Kind of Blue-Collar

Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson on Huxley and the proletariat

"We didn't expect to sell out the [Madison Square] Garden; we didn't expect to do it in two hours," says Bruce Dickinson, the erudite front man for long-in-the-tooth sorcery 'n' riff masters Iron Maiden.

The Maiden, it seems, is back, and, according to Dickinson, is in rare form and at the top of its game. He views Maiden as one of the best, if not the most popular, hard rock bands of all time.

When I was in school, Iron Maiden fans were always the most shortsighted pricks -- ones with heads full of judgment and many with ultra-low IQs. They were not very nice, ill-mannered, all that. And they loved to fight. I always associated Maiden with the guys who wanted to pound my head in. Oftentimes, they did, particularly whenever I was caught off-campus wearing a Ramones tee shirt.

Tattooed millionaires: Bruce Dickinson (foreground) 
and the men of Iron Maiden.
Tattooed millionaires: Bruce Dickinson (foreground) and the men of Iron Maiden.

Iron Maiden, you'll recollect, was thesextet for the cap-sleeve denim jacket/ape drape set long before any Guns or Metallicas set the earth afire. Certainly long before groups like Korn took mullets, guts and riffs to another new low ebb.

Maiden burst forth onto the world charts in 1982 -- just after Dickinson joined -- with the goblin-littered The Number of the Beast, a record that bequeathed the earth with the timely and unforgettable ditty "Run to the Hills." The song was fraught with operatic silliness and riffage that weighed in with an unlikely amalgamation of Brian May-meets-Jethro Tull; it delivered all of its pretentious promise.

Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Maiden kicked blue-collar ass, selling out arenas worldwide and moving in excess of 46 million records. All that pretty much dried up in 1993 when Dickinson flew the coop. His replacement was one Blaze Bailey. Record sales promptly receded.

Dickinson hung up his metal vocal cords for more harmonic pastures, retreating to the English countryside to write novels and make a trio of dreaded "solo" records.

Then, on February 10, 1999, the seminal metal mooks capped months of rumors by revealing that longtime vocalist Dickinson and decadelong guitarist Adrian Smith had signed on in blood once again.

Among metal groups -- whose members are known for a vernacular that rivals horse trainers or boxing coaches -- Dickinson is a rarity. He's a metal idol with a university degree. He's penned a couple of comic novels (New Musical Expressdescribes them as subpar Tom Sharpe) that have topped U.K. best-seller lists. He's a skilled pilot and an expert fencer, at one time having been ranked seventh in the men's foils for Great Britain. He comes across over the phone as a country gentleman, an English upperclassman with a polished lingua franca.

And just before you can make the inevitable Spinal Tap reference, he beats you to it. He knows you can't knock somebody who's in on the joke. Or so he alludes. When the veil of pretension drifts, he can be as curt and witty as Johnny Rotten.

Early this year, the group released Brave New World, with lyrics based on Aldous Huxley's 1932 outlandish vision of the future. The results are goofy, often overwrought. The bombastic orchestral maneuvers of the 11-minute "Dream of Mirrors" is the ultimate red flag, more Dungeons & Dragons than Huxley's grave warnings of unchecked science. "Blood Brothers," though armed with anthemic chords and a rare sing-along chorus, suffers the latter song's fallout. The heavier "The Wicker Man" and "The Mercenary" roll like Maiden of old. But it's all tired-sounding, the sound of old guys laboring in the trough.

Dickinson says loftily that the Huxley nod was more about irony.

"I reread it [Brave New World] a couple of times and some of the lyrics were based upon my feeling about the book. There's an element of irony to it. Here's this Iron Maiden's brave new world. . . . You know, it's just to wind people up."

Yet Dickinson claims a blue-collar pedigree. His grandfather was a coal miner who worked long hours with a pickax. His mother was 16 when he was born. The family was broke.

"They worked their ass off to send me to private school. So they kind of went through -- almost like the whole American dream -- you know, where you work really hard and you work two jobs and you get enough money to send your kid off."

So what happens? He goes off and gets himself a BA in history and becomes a heavy metal singer? A blue-collar hero is something to be.

Dickinson took to rock 'n' roll after earning his degree. He was in college during the whole punk-rock explosion, which saw many bourgeois kids feign lower- or working-class postures. It all started around the time punk rock broke in the U.K. The anti-intellectual punk scene didn't sway him one way or the other.

"I was at college in the middle of it [U.K. punk explosion]," he snorts. "I was a history student and I was in a metal band. I didn't feel threatened by it. It was like, 'Okay, I don't want to play an out-of-tune guitar or songs with out-of-tune vocals and marginally kind of bullshit lyrics.'"

He lists "the Clash and groups like that" as exceptions.

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