SEOUL, South Korea — In their first year, a newbie in the ROK will celebrate their birthday with much gusto and fanfare, announcing it to their 1138 Facebook friends en masse, knowing full well that about 1100 of them probably wouldn’t be able to pick out their face in a police line-up, but going ahead with a big soiree anyway. Humility be damned.
But what in God’s name do you do when you approach your tenth birthday celebrated in Korea? Well, you make the trip up to Seoul and watch Iron Maiden with your buddies. At least, that’s what happened to me this year.
Truth be told, I never cared much for the band in their heyday (which for Orwellian purposes we’ll say was 1984). Like Nine Inch Nails during my teen years, Iron Maiden were a band whose t-shirts outsold any album they ever released. I must have known dozens of people who sported an “Eddie” patch on their denim jacket, or stenciled the band’s name on their school binders, but who wouldn’t be able to hum one of their tunes if their lives depended on it. Maiden was a band that belonged to the generation before me, although their influence still lingered on in later bands like Anthrax, Megadeth, and of course, Metallica. The Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) needn’t have taken Judas Priest or King Diamond to task — the average metal fan from the 80s was way scarier than any lyric you could hear on any album.
One of the great tragedies of Korea is the profusion of foreign talent that skips this country and still manages to perform in EVERY SINGLE OTHER ASIAN COUNTRY instead. Frankly speaking, if you walk into any surviving music shop in Busan, you’ll see exactly why this is; the average Korean tends to like MOR music, and k-pop is king. Only in Korea could “Rain” outsell “The Rolling Stones”.
That’s not to say there aren’t exceptions. The Eagles, The Scorpions, Bob Dylan, Mariah Carey, Sting, and Eric Clapton have all made the jaunt over here, with a few electronica groups making the rounds through various Korean “rock” festivals over the years. Often when they do perform here, it’s on a weeknight, ensuring that attendance figures will drop lower than whale excrement. Korea is a mere stop-over on the way to a more lucrative and well-attended gig in Tokyo, Singapore, or Hong Kong. After my first year here, I quickly realized the futility of frustration. The best gigs would always be in a bigger, better city.
I was fascinated about what kind of audience an aging yet legendary metal band would draw in this den of ubiquity. Pink, v-neck sweater vests? Turgid, leather-clad 50-somethings? Uniformed and curious middle-schoolers? Should I even attempt to make this big excursion to see a band I never gave a toss about? Absolutely. The inanity of the situation drew me right to it like an ajumma’s elbow to the shoulder.
I had a 10 a.m. class the following morning, but figuring that I could get some sleep on the bus ride back, I went for it. My buddy Ed arranged for the tickets, and we were off. Bravo, KTX — you make traveling good. Cue a short-ish subway ride off to Jamsil Stadium, and in almost no time at all, we were in the thick of it. We missed the opening band, but only had to wait about 15 minutes before Maiden hit the stage. Security was lax as per usual, and I’m sure I could have brought along an AK-47 without much hassle, so my camera was no problem whatsoever.
Make no mistake, I was going for the goof, but ended up staying for the music. Easily in their mid-50s, the band rocked with a tenacity and professionalism that belied their age. Their earnestness didn’t bother me in the slightest, although Ed made a valid point when he addressed Janick Gers’ attire: “Dude, tight black jeans and high tops? Really?” Bruce Dickinson hopped around all over the stage like an overactive jackrabbit, all the while belting out song after song at mad volume. Unlike the rest of the band, he had the good sense to chop off his 80s hair, but ultimately, while the band looked like relics, they sure didn’t play like them.
The only real disappointments of the night were the setlist, and the low turnout. This was Maiden’s maiden show in Korea, and I doubt they’ll be back based strictly on numbers. The crowd was pretty flat to boot — and Maiden didn’t play nearly enough of the older, trustier material. This is a decision the band bravely made beforehand to try and remain relevant, though in this country, I think that’s a moot point.
Metal, like any other genre of music, is a business. Business might not have been booming this night in Seoul, but the music definitely was. It was an evening of seasoned professionalism, not reckless abandon — I think those that made the pilgrimage to worship at the altar of the metal gods walked away sated — albeit with bloody eardrums. As for myself? I spent my 36th rebirth being baptized by fire, white sound, and metal. Baptized by six aging rockers who can still deliver the goods. Baptized by the beast. Eddie lives.
Photos by Johnny the Greek