© Dave Ling - September 1999 - previously published in METAL HAMMER magazine
By the time you read this, Iron Maiden will have completed a 17-date tour of the United States and Canada, their first since vocalist Bruce Dickinson and guitarist Adrian Smith re-joined the band.
In September, the sextet - still comprising bassist Steve Harris, guitarists Dave Murray and Janick Gers and drummer Nicko McBrain - will continue with a string of dates on the European mainland that’s sadly bereft of any British appearances, but the statistics speak for themselves.
The bulk of the North American shows were sold out. A 15,000-capacity arena in Gothenburg took a matter of days to close its box office to ticket requests, and a gig on September 9th at the gigantic Omnisport De Paris is also approaching saturation point.
This is the tour that Iron Maiden fans have waited, hoped and prayed for, but it’s also one of metal’s least likely reunions. Smith had decided to opt for pastures more melodic in 1990 and Dickinson threw in the towel three years later. In the case of the latter’s departure, however, a war of words erupted that would simmer for years. Dickinson’s ex-bandmates furiously suggested he was “not trying” at certain shows on a farewell tour. The singer retaliated by claiming that Maiden were stuck in a creative rut, with little or no willingness to dig themselves out of it. As recently as last year, Harris volleyed back with the accusation that Dickinson would make a country and western album if he thought there was money in it.
“Bruce is a changed man. A lot of that’s to do with him sorting out his personal life”
The intervening time span saw ex-Gillan/White Spirit man Gers take Smith’s place and former Wolfsbane shouter Blaze Bayley assuming the role of frontman, with varying degrees of success (should you require explanation, Gers received the approval of the fans and is still a member of the band). Bayley, on the other hand, lacked the range, presence and wherewithal to adequately fill the enormous boots of his predecessor.
Released in 1995, ‘The X Factor’ album sold a million copies worldwide. Last year’s follow-up, ‘Virtual XI’, elicited some grudgingly decent reviews, but what fans and critics alike craved was Dickinson’s return. Co-incidentally (or maybe not), Bruce’s solo material was moving back into a heavier direction after an experimental start. He began to drop hints, leaving the door open for a formal approach but stipulating that should he agree to return, certain things must change. Harris, who has traditionally commanded Maiden’s ship, appeared to back down, agreeing to work with a name producer and record away from his home studio.
In January, Dickinson told a hushed band meeting that he was fed up with being top of the Third Division and craved a return to the pinnacle of the Premiership. He signed on the dotted line and fired a swift broadside at the competition. In a May cover feature, Bruce boasted: “We are better than Metallica.”
To find out if his claim was true, Hammer hooked up with Iron Maiden in Milwaukee nine dates into the tour, en route to a show in Detroit. Our mission was simple - find out whether the old magic was back; determine the motivation for their re-grouping; see if people still gave a shit about a band with no US label or product to promote… and also to discover whether any of their personnel had decked each other yet. In short, what we wanted to know was, has Bruce Dickinson saved Iron Maiden’s goose? Well, shall we just tell the story of the trip and let you, faithful reader, draw your own conclusion?
Upon our arrival, the biggest shock was the cordial atmosphere between Messrs Harris and Dickinson. More unexpected still, the bassist (known to band and crew as ’Arry) was happily flying between shows in the company of the singer, drummer Nicko McBrain and manager Rod Smallwood, plus co-pilot and tour manager. Dave Murray, Adrian Smith and Janick Gers were travelling either by domestic flights or via the traditional tour-bus method. Dickinson, an aviator of some considerable experience, was piloting the more adventurous troupe between concerts in a twin-propped light aircraft, and revelling in the role. Your correspondent was to join them.
As our party joked and chatted among themselves prior to take-off for Detroit, Bruce and Nicko (himself a keen pilot) busied themselves by poring over a computer, calculating the tailwinds and necessary altitudes. “They’re reporting cumulonimbus [clouds], but it’s not showing up on the scope,” McBrain remarked, before predicting thunderstorms in our path. As one, everybody prayed that it was a case of a drummer being wrong… as usual.
