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[ENTREVISTA] Keith Wilfort Interview (English version)

1-Keith, before starting the interview, how are youfeeling now after your health problems? We hope you recover as soon as possible.

Much better thank you. I’ve been back at work almost two months and I feel a little better each day. I’m probably about 90% now.

2- We know that both those in the Maiden environment and other musicians have sympathized with your situation; have you received any special messages from any of them.

I had loads of messages and support from fans and people I’ve worker with over the Years I was working with Iron maiden. It really was incredible. Rod was kept updated on my progress so everyone in Maiden knew what was going on. I received some personal messages and donations to help us through that really made me realize how many friends I have out there. I was extremely grateful to everyone for their love and support.It helped speed my recovery.

3- We would like to ask you now for your time as secretary of the official Iron Maiden Fan Club. How did you hear about Iron Maiden, which was the first contact?

My first contact with Iron Maiden came about mainly by accident! Some friends and I were driving by the Cart and Horses pub and heard what sounded like some good music coming out. We went in to check it out and caught the second half of Iron Maiden’s set. They were so good, we decided to come back and see them again., The concert was especially memorable as a fight broke out in the crowd afterwards and one of my friends was wearing a new white jacket that got covered in fake blood that singer Dennis Wilcox used during “Iron Maiden”.

4- How was the band like in those days? How did people feel when they played live? And how was your personal contact with Steve Harris and the other musicians?

Obviously, the band were a lot grittier in those days, but one of the things that really stood out was that their set was mainly their own material instead of the same old covers that many pub bands were playing, plus they went out of the way to put on a proper show. They had their own lights, the blood capsules and sword in Iron Maiden, the “rubber mask in “Prowler” and the logo and Eddie head which became more elaborate as time went on. We went to loads of their shows, they got used to seeing us around, we bought them drinks gave them rides home etc. and became friends.  I even went to a T-shirt printer in Marble Arch and had a couple of custom heat printed T-shirts made featuring the band. This brought me to the band’s attention too. They were starting to develop a bit of a following around London as they played more venues, and I suggested they should do their own T-shirts and start a Fan Club or information service.  The idea was a little ahead of its time, but it put the thought in Steve’s head. When the band all but broke up for a year in 1978, it looked like it wouldn’t happen.  That would all change….

5- How did the Iron Maiden Fan Club develop, when the band was in full launch to stardom? What was your role in all that? How did you become the IMFC Secretary?

About 18 months later, when the band had signed with Rod Smallwood,  Rod mentioned to Steve that he was looking for someone who could help him and the band. Initially it would be selling “The Soundhouse Tapes” record at gigs and bymail order and also selling T-shirts until Maiden got a proper merchandising deal with a company. The band were also starting to get a fair amount of letters from fans. Of course, in those days there was no email or social media. Steve, suggested to Rod that I may be interested in helping and gave him my information.  I spoke to Rod at one of the shows, he invited me to his office for a meeting and it was agreed that I’d work part-time helping out with starting and information service and doing the merchandise. If it took off it could become a full-time job. My mum helped me do the mail-order from my home in Canning Town, (not East Ham as some sources would have it), and a couple of friends would help me at concerts in exchange for free admission.  We’d sell the records, the red and black logo shirt and hand out leaflets,  before and after the gig. We’d also stand there when the doors opened with a clicker, counting the number of people coming in.  In those days some venue owners were not averse to fiddling the entrance / ticket figures to do a band out of a few quid!

6- Did the fan club had a significant number of members in those days? Did they want to do things and collaborate with the club?

Initially, the club was just an information service. When people wrote in or ordered merchandise we’d send them a price list, and any news updates. Eventually, it got to the point where we had to start charging a fee to cover costs and the Fan Club officially came into existence in March 1980.  Fans would get a button badge, biography, newsletter and picture which was good value in those days and not something a lot of bands were doing other than the established ones. With some bands the record companies would answer mail, but Maiden always wanted that personal involvement.  That way it made sure the fans would get complete and accurate information and knew they were dealing with the band.  We initially started with a mailing list in the hundreds but, within a few weeks we 1980 were over a 1000 full-time members and increasing. The peak membership of the club when I ran it was around 6000.

