The Self-Destructive Madness that Inspired “2 Minutes to Midnight” by Iron Maiden

There was plenty of apocalyptic and nuclear war imagery proliferating throughout pop culture and art during the 1980s. It was easy to see why with the Cold War in full swing and the two major superpowers, the United States and Russia, at risk of annihilating each other. Heavy metal explored this theme quite often, and British metal icons Iron Maiden did so powerfully with the song “2 Minutes to Midnight.”

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The lead single from their fifth album Powerslave, the heavy tune was propelled by frenetic riffs, driving rhythms, and emotional turbulence, as frontman Bruce Dickinson sang about injustices in the world and the cold detachment of people in power. There was a nervous energy to the track that echoed its lyrical content.

The Doomsday Clock Was Ticking

“It’s a song about the experience of war,” Dickinson elaborated during the documentary The History of Iron Maiden Part Two. “And about the romance of it, and the horror of it, and the two things together, and the fact that, unfortunately, we’re repelled and fascinated by it.”

Something interesting to note about the creation of the song is that guitarist Adrian Smith was working out the riffs in his hotel room when vocalist Dickinson heard him, knocked insistently on his door, and joined him. They collaborated on the track which only took about 20 minutes to come up with. Dickinson already had some lyrics, and the duo quickly hashed everything out.

Given what was going on in the world then with Cold War tensions being very high, President Ronald Reagan berating the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union, and the two superpowers always worried about what the other was doing, Dickinson had no problems offering his perspective on the maddening state of it all. “The Doomsday Clock was ticking at two minutes to midnight,” Dickinson recollected in his 2017 memoir What Does This Button Do? “That sounded like a song title.”

According to The Bulletin, the Doomsday Clock “is a design that warns the public about how close we are to destroying our world with dangerous technologies of our own making. It is a metaphor, a reminder of the perils we must address if we are to survive on the planet.” Since it was created in 1947, the clock hands have been reset 25 times. During the superpower atomic tests of 1958, they were set to two minutes to midnight. Recently, they were inched up closer.

The six-minute banger “2 Minutes to Midnight” certainly resonated with people upon its release in August 1984. The video got decent airplay on MTV, the song made it to No. 25 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock radio chart, and the single made it to No. 10 in Ireland and No. 11 in the UK. It helped propel Powerslave to eventual Platinum sales status. According to, “2 Minutes to Midnight” has since become the sixth-most played Iron Maiden song in concert.

“We Oil the Jaws of the War Machine”

During a 1984 interview with French metal magazine Enfer, Dickinson said that the song was an allegory about the dangers of nuclear war. That is certainly an image that it serves up, albeit without direct mushroom cloud imagery, but there was more going on there.

The blind men shout, “Let the creatures out!
We’ll show the unbelievers”
Napalm screams of human flames
For a prime-time Belsen feast, yeah

As the reasons for the carnage cut
Their meat and lick the gravy
We oil the jaws of the war machine
And feed it with our babies

The killer’s breed or the demon’s seed
The glamour, the fortune, the pain
Go to war again, blood is freedom’s stain
Don’t you pray for my soul anymore

2 minutes to midnight
The hands that threaten doom
2 minutes to midnight
To kill the unborn in the womb

In 2018, Dickinson spoke to Planet Rock and looked back on the song, stating: “We’ve always been surprisingly prescient about political issues. ‘2 Minutes to Midnight’ was spot-on with what was going on in 1984, and with what’s going on now. You’ve got all the big powers selling arms, genocide across the world, private wars costing the lives of thousands—all happily bankrolled by the States, ourselves [the UK], the Russians and the French.”

The video for “2 Minutes to Midnight” featured mercenary soldiers, stolen warheads, and a cabal of wealthy people manipulating the world behind computers. It was more of a larger story fragment than a complete narrative, but it felt dramatic. At the time, the computer concept seemed a bit novel, but today in a world rife with cyber warfare it is hard reality.

Further, the song’s message about man’s penchant for self-destruction is more relevant now than ever. Currently, the Doomsday Clock is set at 90 seconds to minute. That’s something sobering to contemplate.

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Photo by Michael Montfort/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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