In fact, Nicko was 100% correct, although Dickinson eventually managed to circumnavigate the dark clouds and brought us down comfortably onto the Detroit runway with minutes to spare before the heavens opened.
After being given the full red carpet treatment, we sped away in a mini-bus through the thunder to tonight’s venue, the Pine Knob Music Theater. A smiling Harris reclined in his seat and pronounced it: “The only way to travel.”
Bruce and I retire to a deserted dressing room. I tell him that because of all that’s gone on between himself and Maiden in the past - let’s not forget that there has been all manner of ugliness - I’m amazed he’s back. Far too much had been said on both sides, both privately and in print.
“That’s great, I suppose, because it adds drama,” he guffaws. “But I’ll tell you what - it’s all very grown-up and we’re working together more closely now than at any other point in the band’s history, maybe with the exception of ‘The Number Of The Beast’ album [in 1982]. We’re actually talking to each other now. It’s not like, ‘Oh hi, did you get drunk last night?’, we’re having real conversations about things that matter. It’s really exciting.”
This enthusiasm has spilled over into the creative process. Says Bruce: “We’ve been setting the gear up in a circle and everyone’s been making suggestions, modifying what comes up. Sure, it can get a bit lively at times, but constructive argument is a good thing because it shows that people care. The vibe is really happening - you could touch it.”
When you all sat down, were there a lot of issues that needed resolving?
“No. Honestly, no.”
And are there things that are still left unsaid?
“Again, no. All these things have resolved themselves. It’s all just little details, and those things are relatively easily ironed out.”
Does it feel like the old days again, and if not what has changed?
“Lots of things have changed,” he assures me. “For a start, we can have a laugh. Whenever we’ve played I’ve been telling the crowd, ‘Scream for me Long Beach’ [an immortal battle-cry from 1985’s ‘Live After Death’ concert double-set], and people love all that because it was part of their growing up. There’s no need to junk everything good that you’ve ever done, but you shouldn’t lean on it either.”
Dickinson admits to experiencing horrendous nerves before the first couple of gigs, in Montreal and Quebec, but claims that his anxiety had less to do with the shows themselves and more to do with being “caught up in the whole fucking nostalgia thing. It makes me quite angry when people keep on talking about the past. That’s not what I rejoined this band for - I just wanted to make a great record.”
“Bands should have watershed albums and Maiden’s not had one of those in a long, long time.
This could be it”
Bruce Dickinson predicts the birth of the ‘Brave New World’ album
When I suggest that nostalgia is exactly what everyone believes this tour is about, the singer becomes quite animated.
“No, kicking everyone in the fucking bollocks is what this is all about,” he protests. “It’s not about making Limp Bizkit and all these other bands have respect for what Iron Maiden were, but about what we are and what we’re going to be.”
Fair enough, but people won’t truly believe any of this till they hear some music. “They won’t,” agrees Bruce, “but at the same time we didn’t want to rush into making an album. The whole reason that this tour is so short is that we want to vibe ourselves up. Our potential US label were literally shitting themselves with excitement at the shows in New York, and I really believe that if we make the right record next year we’ll surprise a lot of people.”
According to Dickinson, five of the album’s songs are already written and the rest will be finished upon the tour’s completion in October. Recording is scheduled for November with a producer whose identity they’re still unwilling to reveal, and a May 2000 release looks most likely. When I ask Bruce how the new songs are shaping up, for once Bruce is short of words.
“It’s difficult to come up with a glib response,” he muses for a moment. “We’re not attempting to deny Maiden’s past or our sound, but I’m convinced it’s gonna make people listen to the band in a completely different way. Bands should have watershed albums and Maiden’s not had one of those in a long, long time. This could be it.”
I wonder, does Dickinson sense a certain ‘thank God’ factor at his return?
“There may be, and that would be gratifying,” he shrugs, “but once again that would be clinging to the past. That simply doesn’t interest me, and it’s not why I rejoined this band.”
So did Bruce Dickinson save Iron Maiden? For my money, he smiles just a smidgen too much while shaking his head.
