As Iron Maiden struggled to stay on top of their game at the start of the 1990s, they suddenly faced the monumental blow of losing their classic era lead singer. For this edition of our in-depth column on Maiden History, we dive into Fear Of The Dark and the breaking of another line-up.
Singer Bruce Dickinson joined Iron Maiden in late 1981, replacing Paul Di’Anno. Within just three years he would be a fundamentally important part of creating the metal masterpieces The Number Of The Beast, Piece Of Mind and Powerslave. But after entering the 1990s with Maiden, Dickinson would feel an irresistible urge to leave after more than a decade as their lead singer. What happened on the way there, and what happened in the dark days of 1992 and 1993?
“UP TILL NOW I’M DOING THE BEST I CAN”
Our in-depth look at Iron Maiden’s history began with a series of articles about the 1980s, the decade that made them. We started the journey by discussing the creation of the Maiden sound, and the coming and peak of their classic era with the arrival of Dickinson and drummer Nicko McBrain:
After becoming the world’s biggest metal band in the mid-1980s and successfully experimenting with their sound in the closing years of that decade, Iron Maiden achieved a status that made people expect a great deal from them. The making and meaning of the classic albums Somewhere In Time and Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son illuminates in particular the importance of guitarist Adrian Smith to Maiden’s legacy:
What is also clear in retrospect is how Dickinson expected Maiden to develop along lines that never sat well with the rest of the band, the singer hoping to emulate the radical stylistic experimentation of classic rock bands like Led Zeppelin. Dickinson was thus deeply disappointed with Somewhere In Time and only temporarily pleased with Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son. He wanted something else.
Now we are moving into discussions about the 1990s, definitely the most controversial decade of the band’s existence. As it turned out, Dickinson and band-leading bassist Steve Harris took charge of moving Maiden away from their late 80s sound and style. This upset Smith greatly and forced him to leave the band as they started working on their first 90s record, No Prayer For The Dying:
The result of this was a steep drop in record sales and diminishing concert crowds, a trend that had already set in when they toured America in 1988. Opinions are what they are, and Maiden might have fared no better by sticking to their late 80s style, but it’s impossible to escape the fact that many fans and critics perceived No Prayer For The Dying to be Maiden’s poorest album to that point.
The paradox is that Maiden set out to alter their style in 1990 because they thought, along with many music writers, that their late 1980s had been a stylistic error. What they had proudly proclaimed to be groundbreaking albums, Somewhere In Time and Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son, would just a few years later be viewed as embarrassments. One needed only to ask Dickinson in 1992, when he stated that Seventh Son “was a flawed album and the tour was too much … we forgot about the music.” And as he looked back on that period much later, he conceded that the very point with No Prayer “was to do something that was the opposite to Seventh Son.”
Maiden hyped this musical change as artistic integrity, and their new and low-key live shows as a conscious move away from the errors of their 1980s ways. But Harris also admitted that the shift to a less sophisticated sound was due to some fans being disappointed in the band’s late 80s style. Which means: Declining record sales, particularly in America, actually influenced Maiden’s course.
But the cure did not work. The No Prayer album and tour saw a significant drop from the American sales and attendance of Seventh Son, which had already declined by almost half from the levels of Somewhere In Time. This situation is the backdrop to the making of Fear Of The Dark in 1992 and Dickinson’s split from the band in 1993.
The clock was ticking.
HOMEMADE FEAR AND DARKNESS
Maiden returned to Steve Harris’ own Barnyard in Essex to make their ninth studio album. Their first project there had been to write Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son. Upon repeating the experience a couple of years later they had decided not only to write No Prayer For The Dying there, but to record it in the rehearsal room as well, using the Rolling Stone mobile unit. Following that, the third Barnyard adventure saw Maiden making use of what was by then Harris’ personal recording studio.
This burst of Barnyard activity in early 1992 would yield Fear Of The Dark, possibly the most eclectic Maiden album of all, and one that is home to stadium-sized singalong anthems while at the same time being disliked for a lack of quality and coherence. It was also by all intents and purposes a test run for how Maiden albums would be written and produced in the 1990s.
At the time producer Martin Birch would claim that the new studio was equal to any he had ever worked in, but Dickinson has often been outspoken in his criticism of the place, later saying that “there were big limitations on that studio” and seeing it as a set-up that inevitably put Harris even more in charge of Maiden’s productions: “Fear Of The Dark was recorded in Steve’s studio because he wanted it to be. He’d bought it and he’d paid for it and the band were gonna pay him back for using his studio.”
