Given Hugh Syme’s work — designing album covers for some of the world’s biggest rock and metal bands — it wasn’t uncommon to encounter strange, occasionally creepy items around the family home. One such oddity was the grotesque adaptation of Iron Maiden mascot Eddie that he crafted for 1995’s The X-Factor.
“My daughters benefitted [by knowing] that anything remotely unsettling or horrific that they saw in the movies was the product of models and art direction,” Syme tells UCR. “They grew up with the torso of Eddie in plain view in our basement, where they would often play. It wasn’t lost on them that there was a thing called ‘special effects.'”
Illustrator Derek Riggs created that skeletal, vaguely zombie-ish character, who debuted on the band’s self-titled 1980 debut and has remained a staple of their albums and merchandise. Looking for a fresh take on an iconic image, Iron Maiden sought out a new visual collaborator for their ninth LP, 1992’s Fear of the Dark — and they recruited Syme for the follow-up.
“[The band’s] manager at the time, Merck Mercuriadis, introduced me to [bassist] Steve Harris,” recalls Syme, best known for his decades-long tenure with Rush. “I remember asking why they would deviate from Derek’s pretty well-established [style]. I was sensitive to that — if Rush’s art director was replaced by somebody else, I know how that would feel. It’s a sad day for everybody, I presume —particularly the loyal and protective fans, so unique to Rush. So when the band started talking about taking Eddie to a place with a bit more realism, I said, ‘Where is this coming from? You have such a long history with an illustrative, graphic novel feel.'”
The band was impressed by Syme’s work with another famous metal character, Vic Rattlehead, and how he’d used the menacing skeleton in more subtle ways on two Megadeth albums, 1992’s Countdown to Extinction and 1994’s Youthanasia. “They said, ‘We like that Megadeth deviated from the norms of their Vic-centric world,'” Syme says.
Iron Maiden came in with a blank creative slate, allowing the designer to explore his own unique interest in the macabre.
“They didn’t say they wanted torture or evisceration or disembodied torsos,” he says. “I was talking a little bit about trepanning, the ancient Neolithic curiosity of removing the top of the skull, or drilling a hole, to see what makes us tick — the very early, crude days of surgery. And I’m a huge fan of the art direction in movies like Blade Runner and Terry Gilliam‘s Brazil.”
Syme says he entered the project free of expectations — sensitive to Eddie’s lengthy legacy but eager to “make it work” as a “personal challenge.” He sculpted and painted the figure, created a torture table and hired a local friend who did hunting and trapping to “introduce some actual entrails at the bottom of the photo.” (Syme notes he gave said friend credit as the “entrail wrangler.”)
The digital part of the process was equally laborious, given the limitations of mid-’90s technology.
“It was the early days of digital medium transferring — you couldn’t upload big files at the time,” he remembers. “The Internet was in its infancy. We were doing counter-to-counter shipments from my studio in Indiana to London. We would have a guy show up in the middle of winter at my place and pick up a disk which then held a maximum amount of 200 megabytes of data. That would be driven to the Indianapolis airport, put on a plane and picked up at Heathrow. It was something like $400 a trip. It was getting ridiculous and cumbersome.
“Merck said, ‘Come on over. I’ll set you up with the best digital suite in London,'” he continues. “I spent two weeks meeting with the band almost every day. It was great to be able to hang — and drink — with the guys, present the daily work-in-progress and have them come over to the graphic studio to see my process.”
The resulting cover — torture chamber, exposed brain, vampiric teeth and all — was fairly dark, even by Iron Maiden standards. The back image, meanwhile, features Eddie strapped into an electric chair.
“The electric chair was created as an ancillary image for the back cover, or interior panel within the CD Digipak or booklet‚ but never as a front cover,” he explains, noting that he’s “unaware” of online commentary that some retailers banned the primary image and used the rear one instead.
Syme never worked on another Iron Maiden piece. But he fondly remembers his one brush with Eddie.
“That was a fun project,” he says. “That cover was an effort at bringing some palpable reality to the otherwise more fantasial illustrative style that preceded.”
“And we still have Eddie laying in state here in my studio, by the way.”