7- What kind of tasks did you do?

My main tasks at the beginning were handling mail-order, answering fan mail and mailing out the fan Club kits. Once I went full time, I also did errands for Rod and helped him with basic office tasks.  Sort of an early Personal Assistant. It was a real eye opener as I got to learn about the music business from the inside from the ground on up. I’d also take stuff to the band’s houses, such as tickets, itineraries, and most importantly - wages.  I’d also take things like record artwork for them to look at before rushing it off to the record company.  Later my duties expanded to looking after, tapes, building an audio-visual archive, getting artwork to merchandisers, licensees and record companies and writing biographies. As the company and band grew so did my responsibilities and I’d find myself working on all kinds of projects. At some point I must have worked at every department in The Maiden, Santuary, Smallwood-Taylor set up.

8- We know that there was also a fan club in the USA and the first two magazines were published there. How didthe idea of a FC in North America come about and who managed it?

Rod and the band were approached by a merchandiser in the USA. Initially he was just going to sell merchandise by mail-order and tour merchandise.  Rod and Steve figured that it would be if the ever growing US fan following could have their own version of IMFC, mainly to save on the time and expense of them having to buy merchandise and then pay astronomical costs for shipping and to make sure they could get news faster and with a more local slant to it. Not to mention it would take some of the pressure off me. It began well and worked well, but the guy who had taken it over began to run into problems with his main businesses and so the fan Club became neglected, we started to get complaints from fans in North America claiming they hadn’t received their good or fan club info and weren’t getting replies from the company.

Eventually, Rod looked into it and when he and Steve saw what had a happened they took the club away from him and spent thousands of dollars making sure everyone got their stuff.  It looked like the US club would come back being run in the UK on a full-time basis, but the band’s then current merchandisers in the US offered to run the club and do mail-order. Rod at that time was living in Los Angeles and so figured he’d be able to oversee it and make sure nothing else happened and unfortunately it did - in 1989, the same thing also happened in the UK.  Although I was still running the club, writing the magazines and answering fan mailthe more basic functions and mail-order was handled by Bravado and their mail-order / retail arm. Unfortunately, as they worked Bravado, the club really took a back seat to the retail operation and was neglected. Once again we took it back in house and the band spent thousands sorting the mess out.  I remember, working non-stop for 24 hours in a row, some days helping get all the membership records up to date and clearing the backlog of orders.

After that, Steve and Rod decided that IMFC would never be run by anyone outside of the UK or an organization outside of the maiden/Sanctuary empire.  A decision that would have a major effect on me later.

9- What was the club’s feeling about the increasing success of the band?

Did you,in the early years, think that Maiden would be as famous as they are now?

From an IMFC point of view the rise of the Band was fantastic, it brought in loads more members and allowed us to introduce new features such as full color magazines, trips to concerts and conventions. From my own point of view, there was never a doubt that Iron Maiden would make it big. They had what it takes to get there, the drive, the talent and a dynamic management and backroom team.  The only time I was really worried about The band was during the Blaze years when there was a backlash over the choice of Blaze to replace Bruce, and the fans began to drift away. Fortunately, Bruce and Adrian rejoined and the Maiden sagawent from strength to strength and nowadays, they are more popular than ever before. 

10- The career of Iron Maiden has been going on for along time. Did you ever think the band could lose their status of a great heavy metal group, and end up by going on tours living off their old hits and launching records with neither innovation nor impact on the audience?

The Band themselves couldn’t do that, it’s not in their personalities. Maiden has always been about doing their own thing and innovating.  The only thing that would really stop them is a tragedy, boredom or just old age.  They would never get to the point of being a “greatest Hits” band just going through the motions for the money. If the band did become a “Greatest Hits” band the y have so much terrific material, they would have to play 6 hours sets.  Even on the “Seventh Son Tour which has been going for almost 3 years, they still change it around.  There’s also still places they want to visit.

