Music

Iron Maiden legend Bruce Dickinson: 'You don’t need some rock star saying war is a bad thing'

Once the Iron Maiden frontman discovered the gift of music his life became a series of sky-high moments

Bruce Dickinson

Image: JOHN McMURTRIE

Bruce Dickinson was born in August 1958 in Worksop, Nottinghamshire. After fronting a series of bands in Sheffield and London, he became the singer of new wave of heavy metal band Samson in 1979, releasing three albums before leaving in 1981 to join Iron Maiden. His first album with Maiden was their third, 1982’s The Number Of The Beast, which became the band’s first UK number one. Over the following decade Maiden released a further five worldwide hit albums while establishing themselves as one of the biggest live draws in the world.

Dickinson quit Maiden in 1993 and released a string of well-received solo albums before rejoining the band in 1999 and embarking on their biggest tours to date while releasing a string of huge albums.

Away from music, Bruce Dickinson holds an airline transport pilot’s licence and flew Boeing 757s for the airline Astraeus, returned a group of British RAF pilots from Afghanistan in 2008, and 200 British citizens from Lebanon during the Israel/Hezbollah conflict in 2006, among other notable flights. He’s written two novels – The Adventures of Lord Iffy Boatrace and The Missionary Position – along with his memoirs, 2017’s What Does This Button Do? He has also competed internationally at fencing and launched a series of beers.

Speaking to The Big Issue for his Letter to My Younger Self, Bruce Dickinson reflected on his schooldays, his time squatting in London and dealing with success.

By 16 I had been packed off to a boarding school and was fairly badly bullied because I didn’t really fit in. I was this kid from Worksop. My parents worked their fingers to the bone doing two or three jobs so they could send their kids to a place that would mean I didn’t have to work as hard as them. I never figured that one out. The only way I would have respect for myself is if I worked hard at something. But kids there were very entitled. The class system was embedded from the moment you walked in – there was a pecking order, you knew your place. But I refused to know my place and had a big mouth. So it was unwittingly character building. Although I’m not sure bullying ever does anything, really, except damage people. 

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I was rebellious, but not in conventional ways. Most people rebelled by smoking cigarettes. I was trying to blow things up. So I used to make weed killer and fertiliser bombs to try and blow up the cricket pitch. It was quite hazardous. At the same time, I reached the exalted rank of under officer in the cadets, which meant I had the keys to the school armoury. And back in the day, we actually had automatic weapons, World War 2 rifles, blank ammunition, two-inch mortars and smoke grenades. I would take a truckload of them into the woods so we could have a war on a Wednesday afternoon. 

Iron Maiden’s Dave Murray, Dickinson and Steve Harris onstage in Ljubljana in 1984
1984: (L-r) Iron Maiden’s Dave Murray, Bruce Dickinson and Steve Harris onstage in Ljubljana. Image: dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo

This was the 1970s, so everything was a bit Life on Mars, you know? People were casually racist, things were settled by a thump in the mouth, grown-up men would get out of a car, whack somebody, then drive away. People drove drunk all the time without seatbelts. My dad told me seatbelts were dangerous and that he drove better after a few drinks, because he was more relaxed – which was how he totalled four cars! Every cliché you can think of was true. 

There was nothing to do. The youth club was dire. TV was just death by Bruce Forsyth. As I got into my teenage years, it was obvious that you could go to gigs or what was then called the disco. And the disco was just lots of young men throwing up outside, thinking they were going to ‘pull birds’ and lose their virginity. It was truly horrible. So my escape was into music. 

One gift boarding school did give me was music. Deep Purple were big for me. And we had an art teacher who was probably quite advanced in his smoking habits – he put on gigs at the school. We had Arthur Brown when I was 15, which blew my mind, Van der Graaf Generator did two gigs because the singer had gone to our school, and Magma, a crazy French jazz rock band that are still going turned up. We also had metal bands – including one called Wild Turkey, who were awesome. 

