Maiden had done a warm-up session at the tiny Sing Sing club in Jerusalem and Blaze had lost it, that point of contact, and the kids had voted with their feet. As he had made himself vulnerable in the new line-up's first public appearance, dozens among the 200-strong crowd had rushed to the toilets all at once.
Then there was last night, outside The End bar in Haifa, which offered an opposite omen. Half way through the set, in front of maybe 300 kids under a warm Palestinian sky, the practice session had suddenly taken off and the teenage boy's climbing instinct had been freed - sending scores of them scaling an olive refinery to get a better view of the gig.
Urine on porcelain, or metal on metal? What was it? How would he know?
The floor was bouncing, that was a sign, and it was heaving like the sea. By 10.35, the stage-divers had started up, too, leaping across the pit, touching as many of the band as they could get away with and then vaulting back into the crowd. A thousand fists were up, stabbing the air above sweating heads - with first and little fingers pointed high as a sign of their fraternity. Blaze dabbed at the sweat in his eyes with a wristband and then spoke at the end of song eight: "You are fucking brilliant tonight. Cheers," he shouts into the mike, his face darting back and forth, with an eerie, crazed stare.
And from the right, near the front, a shout comes back. A boy replies: "So are you."
Blaze felt the power and was now prowling like an animal, but he knew that elsewhere he was weak. This wasn't his band rocking out, it was Steve's band - that Bruce had fronted for most of the lives of the sea of boys watching him now. A metal magazine had wickedly pictured Harris holding Blaze by the throat. And during a photo-session last night a kid had said bluntly "You're good, but Bruce is better." It felt like playing a borrowed guitar, or sleeping with a dead man's lover.
For all the tightness of the band on stage, it wasn't particularly clear elsewhere that the rest of them even liked him. Since they had all met up at Gatwick airport for the British Airways flight to Tel Aviv, Blaze had most often found himself sitting alone, or talking with the road crew, while the others joked around as a group. He had brought a Hi-8 camcorder on the trip, to make a video diary, and the tape mostly showed its distance from the action; observing, but rarely observed.
Of course, the guys had been together for years, while he was the new arrival - yet this should have given him a novelty value, something to count as a plus. But whenever he held forth, in his English West Midlands dialect, it seemed to provoke a retreat by the others, or at least a glazing of their eyes. Whether he was talking about why dogs should be licensed, or the weaknesses of measuring in millimetres, from the way his fellow musicians behaved, you would think that they thought he was a bore.
If he was not in Tel Aviv tonight he would most likely be on a Birmingham couch with his girlfriend Bev, watching game shows or documentaries. But instead he paced this stage in a make-or-break bid get through. How often had he listened to live Maiden albums and envied Dickinson's easy conversations with enormous, cheering crowds? Now, as he stared into the damp, youthful faces in front of him, he knew that to win them over he had to make contact, soul to soul.
"Here's another new one," he shouts into the mike.
"Maiden...Maiden," chant the boys.
Offstage, he was an inveterate talker: philosophising, without need of encouragement, about stuff like "parallel worlds". There was no such thing as truth, only our subjective perceptions, he would ramble to anybody who wanted to know. "You live in a different dimension to the one I live in," he would explain. "I can't see things the way you can see them, but I can see you and I can see those things. You are in a different dimension to me."
Of course, if he wasn't fronting this band, nobody would swap a Motorhead album for the lonely tale behind that thought. But if you pushed him further, he would go on to talk about a time when he was a boy himself - and eventually he would get around to a story about his parents' ugly divorce. Bayley had been three or four at the time and until he was 16 lived with his mother. Then he had encountered other problems, with his stepfather, and went back to stay with his dad.
In general, his was a common story - a childhood immersed in quarrels. He had been economically secure - his father was a director of small manufacturing business - but a peaceful family home life had always been merely a hope. As his parents fell into hate with each other, he could never reconcile the contradictions of the different accounts from them both. And out of the conflict between the people he loved, he tried to negotiate a cease fire between them by accepting that both sides were true.
"You are in a different dimension to me," was his favourite saying. "It's a great way to get around the fact that we don't match up with each other."
It had been Bayley's father who had set him on the journey that had brought Blaze to this theatre tonight. After leaving school at 17, he had held a string of crummy jobs, pulling out your three-piece suite in a furniture warehouse, working as a hotel porter, when his father told him to "have a go" at his dream - so that at least he would know if he failed. "It's always the people who don't have a go at things," his father had counselled, "who end up twisted."
He had been working nights at a hotel when he decided to change his name to "Blaze" and front his own band in pubs. The night is the time when teenagers are supposed to be going out and stopping out, but mostly he had been alone and used the time to think. "I'm just drifting around and I'm not going anywhere," he had thought. And he had thought: "Why am I not going anywhere. Maybe it is because I'm too scared to try what I dream about."
Tonight was that dream - to do a world tour - and yet, even here, there was every chance that he would fail on an epic scale. After song eight, the band ran headlong through three tracks from their new album, The X-Factor - which was not at the time released. Through the sweat in his eyes and the hair plastered to his cheeks, Blaze could see that the boys were confused. They didn't know the latest material. The set was sagging. Was it time to judge?
But then, as if crossing a rickety bridge, the band reached Fear of the Dark. This, the title track of their ninth album, was a masterpiece, written by Harris, and was something that everyone knew. It rocked like the best of them - but it was a gentle, almost acoustic, sequence that came now to turn the tide. The lights went down, matches were struck and a stillness came over the theatre. And then out of that rare metal moment of quiet, the boys began to sing:
- "I am a man who walks alone
- And when I'm walking a dark road
- At night or strolling through the park.
- When the light begins to change
- I sometimes feel a little strange:
- A little anxious when it's dark."