11- And the fans... did they grow in the same way as the group did?

It was side by side, as the band played to larger audiences and visited more countries, the fan base developed. It got to the point where there were just not Heavy Metal fans, but Iron Maiden fans, who may not have followed Metal regularly but turned up at Maiden shows and bought the albums and merchandise.   The fans also seem to stick around longer. I still hear from fans who were at the earliest gigs who still go.  Maiden fans are a special breed and amongst the most loyal around. 

12- There were fans who were disappointed, they disagreed about the musical path Maiden had taken, especially when Paul Di'anno was replaced by Bruce Dickinson. Did many people drop out? Or on the contrary, new members such as Dickinson or NickoMcBrain together with the progressive musical experimentation of the band attracted more fans?

There were a few hardcore Paul and Clive fans who protested their departures, but only a very small amount of the overall fan base.  Many people were aware of Bruce’s capabilities and took a wait-and-see stance. Once they saw and heard Bruce they were sold, and of course their were fans of Bruce who came over from following Samson and as it became obvious how much it improved the band, many of the objectors changer their minds and came back to the band.   It was the same with Clive and Nicko, many liked Clive but once Nicko settled in and fans saw what it did for Band’s development, they also accepted the change. Nicko’sskill and larger than life personality also won the fans over.

13- What was your best moment as Secretary of the fan club? Do you remember some anecdote?

There are two things that come to mind, the first is in 1990 on the opening night of the “No Prayer” tour.  Backstage after the show in Oxford, the band presented me with a silver gobletfor working ten years with IMFC.  The second is nowadays, when fans keep in touch, still remember me and thank me for my work with the IMFC.

14- We know that as manager, Rod Smallwood was a main pillarfor Maiden’s success, how was your relationship with him? Was he as tough as it is said?

Generally, Rod’s bark is a lot worse than his bite unless you don’t do your job or do something that reflects badly on the band.  I usually got on well with him, he was like a mentor, he taught me so much about the music business.  Now and then I’d do something wrong (especially in the early days) and we would get in a shouting match, but it would blow over and I’m glad I was able to work for him and count him as a friend.  Just stay on his good side and you’ll be fine, get on his bad side and God help you.

15- How was the relationship between the IMFC and the band? Didthey ever take into account their fans’ opinions?

In the pre internet / social media days, the fan Club was the main method for the Band to find out what their fans thought of them and what they were doing. Whenever a new record, merchandise or major news come out, The first thing Rod or Steve would ask me is “What do the fans think about it”. In some cases policy and creative decisions were made based on fan opinions.  Iron Maiden have always felt that the fans and keeping a rapport with them was most important. 

16- How is Iron Maiden different from other heavy metal bands? What is the secret of their success after nearly 40 years on the stage?

They have a devoted fan following that goes both ways. The band loves their fans as much as the fans love them.  They have always stuck to their guns and not compromised their principles.  They do what they want to do not what record labels, and the media thinks they should do and time and time again, they’ve stayed ahead of their rivals.  They also come up with something new every album, their musical style doesn’t stand still.

17- What differences, if any, do you see between the fans of the 80s and the fansinthe last 10/15 years?

Obviously, there’s a lot more of them than ever before and a greater age range as the original Maiden fans have reached middle age and got their kids and grandchildren into Maiden.  With social media, downloads and the internet, the fans know more about what’s going on with the band and have better access to their musicThe fans are also more sophisticated in knowing what they want from a band, musically and visually and value for money. The band get held to a much higher standard.  If anything,the fans are more fanatical in their devotion than before

18- The current IMFC is present everywhere on the planet. How does this affect the performance of a fan club? How do you feel about it, considering that your contribution has been of paramount importance to achieve its present status?

