As the creator of Eddie The Head, Iron Maiden's universally recognisable mascot, Derek Riggs holds a special place in the hearts of rock and metal fans around the globe. Creating the cover art for the band exclusively for their first decade, his images were as defining and striking as the music itself. From 'The Trooper' to 'The Number of the Beast' and 'Killers', the Porstmouth born artist's work remains utterly iconic, and can be seen on sleeves, t shirts, posters, and countless other places years after they first appeared. We caught up with Derek for a rare interview at Pasadena Comic Con, to chat about Eddie, and his evolution as an artist. Running free; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Derek, welcome to Pasadena Comic Con. How are you doing and what's it like to be here today?
I'm okay, and it's fun to be here.
You've had a long line of people queuing up to meet you today; it must be nice to meet fans of your work.
Well, yeah, it is. For years I was doing was doing the Maiden thing and I never really got to meet any fans, so it's kind of nice to get out and see who they are and what they do. And they enjoy it.
What's it like for you to be associated, all these years later with all that work, because it's everywhere, isn't it!?
It's not really like anything. I know that sounds really creepy and weird, but, you know, it's like, once I did the artwork, they took it off and turned it into posters and album covers and stuff, and I never saw it again. It all happened kind of 'out there' somewhere, and I was at home doing the next one. Iron Maiden would be flying around the world and being world famous and all that that entails, and I'd be at home painting the next one [laughing]. I kind of didn't really see any of that, so it didn't really affect me. I was just doing these pitches, and they were going out the door, and I was earning a living for a change instead of scaring art directors so much they'd throw me out of their offices, because I'm very scary guy, actually [laughing].
You were really young whenever you painted what became the first album cover 'Electric Matthew Says Hello'.
Yeah, maybe 23.
From what I understand, Maiden manager Rod Smallwood was flicking through your portfolio and sees this punk, which is the original 'Electric Matthew', and asked you to doctor it and make the hair longer.
Yes, that's roughly right except it wasn't him that chose it, it was Steve Harris. I had all these pictures in my portfolio, and they were going through them. Some were good and some were crap, and some were just weird, because I was trying to invent new techniques and things and what have you, and it was in there. It didn't have all the hair, it just had a mohawk.
You can kind of still see the mohawk in the picture.
Yeah, you can still see it. It's still there. I didn't cover it up... much! [laughing]. Eddie was supposed to be a punk. It was the late 1970s; metal had died, prog rock had died, and punk was the only show in town. And I wanted to paint record covers, so I was going around trying to sell jazz covers and other stuff, and not really knowing which direction to go in because all of a sudden, everything was changing. So I thought, well, maybe I should try and paint punk. So I was trying to work out something that punks might understand or relate to because England was horrible back then. I mean, we had four million unemployed at the worst part, and it's only as big as California, England, so that's a lot of people.
So they chose it, and you had to make that subtle edit?
I did Eddie, and he had the mohawk part, and Rod and Steve Harris went off and kind of had a little conversation, and came back and said; "can you give it more hair sticking out the side?", because their fan base was a new layer of metal just coming through, and so the punk thing wouldn't go down very well with them. So I went; "well, okay", because changing artwork is kind of part of being an illustrator. It's always that way' you get it to about 70% where you think it should be, and then somebody wants a bit changed, and that changed. I heard some horror stories back in the day; one guy, he did a picture of this spaceship, and somebody said; "we don't like the sky view, can you change it so that it's orange?" It was like; "okay", and this is not digital, right; this is painting with paint! So he did it, and then they were like; "can you make it a bit bluer?", and then they said; "can you put it back the way it was?" The agent he was working through she said it looked awful, and it wouldn't dry. It was sticky. They messed him about so much.
You had some problems with sticky paint too, which you mention in your book 'Run for Cover'. Wasn't it the 'Twilight Zone' cover?
I don’t know which album it was. It wasn't the 'Twilight Zone', I think it was 'Number of the Beast'. Oh, yeah, the 'Twilight Zone' was another problem. That was a whole other problem. 'Number of the Beast', I was still painting it while the cabbie was outside, beeping, trying to get me to get in the cab so we could take it down to Smallwood Taylor's offices at nine o'clock on a Monday morning. I was up there finishing it off, while he was beeping. So I ran down and it wasn't dry, and so I had the window open and was sort of waving it in the wind trying to get it to dry!
That's a crazy story!
You mentioned 'Twilight Zone', yeah, that was a whole other problem. The problem was, he asked me Friday night if they could have a picture by Monday morning, and I didn't have any board to paint on. So it was about ten at night and all the shops were shut, and I had to do it really quick. So the only piece of board that I had was a piece of chalk-coated board, called CS10, which is chalk-coated for drawing; it's for doing line work on, and it doesn't absorb water. So I was trying to paint on this board with thick paint, and airbrush, kind of layer on and then tart it up with an airbrush or something, you know, to try and make it look like something. So, you put one layer of paint on, and next time you come to that bit, the next layer of paint takes the previous one off, because it won't adhere to the surface! So that was fun. So the whole thing, I invented on the spur of the moment, on the run. I invented techniques that would look good with that happening to them [laughing]. "How am I'm gonna do this?! Well, it's supposed to be wood, so let's use this technique to try and make it look wood", and it almost came off.
