For five years in the 1990s Iron Maiden would sound and look different, lose old fans and make new ones, as they struggled to reestablish themselves with a new frontman: Blaze Bayley. With this chapter in our study of Maiden History we discuss the coming of Blaze and the making of The X Factor.
It was one of those profound shake-ups in rock history, when a classic rock or metal band splits with a classic singer.
The reasons may range from the tragic to the prosaic: From Bon Scott dying and forcing AC/DC to find someone new, to Ronnie James Dio simply tiring of the odd personalities in Black Sabbath. Some changes work out, some don’t. AC/DC would soar with Brian Johnson and Sabbath would plummet without Dio.
Bruce Dickinson leaving Iron Maiden would affect the band and their fans deeply, and it was also going to turn the world of a certain unsuspecting person upside down.
“It totally changed my life. They let me know a couple of days before Christmas 1993. I suppose I was euphoric. I remember there was a bottle of champagne that I’d kept under the sink for quite a while and I cracked it that night and got bladdered on my own.”
When the world of rock music went through major changes in the mid-1990s, so would Iron Maiden. And most definitely Blaze Bayley. At the start of the roller-coaster he was drinking champagne alone in his apartment, trying to get to grips with the fact that, “Up to that point I was Blaze Bayley of Wolfsbane. Now it would be Blaze Bayley of Iron Maiden!”
Five years later, Blaze would find himself alone again, contemplating life after Maiden and facing the harsh reality of being made a scapegoat for the band’s declining fortunes. But in late 1993 he had just gone through an extensive audition process and was looking forward to making his first album as Iron Maiden’s new singer.
When 1993 slipped into 1994, Maiden turned the page to face a new and uncertain chapter in their history.
BAND ON THE EDGE
Iron Maiden released their ninth album in 1992, Fear Of The Dark. Despite high chart positions in some countries, sales were steadily diminishing. The tour was easily Maiden’s least successful to that point, maybe particularly in light of how Dickinson had envisaged Fear Of The Dark as a rejuvenating commercial opportunity for Maiden.
The North American leg of the 1992 tour lasted less than six weeks, starkly contrasting the four months that had been customary touring for Maiden there in the 1980s. They were also playing the smallest capacity venues of their United States headlining career, which stretched all the way back to 1983. A reduced artistic and commercial force, the band then faced the departure of Bruce Dickinson, their singer since late 1981.
Manager Rod Smallwood has since mused that losing Dickinson was a healthy tribulation for Maiden in the long run, a challenge that kept the band on their toes as they negotiated the often unfriendly landscapes of the 1990s.
Smallwood would later recall the early 1993 meeting where Dickinson broke the news to him, and would say that, “When he told me, I didn’t argue that much. It was good for us. It refocused things.”
At the time, band leader Steve Harris didn’t quite see it that way, struggling to fight off his depression and find purpose in the future of Maiden.
Harris suffered through both a divorce and the Dickinson split in 1993, and he needed the emotional and spiritual support of his longest-serving lieutenant Dave Murray to find the strength to continue Iron Maiden, his personal depression nearly making him call time on his life’s work.
“It was a real downer when Bruce left. But then the attitude was: ‘Bollocks – we’ll pick ourselves up and get on with it’. That’s all you can do.”
Dickinson announced his departure in early 1993 and was set to leave at the end of the Real Live Tour in the summer. Once Harris had absorbed the blow and decided to carry on, he made a phone call to vocalist Blaze Bayley in the spring of 1993.
At the time, Bayley’s band Wolfsbane were stagnating, unable to fulfill the promise that their early recordings had made. They had been signed to Rick Rubin’s Def American label, which was a very big deal for an up-and-coming British band at the time, and released their debut record Live Fast, Die Fast in 1989.
Unfortunately things quickly soured and they were dropped from Rubin’s label after the 1991 album Down Fall The Good Guys. Their 1993 live album Massive Noise Injection would be popular with fans but didn’t break new ground, and the band was looking to make another studio album at the end of that year.