I am really pleased that the Fan Club  has continued to keep going all these years. I will always be proud of what I achieved with IMFC and getting it started.  If I had my, I would have liked to have carried on running it when I moved to the US in 1996. However, because of what happened in the US before with the Fan Club, I understand why it was kept in the UK. The main thing about extended growth is that it takes a lot more work to run and it’s easy to become overwhelmed with it all, there comes a point where you realize you can’t do it all and need a larger infrastructure which you still have to oversee.  But the rewards of helping fellow fans and the lifelong friendships you build up make it all worthwhile.  My opinion has always been is that the only person who can do a decent job of running a fan club is a fan. 

19- Iron Maiden has always been a very prolific band in terms of its merchandising, especially in the 1980's. In fact, today there are people looking for all this vintage material, what do you think of the high selling prices on Ebay? Do you think the club could still have some unsold stock from the 80´s?

I doubt you’ll ever see any more vintage items released on the market. Practically everything produced over the years was sold out and nothing was kept other than the odd sample for the archives and anything the band, crew and fans have in their private collections. Therefore, everything from the earlier days is pretty rare.  As for the high prices, sometimes it seems a bit ridiculous, but it’s down to supply and demand.  It’s great that people still want the stuff.

20- From Maiden Spain FC we try to do some things for the Maiden fans, above all in Spanish language: information about the band (albums, tours, merchandising...), some t-shirt, etc. Among different activities, we also publish a magazine every few months; have you everseen any of them? If so, what do you think?

I’ve seen one or two from several countries, I don’t know if I’ve seen yours. I will check it out.  I think having magazines and clubs that are targeted to fans overseas in their local language is excellent as long as the fans aren’t being ripped off and copyright / trademark laws aren’t being broken, it’s good for all concerned.

21- You met Iron Maiden in their beginnings... why did you end up being a fan of Maiden? Why not Samson, Diamond Head, DefLeppard, or Saxon, just to mention some people? So special and different were those young members of Maiden already back then?

I wasn’t really a metal or heavy rock fan, but I liked what I saw when I watched maiden play, also in those days you generally only watched smaller bands in your own local area so unless say a band from West London played in the East End you most likely wouldn’t see them. If a band was from another part of the country it was even less likely. Once the NWOBHM bands began to gain popularity, T saw them, but always thought Iron maiden were better.  Plus they were my friends.

22- Sometimes we have the feeling that the great bands of the NWOBHM  were not aware,basically because of time they had to work and play, of the impact  all these heavy rock British bands had between the late 70´s and early 80´s. What was the fans reaction to NWOBHM? What about you?

THE NWOBHM was incredible, it ushered in the next generation of hard rock bands and helped keep the established band on their toes. The competition was good all round. Some of the bands, didn’t have the drive or the management, or record company interest, and fell by the wayside others just saw it has a hobby In the long run the cream rose to the top.  However it was a very important time for the genre, pushing it back into the mainstream after several years in the doldrums following disco and punk.

23- Next September it will be the 30th. anniversary of the edition of "Powerslave". Do you remember how the fans received that record? Which activities did the Fan club do?

The whole “Powerslave” process became like a runaway train. The record companies really put their weight behind the album spending more than ever to promote it. The videos for “Two Minutes To Midnight” and “Aces High” were lavish big budget productions rather than just filming the band performing the track on stage. The Band began to band got more exposure in the world Media and of course the Tour was massive, kicked off by the legendary “Behind The Iron Curtain” part of the tour.  The videos became mini-productions rather than just onstage footage. The fans loved the record, it really blew everyone away and the songwriting was incredible with more contributions from everyone in the band.  At IMFCwe put out a special newsletter with details of the new album and that quarter’s FC magazine was dedicated to the album and the start of the tour. There was a little bit of a problem, when production difficulties at EMI meant the album would be released a week later than scheduled, but overall no damage was done.

24- For the promotion of this album there was great deal of publicity and new articles for the FC were designed, do you remember any in particular? Did the officestuff increase?