“No. In some ways my rejoining has made it possible for various opportunities to open up, but that kind of talk is coloured too much by people’s perception of the band’s sales and their status in my absence. The truth of the matter is that although they diminished, they were still selling fairly decent numbers of records. All I’ve done is primed them. What’s really gonna make this band fly is when people see us and realise that we’re not fooling around. That’s not one individual; it’s something that we can only do together.”
“With or without Bruce, we’d have carried on and made a bloody good Maiden album.
I don’t mean to sound big-headed, but we don’t make shit albums.”
As we sit in the catering room watching opening act Clutch go through their impressive paces on a small TV screen, drummer McBrain offers a slightly different perspective upon the situation.“If we hadn’t got Bruce back there was a possibility we’d have ’ung it up, and I didn’t want to do that,” he tells me. “We knew that Bruce needed us and we needed him, so finally I brought the subject up with ’Arry. He took a bit of persuading, but even he knew it underneath.
The talkative drummer, who underwent a religious conversion three years ago, continues in suitably evangelical tones: “I see it as divine intervention. Sometimes the Good Lord makes these things happen, but the strange thing is that there was no plan for it. The first time around [with Bruce] it had become a bit like a marriage that was going down the tubes. If you stop communicating, things will always go wrong. So we got divorced, and as everybody knows it all became a bit messy. But now Bruce and Adrian are back, and the difference is that we’re able to sit down and talk about things if there’s a crisis. It’s like we’ve remarried. And, as you’ll see later on tonight, the sex is better than ever.”
Iron Maiden are indeed back on form. It’s an inspired move to have based the sextet’s current 100-minute set around an internet poll of their most popular material. As McBrain predicted, in Detroit they purr through 17 songs with all the effortless class of a Rolls Royce. Dickinson bounds onto the stage and is greeted by the kind of roar usually saved for last-minute, Superbowl-winning touchdowns. Strangely, the crowd seem unfamiliar with the tracks included from ‘The X Factor’ and ‘Virtual XI’, but they’re on their feet, punching the air from the opening bars of ‘Aces High’. They stay there until a frantic ‘Run To The Hills’. Afterwards, everybody is completely drained. Flashing police lights accompany us back to the local airport.
It’s fascinating to see Bruce’s persona revert from the foul-mouthed, megolamaniac barbarian of the stage to the mild-mannered, responsible pilot of the plane that’s due to transport Harris and I back to Milwaukee (where the bassist’s family are holed up and from where my flight home departs the next day), and the others onto the next show in Chicago.Once again, I sit at the front of the plane and Dickinson talks me through everything that goes on. Bruce does a first class job, diverting around the storms and static electricity that lights up the night sky so beautifully around us. Finally Bruce returns us to terra firma and the safety of a waiting limousine. It’s a tough life.
In the corner of a deserted hotel bar, Steve Harris is intrigued to learn of McBrain’s earlier remarks about ’anging it up. “Did Nick really say that?” he frowns, looking puzzled. “Naaah, even if Blaze had stayed in the band we’d still have been touring this summer and making the next album abroad - even looking for a producer because Nigel Green [who worked alongside Steve on both ‘The X Factor’ and ‘Virtual XI’] isn’t available to do it.”
With such talk we are, of course, entering a decidedly grey area. For Maiden still insist upon keeping the reasons for Blaze Bayley’s departure close to their chests. Aside from a few criticisms about the consistency of his performances over a nine-month tour and his behaviour after a few beers, nobody seems to have a bad word to say about the bloke. Indeed, Steve continues to defend Blaze’s corner most robustly than he has to, claiming that the British press never have him a fair crack of the whip. He expresses his opinion that Bayley was a great singer, sighing deeply when I express my own viewpoint that he simply wasn’t up to such a Herculean task.
So can the removal of Blaze in favour of Dickinson only be attributed to external pressure? Again, beyond a vehement denial that he was railroaded into making the change, Steve’s not saying anything.
“If Blaze hasn’t spoken about it yet then neither will I,” he states defiantly. “That’s what we agreed.”
“The band are actually talking to each other now, having real conversations about things that matter.
It’s really exciting.”
The bassist nods sagely when I profess that any understanding of the band’s current situation is dependent upon a comprehension of what happened to the old line-up, but still he remains tight-lipped.
