Bruce Dickinson Recalls Iron Maiden’s Early Onstage Battles
As Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson details in his new book, What Does This Button Do?, the band was up against the wall when it started work on what would become their third album, 1982's The Number of the Beast. They had five weeks to record and mix the album and had to quickly identify a single, which would be recorded first, along with an additional track for the B-side.
Dickinson knew what was at stake with their upcoming album, which was his first record with the group as their new singer. “We had the whole world to play for,” he writes. “If we dealt the right hand of cards, we would be the leader of the pack.”
Turns out they were holding the right cards and emerged with an album that quickly found an audience, giving the band its first No. 1 album in the U.K. As Dickinson learned, his schedule was going to be very busy in the years to come. In this exclusive excerpt from What Does This Button Do?, he describes the experience of hitting the road with Maiden and navigating the friction that developed between him and bassist Steve Harris.
Being in a band in global demand with a No. 1 album was like being on a roller coaster. The difference in our case was that the roller coaster didn’t stop, or even slow down, for the next five years. We had cranked our way up the clunky railway and now stood at the threshold of the drop. As we toppled over the edge and tumbled into free fall, we went straight down, screaming, hair standing on end, adrenaline pumping. Five straight years of this sort of thing can seriously wobble whatever internal gyroscopes you might rely on. For now, however, we just enjoyed the rush.
Almost as soon as the album was mixed, the single, "Run to the Hills," was released, and sold nearly 250,000 copies in the U.K. Before the album was officially released, we were in the midst of a U.K. tour, and we had the first of several spats that would crop up over the years. We were on a totally ridiculous schedule: eight shows, day off, seven shows, day off and so on. These were two-hour shows, and the vocals were not the world’s easiest. The onstage set-up caused friction immediately. I was quite traditional about basic stagecraft, like, Hey, if I’m singing, I stand at the front. If you’re playing the solo, you stand at the front. That sort of thing.
Steve Harris had other ideas. He wanted to stand in front of everybody and run all over the stage. I wasn’t having it. I wasn’t going to sing to the back of the bass player’s head.
The wedge monitors we used were equally spaced out across the front of the stage, which meant there was no focal point when I sang.
We did the soundcheck, then we did the show. The first thing I did was move my wedge monitors to the front and center of the stage. Steve grumbled, and the roadies moved them back. So I moved them back again to the center.
When I was singing, half a bass guitar was being stuck up my nose, because clearly there was some demarcation zone I had infringed. I countered by putting ludicrously long legs on my mic stand. The base of it now resembled a TV aerial, and in my peripheral vision I could see Steve careering toward me, so I positioned it as a sort of anti-bass-player tank trap. I have quite a few chips in my teeth as he would still run into it full tilt.
It all came to a head when we played Newcastle City Hall.
We had driven down from Edinburgh at ridiculous o’clock in the morning, because Rod thought it a good idea to shoot "The Number of the Beast" video there all day, immediately before the show. We brought in ballroom dancers to use as extras, with 666 pinned to their backs. I think that might have been my idea.
Anyway, we had to hold the doors because we were still filming, doing an hour or so before the audience were due to come in. Of course, we were all exhausted. We went onstage, quite a small stage, and Steve and I spent a bad-tempered show like two rutting stags locking antlers.
Rod needed to separate us backstage. We were both busy rolling up our sleeves to go outside and sort each other out. Steve was yelling at Rod as he separated us, ‘He’s got to f---ing go!’
Well, I didn’t f---ing go. Can’t say I didn’t warn you, guys – this will be a little different. Get used to it.
We came to a compromise on the location of microphones and monitors, and established that, in the case of who stands in front of whom, good manners trumps boundless enthusiasm. It was a small breakthrough, but it set us on a path to a new level of theatricality and presentation.