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‘A Guy Walks Into a Churchyard and Meets the Devil’: Bruce Dickinson Explains ‘Rain on the Graves’

The idea for “Rain on the Graves” — the latest single from Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson‘s upcoming solo album, The Mandrake Project, out March 1 — came to him while visiting the resting place of poet William Wordsworth. He’d been invited to a wedding in England’s Lake District in 2012, and, knowing that Wordsworth wrote a lot of his verses in Grasmere, he decided to visit his stone cottage and the church where his body was interred.

“It was a gloomy day, and there was rain,” he tells Rolling Stone on a recent visit to New York City. “And I was looking at the grave. It was very neatly kept, but there was a cage over the grave. I thought, ‘Well, is that to keep him in, or is that to keep us out?’ I felt this nice melancholy vibe, which I always find quite conducive to creativity. And I said, ‘There’s rain on the graves.’ That sounds good.”

When he started to work on The Mandrake Project, he remembered the feeling and asked his collaborator, producer, and guitarist Roy Z, to come up with a heavy blues similar to early Fleetwood Mac, when guitarist Peter Green was their leader. His idea for the song was similar to Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues”: “A guy walks into a churchyard and meets the Devil,” Dickinson says, “and the Devil says, ‘What are you doing here, dude? Don’t lie, because I’ll know.’”

That idea plays out literally in the lighthearted video for the song, in which Dickinson plays a preacher and actor Tim Cartwright, whose credits include roles in vampire and werewolf flicks, as Old Scratch. Good and evil cross paths in rainy cemetery scenes, filmed in black & white, until the screen fills with stark, giallo colors and Dickinson belts the chorus, “Well, there is rain on the graves,” and his backing group nicknamed the House Band of Hell, provide the soundtrack. Of course, all hell breaks loose, and at one point, Dickinson even stumbles on the grave of another poet, William Blake, and the full scope of the preacher’s nightmare comes into focus.

“It’s a complete homage to Hammer Horror,” Dickinson says, referring to the English film company best known for horror flicks starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. “It’s tongue-in-cheek but also really beautifully shot.”

Director Ryan Mackfall shot the clip in Cornwall just before Christmas. “We put all that together basically in the pub after the first video,” Dickinson says, referring to “Afterglow of Ragnarok.” “And I said, ‘OK, let’s tell the story: A guy sells his soul to the Devil for one night with the House Band of Hell. And at the end, he drifts off into an asteroid. It turns out the whole thing is in space, and Death Star goes, boom.’ So we went, ‘Yep. Sold.’” (When someone present at that meeting told Dickinson that “funny” and “scary” don’t work well together, Dickinson shut him up with one word: “Thriller.”)

As Dickinson talks about the clip, he points out a few Easter eggs. The imagery in some scenes evokes two paintings by William Blake — Jerusalem and Ancient of Days. (Blake figures heavily in the comic book, The Mandrake Project, which Dickinson helped write; the first issue is out now.) And the drum kit was once “actually played by Gene Krupa.”

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But is that Blake’s grave? “That is his facsimile of his grave,” Dickinson says with a smirk.

What is certainly real in the video, though, is the premise: There is most certainly rain on the graves. “Oh, we did get the rain,” Dickinson says with a laugh. “It was bloody freezing. It was a two-day shoot, but we all got filthy colds and bronchitis after and everything. But it was worth it.”

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