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An interview with Iron Maiden artist Derek Riggs
By Cyrus Aman
Disney has Mickey. Pillsbury has the Doughboy. ForBritish heavy metal band Iron Maiden, it's Eddie.
Also known as Edward T. Head or Eddie The Head, Eddie – a macabre, skinless, zombie-esque figure – has been the band's merchandising icon for more than three decades. In that time, Eddie has become synonymous with the band, the main image of their album covers and t-shirts. He even appears onstage with the band during concerts. His gruesome visage has made it's way onto such unlikely merchandise as mugs, bottle openers, hats, scarves, Christmas wrapping paper and even a"Giant Eddie Candle."
Many artists have provided artwork featuring Eddie for the band over the years, but the creator and man responsible for Eddie is Derek Riggs. Riggs, a 55-year-old English artist who now resides in California, was the band's main artist in the 1980s, creating the artwork for every Iron Maiden album released in that decade. Riggs' fantastical, comic-inspired artwork excitedthe imagination, loyalty, and pocketbooks of Maiden fans globally.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Riggs, one of my childhood idols.
As a teenager in the 1980s, Riggs' posters were pinned to all four of my bedroom walls (and if I didn't have acoustic ceilings,they'd have been pinned there too).
Now I was talking to this man on the phone, finding out everything I ever wanted to know about an artist who was simply a name to most fans; a by-line on Iron Maiden'salbum liner notes: "Illustration by Derek Riggs".
In the world of album cover artists, however, Riggs is a rock star. Akin to other successful cover artists such as Storm Thorgerson (Pink Floyd), Roger Dean (Yes) or Peter Saville (New Order, Joy Division and Peter Gabriel), Riggs artwork helped spur on Iron Maiden's success, providing the marketing basis for Iron Maiden's commercial successand "cool factor" with kids.
Riggs said his first inspiration as an artist came courtesy comic book artists.
"I didn't really follow comics in particular, I'd follow the artists. Stan Lee [creator and writer for Marvel Comics] thinks it's all about him, but it really isn't," Riggs said. "It was all about the artists. I was always a big fan of Jack Kirby. I went through a little phase of liking Neal Adams, but I got bored with that because it's a bit too realistic. I feel that comics should be stylized, because of their nature, and Jack Kirby just did it. I think that's kind of why manga became popular, because too realistic artwork kind of doesn't really cut it. It's got no edge. Stylize it, and all of asudden you've got a whole different world."
Riggs said he gleaned inspiration from other, more traditional artists early in his artistic career, but soon begin to focus entirely on his own vision.
"I looked at other artists when I was learning, when I was a kid, but once I started working I didn't have time," he said. "See, I didn't get into art really to kind of copy other people or be into them, I was trying to create my own vision, and create artwork from my internal vision. I wanted to make stuff that was mine. Everybody starts by copying something. But then you take what you learn and then you try to create something that's your own. And that's the difficult part. After looking at other people's artwork I very quickly gravitated looking toward the real world. I read weirdstuff. I would buy natural history books."
I asked if his parents were supportive of his early artistic ambition.
"Yes and no," he said. "They were supportive of me doing it, but they didn't really understand what drew me into my subject matter. The line 'Why don't you paint something normal?' comes to me. I got that a lot. A lot of this [my art] was American influenced stuff. The horror and the stuff I used to read, the American comic books and the horror movies (although the horror movies were all British, the other stuff was American). And that really wasn't very well known and that wasn't very popular back in the 1960s and the 1970s when I was in school. I was considered a bit crazy for reading that American stuff.So they didn't really get it. They thought I'd gone a bit mad."
And his teachers?
"They were all the same generation and they all equally didn't get it," Riggs said. "England was a dead zone back then. Now they're all taking their kids to see Batman. Maybe they get what I was into. Maybe they finally get it. They certainly didn't back then. They didn't have a f**king clue. I got into art college before I was supposed to be allowed in, they liked my drawings, but they didn't get it. You know, the science fiction stuff, the super hero stuff, the angles that I was coming from. They totally didn'tget it."
Riggs explained that Eddie's origins begin in the late 1970s. Riggs was working more or less constantly doing record album covers for most of the major labels in London. During this time he was trying to create his own vision of what he thought a rock album cover should be like. He created a whole stream of designs, one of these was a picture he entitled "Electric Matthew Says Hello" The piece caught the eye of Iron Maiden's manager, Rod Smallwood, who was so impressed with the young artist's talent that he hired Riggs as the band's illustrator. Soon the band adopted the character in the painting, using the art as the cover of their debut album and renaming him Eddie. (There is more to this story in the book "Run For Cover, the Art of Derek Riggs." which is available from the shop on his website www.derekriggs.com also for sale there you will find a poster entitled "Robot Death" which is another design that Riggs did during this period.)
Immediately, the band knew they had a good thing on their hands with Riggs and signed him to an exclusivity contract that barred him from doing art for any other musical acts.