One of co-producer Harris’ jobs on the Fear Of The Dark project was getting drummer McBrain to de-tune his snare. “I think that half the trouble’s been he’s bloody deaf!”, said Harris after having convinced McBrain to ditch his thin and very loud snare. Harris seemed very happy with a more muscular sound as well as the writing input of the other band members. If Dickinson felt that Harris was getting too all-powerful, Harris felt that Maiden were diversifying.
This time new guitarist Janick Gers also got songwriting credits. Which illuminates a piece of Maiden politics that is not too well known. Information is easily available, even in the official Maiden biography, that Gers co-wrote Bring Your Daughter…To The Slaughter with Dickinson. The guitarist says that Dickinson “brought out this song that sounded AC/DC-ish, and I said, ‘Nah, it wants to be more like…’ So I put the chords in and then we re-did the chorus.”
The track was held off the singer’s first solo album, Tattooed Millionaire, having been intended only as a soundtrack one-off anyway, and was subsequently included on Maiden’s No Prayer For The Dying in 1990. With Dickinson as the sole credited writer.
Why not credit Gers? It seems to be a matter of policy. Smith might have co-written a couple of late tracks for Killers, but he’s not credited. And Dickinson certainly co-wrote tracks for The Number Of The Beast, without being credited. The official explanation for the singer’s absence from the Beast credits was always the Samson publishing dispute, but it seems unlikely that he would have been credited in any case. These were the respective first albums for Smith and Dickinson, and Harris was almost completely honest about the policy upon the release of Gers’ first Maiden album in 1990:
“You get the same wage anyone would get when they first join. Before you can talk about royalties you have to find out if this thing is really gonna work first. It was the same when Bruce joined. Or Nicko. If it works out OK on the world tour we’ll see about royalties then.”
Royalties could mean several things, but it certainly includes songwriting royalties. Did new Maiden members sign away the right to credits on their first record upon joining the band? It would probably be a sensible policy in terms of protecting Maiden from whatever legal fallout there could be with members joining and leaving at a rapid pace. But not much later the policy would be altered as Maiden changed lead singers for the first time in more than a decade.
Gers co-wrote a lot of the 1992 material with either Harris or Dickinson, showing a knack for working smoothly with both. Tracks like Be Quick Or Be Dead and Wasting Love would only happen because Gers provided a new source of inspiration for an increasingly restless Dickinson. Harris said that he and Dickinson didn’t write together for Fear Of The Dark “purely because he got together with Janick, and then I got together with Janick, and by then we had enough.” Which might have been a lost opportunity to work some things out that would soon be a major fork in the road for Dickinson and a major problem for Maiden.
“MAYBE ONE DAY I’LL BE AN HONEST MAN”
In 1992 Dickinson also started work on a second solo album. Tattooed Millionaire had done well enough for the record company to cough up more cash, and Dickinson got back together with Millionaire producer Chris Tsangarides to work on new material. Inevitable, for sure. But also the beginning of a process that would culminate in Bruce Dickinson leaving Iron Maiden the following year.
Dickinson divided his time between touring with Iron Maiden and recording new solo material. The Maiden live experience was vital in 1992, highlighted by the Donington Monsters Of Rock headlining show that August, but Dickinson must have been struck by the poor attendance in the US where Maiden were playing smaller places and fewer dates than ever. If he and Harris had hoped that Fear Of The Dark would rejuvenate their commercial relevance Stateside, they were faced with utter failure.
By late 1992 Dickinson also decided that his new solo effort was not working. Tsangarides and the new material was ditched and soul-searching ensued for the ambitious singer. What gave Dickinson pause Tsangarides did not know, but he saw how the project might not put enough distance between the solo artist and his day job:
“He found a band, basically a pre-set band called Skin, and he went into rehearsals with them on these songs he’d written. It was a bit heavier, Janick wasn’t there. And I think possibly a load of the tunes should have been for Maiden.”
Dickinson felt like he was on autopilot, not challenging either himself or his audience, just steaming ahead into waters that were too well charted already: “I got two thirds of the way through and I was utterly depressed, totally miserable.” In retrospect this is clearly a time in Dickinson’s career when he was publicly dishonest. He talked up Maiden’s Fear Of The Dark as being a modern and groundbreaking album for a new age, while at the same time privately agonizing over not being modern and groundbreaking with either Maiden or his new solo project.