Wolfsbane had supported Iron Maiden on the extensive British leg of the 1990 No Prayer On The Road tour, and Harris had been impressed with Bayley’s voice as he heard the singer warming up for their concerts. When Dickinson decided to leave, Bayley would be one of the very few people that Harris immediately thought of, as he would later recall to Maiden biographer Mick Wall:
“Blaze is the one I had in mind to definitely try out. I always felt that Blaze could be the one. To be honest, a couple of others in the band weren’t so sure. They knew he was good onstage, and they accepted all of that, but they weren’t sure about whether his voice would suit Maiden.“
Harris called Bayley and asked if he would be interested in auditioning for Maiden. With Wolfsbane releasing their live album and heading out on tour, Bayley told the Maiden chief that he would stay with his own band and see it through. As they hung up, Bayley immediately regretted his words.
“I put the phone down and thought, ‘You fucking, fucking idiot. That was Maiden…Steve Harris on the phone and you turned him down. You fucking…fucking idiot!’ “
And so he soldiered on with Wolfsbane.
Meanwhile, Iron Maiden also had commitments to fulfill. After a childishly resentment-laden tour of Europe and the final televised concert in London in late August of 1993, it was all over. The feeling in the Maiden camp at that last show with Dickinson might have been best summed up by a very hurt and resentful drummer:
“By then we couldn’t wait to get rid of the guy, to be brutally honest with you. I mean, it was a great show, and Bruce was on top of the game, completely. Of course he was. The cameras were on him! Afterwards, I think we just got pissed. I can’t even remember. It wasn’t exactly the happiest last night of a tour we’ve had.”
Some years later Dickinson would recall that, “It was a very strange way of parting. After the show, I had a couple of beers and went home to bed.” That final show was filmed at Pinewood Studios, a movie soundstage, and the singer remembered walking around the place after the party, “and it’s dark and kind of lonely and stuff, and it was… Yeah, it was sort of melancholy.”
And with that, Dickinson was gone.
AUDITIONS OF THE BEAST
When guitarist Adrian Smith left Maiden in early 1990, they had only auditioned Janick Gers as his replacement. Likewise, Nicko McBrain had been the only one considered as the replacement for drummer Clive Burr in late 1982. When original singer Paul Di’Anno was fired in 1981, Harris and Smallwood had chased down Dickinson to join the band even before the split was ultimately decided.
In late 1993, however, the search for a new vocalist would be very different, with several singers trying out for the position. Harris later stated that this prolonged period of being without a singer was strange for him, a sort of band limbo that took him back “to when it was just me and Dave and Doug Sampson, and we had no singer and we were rehearsing.”
That was 1978. Now, fifteen years later, a new singer and frontman had to be identified. A person with whom Harris could reboot Iron Maiden.
“We listened to every single tape we got,” said Harris. “I think it was one of the hardest jobs we’ve ever had to do.” It might have been about 1500 tapes and very, very few of the contenders met with Harris’ criteria of being “right for Maiden.” According to Bayley, 12 of these hopefuls were picked for auditions with the band.
One of the singers that got through to an audition was Doogie White, a relative unknown from Scotland. He sang with the band on two occasions in Harris’ Barnyard Studios in late 1993, emerging as the favorite candidate for the job. After all, White’s voice was a powerful tenor, like Dickinson’s, and he had no problem hitting the high notes of Hallowed Be Thy Name or The Trooper.
White had sent his tape in to Maiden’s management in the spring of 1993. Then, one Friday night several months later, as he was preparing to go to Scotland, he had a knock on his door in London. He opened to find Maiden’s production manager Dickie Bell on his doorstep with a cassette. “He said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m going to Scotland.’ He said, ‘No, you’re not, you’re auditioning for Iron Maiden on Monday.”
White says the cassette and his audition was made up mostly of material from that year’s A Real Live One and A Real Dead One. Basically he rehearsed the 1992-93 Maiden set in full, which was “a tall order”, as he says. On Monday he was picked up by Dickie Bell and driven to Steve Harris’ estate north of London.
Looking back, in a recent talk with Jam Man, White recalled the experience of singing with Iron Maiden at the Barnyard:
“It was up at Steve Harris’ house. They stood around me in a circle, so I had Janick and Davey and Steve, and I put Nicko behind me so at least the drums were coming from behind. We just went through the songs, and then had a cup of tea and a ginger snap biscuit, and then we went back and did some more songs. And then they asked me back again, but they gave the gig to Blaze.”