"During the first three years the process was basically the same," he said. "I would get a phone call on Friday evening and it would go like this; 'Hi Derek it's Rod, we need a cover for [insert album of your choice] and we must have it by Monday' and that would be it. I'd turn up two or three days later with the art. As time went on, I got longer to paint it. For example 'Somewhere In Time' (the band's sixth studio album) took two-and-a-half months. But it's not physically big, it's physically 15-inches-by-30. It's not very much bigger than the album cover. I'm talking records, not CDs. You know, they're not that big [album covers]. I did a few bigger ones. For 'Powerslave,' I needed a bigger piece for that. It started off as a little sketch."
"Powerslave," (the band's fifth studio album) depicts ancient Egyptians marching a sarcophagus into a statue of an Egyptian-God Eddie, was a super-detailed illustration that I was curious to know more about.
"[They told me] 'We've got this Egyptian thing and we want Eddie as part of a pyramid,' or something, and Steve Harris had this 18th century engraving of some guy dragging the head of Rameses," Riggs said. "And he thought he wanted Eddie's head on there, that was his idea. So copyrights are not even in this [laughs]. So I sort of took the Egyptian idea and I started drawing. I did it on A3 layout paper. A3 is a European paper size. I used a layout pad. It's like tracing paper, but it's cheaper and it's thinner so that you can draw a picture, and then you can drop the next page over the top of it, and trace the good bits and improve it. So I had one of those, and I was sitting there drawing, and I drew the pyramid bit then I need a bit on the sides so I had to tape the pages together and then I stuck bits on the top and bottom as well. When I finished it it was about five foot square and it was all taped together.
"So I took it to Rod Smallwood (the bands manager) and I held it up in front of him and said; 'Look, I've drawn this.' and he said 'Alright then, go and paint it. That's good.'" Riggs continued. "I had to draw it bigger than usual: twenty-three inches by thirty-two. It was on board. I used to paint on illustration board and that was the biggest piece of board I could get, and I still had trouble projecting that image into that space, if you can kind of see what I mean: My mind puts it in 360 degrees and my picture is about 10 degrees [laughs]."
Speaking with Riggs is an experience. At times it can be difficult to keep up with the conversation, with ideas flying so quickly it would be easy to get lost in his imagination. However, after many talks, it became quite evident that – as a creator – he detests predictability and lack of imagination in art.
Soon, Riggs said he became dissatisfied with the ideas presented to him by the band, and their lack of vision. It was this disconnect that he said led to his eventual separation from the Iron Maiden organization.
"[For the album] "Somewhere In Time": 'We want a science fiction city. A bit like Blade Runner.' Cause they just steal things out of films, that's all they do," Riggs said. "I was with them one time and we were walking around a bookshop somewhere, and they were looking at the book covers saying 'Oh, we can have Eddie doing this, and Eddie doing that.' starling ideas instead of trying something original. I just had enough of it. They run around making out like 'they're all our ideas." but no, the ideas that they give me are stolen from other places. But I did the best I could to try to make them original and to inject some life into them.
"You know, Steve Harris's idea was he wanted to link Eddie to his favorite football team [American soccer]," he said. "It's like, you've got a legendary rock 'n' roll icon, and it's the best selling icon there's ever been in rock and roll and you want to tag it onto the ass-end of some f**king second-rate football team. From then on I just kind of lost interest: 'If you want to do it, you f**king do it. Let's see what you've got.' And what they had was nothing."
Adding to the discord between Riggs and the Maiden camp was the tremendous popularity of Riggs' art work.
"The album covers – my work – was getting more attention than the music, and it upset their (the band's) ego," Riggs said. "So they were going around the world telling everybody that it was all their ideas and I was just a dumb monkey that painted it all. So this didn't go down very well. And then they said to me. 'Well, when are you going to come out with a good idea, because they're all our ideas,' and I was like "Oh, are they all your ideas? Then you tell me what to paint and I'll paint it." 'cause if you're working real f**king hard to make these ideas, to make them continuous and make them cohesive the way they were – but then some f**king jackass can turn around and say something like that, it's a real f**king slap in the face. It gets real old really f**king quick. So, from then on my attitude was like, 'You tell me what to paint and I'll paint it, because I'm obviously not getting credit for thinking of these ideas.'
Since Riggs' last album cover for Iron Maiden – the band's eighth studio album "No Prayer for the Dying" released in 1990 – the artist has been virtually abandoned by the band.
Beginning with 1992's "Fear of the Dark" Iron Maiden begin favoring illustrators that imitate Derek's style, but fail to achieve the notoriety of his earlier paintings.
I expressed how frustrating it was for a fan when he was no longer Iron Maiden's artist, as there was really no adequate explanation by the band for the change.
"I didn't have a voice back then," Riggs said. "The internet wasn't really all that. Some people were using it, but it wasn't as prevalent as it is now. So there was no other version than what Maiden was putting out. Maiden wouldn't even let people contact me for interviews in magazines. It's like this: the management [Rod Smallwood] makes stupid decisions, and they behave in an irrational way. It's like beating your head against a brick wall. The only reason they survived is because of the huge amount of money the merchandise was bringing in. One time he [Smallwood] asked me for some original sketches, so I worked out forty original ideas, and you know how much work that takes to work out forty original ideas? Some concepts that would just f**king blow you away. I was going to link all the album covers together into one giant picture, with all these other pictures joining them up, so they'd join up as one continuous art wall. I'd worked out half a dozen other pictures and put them together and this would've f**king done the fans heads in. I go away and do a bunch of sketches, I bring them in, and he's like 'Oh, we're not doing that anymore.' and dismisses it with a wave of his hand. Thanks Rod.
