Plus: Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden
Depending on your taste for metal, Bruce Dickinson is either a household name or it doesn’t ring a bell. But from 1982’s The Number of the Beast to a new live album out this month, he was Iron Maiden’s unstoppable frontman. His latest release is What Does
Like many who recover from a serious illness, Bruce Dickinson was inspired to re-evaluate his life after being treated for a cancerous tumour on his tongue in 2015. Resolving that the time had finally arrived to embark upon his memoirs, the 59-year-old Iron Maiden lead singer has now produced What Does This Button Do? which moves from his “average to middling brutal experiences” in English boarding schools to his exploits fronting one of the biggest heavy metal bands of all time.
“This was about the third time in the past 10 years that someone has asked me to do an autobiography,” he says. “I’d batted it away on the previous occasions, as like, ‘Ah, it’s a bit too soon.’ But when I got this cancer diagnosed and then got over it, I thought, ‘You know what, maybe I should start writing some of this stuff down.’ It seemed that getting clear of cancer had given me a new lease of life, and it also gave me an end point to this particular book.”
Determined to write it all himself rather than employ a more experienced collaborator, Dickinson threw himself into the task.
“I did it that way because that’s the sort of thing you want in an autobiography, which is some kind of sense of how that person views the world and obviously this is who I am,” says Dickinson, whose first draft was almost three times the length of the finished book.
“We got rid of a lot of stories – not because they were rubbish, but because my editor, Jack Fogg, said that he wanted to edit the book as if it was a novel of my life,” he says. “I’d ended up with a logjam of very similar stories. They were all good stories but you really just need to tell one and then move onto the next chapter. I could see his way of thinking, which was probably right, but what it means is that I’ve got loads of great stories on the cutting room floor, so we’ll see what happens next time.”
Dickinson has steered away from including any “births, marriages, divorces” or other personal details. “An autobiography is a strange beast,” he says. “There’s an extent to which if you start bringing in wives, kids, girlfriends, and all that sort of stuff then it becomes a moving target for the press and critics.
“Straight away, they’ll go for the lowest common denominator but, in fact, it’s not really as relevant to the entertainment value of the book as you might think. It would have been very easy for it to turn into a kind of confessional, where the audience is in the priest-hole, which I honestly don’t think is very entertaining.”
He cites the example of his two favourite books, David Niven’s The Moon’s a Balloon and the late jazz singer George Melly’s Rum, Bum and Concertina. “They’re both just the right combination – for me at least – of great stories and bits of information that people might or might not know about, along with their own take on things,” he adds.
“I also didn’t want to mess up the lives of those nearest and dearest to me.” So we won’t be reading about Dickinson’s second wife, Paddy Bowden, and their three children.
Having been a member of Iron Maiden for almost 30 years, the front man admits that belonging to a longrunning rock group is very much like being part of a family. “It’s exactly like that in that you don’t choose your own brothers and sisters,” he says. “The mother that birthed us all was Iron Maiden, so that’s the reason why we stay together. Our loyalty is more than to each other; it’s to the band, and that’s why the band works.”
After playing in a couple of pub bands during his university days, Dickinson’s first big break arrived in1979 when he was asked to be the lead singer of hard rockers Samson, who had already enjoyed moderate success with their debut album, Survivors. With punk in the ascendant, Samson were proclaimed by music magazine Sounds as one of the trailblazers of the clumsily titled New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement. However, Dickinson insists that it didn’t amount to more than some sensational headlines from a few excitable journalists.
“What happened at the beginning of the 1980s is that music turned into a whole selection of tribes, which hadn’t happened in such a fragmented way before that,” he says. “Suddenly, the music industry got chopped up into all these little ghettoes, which didn’t really exist in the late 60s, when it was all like big one area. There was no argument to say that just because
“The mother that birthed us all was Iron Maiden, so that’s the reason why we stay together. Our loyalty is to the band.”
you liked Motorhead, you couldn’t also like Joan Baez. But in the early 80s, everything was sectioned off. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal was a part of that, and one of the reasons for that was that it was a reaction against punk and new wave.”
