How Iron Maiden Flipped the Script on “Flight of Icarus” and Soared to Success

British metal icons Iron Maiden have always had a penchant for writing about historical and mythological events and figures. The 1983 lead single from their fourth album Piece of Mind, “Flight of Icarus,” fell into the latter camp. But rather than just retell the tale of the young man who flew too close to the sun, frontman Bruce Dickinson put his own twist of things.

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In Greek mythology, Daedalus was an architect, inventor, and sculptor who built the Labyrinth for King Minos of Crete to incarcerate the legendary Minotaur. There is a lot to the story, but after what he felt was a betrayal by Daedalus, Minos imprisoned him and his son Icarus on his island. Thus, Daedalus built wax wings for him and his son to fly away and escape, which they did. But Icarus, not heeding the advice of his father, flew to close to the sun. His wings melted, and he tragically plummeted to his death in the sea. Daedalus made it safely to Sicily.

Flipping the Story on Its Head

While fascinated with the story, Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson did not want to simply offer a retelling of the tale in heavy metal form. In 2021, the frontman explained to Rolling Stone his intentions in flipping the script. “The original Icarus story is, ‘Do what your dad says, otherwise bad s–t will happen to you,’” Dickinson said. “I flipped it on its head, and I made the father the villain. I said, ‘If you could give an adolescent wings and they would fly, what do you think they would do?’”

A Turning Point

“Flight of Icarus” was a turning point for Iron Maiden, particularly in America, which was the large market international bands wanted to crack. The song’s under-four minute running time and slower tempo—in contrast to the faster tracks like “Run to the Hills” the band had previously picked as singles—landed them substantial MTV and radio play. The song flew up to No. 8 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock radio chart, and at the time became the group’s second-highest charting song in the UK and Ireland, landing at No. 11 and No. 14, respectively. The band’s next two singles, the faster “The Trooper” and Powerslave’s “Two Minutes to Midnight,” cracked the Mainstream Rock Top 30 in the States. When “Flight Of Icarus” was reissued on a 1990 single with “The Trooper,” it shot to No. 7 in the UK.

Meanwhile, Piece of Mind became the band’s first Gold-certified album, doing so within three months of its release.

The “Icarus” video intercut performance footage in the studio with vignettes featuring a mysterious grim reaper figure (played by drummer Nicko McBrain) near a seaside cliff along with trippy point-of-view flying shots that recalled the Stargate sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The dramatic mid-tempo anthem with its soaring vocals and guitar solos left an indelible impression on the metal masses. An animated version of the video was released in 2009.

Sitting on the Sidelines

Despite becoming the most successful American single of all time for Maiden, the group did not play “Flight of Icarus” live between 1986 and 2018. They have not performed it in concert since 2018. Bassist Steve Harris said he wished they had recorded a faster version of it—which they made up for with a slightly faster live version anyway—and it should be reinstated into their set. Dickinson has admitted to pushing for the slower song back then to gain potential airplay. Having already convinced band manager Rod Smallwood that “Icarus” could really break them in America, Dickinson told Harris, the band’s leader, maintaining the slower tempo was not his reasoning. He lied, but he was right in his judgment. Harris likes the song, but for some reason it still sits on the sidelines.

It all worked out well for Maiden. The song was a breakthrough for them in the U.S., and it remains beloved by fans. Unlike the fate of Icarus, Maiden did not get burned and instead soared into a long-lasting career that remains successful to this day.

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Photo by Theo Wargo/WireImage

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