Paul Bruce Dickinson made his live debut with Iron Maiden at the end of 1981, some two years after the band started its enduring relationship with EMI Records. He had viewed the group’s early emergence from a ringside seat as lead singer with Samson, another of the bands in what the rock press dubbed “the new wave of British heavy metal.” Since then, he has been not only Iron Maiden’s definitive lead singer, but an author, sportsman, a solo artist for five years in the 1990s, a radio DJ and a pilot. In the middle of the most successful global tour of the band’s career, he sat down with Billboard to discuss his, and Maiden’s, life and times.
When you joined Maiden, how aware had you been of the band?
We effectively grew up together, musically, because I was in Samson, and all the bands were aware of everybody else, we all gigged together. It’s fair to say Maiden had this momentum about them. It was like standing in front of a truck. They had that energy before they got the deal [with EMI].
But that took quite a while to build, didn’t it?
It did, but a lot of that was Steve [Harris, bassist and founding member] trying to get the personnel right, trying to get the commitment from people. Once the deal was signed, the press leapt all over it. “Running Free” came out, and it cunningly snuck in under the radar of all the punk stuff. They must have had to restrain Steve, because he absolutely hated punk. The first album [“Iron Maiden,” 1980] went to No. 4, which was an astonishing feat for a band like that.
I was in Samson; we were supposed to be going off on tour supporting Maiden. I got the date list and there were 50 or 60 shows, right the way through Europe. I thought, “This is unbelievable.” We were still scrabbling around trying to find gigs in Newbridge Memorial Hall in Gwent [Wales]. That fell through, we never did it, which in retrospect was probably a good thing. Maiden came back, having made quite a serious dent in the U.S. market, which they never expected.
Then, before your arrival, the band did “Killers” in 1981.
I liked that more than the first album. It got sniffily received [in the United Kingdom], because it wasn’t very punk. They wanted [producer] Martin Birch for the first album and didn’t think they could get him. The irony was, Martin had noticed the band and was like, “I’d love to work with them.” Anyway, it did happen on the second album, and by then Adrian [Smith, guitarist] had joined and was writing, so really the sound of the band just matured massively.
That was the album that really started to break them in America, and actually had a radio hit, “Wrathchild.”
What were the circumstances of you replacing Paul Di’anno as lead singer?
Things with Paul hadn’t been going terribly well, and they’d made the decision to get rid of him. So they came and took a peek at me. Clive [Burr, Maiden’s then-drummer] had been in Samson for three years, and “Killers” was being made at Zomba Studios [in northwest London], which back then was Morgan Studios.
We were in Morgan, and Maiden were in the [studio] opposite. So we used to go to the pub and have a few beers and chat. I went over and listened to the Maiden record and Clive would come over and listen to ours.
Had you looked across at the band and thought, “I could do that”?
Oh, I did that the first time I saw Maiden play, in Camden [north London] at the Music Machine. It was like a four-act bill, we were supposed to be headlining and Maiden were third on the bill. They turned up and it was clearly their audience. Everybody left as soon as they’d finished.
I stood at the back watching and thought, “Christ, this is a great band. Imagine what I could do if I was singing with that band.”
Were you cocky in those days?
Absolutely, I had an unfeasible amount of balls. Rod Smallwood offered me the chance of an audition, he didn’t offer me the job. This was at Reading Festival.
I said, “Well, alright. First of all, if I do the audition, I’m going to get the job, so you need to figure out whether or not you want me onboard, because I don’t want to be unless I can be a pain in the ass and have some opinions.
“I’m not going to be like the old guy. I’m going to have disagreements with Steve, because I’ve got some ideas about how I want to change things around. So if you don’t want that, you’d better tell me now.”
They asked me to learn three songs and I basically learned the lot, both albums.
So we turned up to the rehearsal room and let rip. Steve picked up the phone and said, “Could we get him into a studio today?”
They were still doing gigs with Paul. The atmosphere was a bit down. When they came back from Sweden, we popped in the studio, recorded three songs and that was it. That was “job done.” We all went out and got very drunk that night.
It seems as though Maiden developed a common cause because the band members were, and still are, outsiders.
We are still outsiders. We always will be, because that’s our essential nature. I can’t imagine what it would be like to go to vacuous showbiz parties. It’d be a nightmare. It’s just not what we’re about. The show’s the thing. Everything you need to know about Iron Maiden is onstage.
So when you joined, you hit the ground running.
There was no transition. It was zero to 100 miles an hour in one stride. That rush continued for five years, solid. It was No. 1 album [“The Number of the Beast,” 1982], No. 1 tour, biggest thing on the planet. I’d never done a gig outside the U.K. until I joined Maiden. Unless Inverness [Scotland] counts. I’d probably only done 20 or 30 gigs in my life.
How did you develop your personal stagecraft?
It’s one thing to project a confident air to the back of a club. It’s another to do the same thing in a theater, then an arena, and it’s quite another thing to do it in a festival. Before the days of camera and side screens, you were just a little speck. It was a rapid learning curve.