By that time, Bayley had become disillusioned with the state of Wolfsbane, as they were writing and recording their new album without any prospects of making it big. He later stated, “There was a real tug-of-war in Wolfsbane over musical direction, there always had been.” And Blaze was unhappy with how the new music veered away from metal and into a poppier terrain that “just didn’t fit my voice anymore.”
However, there could have been other issues than artistic disagreements that led Bayley to seek greener pastures in late 1993. Wolfbane’s manager Gary Garner took Bayley aside and told him that selling Wolfsbane was proving impossible. If there was a chance of trying out for Maiden, Garner said, Bayley had better take it. The struggling singer had kept Maiden out of his thoughts: “But I realized, this opportunity is going to come once in a lifetime.”
Bayley has told two different versions of what happened next. In Mick Wall’s official Maiden biography he says that he phoned Harris and asked, “Look, have you found anybody yet?”. In Lawrence Paterson’s equally official biography of the Blaze Bayley Band he says that Smallwood was the man with the phone, calling Bayley and asking him to reconsider. Both versions could be true, of course, if a call from Smallwood prompted Bayley to call Harris.
At any rate, the outcome was that Bayley went behind the backs of Wolfsbane to secretly audition for Iron Maiden towards the end of 1993. His bandmates, however, had a feeling that something was going on, as bassist Jeff Hateley would later recall:
“Of course we knew that Maiden had been interested, and we assumed that he would audition for them, I mean who wouldn’t? But having been in a band with Blaze for the best part of a decade, we knew his strengths and weaknesses, and there was no way he could do justice to the Bruce Dickinson era songs, but he’d probably get away with the Di’Anno stuff.”
Commandeering the Ford Fiesta of his girlfriend Beverly Owens, Blaze Bayley headed south-east from his home in Smethwick outside Birmingham to Sheering near Harlow, where Steve Harris had by now established the base of Maiden operations in his own Barnyard Studios. A freak snowstorm intervened and made Bayley several hours late for his audition, the drama of his Maiden adventure already catching up with him.
Meeting the band, Bayley was struck by the sombre atmosphere:
“The whole band was there, of course. Dickie Bell, the band’s long-serving tour manager. And Michael Kenney, Steve’s bass tech who also techs for the whole band in rehearsals. And after all the laughing and joking on the tour, this time it was all business and everybody was very serious, which took me aback quite a bit.”
The serious mood had an obvious explanation: Iron Maiden were about to make one of their most important decisions ever.
Bayley had been told to prepare 10 songs, material from both the Di’Anno and Dickinson eras of the band. The four Maiden members and one hopeful took up positions. As they started playing, Bayley focused only on enjoying the moment. “For ten songs I was the singer in Iron Maiden,” he later recalled. “There’s nothing else I could do now except relax and enjoy being in Iron Maiden for a while.”
Many fans and critics have wondered how Maiden came to choose Bayley, since his subsequent performances with the band would show his inability to sing much of the classic material because of his lower vocal range.
Indeed, Janick Gers stated in 1995 that, “Bruce had a huge range but Blaze has a deep voice instead. Those are not songs that are written for his voice but he does the best he can. Bruce had a two-octave range but Blaze really gives all that he’s got.”
In other words, Iron Maiden chose a lead singer that they knew from the beginning would not cope too well with the Dickinson material in their catalog. This must certainly have been obvious to everyone at the audition, as Bayley would later suggest:
“I felt that all the Di’Anno stuff I blitzed, but some of the Bruce stuff was quite difficult. The Fear Of The Dark stuff was alright, but it was only really Hallowed Be Thy Name and The Trooper that I thought…hmmm…these are quite challenging.”
After completing the 10-song set, Harris asked Bayley if there was anything he wanted to do over, and Bayley recalls that “I hadn’t messed anything up so I said ‘No!’ I didn’t want to fuck anything up.”
It’s interesting to note that Doogie White remembers learning a 20-song Maiden set that included Can I Play With Madness, Run To The Hills and Be Quick Or Be Dead, songs that it is hard to imagine Blaze Bayley singing, while the latter recalls learning only 10 songs.