When asked if he had regrets about no longer working with the band, Riggs replied:
"No, I left it and I walked away. If I feel at some point it's going to be valuable, I might follow it up. But, you know, I left it and I walked away. I'm not resentful about that. That's life. You make choices and then learn to live with them, and so you get on with something else. Sometimes I've made money, sometimes I haven't."
"I own the character, the character was never mentioned in any contract, it was never sold by me and never purchased by them. no money was ever exchanged in this regard. The only thing ever mentioned in the contracts is the rights to the paintings I did for Maiden. I never pursued it in a court of law because I actually didn't want to paint Eddie anymore, so I left. I did about ten years of painting eddie full time but then I had had enough of it, so I just left it to them. I did three contracts with them and they were all three-year contracts. The contracts didn't improve greatly over that period. For the last three years the band/management were just getting worse and worse all the time. It was just endless nonsense."
Although he's no longer doing album covers for Iron Maiden, Riggs has continued to pursue his vocation as an artist. busy in the studio He's continues to constantly experiment with his visual creations, manipulating computer-generated shapes, found media, and blending them with his own rough sketches. He even writes fiction and composes his own music.
"Right now I'm trying to write a novel; a horror story . . . My life is a horror story," Riggs said,
I asked him if he had advice for a graphic illustrator starting a new career.
"I don't know," he said. "Advice is difficult. If somebody wanted to paint heavy metal covers, be very specific about what you're doing. A lot of these people fail because they think they're painting record covers. No, you're not. You're painting t-shirts when you're painting record covers. That's what's going to happen to it; it's going to end up on a t-shirt. So it's got to have a really rock solid central core of a picture. The main figure has really got to kick out. The main figure can't be somewhere in the background like that guy did with that picture of Eddie on a tank [cover art for 'A Matter of Life and Death']. I mean you can't f**king sell a tank as merchandise, I'll tell you that. You can't put that on a picture. What the f**k was he thinking? Come on.
"In the long term, they're going to make more money off the t-shirt than they're gonna make off of the album. They get less than 10 percent off of an album sale, that's for all of them: management, tour, the band, everything, less than 10 percent of the cover price. For T-Shirts and other merchandise they get 30 percent if they sell it to a shop, and probably more like 60 percent if you sell it off a website, and it costs the same for the fans to buy. And fans buy one album – if they don't go and rip it to MP3 off their friend's one – and they buy like two, three, or four t-shirts. So they will make more off the t-shirts than they will off the album. And they all go around like 'Oh, we're a great rock band.' No! You're front men for a very large merchandise organization is what you are, if you follow the money. So, you've got to translate to a t-shirt, or it's a waste of space. So, design it as if you're designing a t-shirt."
I mentioned that I recently spent $40 at an Iron Maiden show for a t-shirt.
"Yeah, ridiculous, isn't it?," he replied. "You can see how much more money they're making off the shirt," he said. "It's a bloody huge merchandise thing, nothing to do with rock n' roll, or to do with the music. Somebody wrote to me recently and asked me stuff like this. I said, look, if you really want to make money designing album covers, make an album. It doesn't have to be a great album, but if you merchandise it great you'll make a ton of money anyway. There's plenty of bands out there that make a ton of money but it's not the album, the albums are mediocre. There's nothing to choose between them and six or seven other bands except their merchandise. The list is endless. I've done album covers, and I've spoken to people at little record companies and I've spent longer doing the cover than they spent recording the album. A guy said to me: 'We only expect to sell 5,000 copies of this.' So I did quick math, and I suddenly worked out: I'm making more off this album than each member of the band is. Because this [album] isn't going to sell."
Riggs said that although he once favored painting his art, he know works exclusively in digital art.
"I had to give up painting because of the fact that paint is toxic. I am very sensitive to heavy metal poisoning and it was starting to upset me a bit so I stopped using it." he said.
"Hey, I got Heavy metal poisoning..."
The last traditional oil based painting he did was for the cover of the book "Run For Cover: The Art of Derek Riggs".
"The guy who paid for the book to be published, it was paid for by a fan, John Merikoski, he wanted the cover painted, so I thought that was more than fair to give it to him," Riggs said. "So I did an oil painting. But that's the only painting I've done in ten years."
Riggs had recently been drawing some pen and ink pictures of eddie for the Maiden fans, you can purchase sets of prints of these from his Facebook page "Derek Riggs Stuff"
Before we finished, I asked if Riggs would ever consider doing an autobiography of his life. The story is a fascinating one, with plenty of drama and betrayal behind the scenes.
"No, I've never really wanted to do that," he said. "I'm still living it. It's a bigger mess than you think."
Take half an hour's break to view the Derek Riggs online portfolio at www.derekriggs.com, Go see...