My aim as a frontman is always to try and shrink the venue, if you can, to turn that football stadium into the world’s smallest club. At least you have to try. The essence of the Maiden experience is that we want to include everybody in it.
When “The Number of the Beast” hit No. 1 on the U.K. charts in April 1982, it knocked Barbra Streisand’s “Love Songs” off the top. It was almost anti-establishment.
Yes, we had a bit of a history of that. With “Bring Your Daughter . . . to the Slaughter” [in January 1991] we did a service to the nation by knocking Sir Cliff [Richard] off the Christmas No. 1. I’m still waiting for my [royal honor as a] C.B.E. for that.
That leads into a question about the way you’ve always been viewed by the U.K. music mainstream.
The funny thing is, we were on Saturday morning telly, on “Tiswas.” At the time, everything was so overwhelming. Some of it was, “Let’s do this and see what happens.”
But you were, and still are, regulars in the singles chart.
Oh, yeah, and if you listen to some of the singles we had out, some of them were pretty bloody good, quite catchy, like “Can I Play With Madness.” People listen to the catalog and go, “Oh, it’s Maiden, not a lot of melody.” It’s like, “Just a minute!” All of our songs are stuffed full of tunes.
You personally have always taken on challenges, whether it’s fencing, broadcasting, being an author or being a pilot.
That’s because I just have an insatiable curiosity about the nature of things, and I think the best way to find out about something is to try and do it. Flying wasn’t on a list. It would be awfully good from the point of view of people writing about us if there was a plan, but there isn’t.
The movie we’re just doing [“Chemical Wedding”] stems from conversations in the pub with Julian Doyle [Dickinson’s co-writer on the film and its director] 15 years ago. As it happens, we’re now having the most successful tour in the band’s history, the band is a global phenomenon, and in the same year, we get to release a feature film, followed shortly afterwards by another feature film with a documentary, DVD, all the rest of it. Fucking hell, it looks like a plan. It’s not. It’s totally random.
So you’re probably not very good at sitting around daydreaming.
I’m very good at daydreaming. Ask any of my schoolteachers.
In the period when you were out of the band (1993-1998), did your solo work fulfill you?
The reason I left Maiden was that I genuinely didn’t know if I was getting that buzz anymore from doing new stuff. Nothing bad happened, there were no disagreements. The machine ran like clockwork and that’s when I started to get really antsy.
Also, the cult status of the band meant that whatever you did, people would go, in a patronizing fashion, “Oh, nice effort.” I didn’t think they’d have any problem finding another singer, but their subsequent career path hit a few oily patches on the road.
My own career fell off a cliff, and I decided I’d have one go at completely reinventing [myself], so everybody thought I’d gone raving mad, and I came up with an album called “Skunkworks” . It got great reviews, but the record company wasn’t sure.
Then I did a record called “The Chemical Wedding” , which was digging really deep into territory I’d never been to before, but keeping a rock sensibility.
I think it’s fair to say it was a fairly groundbreaking album, did really well sales-wise and I could see myself having a successful global cottage industry as an artist. Clearly it was never going to rival Maiden. But at the same time, looking at Maiden, it was obvious something was going to crack.
How did you develop as an artist during those solo years?
I was a much deeper musician by the time I got to “Chemical Wedding” than I ever was during the latter two or three albums with Maiden. I was much more serious about it. Roy Z, who was my producer and collaborator, said, “You’ve got to go back. You’ve done it, you’ve changed yourself around, it’s worked. But the world needs Iron Maiden.”
And I thought, “It does.” Then we had a meeting, myself and Steve. He was a bit leery at first. His main thing was wanting to know, if I came back, that I wasn’t going to leave again. I said, “Quite the contrary—if we glue it all back together again, we could do stuff that’s better than we ever thought possible. It could be bigger than we ever dreamed of.”
And that’s pretty much the way it’s turned out. It’s a really exciting place to be at the moment.
What’s it like for young bands out there just starting up?
We were brought up in clubs. Then you had this transitional phase of bands who looked wonderful on the cover of Vogue. But now it’s come full circle, and bands are doing their own little YouTube things, and everything’s gone live in a big way, and it’s all eye contact.
You’ve just got to go out and do it. There’s nothing between you and the audience, and I see a whole generation of bands now that really have that ability.
And the global numbers on your ticket sales, can you believe those?
When bands start out, the excitement level is 100% and the experience level is zero. Usually there’s a trade-off, and by the time they finish their careers, their experience level is 100% and the excitement level is zero.
We’re in this situation now where the excitement is back up to 100%, but the experience is up there as well, so we can play these songs with all that experience backing us up.
So how would you compare Maiden now with the group of, say, 25 years ago?
The way we play the songs now is in many ways more powerful, it’s more under control. It’s not like somebody running so fast that their legs are running away underneath them, which is kind of what it was like in the ’80s. This is a mature runner now who knows the pace and has always got something in the tank for the sprint when it’s appropriate. We’ve reached that sweet spot.