A few weeks later, to his own surprise, Bayley was called back to lay down vocal tracks on existing Iron Maiden studio recordings. Bayley then exited the Barnyard and Maiden were left to ponder which of the two singers they wanted to offer a job. Harris later reflected on the thinking behind the decision:
“After Bruce left, we didn’t want someone who sounded like either Bruce or Paul; we wanted someone that had his own voice. There were other people that came along who were technically great singers, but they sounded like other people and you need someone that has their own sound. So I think Blaze really suited most of the stuff. Maybe there’s a couple of songs he didn’t suit, but that would have been the same case with anybody.”
Harris played the recordings of White and Bayley back to the rest of the band, and McBrain reacted to the Bayley tape with a simple, “Now, that’s Iron Maiden, ain’t it?” Harris agreed that it felt right, and the band came to the end of a long and arduous road by selecting Blaze Bayley as the new singer of Iron Maiden. Apparently, this was not decided on the basis of his vocal ability alone:
“He had so much enthusiasm for the music we were doing. When he was offered the job it was not just about the voice. There were others who could probably have hit Bruce’s parts more accurately, but they didn’t necessarily have the belief that Blaze showed.”
Based on their ability to sing Maiden’s catalog, Doogie White was easily the better choice. But as White remembers, “Steve wanted to do something completely different. So rather than get a Bruce copyist in, he got somebody who was completely different.”
Bayley, for his part, was in a state of disbelief about being selected as the replacement for Dickinson, recalling more than two decades later: “I was very, very surprised that they chose me to be the singer, because my voice is so different to Bruce. We did look a little bit alike, but my voice – radically different.”
Iron Maiden decided to replace Bruce Dickinson with a singer they knew could not match the requirements of performing essential parts of their repertoire, but who was able to infuse the band with an enthusiasm that was sorely needed after the depression of 1993. Their focus would be firmly on creating new music, on recording the first Iron Maiden album with Blaze Bayley on vocals. By early 1994 the singer would be given over to working under the direction of Steve Harris.
THE ‘ARRY FACTOR
In January 1994 the world learned that Blaze Bayley had auditioned with and ultimately joined Iron Maiden. The rest of Wolfsbane had been told just before Christmas, and drowned their sorrows in drugs and alcohol. “Blaze hasn’t really been honest with us,” said Wolfsbane guitarist Jason Edwards bitterly at the time. “He never told us he was auditioning for Maiden.” Indeed, Smallwood had strictly forbidden all candidates to utter a word to anyone before a decision was reached. What Bayley’s now former bandmates saw as a betrayal would open a chasm between them and the singer that would exist for many years to come.
Having been called back to the Barnyard a few days before Christmas 1993 to meet with Harris and Smallwood, Bayley had been told that the job was his if he wanted it. Smallwood proceeded to explain what he would get paid and the rough outline of the work coming up in the year ahead.
“And I felt stunned, really. Just stunned. I was really happy that I got the gig, but just stunned because suddenly I was faced with a totally different life. I got bladdered and started looking in AutoMart to see how much Jaguars cost.”
The idea now was to take their time writing new music with Bayley and recording the new album in the Barnyard. “We were just supposed to get in there and see what happened,” explained Bayley many years later. “It would take the shape that it took.”
The singer got eased into the Maiden working rhythm by visiting Gers and writing in his converted garage in Chiswick, London. The pair worked up some fresh ideas, including what would become Man On The Edge, and brought the material with them to band rehearsals.
“I always got on quite well with Blaze. When he would come around to my place we found that we could write easily together, it was very natural. He was always able to just grab something out of the air.”
This would be the longest-gestating Iron Maiden album of all time, eventually taking about 18 months to write, rehearse, record and mix. When Bayley arrived for the first sessions he was not prepared for the slow pace of development, and the rural environment of Harris’ home studio was a new working experience for him.
Among Harris’ many eccentricities were two huge Great Danes, one of which did “an enormous shit” behind Bayley’s car, into which the singer unknowingly trod and then proceeded to walk through Harris’ house, “leaving a nice smelly trail behind me.”