He was Blaze, not Bruce, but the boys were with him: he was going to get through after all. As guitarists Dave Murray and Janick Gers thrashed into action at the end of the lyric, he felt a new surge of breath that filled his lungs and began a shape-shift to save his life. A demented possession took hold of his body as his arms began lashing to the rhythm. And his fists started pounding an enormous drum, invisible, between him and the crowd.
He stared into the forest of stabbing fists, but the person he wanted in the rising light was not there and now never would be. If it had been his father who had set him on the journey, it was his mother who had lent the strength to stick it. Four years ago, however, while Blaze was away on a tour with Wolfsbane, she had been rushed to hospital with an asthma attack and they couldn't save her life. She was never to see his finest hour. He now had to breathe for them both.
The evening before, he had talked about this woman, to a reporter who wanted to know. They had walked down to the sea front outside the Hilton hotel and sat on a rocky pier that was wet with spray in the wind. As the sun had touched the Mediterranean horizon and a crisp crescent moon had appeared at 90 degrees left, Blaze had recalled her as his best friend and said how he wished that she was there.
He had asked the reporter about favourite movies and mentioned his: Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. Then he got quizzed in a weird way about who he would be in the Wizard of Oz.
Blaze licked at the salt on his hands and discounted the lion, who was looking for courage, and the scarecrow, who was looking for brains. He quibbled about the tin man ("I think I could love if I wanted to"), before finally making up his mind. He was Dorothy, he said. He was the central figure. He was looking for a way to find home.
There is no Dorothy on the stage tonight, nor are there likely to be any in the crowd. If metal is anything, metal is male - and males in a state of rage. Here and there among the rolling ocean of black T-shirts, an occasional pair of girls wave their hands, but dancing, jumping and punching the air, is a tribe of ecstatic boys.
From the pit you could see them staring at Blaze, wide-eyed and with teenage grins. If he was the beast, then they were beauty, with enough energy surging that, were any to be found, they would have instinctively taken to the trees. In the pit it was raining, a rain of sweat, in a primeval, monsoon heat. Straining against steel rails at the front, the kids were as wet as if they had recently surfaced from the water by the hotel shore.
At 11.15, the 13th song, The Clairvoyant, brought Harris to the front. In the tradition of bass players, his expression was concentrated, even wooden, but as he stepped forward, his effect on the kids was like a magnet brought close to iron. A thicket of arms sprouted from the crowd, anxious to make contact: to touch. Gingerly, he approached further as boys, half over the rails, brushed at his legs and shoes.
Then one reached a finger to the back of the hand that was picking the bass guitar strings. Harris stepped away, but the touch passed back - to where everyone was touching each other. Now the boys were hurling things onto the stage, Maiden banners, flags and towels, for members of the band to touch. The ritual's rules said that, along with drummer Nicko McBrain's sticks, these items would soon be thrown back. But now Blaze prowled around monitors and mike stands, handling them each in turn.
He was a shaman, a holy figure, and from the back of the stage he produced a bottle of water and doused the front of the steaming crowd with broad sweeps of his wrist-banded arm.
- "Feel the sweat break on my brow.
- Is it me? Or is it shadows that are
- Dancing on the walls.
- Is this a dream? Or is it now?
- Is this a vision? Or normality I see
- Before my eyes?"
His voice lacked the character and range of Bruce Dickinson's, but something else was breaking through. As the guitars screamed, the beat pounded and the floor bounced around him, Blaze's mutant Doberman's came off the leash and a werewolf took his place. This was no Clark Kent to Superman: it was the Incredible Hulk, whose clothes split as his muscles exploded; a gob-smacking transformation. Any trace of the nerd was a forgotten thought as a wild, primitive, but still human, form clawed and blinked through a jungle of noise.
And yet what you see from Blaze tonight is not violence, nor even aggression. This is regression, to some earlier phase, when we lived on fruits and nuts. There is power and tension, but no trace of evil. He would pick your fleas, but never hurt you. For all the rubbish about metal as hostile, Satanist, or causing suicides, while the boy from Birmingham paces and rages, you sense from the pit that in the heated turmoil he is heading to some private peace.
The boys were humans as a younger species, not some menacing football mob. While their contemporaries steal more cars than all other age groups combined, these kids make visits to each other's homes to talk over favourite tracks. While the rave scene today is strung-out on ecstasy, these kids are drugged by their own adrenaline and build to endorphin highs. You couldn't find a better music crowd in the world - frisky kittens to the vocalist's dog.
Through the sweat and hair Blaze could see that he had won them - and stuck out his bottom lip. With an encore break, the lights went out and the band ran off the stage. Then the boys started stamping, demanding more, knowing that more was to come: the Number of the Beast (that's "666), the title track of the third and top-selling album; Hallowed Be Thy Name, from the same commercial triumph; and finally, The Trooper, from Piece of Mind, which was album number four.
He had never felt like this in his life before: in the last hour something had cleared. All the months of apprehension had disappeared: washed away in a river of sweat. Would they like him? Would he get fired? Would he even remember the words? These questions now meant nothing to Blaze: his maiden voyage would be a success.
It was as if a lens had turned into focus, as the parallel dimensions of band and boys for that time merged into one. He knew nothing of their realities: from where they had come, or to what they would soon go back. But until 11.40, when Iron Maiden fled from the rear of the building and the house lights came up inside, he led this frenzied tribe of youth into a world free of discord or grief.
* Iron Maiden, The X-Factor tour, UK dates: Wolverhampton (Civic Hall), Saturday 4th November; Glasgow (Civic Hall), Sunday 5th; Manchester (Apollo), Monday 6th; Leeds (Town & Country), Wednesday 8th; Newport (Centre), Thursday 9th; London (Brixton Academy), Friday 10th.