Although Samson once shared a management company with hardcore band UK Subs, Dickinson maintains that punk didn’t have much to offer from a musical point of view. “The only useful thing about punk was that it sidestepped the mainstream record companies,” he says. “Although of course, it didn’t really because all the successful punk bands like The Clash and The Sex Pistols were signed to major record labels, so they were assimilated pretty rapidly into the mainstream.”
With Samson calling it a day at the 1981 Reading Music Festival, Iron Maiden manager Rod Smallwood approached Dickinson about replacing previous vocalist Paul Di’Anno, who had departed after singing on their first two albums. With their first album together, 1982’s The Number of the Beast, becoming their first number one album in the UK before reaching the top 10 in several other countries, it proved to be a baptism of fire for Dickinson.
“It was a bit like going from a local Sunday league soccer team and then suddenly walking out onto the pitch and being told that you’ve become the striker for Manchester United overnight,” he recalls. “But I just got on with it and climbed the steep learning curve. That’s been pretty much what I’ve tried to do with whatever situation I’ve been in. I’ve never joined a band that wasn’t bigger than I was at the time. Even when I was first starting out, every band I ever joined was always way further down the evolutionary path than I was, so it was my job to catch up pretty damn quick.”
Contributing to six more albums over the next decade, Dickinson quit Iron Maiden after 1992’s Fear of the Dark to concentrate on his solo career. Rejoining in 1999, he believes that the time apart had been beneficial for all concerned.
“I learnt so much doing my own material that it was transferred directly back into Iron Maiden,” he says. “Even though it had been an uncomfortable few years – probably for them as well as for me – it was still very enjoyable, and in the end, it was very, very successful.”
Releasing five more albums over the past 15 years, culminating in 2015’s The Book of Souls, Iron Maiden will release a live album of their subsequent world tour later this month. And while Dickinson isn’t 60 until next year, most of his bandmates – including bassist and primary songwriter Steve Harris – are in their early 60s. “It’s gotten easier as we’ve gotten older because a lot of the experiences you have that cause conflict, you’ve already been through, so in most cases, you can avoid repetition of those kinds of situations,” he reflects. “Also – as I say – our loyalty is above all to Iron Maiden, and our personal loyalties are kind of secondary to that. It’s not that we’re not friends – of course we’re friends – but we’re friends because we’re in Iron Maiden.”
Dickinson is man with many passions, outside of the band. He brews beer and fences (representing Britain at the latter in the 80s). He’s written two novels and involved himself in a range of not particularly lucrative entrepreneurial projects. A qualified airline pilot, Dickinson has been able to incorporate his love of flying into his work with Iron Maiden. He took control of Ed Force One, the band’s distinctive Boeing 747-400, during their last world tour. “I am absolutely like a tour bus driver,” laughs Dickinson, who flew Iron Maiden to both Christchurch and Auckland when the band visited New Zealand in April last year.
A dedicated rugby fan, he was thrilled to be presented with a special All Blacks jersey before their show at Vector Arena. “They made up a little shirt for me, which was a great honour,” he says. “I said, ‘Do you mind if I wear this on stage?’ And they said, ‘No, that’s why we made it up for you.’ So I did. We also got to meet a couple of the All Black coaches and we went to see a rugby match, which was really good for myself and our manager Rod, as we both really like rugby. Clearly, we’re big fans of the All Blacks, except for when they play England.”
What Does This Button Do? (HarperCollins) is available now, RRP $36.99. Iron Maiden’s new live album, The Book of Souls: Live Chapter, is out on November 17.
“I am absolutely like a tour bus driver,” laughs Dickinson, who flew Iron Maiden to both Christchurch and Auckland last year.
Paging Captain Bruce: a qualified airline pilot, Dickinson flew the band’s plane during their last world tour. He and the rest of Iron Maiden are pictured on the tarmac in Curabita, Brazil.
He also makes beer, teaming up with an independent brewery to launch Trooper in 2013.
Away from heavy metal, Dickinson (left) enjoys fencing and represented Britain in the 1980s. This tournament was held in Sao Paulo, Brazil.