Bruce Dickinson: ‘An autobiography presses the reset button for the rest of your life’
Iron Maiden’s lead singer talks about his childhood, fame, cancer, boarding school and Brexit
For almost four decades Iron Maiden have been one of the biggest heavy metal bands in the world. Following a cancer diagnosis three years ago, lead singer Bruce Dickinson penned his autobiography What Does This Button Do? The book topped the bestsellers list in Britain on the first week of its release. He speaks to Ronan McGreevy about his childhood, life in Iron Maiden, the perils of being a world-famous rock star and Brexit.
You were diagnosed with tongue cancer in December 2014. How is your health now?
I’m fine actually. You go back to the doctor and they say, “you’re all clear of that. When was the last time somebody put a finger up your bum and brought a camera up there?” (He laughs). You’re a never-ending pin cushion now, but I’m fine.
Was your health scare a catalyst for the book?
People have been asking me to write a book for 10 to 12 years. Either I’ve been too busy or I couldn’t be bothered. I know how much time it takes. I’d rather just sing.
Then, after I got done with this thing (cancer), I thought it was not a bad time to do it (the book).
The problem with doing an autobiography is where do you stop because obviously your life is ongoing. This autobiography is a really good stopping point because you have pressed the reset button for the rest of your life with it. Getting clear of it (cancer) was a good stopping point for this book. That’s a good end point for it so it gave me the impetus to have a go at writing this book.
Initially I was reluctant to write an autobiography. I just wanted a sort of a memoir if you like, a load of stories. As it turned out, since I started writing it, it kind of turned into an autobiography. I said I might as well call it that anyway (an autobiography) because that is what the publisher wanted.
Were you surprised when it went straight to No 1 in the UK nonfiction hardback charts?
I was amazed. Because you are in Iron Maiden, you’re not an A-list celebrity and you’re not on reality TV shows etc. Consequently, in terms of appearing on chat shows and all the rest of it, you’re a bit of a pariah.
So I just went out and met people and we did these one-man theatre shows. It is about an hour and a half to an hour and 45 minutes long. It’s a bit like stand-up and then I do some book signings. Lo and behold we sold 16,500 books in a week. We beat Hillary (Clinton) and Jenson (Button). It’s not every day you can say you beat Jenson Button into second place. (He laughs)
You had an unorthodox upbringing in Worksop, Northamptonshire. You were raised for your first five years by your grandparents while your parents (Bruce Snr and Sonia) were on the road promoting their dog show business. You don’t seem to have any resentment about that.
There’s none at all. There’s nothing. You have to deal with the hand of cards you are given. As I say in the book, I have no clue what I would have done if I had been as young as my Dad (18) having a kid, especially a kid like me. I think I was positively hard work.
Yet you recorded a track called Original Sin for one of your solo albums, Balls to Picasso. The lyrics go “Tell me father where have you been/All these years in original sin/I saw you each day, we had nothing to say/And now it’s too late to begin”. Why did you decide not to put the song on the album?
It is a great temptation if you are an artist to go down the self-pity route. If you think about it, it just looks a bit crap. Who cares? It is much better to look outwards and go: “Look how great life is. Look at what amazing things you can do” rather than whinge about things you can’t do. It wasn’t all exactly as you might have liked in some fantasy existence. Tell me what life is?
You went to Oundle, a prestigious English boarding school. Your autobiography is not a great advertisement for boarding schools. You spoke of being bullied and being “pretty fucking angry” in your time there.
Everybody says they (boarding schools) have changed. I don’t know. One of my kids went to a boarding school and I went down there myself and took him out of it. To the best of my observation, it hasn’t really changed one bit. He was having a miserable time and I said to him, “come on, we’re out of there”. And he asked, “do we not need to ask for permission?” and I said, “no, I’m your Dad”. (He laughs).
What was it about your son’s boarding school that you didn’t like? Was there bullying going on?
