Back in full voice
Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson feared he would never sing again after being diagnosed with throat cancer, writes Kathy McCabe
When Bruce Dickinson was diagnosed with throat cancer, he contemplated the possibility that the treatment to rid his body of the disease could prevent him from singing again.
The Iron Maiden singer, who possesses one of the most distinctive voices in hard rock history, philosophically decided he could live with that potential outcome. After all, he would be alive.
And he had already recorded the vocals for The Book Of Souls, Maiden’s 16th studio record.
In the middle of another nine-hour day of talking about the record and his recent cancer treatment, Dickinson clears his throat regularly and sounds a little hoarse.
“I had to contemplate that one possible outcome could be I walk away with this all gone and unable to sing,” he says.
“Well, that would be ironic because this is one of the best albums I have done in my life.
“If this is the last thing people hear me sing, if this is my last hurrah, the it’s a good one. I just had to be philosophical about this.”
The compelling vocalist had felt there was “something a little bit odd” for several weeks during the recording sessions.
He researched his symptoms online and “got it bang on”. He disregarded the nagging voice in his head, not wanting to confirm his instincts until they had finished his vocals.
When a French GP visited the studio, the singer asked him to check out the lump on the side of his neck.
“When he told me I needed a CAT scan, an MRI and a biopsy, I realised it wasn’t a cold. Five days later I got the results and five days after that I was in front of the oncologist who had already taken the liberty of booking my treatment to start on January 5,” he says.
“We were done by March and I have had a pretty good bounce back.”
The great news for Dickinson and good news for the legion of loyal Maiden fans is his voice has come back after the chemotherapy and radiation treatment to kill the tumours discovered just as the band recorded the album in Paris earlier this year.
Iron Maiden confirmed their 2016 world tour last week as Dickinson piloted fans and media on the new Ed Force One jumbo jet, which will transport the band, crew and 12 tonnes of equipment on a 88,500km jaunt to 35 countries.
Dickinson says that the radiation treatment was precisely targeted to avoid damaging his larynx.
“I have some healing to do on the inside. I’ve done a bit of singing in the kitchen so I know it’s all there,” he says.
The Book Of Souls is the band’s first album in five years and achieves more than a few milestones. It is the first double album of their 40-year career, an epic opus clocking in at a mammoth 92 minutes, and features the longest song Maiden has recorded.
A passionate student of the history of flight, Dickinson wrote the 18-minute Empire Of
the Clouds as a tribute to the tragic maiden voyage of the R101 airship in 1930.
The intricate piece was written on an electric piano keyboard Dickinson had won at a charity dinner hosted by Jamie Oliver.
“I was getting a free meal and thought I should stick my hand in my pocket and I could do with a little piano to muck around with. It was signed by Jamie Cullum. I took it home and it sat in the box for six months,” he says.
Both of us erupt into laughter at the thought of the hard rock frontman with a piano signed by the diminutive British jazz-pop star. But what is even more hilarious is Dickinson can’t play the piano.
“I just wanted to have a go and see what came out. I quite like piano now; I wish I had paid more attention in school,” he says.
“I just started writing little melodies and tunes and things, and out popped Empire Of the
Dickinson says he started giggling when the song reached the 18-minute mark.
“I thought, ‘This is going to mess with people’s heads’,” he says. “I wrote some words and took the song to Paris to the studio where they had a Steinway grand that I guess they didn’t win in a raffle.”
The Guillame Tell Studios, a 1930s cinema where the band had recorded their 2000 record
Brave New World, inspired even bolder and more ambitious ideas within the group, which includes Steve Harris, Dave Murray, Janick Gers and Adrian Smith. There are grand, orchestral arrangements and another two tracks that bust the 10-minute mark.
“All of it was recorded as if we were playing live,” he says.
“Maiden, on its best day, has always been an acoustic theatre of the mind, provoking pictures and images. With the yelled stuff, you don’t have much time to conjure that because it’s full on, but when there is more space, as there is on a lot of this album, you can go on your imaginings.” Listening to The Book Of
Souls, it is impossible not to wonder whether songs such as When the River Runs Deep, Death Or Glory and Tears Of a Clown have a deeper personal resonance for the frontman in the wake of his cancer experience.
The rocker raconteur rolls out a succession of blackly humorous quips about his illness and the limbo it put his life and career into for several months.
The only thing missing is a boom-tish from the band’s drummer Nicko McBrain.
“What is your favourite album? Life After Death, of course. And I’d hate to cancel a tour for reasons too tumorous to mention. Other people can’t crack those jokes, but I can,” he says.
“I just wanted to have a go ... I just started writing little melodies and tunes and things,
and out popped Empire Of the Clouds”
HOW BRUCE DICKINSON CAME UP WITH
AN 18- MINUTE SONG ON THE PIANO