The one thing I remember most of all, is the embroidered Navy Blue coloured, “Powerslave” sweat shirts that were produced for promotional use for the band, and record company.  Only a few hundred were ever produced and they quickly became collector’s items. (The tour ones were black with the “World Slavery Tour 84-84 embroidered logo). Everybody wanted one!  There were full-size displays in record stores across the world, even Eddie made personal appearances.  We didn’t do any special materials for the fan Club, but we did have some great competitions. Bravado and great Southern who were the merchandise companies for The World and USA put out an expanded range of merchandise items.

25- After the album "Powerslave", one of Maiden’s mythical tours began: the "World Slavery Tour". What memories do you keep from then? How did the IMFC react to the band’s unprecedented success, with spectacular and innovative staging such as the first edition of Rock in Rio?

The thing I remember most is the sheer scale of the thing and how tired everyone was afterwards. The band came home completely burned out. I personally drove up and down the country for the UK leg and would sometimes drive 500 miles in one night and have to be back at the office next morning! It was the first and last time I did a complete UK tour.  One night when the band weren’t playing, I went with some friends to see Dio at Hammersmith and actually fell asleep in the middle of the show, I was so tired.  It seemed in just about every country Maiden played a new attendance record or some other piece of history would be made. The 4 consecutive nights at Long Beach Arena and the “Rock In Rio” performance were easily the high spots of the Tour. Everything about the tour and album seemed larger than life.

26- After working on Iron Maiden, what did you do? What is your current activity? Do you miss those days?

I do sometimes miss working with The band, I would have loved to have kept up some involvement with IMFC  but it wasn’t to be after the bad experiences they had out here with the Fan Club in the 80’s. The first few times I saw them when they palyed here it seems so strange- standing around not being involved.

When I left The Iron Maiden / Sanctuary family, and moved to the US, I was originally supposed to work for a company in Hollywood who were going to run the band’s website and they were going to employ me to oversee it. However, when they found out from Rod, they were not going to get the merchandise rights for the band, they canceled the project and said without the merchandise they couldn’t afford my salary, so I was left stranded and had to get my own green card and work permit. Fortunately my wife was a US citizen and my kids have dual nationality so I was eventually able to get a green card and stay in the US.

The music business in the US was in a state of turmoil, over 5000 music business people were out of work in Los Angeles alone, all the smaller companies were being bought out by the larger ones, so I couldn’t get any work in those fields. So I ended up working a series of customer service and call center jobs. I did eventually work for Sanctuary again in 2005-6. They bought out Bravado the merchandise company and Rod got me a job in the LA office.  I was in charge of all the shipping and receiving operations.  Hoeever, in 2006, Sanctuary were facing bankruptcy and in a bid to save costs Bravado’s Regional offices were closed down and the warehousing operations moved to New York where Bravados’ main offices were.  I wanted to stay in California so I got laid off.  After that I worked for several other non-music companies in customer service positions, getting laid-off 3 times in 5 years.  Nowadays I work for the County of Riverside Social Services Department and as you know recently had major heart surgery.

27- To conclude Keith: According to you, what is or what should be a fan club? What is the hardest part for a fan club work? What is the most satisfactory thing?

The Fan Club should be an organization, created for the fans, run by fans and paid for by the artistes. It should be a source of information and contact point for the band and their fans to establish a rapport.  It should not be a commercial venture. Obviously you can make money via merchandise, but in all the years I ran the club itself, it was strictly on an expenses only basis. The membership fee covered the costs of publishing and mailing the magazines and answering letters, emails and calls.

28- And finally, who were Iron Maiden at the end of the 70s, and who are they today?

Keith, thank you very much for your attention and your words. It was an honor to interview you and to get to know more about Iron Maiden. A big hug and best wishes from Maiden Spain FC.

Thank you! It was an honour to be asked.

For spanish version, go to Magazine number 7:

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