Pilot Bruce Dickinson boarding the band’s Boeing 747 at Schoenfeld airport
2016: Bruce Dickinson boarding the band’s Boeing 747 at Schoenfeld airport near Berlin. Image: TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP via Getty Images

I decided to be the John Bonham of the bongos – but then realised I could sing! I tried acting and had loved it, but it was more like acting up. At least I knew I loved performing. So I stole some bongos from the music room to try to be a drummer. It didn’t work out, but in the process, I discovered I could sing. And singing and running around on stage felt like theatre. So that set me on my way – I kept the theatrical part, the prog bit, a bit from Arthur Brown, a bit of the Deep Purple vibe and then there was Sabbath and it all came together. 

Most of the plans I had about my future were a smokescreen – telling my parents stuff to keep them off my back. I just couldn’t wait to get out of boarding school. I couldn’t wait to get out of home. So I got myself into Queen Mary College in Mile End to study modern history. I said, it’d be useful if I join the army, but I was thinking, if I’m going to be a singer, I’ve got to be in London. I spent my grant buying a PA for the band I was in. They tried to kick me out for not doing any work – which was true – but I got the same degree as everybody else in the end because I crammed in the library for the last six months, mainly out of guilt because I’d taken all this money from the government and bought stuff for my band. 

I found a squat on the Isle of Dogs. There was polythene on the windows, they were all big pot smokers, so they’d all sit around smoking bongs then go back to their bedrooms and I used to roll myself up in a sheet and sleep on the couch. Luxury! It was one of these 1930s apartment blocks, and in a terrible state. Years later, after I’d joined Iron Maiden we did a song called 2 Minutes to Midnight. The video director said, we’re going to have these mercenaries holed up in a really disgusting flat. He showed me the picture of it, and I said, I used to live there!

My younger self would have not believed any of this. And an airline pilot as well? Don’t be ridiculous. I was just trying to get my singing chops together, so the thought of a career was not really on the radar. But when Iron Maiden recorded Number of the Beast, we knew we were making something amazing. But we still couldn’t believe the avalanche that followed. And then we made a succession of great records in a short period, all of which stand the test of time. It was all the things I wanted to do with my voice and the songwriting. We didn’t plan it that way, but it all worked. 

What would most excite my teenage self would be standing in front of thousands of people and having them all cheer. But what excites me now is that, in spite of all the potential for turning into an absolute wanker, I’ve only partially turned into an absolute wanker. And somehow, I think, I’ve managed to be quite helpful for people in their lives, whether through music or other stuff. And that does mean a lot. 

Iron Maiden fans are on another level. And it’s a whole life term. I don’t support a football team but I look with astonishment at how supporters react. And I don’t think there’s a word for the level of commitment and devotion people have to a football club. And people have that same level of devotion to Iron Maiden. Part of me says, wow, that’s amazing. The artistic half of me worries that maybe we don’t challenge ourselves artistically because we have this devoted following and they’re happy with the way we are. One reason for doing solo records is to push the envelope of what you can do emotionally and get out of the tram line. The tram lines are great. They’re quite broad, but they do exist. 

Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson going solo in 2024
2024: Bruce Dickinson going solo with his first album in 19 years, The Mandrake Project. Image: JOHN McMURTRIE

I don’t know whether I’m qualified to advise my younger self about love. Because I’ve just got married for the third time. All I can do is just talk about my relationship right now because it’s the calmest I’ve ever had. And it’s great. We have fun, we laugh, but we’re not manic. We can be in the same room and not feel the need to go ‘are you all right?’ We are happy just breathing the same air. And getting married hasn’t changed that.

If I could relive one day, I’d go back to the day we played in Sarajevo during the war.  The difference that show made to people’s lives was beyond anything I could ever hope to achieve. They were down to three days’ supply of food, water and diesel, the siege had lasted longer than Stalingrad, people were living in houses that barely existed and had burnt the last of their furniture for firewood. And in the middle of it, we drove through a firefight in a truck driven by a second-year student from Edinburgh. We didn’t mention the war once. You don’t need some rock star turning up saying war is a bad thing. They’re in it, dude. Just play your music. It might just make people happy – and that’s the most useful thing you can do.

Bruce Dickinson’s new solo album, The Mandrake Project, is out now, along with a comic book series of the same name. He tours the UK this month

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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