The frustration of “trying to conform to the established Maiden routine” was getting to Dickinson. He was, by his own later admission, “bored and desperately looking for other things to do.” And Maiden manager Rod Smallwood provided the push that would make the difference. Upon hearing the late 1992 recordings he told the singer that making a solo album should actually mean something:
“Rod pulled me to one side and said, ‘Look, if you’re going to do a solo record, don’t just glibly do a solo record. Do a really fucking good one.’ And that’s when I realised I was just going along with the flow, making my solo album in the same way we were motoring on with Maiden. So I went, ‘Right, full stop,’ and I pulled the whole thing.”
First order of business would be to visit L.A. in early 1993 and work on some very different music with producer Keith Olsen. So different in fact that Smallwood possibly kicked himself for having opened a can of worms. When the manager visited Dickinson during his L.A. experiment he found a troubled singer, but one with a clearer mind: His time in Maiden was up.
THE REAL LIVE
The point of Fear Of The Dark was to win fans. We’ve all heard the Maiden boys boasting that they don’t care about sales and just do what they love, but there is actually plenty of evidence to the contrary. Not that Maiden would necessarily be cynical trend-chasers, but they were at least highly self-conscious in the early 1990s. Dickinson made his thoughts about the new album clear when they toured it in 1992:
“It sounds really 1990s. And there are people saying ‘Oh shit, there’s no reason why we can’t play Iron Maiden now’ and that’s the key to it out there. Getting your record out on the media.”
With this he echoed Harris’ earlier statements about getting real and begging forgiveness from record buyers for their late 1980s music. The inference being that it was clearly off course and should be filed away as an honest mistake. What better way to prove the point than recording the 1992 live shows for a long awaited live album?
While Dickinson was exploring new avenues with his solo material, Harris was producing and mixing the new Maiden live project in early 1993. Martin Birch had decided to retire, and the kingdom of the Barnyard would now be ruled by Steve Harris alone. It was completely at odds with Dickinson’s need for experimentation.
As Dickinson later said about Harris: “Steve is not that flexible a personality, it’s just the way he is, you know. He knows pretty much what he wants and I think he tends to exclude a lot of options.” In the singer’s view it was increasingly unlikely that he would succeed in pulling Maiden in any kind of adventurous direction. The band would follow their chosen track in perpetuity, with Harris now installed as de facto producer of all things Maiden in his own studio.
Dickinson was feeling resigned, about to give up his role in the Harris-dominated dynamics of Iron Maiden. A few years down the road in the mid-1990s he would be very clear about his own unhappiness and his sense of being helpless in steering Maiden when Harris was completely in charge of both audio and video:
“For example, Rod the manager would ask me “Is there any chance you could get Steve to try and do this?” and I just said “Fuck, why don’t you ask him yourself?”. Why come to me? Steve, at that point, started getting very interested in the idea of himself being a producer, and he was already editing Iron Maiden’s concert videos. Something which I argued with him against as well. I said that I didn’t think much of his editing, basically.”
The Maiden founder for his part was very proud of his first proper producer’s job and Maiden’s first live album since the classic Live After Death many years earlier: “If someone hasn’t seen Maiden before and was to ask , ‘What are Maiden about?’, I’d hand them this.” The idea with the 1993 live releases was to be as painfully live as tapes off the sound desk can be, including “the odd bum note here and there” as Harris put it. The line from the band, one that was readily repeated by many journalists, was that this was a marked improvement over Live After Death.
Maiden were still sprinting to distance themselves from the 1980s.
But the original plan for the 1993 live onslaught is fuzzy, with Harris stating that the material was brought out earlier than intended because of Dickinson’s shock announcement. It’s hard to tell what this means, since the bassist was done mixing the first of these albums by the time the singer said he wanted to leave. In any case more recordings were lined up as Maiden changed their setlist for the 1993 leg to include nearly forgotten gems like Prowler and Where Eagles Dare for the first time in ages.
Harris faced the unenviable situation of rolling out his producer debut with Maiden’s A Real Live One in March 1993, while getting ready for another Maiden tour even as the lead singer announced his departure from the band. Dickinson would stay on for the Real Live Tour and drop out of the band in the summer of 1993.
Dickinson tried to frame this as a good way to go, but both the singer and the band failed spectacularly to make the Real Live Tour a worthy farewell. In retrospect it’s easy to see that Dickinson should have kept his departure a secret. The singer admits that going on stage with Maiden at that point felt like being in “a morgue” some of the nights. He was naive in thinking that leaving Maiden could be celebrated. He also underestimated the grief that fans and band alike would feel at seeing him go.