It was all the usual suspects. Actually he did go to a semi-boarding school subsequent to that, a few years later. It was actually quite reasonable. One of the big things that was reasonable about it was that it was 50:50 (boys: girls) and that makes a huge difference to the dynamic. Some people handle it differently. Some people crack up. It’s a bit like post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). You are in effect in a hostage situation or in jail. It’s like a prisoner of war camp for adolescents (he laughs).
Boarding schools are regarded in the UK as a very middle-class thing, but I’ve always thought of heavy metal as a working-class genre. What do you think?
I’m not too sure about that. I’m not sure you can allocate any style of music to a particular class. You would imagine that punk was terribly working class, but it was actually quite full of quite posh people at the top end of a lot of punk bands. At the top of a lot of punk bands were a bunch of middle-class or aristocratic anarchists. It had also had its fair share of working-class people as well.
I’m not one to start class warfare in music. Class warfare is one thing that I would be extremely eager to avoid in any way shape or form because it is bollocks. People are people. Where they come from and their backgrounds are very varied. Money shouldn’t or doesn’t enter into it unless people want it to.
You’re a singer, a licenced commercial airline pilot, an international fencer (he represented Britain), an entrepreneur and now a bestselling author (Dickinson wrote the book himself without a ghostwriter). You’ve been called a renaissance man. Does that term sit well with you?
No, it requires a level of wisdom that I haven’t yet acquired. (He laughs). The title of the book says it all: What Does This Button Do? I do love new experiences and I do love exploring things that I think would be quite interesting. When you really work at something and really absorb yourself and throw yourself into it, it is hugely satisfying. You really feel alive.
You don’t feel like sleepwalking through life especially since having a bout with cancer. You think, this is really shit. Somebody can take this all away from me. Not the material aspect of it, but simply functioning – your brain, your soul, your passion. This bloody disease can take away all of that. I’m having a great time. That was hugely motivating in trying to overcome it (the cancer). I wanted to get on with the rest of my life.
You write in the book that your outside interests keep you sane in the music industry.
I think there are a lot of sports people who are at the same level of risk as some people in the music industry because it is an unreal world where people are just blowing smoke up your arse every five minutes telling you that you are wonderful.
You have access to girls and/or drugs and/or money and/or fast cars - throw in any temptation you particularly want. It is really easy to lose the plot and then come crashing into the buffers at some later stage in your life and realise that you are completely ill-equipped to function with anybody else in the world except people in the world from which you came.
The same is true for footballers, musicians or film stars. You can see why they go off the rails. They live in a bubble.
You make it clear you’re not going to include material in your book about your divorces, your children or your entrepreneurial work. Why?
Some of the entrepreneurial work I alluded to in the book, but with respect to that, you have to draw a bit of a line otherwise you end up sounding as an advertisement for your own products. Some things are properly a work in progress. In terms of the divorces, there has only been one. I basically took a view that this was my autobiography and that things which would betray confidences which affected other people’s lives were not a fair thing to do.
In Iron Maiden, you tend to shy away from the personal in your lyrics.
We do tell some stories that we’re quite passionate about but they tend not to be love stories in that respect. That’s probably fair to say. My solo stuff has a few more songs like that in it. I have written songs about relationships and things in the solo stuff a lot more, but maybe not quite so obviously.
You joined Iron Maiden two albums in (after the eponymous debut album and Killers). Your first album was Number of the Beast. That’s the favourite album of a lot of your fans. Where does it stand in the pantheon of Iron Maiden albums as far as you’re concerned?
Number of the Beast was the album that really launched the band properly on the world stage. The first two albums were very good, very successful. Killers, in particular, is a favourite of mine. The sound on that album really was the sound that should have been on the first Iron Maiden album.
In fact, Martin Birch, who produced the Killers album, Steve Harris (the founder and bass player of Iron Maiden) wanted to use him for the first album, but they didn’t approach him because they thought he wouldn’t be interested. Steve has always regretted the production on the very first album. It is not up to the quality of Killers.
