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"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.
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.
"Most of it was like middle-class college kids who went to art school who desperately wanted to be working-class. And that part of it was just bullshit."
He says Iron Maiden's members "would have been bashing out sheet metal or working in some factory had it not been for music. So I ended up joining them. And it was ironic that I got cast into the mold as, 'Ah, yes, the guy that went to private school joins the blue-collar band.' And I'm like, 'Ah, well, okay. I'm just not gonna go rewrite history and go, "Hey, look, I'm as blue-collar as they are; let me show you my credentials."' Who gives a shit?
"So I used to look at these people [punks] and go, 'You know what? All these fake working-class accents is just bullshit.' I ended up joining Iron Maiden. And Iron Maiden is a legit blue-collar band. Most of the guys all left school at 16."
If nothing else, the Madison Square Garden sellout (in March) was some sign of a grand return. Yet Brave New World -- a record with no rapped choruses and hip-hop beats -- has yet to crack 200,000 in stateside sales. Do words like "obsolescence" ever creep into his mind? And are rock's real chart rulers -- the sport-metal rap dorks selling 20 times as many records as Maiden now -- a threat?
"Not in the slightest," he says. "For starters, it depends on what type of obsolescence. I mean, motorcar engines have been obsolete for years. If you look up top-fueled dragsters, I mean, they're prehistoric. But people still go out of their way by the thousands to go and watch them every week. Because it's fun. And, actually, whether or not music is or isn't obsolete, the whole word 'obsolescence' becomes meaningless in musical terms. Because stuff gets recycled. And it's simply a question of style and opinion whether or not anything is relevant. And those things change like the wind. I'd much rather say that Iron Maiden has a classic sound. And whilst you can tinker under the hood of the engine, it's always gonna be a muscle car. It's always gonna be that kind of music."
Dickinson asserts his return to the Maiden's fold wasn't motivated by money; rather, he was feeling energized after a nourishing retreat. He loathes those who continue to use rock 'n' roll as some gluttonous gravy train to self-gratification. He could be talking about Aerosmith or KISS or any number of groups long past their best who resort to sellout tactics of the highest order.
Maiden, to many, including Dickinson, is one of the greatest heavy rock bands of all time for not employing such policy.
"I mean, it's greed, isn't it? It's like, 'We have a career, we've built up lots of self-respect, and we have the respect of our fans. But you know what? We don't give a shit about all that, all we give a shit about is money.' And it's greed. And, so, the greed factor lights up. And all of a sudden it's like, 'What do we need to sell, 10 million records? Wow. Let's get somebody else to write all of our songs, no matter how cheesy they are. And get some other guy who's produced all these hits to produce them all.' You might as well just go onto the strip and sell your ass rather than be a musician at that point. Because that's effectively what you do. I mean, you are then, at that point, a musical hooker. Just a prostitute with a guitar. So that's what Maiden's never done. Ever.
"I don't know why people can't figure out something in life that they really believe in, as opposed to something in life that just makes them famous. It's a fucking modern disease. And it's awful because everybody has an identity. Everybody's different."
Other things rile Dickinson, particularly the omnipresent whiny rock star, the sort mythologized on TV biographies like VH1's Behind the Music and Storytellers.
"[It's] the same rotating litany of sad stories and drugs and 'I earned $25 million last year and still I'm not happy, boo hoo hoo. Did I ever tell you about my abusive childhood, boo hoo hoo. And I still earned $25 million last year, boo hoo hoo. I should have another 15 mil but I don't know where it's gone. Boo hoo hoo.' I mean, goddamnit, these guys wouldn't last 15 minutes in any decent bar anywhere in the world. Some guy would come up and just say, 'Oh, fuck off,' and smack the livin' hell out of 'em. And this would be a place where they couldn't get sued in a country where you have to stick up for yourselves and not 'ave a bunch of weasels in suits there for you."
Dickinson claims he quit Maiden simply because he wrote himself off as a metal singer, that he felt "old and tired." But at the time it was well documented that he and the band's founder, bassist Steve Harris, were at each other's throats. The two, he says, are now mates.
"As you get a wee bit older and a bit wiser, you appreciate the differences and you actually kind of realize it's quite a good thing," he says. "And when you are younger and full of testosterone, all you want to do basically is fight, you know? So any disagreement it's like, 'Right, let's have a fight.' But by the time you get 'round about 35, it's like, 'If we have a fight, we'll just end up hurting each other and nothing will get fixed.'"
The grown men obsessed with goblins and monsters have figured ways to fix the problems.
"We always wind up compromising, which is kind of boring and grown up, really. It's not like we have touchy-feely sessions or therapy sessions or bullshit like that. It's far more likely to be conducted at McDonald's."