“I walked in, into his lounge and over to the sofa, and Steve goes, ‘Have you trod in dog shit?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh nooo!’ Steve was gutted as his cleaner had literally just left. So the first half an hour of the first writing session for the new album was spent bent over cleaning dog shit from Steve’s expensive rugs and carpets.”
Bayley was deeply involved in creating the new Maiden material. Writing with Harris in his living room, like he did with Gers in his garage, instruments were kept at a low volume to allow for a focus on voice and melody. Songs were coming along nicely, and the band worked up a total of 14, more than they had ever written for an album.
Bayley would also be the first new member of Maiden to get credited for his songwriting on his first album with the band. He was very much aware of the uniqueness of the situation, and even in awe of what he was experiencing:
“You’re sat in Steve Harris’ lounge and he’s a man of great pride, although he keeps it to himself. But his house is plastered in platinum and gold albums from every country of the world, and you’re sat in his lounge working with a guy who’s an absolute legend … The man that wrote The Number Of The Beast … A man of the highest possible calibre, surrounded by everything that says, ‘Yes, I’m good at what I do.’ To bring my ideas to that and have them accepted was incredible.”
Blaze did not take the honor of making an album with Iron Maiden lightly. He was in the company of legends, creating a new chapter in an ongoing story that touches thousands. However, one of the legends would be missing from proceedings this time: Producer Martin Birch had decided to retire permanently after Fear Of The Dark.
“We’d been together a long time, and I just asked Steve, you know, ‘Is it time for you to change the producer?’ It was more down to me than the band. I felt that, if I didn’t really want to go in the studio, then it wasn’t fair to them to do so. I wouldn’t want to be anything less than 100 per cent for Steve and Maiden.”
Despite the misgivings of manager Smallwood, Harris decided to take it upon himself to produce the new album. To balance things somewhat Nigel Green was brought in as co-producer, having worked with Maiden on Killers and The Number Of The Beast and subsequently picked up credits with Def Leppard and Dio among others.
There would be no doubt who was in charge, though. After the exits of Smith, Dickinson and Birch, the course of Iron Maiden was now completely in the hands of Steve Harris. Possibly more than ever, the Maiden leader had the means and opportunity to create exactly the album that he envisioned.
Green seemed enthusiastic at the time and said, “We all felt that the way things were progressing – the songs, Blaze’s new involvement, the sound, the commitment – the new album really would have that extra quality, that bit of magic, that ‘X Factor’. This became the working title for the album, and we liked it, so we kept it.”
Bayley for his part, despite being lauded by everyone involved for his perpetual positive energy, would state in retrospect that he was not entirely happy with the way things were going during the recording of the new album:
“I felt that the recording of The X Factor took far too long, over a year, and it just didn’t need to at all. We’d got the songs done and then there were a lot of technical problems in the studio, and then we’d break for this and break for that, and then we’d do other stuff and it just took too long, with weekends off and all that. I think, with the greatest respect to Steve, that there was a lot of paranoia in the band … a new singer, a new album, the whole thing, getting it right and so on.”
More than two decades later, Bayley would adhere to a very different recording schedule with his solo music, and stated that, “I’m a working class man. I like a deadline, and I like a time to know when I start and a time to know when I finish.” Ironically, the working class Maiden were not at all in that frame of mind when Bayley joined them.
Bayley busted his knee in a motorcycle accident at the start of recording. But a singer in a cast would not explain the slow process of making the album. It seems that recording at home, in what was essentially an expensive but sometimes malfunctioning private studio, was not conducive to Harris’ more instinctual quick pace of working. After all, The Number Of The Beast had been recorded and mixed in a matter of five weeks, and even the much more sonically sophisticated Somewhere In Time would not take more than about nine months from the start of rehearsals to the album’s release.
“Maiden recorded in a very different way to how I knew, a really old-school fashion, actually a way that I would never choose to record at all. […] You were on your own in a room; normally I’d record from the control room, working closely with the engineer and producer, but it wasn’t that way in Iron Maiden.”
The singer would find it hard to maintain and direct his performances, being on a different floor of the building from Harris and Green in the attic control room, and suffering from the distractions of time-consuming analog tape rewinds and pre-digital “technical issues” as he would later put it.
