Thursday, September 4, 2008

"The Trooper" - Iron Maiden, 1983 (heavy metal)

Now, just because the song's by Iron Maiden doesn't mean that it's "devil music" or that it has no value. Sure they use lots of grouchy skeletons and lightening bolts in their artwork, but this is heavy metal. The year is 1983, and although metal has been around for a while, it was just starting to take off in the mainstream. While the rest of pop culture was still "feelin' groovy" from the 70's, metal was there to remind us that life wasn't all "incense and peppermints." This is heavy were expecting flowers and kitty cats?

Iron Maiden is one of those band that throws it up in the face of those who say that metal has no purpose and is just a cacophany of worthless, ear-shattering noise. This ain't your kids' metal...this is metal from back in the day - before computer processors and echo boxes. Everything you hear was done by the person playing it...not some geek sitting at a pc. Maiden has a technically tight, skilled sound without using all kinds of wiz-bangs that are found at the modern heavy metal stage or studio. Besides all that, during the early 80's, Iron Maiden went through a period of enlightenment in history and literature. "The Trooper" is one of those educational songs, though it takes a little digging to get some real understanding because, as is the spirit of music, history is not recited in text book form, but rather poetically.

"The Trooper" is about The Crimean War - faught between Imperialist Russia on one side and France, UK, Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire on the other side from 1853-1856. The Crimean War is considered to be the first "modern" conflict and introduced technical changes that affected the future course of modern warfare. The war brought and end to an era of Anglo-Russian domination in Europe. It was faught primarily on the Crimean Peninsula, the Balkans, and the Black Sea.

More specifically, "The Trooper" is about a particular battle during the Crimean War - The Battle of Balaclava (October 25, 1854). It was the first of two attempts by the Russians to break the Siege of Sevastopol. The battlefield consisted of 2 valleys oriented in an E-W direction, divided by low hills and ridges, with the terrain consisting of open grassland. The southern plain was held by the British Heavy Brigade (Royal Dragoon Guards and the Scot Greys). The northern valley was positioned with the Light Brigade (4th and 13th Light Dragoons, 17th Lancers, and 8th and 11th Hussars) under the command of Major-General Lord Cardigan. The overall commander was Lord Lucan. The battle started with a successful Russian attack on Ottoman positions. This led to the Russians breaking through into the valley of Balaclava, where British forces were encamped. The port of Balaklava, a short distance to the south, was the site of a key British supply base. The Russian advance was intended to disrupt the British base and attack British positions near Sevastopol from the rear. An initial Russian advance south of the southern line of hills was repulsed by the British. A strong attacking force of Russian cavalry emerged over the ridgeline, and split into two portions. One of these columns drove south towards the town of Balaklava itself, threatening the supply of the whole British army. That drive was repulsed by the steady musketry of the 93rd Highland Regiment, which had been formed into a lone line of two rows by its gallant commander, Sir Colin Campbell - the action became known in history as "The Thin Red Line".

The Battle of Balaclava will forever go down in history as the insanely disastrous "Charge of the Light Brigade". Overall commander Lucan received an immediate order from Army commander Lord Raglan: "Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, follow the enemy, and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Horse artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. Immediate." In response to the order, Cardigan led 673 cavalry men (back then, "cavalry" was still soldiers on horses) straight into the valley between the Fedyukhin Heights and the Causeway Heights. The opposing Russian forces were commanded by Pavel Liprandi and included approximately 20 battallions of infantry supported by over fifty artillery pieces. These forces were deployed on both sides and at the opposite end of the valley. It appears that the order was understood by Cardigan to refer to the mass of Russian guns in a redoubt* at the end of the valley, around a mile away, when Raglan had in fact been referring to a set of redoubts on the reverse slope of the hill forming the left side of the valley (from the point of view of the cavalry)!! Although these latter redoubts were clearly visible from Raglan's vantage point, they were hidden from the view of the Light Brigade on the floor of the valley. The Brigade set off down the valley. Captain Louis Nolan was seen to rush across the front, possibly in an attempt to stop them, but was killed by an artillery shell. The Light Brigade was able to engage the Russian forces at the end of the valley and force them back from the redoubt, but suffered heavy casualties and was soon forced to retire. Lucan failed to provide any support for Cardigan, and it is speculated that he was motivated by enmity for his brother-in-law. The brigade was not completely destroyed, but did suffer terribly, with 118 men killed, 127 wounded. After regrouping, only 195 men were still with horses. The Russian commanders initially believed that the British soldiers were drunk for trying to pull a stunt like that!!

"The Trooper" is sort of a musical rendition of the great poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. In the poem, which itself is specifically about this incident, the area between the Causeway Heights and Fedyukhin Valley (through which the Light Brigade charged) was dubbed "The Valley of Death" by Tennyson.

"The Trooper" doesn't just borrow some of the poetic imagery of the Tennyson poem. The unmistakable opening riff was specifically written to sound like the thundering of galloping horses, especially in the bass (the song was actually written by Maiden bass player Steve Harris). When read correctly, Tennyson's poem also beats out the same galloping rhythm (although maybe not with the same speed. lol)

And for the record, when Iron Maiden performs this song, they don't just burst into it. Lead singer Bruce Dickenson, wearing an authentic-looking red cavalry jacket, will read a few lines from Tennyson's poem.

And there ya have it! A great deal of world history is preserved in music (with or without words). I bet you never thought that heavy metal could teach us anything.

If you're still worried about those grouchy skeletons, the artwork that donned the cover of "The Trooper" as a single forms part of a Loyalist mural in the city of Derry in Northern Ireland.

*A "redoubt" is a military term for a kind of fort or fort system that uses and enclosed defensive emplacement outside a larger fort. It usually relies on earthworks, stone, or brick and is meant to protect soldiers outside the main line of defense.

"The Trooper" - Iron Maiden, 1983

(compiled from various sources around our wonderful world wide web)

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