Ironically people thought Iron Maiden was a bit of a punk band because it (the debut album) sounds shit
Ironically people thought Iron Maiden was a bit of a punk band because it (the debut album) sounds shit. (He laughs). When Killers came out, people thought Iron Maiden had come across all smooth and refined. We were never supposed to be a punk band. Steve hated punk. I didn’t hate punk, but, at the same time, it never did a great deal for me. I always thought it was strictly limited by their alleged lack of music ambition.
I’ve always thought of Iron Maiden as having a lot in common with classical music given the complexity of your music. Where does that influence come from?
A lot of it comes from Steve (Harris). Between us we are all like a curious mixture of traditional bands in the days before heavy metal. There was a time when heavy metal didn’t really exist as the niche fashion accessory that it is now.
When it was just heavy rock bands, there was nothing wrong with listening to ZZ Top, Motorhead, Deep Purple and Genesis – Genesis, not with Phil Collins, but when it was Peter Gabriel wearing a box on his head. Steve, for example, was a big fan of a German band called Nektar. He loved Yes. He’s a huge Jethro Tull fan. So was I.
I used to love (The Crazy World of) Arthur Brown, Kingdom Come, Generator. That was my little prog end of things. I have a bit more of a folky thing going on. It all comes together in Iron Maiden because as adolescents we loved all that stuff. What made us get up and leap around were Deep Purple and Black Sabbath and things like that. You grow all that together, chuck it all in the pot, give it a stir and you get Iron Maiden.
The perception is that Steve Harris is the main man in Iron Maiden as far as your musical direction is concerned. Is that correct?
Yeah, probably. Certainly there is a lot more going on in terms of songwriting than in the early days. When I left the band, and when I came back, it is a very different band in the way it operates than when I first started it.
You write in the book about a testy relationship with Steve. You nearly came to blows after a gig in Newcastle in 1982 and you compared yourselves to “two rutting stags locking antlers”. How do you get on now?
We get on very well actually. I think we do anyway. He probably thinks I’m a c**t. (He laughs). We see the drama in what we do in each other. He has got better at working with me. I’ve got better at working with him. When we first got together, we were almost headbutting each other on stage. You go through phases like that and it makes you stronger.
I interviewed Nicko McBrain (Iron Maiden drummer) two years ago and we spoke about the documentary Flight 666 and how it portrayed the band as you getting on well with each other. Is that a fair observation?
Yes, it is. What I’ve said in the book about it is that you can’t choose your brothers and sisters when you are born. We were all born out of the same mother, Iron Maiden, and so over the years, we’ve learned to get on with each other. We’ve survived because we weren’t necessarily friends at the beginning in the ways that some bands are but we have become friends over the years.
Aviation is your other passion. You set an aircraft maintenance business in Cardiff. Are you still in involved in it?
Very much so. We’re full at the moment. We have two 767s in work, one having a massive check, the other for a complete refit and Wifi installation. I was operating an airline for the last two years as well which is based out of Malta (Cardiff Aviation Malta).
At the same time we are training about 700 pilots who fly the 747. I have a training company in Cardiff Airport with two full flight simulators. We’ll soon be doing 737 training as well. Those three businesses have been running together for almost five years.
Has Michael O’Leary been on to you? He’s stuck for pilots at the moment.
Everybody is stuck for pilots at the moment. One of our aims is to provide more pilots to the world’s airlines. That’s what we do.
As a businessman, are you worried about the consequences of Brexit?
I think we have a very strong economy. We have a very innovative workforce. There are an incredible number of inventions that all originate out of the UK and we will never lose that. We’ve never lost it in history. We’ve always come up with innovative solutions.
If you could rid of the EU unelected bureaucracy and get down to the nitty-gritty with the elected heads of government, I think you would see a deal being done very quickly to the mutual advantage of everybody.
You’re coming to Belfast in August? Are you going to play Number of the Beast in its entirety?
I think you will have to wait and see what the setlist is. We’ll certain be playing Number of the Beast, the track, but you have to see on the rest of it.
What Does This Button Do? is published by Harper Collins priced €27.99. Iron Maiden play the SSE Arena in Belfast as part of the Legacy Of The Beast World Tour on August 2nd