Kerrang! sent a writer to see the band on the road in 1993, and the writer delivered a piece that opened with a series of expletives uttered by McBrain in a hotel bar at 2 in the morning. It was pathetically poor journalism, dirt for dirt’s sake, but the writer was in the right place at the wrong time:
“Good fucking riddance! I can’t wait to get to the end of this tour and find a new singer. In my heart of hearts, I don’t want to be doing this. I want us to find a new singer and do a new album. We ain’t dead yet.”
Harris did his best to play down the anger that seethed in his band on the 1993 tour, but failed to hide his own sense of disappointment and betrayal: “Personally, I think he’s maybe made a mistake, because I can’t see why he couldn’t do both his solo thing and Maiden.”
What all of this was down to is predictable.
There had been one key trigger event for Dickinson as he pondered artistic life beyond Maiden’s 1980s triumph. During the Keith Olsen sessions he had recorded a track called Original Sin, unreleased to this day, in which he faced his troubled relationship with his father: “I suddenly thought, ‘Well, that’s probably the most honest I’ve ever been on a record.’ I thought, ‘If you want to, you can stay with Maiden, but things are sure not gonna change.’ Or I could take a chance and go somewhere else.”
Dickinson’s worry was seemingly about himself and his artistic relevance to the world around him, and his concern about his place in the ever shifting landscape of rock music spurred him on. As the singer writes in his autobiography: “My problem was to establish where I belonged in modern rock music, if indeed I belonged in it at all.”
But there was something deeper than narcisism behind the urge and discomfort that the singer was feeling at the time. As Dickinson recently told journalist Charlie Rose:
“I was having my little artistic dark night of the soul. […] I realized I had no idea how to be creative outside of the framework of Iron Maiden, and it terrified me. I was thinking, ‘I am in an institution, and I will die in this institution if I don’t do something about it, what can I do?’ […] I had to figure out whether or not actually I belonged in the universe as a singer anymore.”
This issue of belonging to something of perceived artistic worth would be the deciding factor in the end. Dickinson was done with fantasy. In the era of grunge he craved the bare-bones rawness of putting his demons out in the open, and there was also the lure of unknown adventures: “I began to feel that somewhere there was something else outside of Maiden that I was missing.” In his own words he “wore a groove in the kitchen floor” while debating the split with himself. But the outcome was finally decided, and manager Smallwood was told: “It had to stop for me, because it was getting false. It wasn’t a shared dream anymore.”
At the other end of the split sat a dumbfounded Steve Harris.
Putting a brave face on things is pretty much a Harris reflex. But two things made the trial of early 1993 particularly tough on Mr. Maiden. First of all, Dickinson caught him at one of his lowest ebbs ever, just as Steve’s divorce from Lorraine happened. They had met each other as teenagers and had been an item ever since, marrying and having four kids. Now it was irrevocably over.
The second point that troubled Harris was the fact that Dickinson had never talked to him about his urge to leave Iron Maiden. When Dickinson had first gone solo, a lot of people wanted to know if Harris was worried. His answers would always be stoic, insisting that the guys in Maiden could do whatever they liked as long as they still wanted to be a part of Maiden. In fact, Steve was sure that Bruce would talk to him if he was ever uncertain about his commitment to Maiden.
When Dickinson told manager Smallwood that the quest for his ultimate solo voice would necessitate leaving Maiden, the singer said he would call Harris to explain. But Smallwood nixed it, a misplaced sense of protection leading the manager to cut Dickinson off from an exchange that could have been meaningful. As Dickinson said many years later:
“I should have told Rod to fuck off and done it anyway. We might have compared notes and I’d still have been in the band, because at least some of this was about talking – real talking, meaningful talking.”
On the 1993 tour Bruce would say about Steve: “He’s not really the kind of bloke you could sit down with in a pub and pour your heart out to.” And Steve would say about Bruce: “When Bruce has problems, he doesn’t really let ’em out. I think I like to talk about problems more than he does.”
They were not predisposed to talking this through.
NEARLY THE END OF IRON MAIDEN
A sense of complacency was probably the fundamental reason why a 34 years old Bruce Dickinson decided to leave Iron Maiden. Thinking back to his early days with Maiden he remembered that “me and Steve used to argue and fight like cat and dog for the first couple of albums, which arguably were the best two albums that we made.” By 1985 and the career-defining Live After Death Dickinson had decided that getting along with folks just fine was a more comfortable way of living. Maiden would be a quite civilised operation through the late 1980s.