There are so many iconic images we could talk about, but let's talk about 'Powerslave'.
They told me they wanted an Egyptian thing, and Egypt is really easy to make look 'big', because everything they built was huge. And they wanted these figures dragging this broken bit of masonry along the ground, and I thought; "that's a bit lame!", so I started drawing. Actually, I had what's called a layout pad, and I was in the Bahamas where they were recording the album, and these layout pads - for those who don't know - they're big, they're about fifteen inches by twenty, and the idea is it's thin like cheap tracing paper, and you draw and then you bring the next sheet down, and you copy the good bits and correct the bad bits, and add a bit, and so it goes on, and this is how you create a finished thing.
So it was a layering process?
I didn't use them very often to be honest, because it comes to me in my head, finished a lot of time. I started drawing on this because I wanted to work it out first. It was a big picture. I thought I'll do something like the Temple of Ramses II, but let's stick it in a pyramid because the Temple of Ramses is on the side of the hill. So I started doing that and I started drawing the pyramid, and I got to a certain point and I just didn't feel like it was big enough, so I stuck another piece on underneath, but I had to make it square because album covers are square, so I stuck some other bits on and I carried on drawing. And then I stuck another few bits on, and when I finished it was like, I was holding it up like this [stretches arms out wide], and it was like, six feet square, when I finish this silly sketch! It was six feet! So I folded it up, and I walked into Rod Smallwood's room, and he was on the phone doing his thing. I walked in and said; "look Rod, I've done a sketch. Can I paint it?", and I held it up like that, you know, unfold it, into this huge, HUGE sketch, and he looked up and he went [jumps back, wide-eyed], jumped back [laughing], and he said; "alright then!", so, I did.
The finished artwork wasn't that size though, was it?
I couldn't do it that size because you just can't get board that size to paint on, with the techniques I had to hand the time. So it's about thirty inches square, thirty-two inches, in that range, and it's painted on illustration board, which is like cardboard, really.
Do you still have some of the originals?
No, I don't have any originals. I painted them, they went out, I never saw them again. They took them off and photographed them and they kept the originals. The first original was destroyed by the stupid printers!
For the first album, or for the 'Running Free' single?
The first album. We were like; "so where's the painting?!", and so EMI went off to find out some stupid dickhead at the printers had thrown it in the trash! [Affects slow, bored British accent] "Oh, I thought you had finished with it!" Yeah, die suddenly, please.
Like I've said, you've got so many iconic works that told a story as the years progressed, so how did you feel when the band asked you to do a hard reset on Eddie for the 'No Prayer for the Dying' album in 1990 and restore him?
I thought it was a fucking stupid idea. But then were adamant. "We can't think of anything else to do with Eddie"; you never thought of it in the first place, did you!? You wrote a song and then I made the album covers; it had nothing to do with it. But they didn't get that because they couldn't think it up, and all of a sudden it couldn't be done. "Yeah, I can do it, because I'm better than you" [laughing].
Up until that point, Eddie had carried all of his wounds forward; from the lobotomy  to his cybernetic eye .
He keeps his scars because that's his experiences, that's his life.
So was that part of the frustration that led for you to the end your working relationship?
I was pretty much left to create things in the early days, when it was good, and then they decided that they were creating everything and they wanted all the credit and they were going to run around and tell everybody that was all their ideas and I was the stupid monkey that painted it. And it just became a place I didn't want to be anymore. "Really, you thought up these album covers!? No, you didn't."
What are your personal favourites, and least favourites?
I don't have personal favourites; they come they go. I did them kind of so fast they kind of come in and go out, and I never see them again.
You did work again with the band again in the 2000s, when among other things, you did the 'Somewhere Back in Time' cover art, reimagining 'Powerslave', but in a digital format.
The technique is actually better than painting; drawing on a computer, because paint is shit; it won't flow, the brushes are crappy, something in there doesn't work, and it's always a struggle to get the stuff down onto the paper. People don't realise just how bad paint really is [laughing]! So I was really glad to get rid of paint, because now you can just put colour down. Sometimes, it takes a lot of experience, I think to understand what you need to make digital art look good. Back then [in 2008] I hadn't got it down. I was still learning, because some of it looks too computery.
The end result though is stunning.
I like making a photo collages, which is what that pyramid is. And it's also a bit of the original album cover, so it's a mishmash of a lot of different things. And it doesn't all stick together quite well, and as time's gone on, I'm actually much better at it now than I was then! [laughing]. That sky, that swirly sky, they stole that and used it on Doctor Who! [laughing] It's a complete rip off!
It's the story of your life, isn't it?!
Yeah, everybody rips me off [laughing]!
For all things Derek Riggs and to grab a copy of his book 'Run For Cover', visit his official site.