You have to admire such loyalty, even if his un-cooperativeness makes a journalist’s job that much harder. But then Steve Harris is known for being big-headed. Stubbornness and resistance to change are qualities that have paid dividends for him over the years. So it comes as no surprise that while others are hanging out the metaphorical bunting at the success of the reunion, ‘Arry remains calm and pragmatic.
“I don’t see much difference between this tour and the last one with Blaze,” he states, matter of factly. “We’ve played a few gigs with a few more people, but as far as audience reactions go, there’s not much in it. Last summer, we played the same venue [in Detroit] to eight and a half thousand people, tonight we had over 10 thousand. It’s a difference, but not a huge one.”
The excitement of the tour doesn’t seem to have rubbed off on Mr Harris.
“Of course there’s an excitement, but there was an excitement last time, too,” he reasons. “Last time around was fun because we were the underdog, trying to prove we still had what it takes.”
Some of this might have to do with the fact that, despite his presence on these dates, Steve isn’t a fan of American audiences.
“Whichever line-up has come here we’ve always had problems getting out heads around the fact that they don’t know the songs, so we’ve made an effort to play a lot more of the oldies that they request,” he explains. “They’ll spend ages telling you how much they love your stuff, then they’ll ask which guitarist you are. Obviously, we’ve got some hardcore fans here, but some of them seem to come to our shows because it’s the thing to do.”
I bring up the subject of an American review that seemed to suggest Maiden’s preoccupation with their current material had caused a crowd to chant for support band Dio, and he dismisses it out of hand.
“That’s bullshit,” riles Steve. “There may have been one or two people heckling at the back, but that’s not exclusive to us. It affects everyone.”
To a certain extent, Harris shares my disbelief that the reunion has come this far.
“I didn’t think it would work either - until we met with Bruce,” he admits. “Both sides had their say in the [official] Run To The Hills book, but there didn’t seem to be any harm in going to a meeting with him. And it went very well. His attitude was exactly where I wanted it to be. My only worry was that he was acting like that because he knew that’s what we wanted to hear. But so far that’s not proven to be the case. With all this stuff he’s been saying onstage, he’d look pretty silly if he just bailed out at the end of all this.
“That said, I think Bruce is a changed man,” he continues. “A lot of that’s to do with him sorting out his personal life. He’s as happy as a pig in shit with his new aeroplane and being back in the band. We’ve been pretty much on the same wavelength from the start.”
One fundamental difference between the two characters is that Dickinson will always be the fire to Harris’ ice. While Bruce feels the need to throw down the gauntlet to Metallica, the bassist prefers to keep a low profile.
“To say things like that is not really the band’s style, but I understand why Bruce did it,” comments Steve. “He does actually believe that stuff, but he also did it to ruffle a few feathers. I’m sure Metallica will take it as a compliment that he used them as a yardstick.”
“If we hadn’t got Bruce back there was a possibility we’d have ’ung it up. I see it as divine intervention”
Naturally, the fact that Maiden are neglecting their homeland on the tour has caused complaints. Apparently, there are good reasons for this. Bruce had said earlier: “For every person that would want to see the Iron Maiden reunion, there’s an armchair critic. The UK’s a very unfriendly place for metal at the moment, and in that respect it’s behind the rest of the world. But who knows, by next summer we may be able to organise something for the British fans - and it won’t be a gig at Reading.”
Harris was only marginally happier than his frontman to address the matter of resurrecting a certain British festival that Maiden have headlined twice before and begins with a ‘D’.
“I’d love to do Donington again because it’s a tradition that shouldn’t have died out,” he says. “But it’s something we’ll have to talk about.”
First, of course, there’s that album to complete.
Steve says proudly: “The songs that we’ve got ready to record are so strong. It’s still gonna sound like Maiden, but they’re not just re-treads of what we’ve done before.”
One of the reasons that Bruce cited for leaving Maiden was the rejection of the acoustic stuff he’d written for the ‘Somewhere In Time’ album. Would this still be area of conjecture?