Ending his time in Maiden would not be that straight forward though. When the band took to the road for their Real Live Tour in spring and early summer of 1993, allegations flew that Dickinson did not perform to the best of his ability. Harris and McBrain swore that he only gave his best at high profile gigs, and key members of the crew agreed. The singer didn’t quite rebut it when he explained himself:
“I would never expect Steve to understand that it was difficult for me to go on stage, emotionally difficult, because it’s never emotionally difficult for Steve to go on stage. So I thought what I’ll do is if I really feel like running around like a maniac I will, but if I don’t I’ll just go on and sing my bollocks off.”
Everyone but Gers would later go on record saying that Bruce was “a shambles” on the Real Live Tour, only performing his best for the gigs in big cities and “lapsing into incoherent, half-hearted performances for the rest of the time”, as the official Maiden biography puts it. It’s a very delicate subject, and one that only fans who were there can really speak to, but Maiden’s long-time tour manager Dickie Bell also stated for the record:
“When he was good, he was very, very good, but when he was bad, he was fucking awful. He didn’t even bother with the singing part some nights, as far as I could see. But Bruce does play mind games – he acts like he doesn’t really know what’s going on around him half the time, but he never misses a trick.”
The wound of Bruce leaving Maiden would go deep.
Dickinson would never agree with the criticism, obviously, and defended his position: “I know the sea of wisdom from Steve is that I didn’t give a fuck. I suddenly realised that I didn’t have a clue exactly how to play it. I think for them to assume that you can just turn on a performance like a tap is… In a sense it’s kind of symptomatic of the whole thing, you know?”
When Harris was talking on the record for the official biography in the late 1990s, he was unable to conceal his hurt and disappointment, saying that “the worst thing was, if he’d been fucking crap over the whole tour, you can sort of understand it. When all the press were there, it was a different story. He had no problem turning on a performance then.”
These must count as some of the harshest words ever said in public between members of Iron Maiden.
And despite what the singer said, what was emotionally difficult for Steve Harris was keeping Iron Maiden going when Bruce Dickinson left. He went along with the singer’s idea that they would go out with a bang by doing a final tour with him, something Harris says he regrets. More than that, the Maiden chief readily admits that he considered retirement when Dickinson left the band:
“I spoke to Davey on the phone and I suppose, at that point, I did have a doubt as to whether to carry on or not. I thought, ‘I just don’t have the strength at the moment.’ ”
As Maiden came close to shutting down long before their time, it was soft-spoken guitarist Dave Murray that would provide the spark of leadership that turned the ship around and set it on a steady course for the 1990s battles ahead.
The personal darkness of divorce and band break-up almost brought the final curtain down for Steve Harris’ life’s work, Iron Maiden. However, one of the people involved had been at Harris’ side since the very inception of the band in the 1970s. Dave Murray had joined Maiden in 1976 only to be fired by an eccentric singer and a scheming guitarist. When Harris later restructured his band he built it around Murray, knowing that the guitarist was more important to them than anyone else at the time.
When Maiden met up to rehearse for their 1993 tour the chief was close to calling it quits for his band. Harris, Murray, McBrain and Gers found it hard to concentrate on the music, and probably dreaded the arrival of Dickinson for the final stages of preparations. At that moment, Murray had enough of it:
“We were all really down, Steve especially, and we were even talking about packing it in. And we were all sitting around talking. It was probably the first real long, serious talk the four of us had had together in ages. I suddenly just got fed up talking about it and went, ‘Look, why the fuck should we give up just ’cause he is? Bollocks to him. Why should he stop us playing?’ I hadn’t really thought about it. It just came out.”
It turned the mood around. Iron Maiden emerged from that talk with a sense of purpose and fighting spirit. Harris said later that Murray “gave me the strength to believe we shouldn’t give up. In the end, the strength came from Davey.” And once Maiden had battled through a final tour with Dickinson, ending with the television spectacle Raising Hell in August 1993, that strength would be put to use in finding a new singer.
Maiden were looking for an x factor.
Sources: Kerrang! No 306 (September 1990), Kerrang! No 387 (April 1992), Kerrang! No 388 (April 1992), Metal Hammer No 8 Vol 7 (August 1992), Kerrang! No 432 (February 1993), Kerrang! No 441 (May 1993), Kerrang! No 487 (March 1994), Metal Hammer (June 1994), A Conversation With Bruce Dickinson (1996), Run To The Hills – The Official Biography (Mick Wall, 2001), Classic Rock (November 2001), Iron Maiden in the Studio (Jake Brown, 2011), Bruce Dickinson: Maiden Voyage (Joe Shooman, 2016), What Does This Button Do? (Bruce Dickinson, 2017), Bruce Dickinson on Charlie Rose (2017).