An added challenge for Bayley, and a somewhat bewildering production choice that must ultimately rest on Harris’ shoulders, was the aesthetic decision to avoid reverb or other effects on the vocals. Indeed, there would not be even a single instance of harmony layers on the entire album, and guitarist Dave Murray frankly admitted the consequences at the time:
“Blaze didn’t get a lot of favours. His voice sounded naked, like it is, and that’s OK for me because I think he sounds brilliant, with loads of deep sounds. Maybe it wasn’t right for his voice, but for that record it had to be done this way.”
It begs the question: Did it really have to be done that way?
Another dark cloud over the making of the album was the disturbance caused by their former singer. When Dickinson hit the PR trail for his first post-Maiden album Balls To Picasso in the summer of 1994, while Maiden were just starting to record their own album, everyone who talked to him would obviously ask him about Maiden and his leaving them. Sometimes the singer would not be shy about voicing critical opinions of the band that made him.
Harris later complained that “it was just happening everywhere.” Dickinson’s Maiden-bashing certainly took on epic proportions in the mid-1990s, and the band leader felt overwhelmed with what he thought was unfairly harsh criticism.
However, there is some indication that Dickinson’s dismissal of Maiden would first and foremost ignite when Balls and the follow-up Skunkworks (1996) failed to forge an alternative path, the frustration of being labeled the ex-Maiden singer catching up with him. Indeed, while he was still hoping for solo success, Dickinson would sound quite positive about Maiden and his past in a June 1994 interview with Metal Hammer:
“I’m not going to pretend that I’m not going to talk about Iron Maiden, cos that won’t make stuff go away – I don’t actually want it to go away. I’m perfectly happy with having been in Maiden for 12 years, very proud of it, and if people turn around and make snide comments in interviews and expect me to approve them, then they won’t get that satisfaction, cos I won’t.”
Indeed, in Dickinson’s defense, the band had already publicly critizised the singer’s performances by this point, saying that Dickinson only gave his best at high-profile gigs in big cities on Maiden’s 1993 tour. And there had certainly been the odd instance of Dickinson-bashing in press interviews during the tour, of which the inebriated McBrain in Kerrang!‘s May 1993 coverage comes to mind: “Good fucking riddance!”
It’s not clear that Dickinson started this war of words, and it certainly went both ways regardless. But at any rate Bayley had a unique perspective, feeling a profound sense of gratitude for the new and exciting situation he found himself in. He witnessed the attacks and accusations from Dickinson interfering with the Maiden mood in the studio from time to time.
“Steve was almost in tears one time, reading something that Bruce had said. Not that Steve took it personally but that Maiden is so precious to him and here was Bruce slagging it off as if it had meant nothing. All those years they’d worked, the thing that they’d created, the barriers they’d broken, the things that they’d done. It was like it didn’t mean anything, like it was a bit of a fake. And that really, really hurt Steve. That was tough for him.”
For Bayley, the new singer in the band, it might not have been pleasant to experience this kind of added pressure and controversy. But on the other hand:
“We were reading all this stuff from Bruce Dickinson in the press about Maiden being shit, and Sergeant Major Harris and all that stuff. Really personal horrible insults, basically. Not just insulting Steve and the band, but also what Maiden meant to the fans, and I really felt that Bruce was a bit screwed up. That he thought that he could leave Maiden and then go and make it … where did he think his audience was gonna come from?”
This certainly gave Bayley an initiative to express his love for Maiden and their music, something that fans would readily latch on to. Harris ultimately thought that Dickinson was “fucking himself up, because basically it’s the Maiden fans he’s insulting too, if he’s having a go at Maiden. He was trying to belittle his past.”
Maiden could prove him wrong.
As a fan club member at the time, I remember waiting what seemed endlessly for the album, being told that it would be released in early 1995, then in the summer of 1995, and then in September of 1995. Reports from the studio revealed an acoustic bass and the chants of a Gregorian choir, and the tension of anticipating Maiden’s new music was nearly unbearable.
Finally the date was set, The X Factor would be released on 2 October 1995. In September, the first Iron Maiden recording with Blaze Bayley was released, the single and video Man On The Edge:
The album was out. How Maiden sounded with their new singer was now available for all to hear. In short order the band would be heading out on tour, and the curious would get to see and hear Iron Maiden on stage with Blaze Bayley.
