In the rock and metal music scenes, it’s not uncommon for bands to push the envelope. Ozzy Osbourne once bit the head off of a bat on stage (he reportedly thought it was a plastic replica, not the real thing); Alice Cooper posed nude with a boa constrictor; KISS mixed some of the band members’ blood with the ink used to print their 1977 Marvel comic book.
But few groups have taken macabre showmanship to the level of Iron Maiden (The Number of the Beast, Fear of the Dark), who mounted a concert in August 1993 in London that remains one of the most unique live music shows ever produced. That’s because it’s not often that the guitarist’s disembodied hands are still able to play the proper chord, or that the lead singer is decapitated during the show’s grand finale.
There Will Be Blood
Raising Hell was the brainchild of Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG), a pay-per-view production company that had enjoyed success with a New Kids on the Block special in 1990 that turned out to be one of the highest-grossing pay-television events in history up to that point. While boxing was traditionally the most lucrative offering for cable subscribers, SEG believed there was an untapped market in the 12 million or so homes that had the capability of buying a premium event.
Their next effort would be a radical departure from a boy band. “They wanted to do a concert show based on a party in hell concept,” Simon Drake, a UK-based magician, tells Mental Floss.
SEG envisioned a show that would combine heavy metal with theatrics. They first reached out to Ricky Jay, a highly-respected sleight of hand expert and occasional actor. Jay, in turn, recommended Drake, who had performed his share of viscerally intense illusions on British television and on his own series, The Secret Cabaret. Drake might, for instance, opt to saw an assistant in half. Then he just wouldn’t bother to put her back together again.
“I think I was voted ‘most violent magician’ on some TV show,” Drake says, laughing. “I had kind of a [Quentin] Tarantino approach at the time to magic. It was a hot and cold shower approach. One minute you’d be doing something unpleasant and the next it would be something enchanting.” Assuming, of course, audiences could ignore any residual stage blood.
SEG and Drake began discussing which musicians might best complement his tricks. Ministry was one option; so was Ozzy Osbourne. “Then they heard I’d done a live performance to promote an Iron Maiden album, Fear of the Dark,” Drake says. “I asked them to get involved and they were delighted to do it.”
"Buckets of Blood"
Iron Maiden was formed in 1975 by bassist Steve Harris and eventually settled into a line-up featuring Harris, lead singer Bruce Dickinson, guitarists Dave Murray and Adrian Smith, and drummer Clive Burr. (Dickinson, Harris, and Murray ultimately appeared in the special, along with guitarist Janick Gers and drummer Nicko McBrain.) They released seven hit albums in the 1980s, drawing a fervent fanbase as well as criticism during the satanic panic hysteria of the 1980s that saw metal bands accused of unduly influencing teens into self-destructive behaviors. But this was the ‘90s, and some onstage bloodletting seemed just controversial enough without inviting too much scorn.
In rehearsing the magic sequences, Drake was surprised that SEG wanted more, not less, of the red stuff. “I remember producers saying, ‘No, Simon, more blood!' Really? ‘Yes! Buckets of blood!’”
With SEG and Drake agreeing on Iron Maiden, Drake went to Portugal, where the band was touring, to plot out the special. “I wrote down a load of ideas, like chopping Stevie’s arms off and playing a solo with them,” Drake says. “The solo I played with Iron Maiden on stage, that’s every fan’s dream."
The final illusions were a mix of bits Drake had previously performed and some that had only been in the prototype stage, with Drake unveiling them for the first time during the concert: “Like chopping a guy’s head off and playing football with it, or ripping a girl’s heart out. It was totally just for that show.”
Because the venue needed to accommodate both Drake and Iron Maiden, the production opted out of booking a conventional music venue and instead headed for Pinewood Studios, the legendary film soundstage in Iver Heath, England, just outside of London that’s been home to a number of James Bond films as well as Star Wars and countless other big-budget productions. “It was a real audience of Iron Maiden fans and my fans from the telly stuff," Drake says. "It was an L-shaped stage; we bussed loads of fans out there. I don’t know how many people. It was either 500 or 1000."
Iron Maiden performed a total of 17 songs, while Drake performed his increasingly grisly stage illusions. He took a knife and plunged it into his forearm, drawing both stage blood and a chorus of "Oahhhhh!" from the crowd; he twisted an assistant's limbs like a Stretch Armstrong doll and put a drill through another assistant's head. In addition to playing with the guitarist’s newly-severed hands, Drake finished the show by abducting Dickinson and placing him in a literal iron maiden—a largely apocryphal medieval torture device in which victims were trapped in a sandwich of spikes—before "Eddie," the band's monstrous mascot, placed his severed head on a pole. Drake himself got his comeuppance when Eddie then impaled him on a stake.
The show was well-received by fans of both Iron Maiden and Drake, but failed to make much of an impact when it aired on American pay-per-view television for $19.95 on August 28, 1993. For one thing, the Grand Guignol style wasn’t to everyone’s taste. When the concert aired on British television, Drake says, three of the goriest tricks were edited out; in one early screening, an SEG executive passed out from all the blood.
It was clear that combat sports, not concerts, were pay-per-view's future. While most viewers couldn’t travel to Las Vegas for a big fight, they could probably catch a concert tour passing by their town. Following this trend, SEG opted to pursue another bloody spectacle—this one all real. They debuted the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993.
As for Drake: While he enjoyed collaborating with the band, the experience wasn’t entirely positive.
“Television can be disappointing in some ways,” he says. “A lot of stuff I rehearsed was set to the music of Metallica, Jeff Beck, and others. Then [SEG] dubbed library music over it. Their job is to save money. My job is to make interesting entertainment.”
And while Drake never subscribed to the idea that hard rock or metal music could be a negative influence, he did find himself bothered by the audience’s reaction to some of his more gruesome illusions. “I was playing into this pastiche, sort of this violent horror monster thing,” he says. “But looking down at the fans screaming, they really weren’t seeing it as a joke. They were seeing it as real. They weren’t really getting what I was doing.”
Following Raising Hell, Drake retired the horror character he portrayed on stage. He also stopped doing television and even performing in other venues, opting instead to build his own. For the past 25 years, Drake has operated London's House of Magic, where he and other performers offer a unique blend of live entertainment, haunted tours, and food.
“We just did a vegan wedding,” Drake says, laughing. It’s a far cry from Iron Maiden, but fans of the band will still pop in. And Drake is pretty sure he’s still got Bruce Dickinson’s severed head somewhere.