“The criterion is that it has to be good,” fires back Steve. “Unfortunately, in 1986, the stuff he brought in after we were all freaked out from the ‘Powerslave’ tour just wasn’t up to scratch. And the testament to that is that he never used it on his solo albums. I love acoustic stuff - I probably love Jethro Tull more than he does - but it’s about songs. And now we seem to be coming from the same place. I was relieved that he didn’t try to push us in the direction of ‘The Chemical Wedding’ [Dickinson’s most recent solo release] because that wouldn’t have suited us.
“I admit, I had my worries that Bruce and Adrian had gone off and done their own thing; would they be happy to compromise again? Being in a band is all about democracy - that applies to me, too, which is why at some point I’d like to make a solo album. But at the moment it’s healthy for us all to be team players.”
Steve chuckles at the aforementioned ‘thank God’ factor of Bruce’s return, obviously disagreeing. He even claims to have met fans that have expressed disappointment at the move.
“Some were quite outspoken on the subject,” he nods. “They felt that Blaze was a hundred per cent into being in the band, but they doubted Bruce’s commitment after all that had happened in the past. But now most of them seem okay with it.”
So, again, did Bruce Dickinson save Iron Maiden? If he did, ’Arry’s not acknowledging it.
“Naaah, the question could be, did Iron Maiden save Bruce Dickinson?” he mischievously replies. “With or without Bruce, we’d have carried on and made a bloody good Maiden album. I don’t mean to sound big-headed, but we don’t make shit albums. So there wouldn’t have been a problem.”
Harris’ caution appears to dissolve a little as the interview draws to a halt.
“I’m not the kind of bloke who goes shouting about things from the rooftops, I prefer to take my time and see how things go,” he concludes with considerable understatement. “We’ve not done enough gigs or an album yet. But this line-up has the potential to be Iron Maiden’s best ever.”
Coming from Steve Harris, that’s high praise indeed.
Dave Wyndorf on Maiden
Along with Clutch, stoner rockers Monster Magnet supported Iron Maiden on some of their American dates. Here’s what frontman Dave Wyndorf had to say about them.
“If you ask me, they’ve never sounded better. I’ve gotta be honest, I kinda missed out on Maiden first time around because I was in a punk band at the time. It wasn’t considered cool to listen to those guys. After that I quit the music scene altogether for a while, and I just listened to 60s garage punk and classical stuff. So I missed the whole fuckin’ heavy metal thing.
“The next thing I know, I’m working at this comic book store and kids were coming in in Iron Maiden shirts. I was saying, ‘What the fuck is this all about?’ Eventually, I saw their ‘Live After Death’ video and it was like, ‘Holy shit, these guys are amazing’. Last thing I knew, metal was big, but it hadn’t been perfected the way that Maiden were doing it. They standardised it; took it to the next level.
“It’s so cool that Bruce is back with them again. I haven’t met the guys in the band yet, But I’ll make a point of doing so. They’re a piece of musical history.”
The official Iron Maiden website
Believe it or not, it’s been five years and two studio albums since Bruce Dickinson returned to Iron Maiden. They needed him back. It’s almost sacrilegious to admit, but I actually walked out early from a Brixton Academy show during the Blaze Bayley era, knowing that if I’d gone to the party and someone from the band had asked what I’d thought I’d have been unable to hold my tongue. Watching Bayley was like observing the British impressionist Mike Yarwood doing a pitiful impression of Dickinson. To the eternal credit of bassist and band leader Steve Harris, Maiden kept faith with the hapless frontman, who gave it all he had. Sadly, it wasn’t enough. You had to admire the gentlemanly way that Harris refused to discuss the real reasons that the band made the change. Even off the record, Steve stayed defiantly schtum. This story is one of my all-time favourites. Nicko McBrain’s admission that the band knew they needed Bruce Dickinson back is fundamental. Steve Harris disagrees, but it’s given credence by the fact that Nicko’s quote was allowed to remain in the segment of the official book Run To The Hills that I wrote. Steve Harris is one of the nicest and most genuine rock stars you could ever wish to meet. It’s always a pleasure to shoot the breeze with him; he seemed to enjoy it, too. “You know your stuff,” he said as he got into the lift, “You sometimes talk a lot of shit, but at least it’s interesting shit.” I’m honoured! (7th November, 2004)
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