LOST REHEARSALS AND MISSING GUITARS
The X Factor was easily the least popular Iron Maiden album since Killers, both in terms of sales and reviews. Harris admitted at the time that he was always nervous about the public reception of Maiden records, and particularly so about Bayley’s debut. He was consequently hurt by some of the criticism. The band would always insist that this downturn in fortunes was inevitable because of the general shift away from classic rock and metal in the 1990s.
Which is only partially true.
Grunge ruled in the form of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains and Soundgarden, among others. As did the mainstream punk of Green Day, Rancid and The Offspring. The changes in the popular music landscape were certainly massive.
But at the same time, older bands like Black Sabbath and KISS reverted to their classic line-ups for nostalgia-fueled and extremely popular reunion tours. Of the big metal bands, Metallica was the one to transcend subgenres and establish themselves as a permanent commercial force.
Maiden neither changed style nor reunited their classic 1983-1989 line-up. Thus they avoided the two most obvious ways for older rock and metal bands to stay commercially successful in the 1990s. For Maiden, radically changing styles was unthinkable, and reuniting with any former members was simply too soon.
But commercial issues aside, what about the art?
Iron Maiden had previously not been intimidated by the coming of either glam metal in the mid-1980s or thrash metal in the late 1980s. A fair argument could be made that Maiden’s new album was simply not good enough, that unlike Killers it might actually have been quite fairly appraised in its day. The reasons for this are outlined in our review of The X Factor.
Steve Harris would be predictably stubborn on this point. He had given a lot of himself to the making of The X Factor, and many of the songs on the album have lyrics that cut very close to the bone of his divorce and the near break-up of his life’s work with Iron Maiden. Harris insisted a few years later that this was one of his three favorite Maiden records, the other two being Piece Of Mind and Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son.
“I thought it was a special album. Like it or not, we had this extra pressure to succeed, ’cause we’d got this new singer, and so we really went out of our way to try and make it as strong as possible. I suppose it is quite a dark album, partly ’cause I was going through so much personal shit myself at the time, so some of that has come out lyrically, no doubt about it.”
Smallwood has stated that he always thought The X Factor was too dark to have much of a commercial chance. Selling this new version of Iron Maiden to the world was a task given to Bayley and Murray. The pair criss-crossed the globe to talk to journalists in 30 cities about their new music, their first with the new singer.
Bayley later said that he found himself wholly unprepared and completely out of his depth in this situation. The job of showing the world what Maiden was with their new singer, before they had released the album or even performed a concert together, ultimately shut the vocalist down.
By the end of the promo tour, in Japan, Bayley was in tatters.
“I broke down, was at my wits’ end. They put us in this beautiful hotel, I emptied the mini bar, screamed at the hotel staff and phoned up Steve Harris in tears and told him I didn’t know what to do. It was fucking terrible.”
Murray himself admitted that the 1995 promo tour was the toughest job he had done for Maiden since the World Slavery Tour, and when the two of them returned to England and the release party for The X Factor on 31 August, Bayley said, “I just broke down. Steve had a word with Rod and said, ‘Well, we’ll get you a couple of days off. What do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘I just want to see my girlfriend’.”
The lengthy development of the album and the intense publicity schedule would also have a severe negative impact on the preparations for the presumably most important thing, Iron Maiden’s return to the stage. According to Bayley, he was never given the opportunity that they had originally agreed to: Four weeks of well-planned rehearsals turned into seven days of mad rushing.
“So rehearsal time got squeezed, and from that time on I felt that live I was always on the back foot, always trying to catch up. And we went into a really busy schedule with no chance to get ahead. That was the start of a series of things where I felt I was constantly playing with one arm tied behind my back.”
To be fair, Bayley himself must bear some responsibility for not making sure he was individually prepared for the momentous challenge. Would not any singer replacing Dickinson spend months getting ready on his own, no matter what?
But at this point it is also fair to ask whether Maiden effectively sabotaged Bayley’s chances of getting a good start, not taking his need for rehearsal time seriously enough in the squeeze between mixing, promotional efforts and the upcoming tour dates. “I felt robbed of three of those precious rehearsal weeks,” Bayley said many years later. “Plus, that was where a few problems popped up.”
Indeed, if their rushed tour preparations should be regretted, another aspect of the rehearsals is simply shocking: Bayley did not get to decide his own monitor mix.
“I said to the monitor man that I would like some guitar in my wedges. But he said no. I was told ‘you can’t have any guitar in your wedges’. But fucking hell … they’re my wedges because that’s what’s right in front of me and the guitar is what I pitch to. But they said no. All I had was bass and vocals and that’s it.”
Read that again.
Eventually, Bayley would start using in-ear monitors to have proper control of the sound mix he was singing to. But for what was inevitably dubbed The X Factour he claims that, “I just struggled the whole tour to be in tune … in time. I didn’t move much on the tour because I was trying to listen to find out where I was.”
All of this on top of the basic challenge: Singing songs that were written for Bruce Dickinson, a very different voice and range. As Bayley biographer Lawrence Paterson points out, it is bewildering that the band’s 1995 to 1998 live sets did not include more songs from the Paul Di’Anno era that Bayley had “blitzed” in his audition, the band seemingly insisting on pushing their new singer into the unattainable stratospheres of Hallowed Be Thy Name, The Trooper and The Evil That Men Do, among others.
“It’s true that he had some problems sometimes on stage, but that’s partly our fault as we were asking him to sing in a higher register than what is natural for him. Blaze has a very distinctive voice and we perhaps needed him to stretch it into unnatural territory. Maiden tours can be nine or ten months long and it’s a punishing schedule for anybody, especially if you have to push your voice beyond its natural limits.”
Which begs another question: Why did they pick Blaze Bayley in the first place?
Nothing about Maiden’s vocal territory changed, but Blaze was not that kind of singer. Where Dickinson was Maiden’s tenor, Bayley was a barritone. Inevitably, this toxic combination of natural range, little time for rehearsals, a wicked schedule, and monitor issues, all came down on Bayley like a ton of bricks. This would haunt Maiden for the duration of Bayley’s time with them, and eventually lead to his dismissal from the band.
Here is a selection of live tracks from early in the tour – Sofia, Bulgaria on 16 October 1995 – that illustrate the point. They range from the more comfortable performance of new-album highlight The Edge Of Darkness to Bayley’s self-confessed struggles with the classics Hallowed Be Thy Name and The Trooper:
To add insult to injury, the hail of negative opinions from their former singer showed no signs of abating. “There was a little bit of that from both sides, yeah,” said Dickinson later, but it seemed that he was intent on having the final say in this war of words at the time. In April 1996, while touring his third solo album Skunkworks, he had a torrent of criticism ready for Maiden when he spoke to The Bruce Dickinson Wellbeing Network in Stockholm:
“I think some of the best guitar Janick’s ever played is on Tattooed Millionaire. I don’t think anybody knows how to get the best out of Janick in the studio with Iron Maiden. […] The new Maiden record in North America has sold sixty, seventy thousand copies. In the same period of time the reissued Iron Maiden back catalogue has sold four hundred thousand copies, which means that somewhere there’s a bunch of people buying all these old Maiden records. […] The X Factor made it so easy for people to understand why I left. It’s completely clear. […] It’s a bit of a shame to see Maiden go down the tubes.”
Even if one would agree with Dickinson on some or all of these points, it did seem unnecessary to rub it in when Maiden were apparently down for the count. Not very gentlemanly, was it?
It is not hard to understand that Harris in particular must have felt more or less constantly under pressure from early 1993 all the way into late 1996. These years were easily the heaviest struggle he had experienced since trying to build Maiden in the late 1970s, probably even more challenging. He got divorced, Dickinson left, Birch left, and Maiden’s commercial and critical fortunes took another dive, already having diminished significantly in the early 1990s.
At the end of 1995, with the release of The X Factor and the start of touring, that struggle was not yet over. But some things were looking better.
ON THE EDGE OF DARKNESS
As The X Factour wound its way around the world in 1995 and 1996 the band had found a happier and more peaceful state of existence, despite the vocal problems, feeling settled with the fiercely loyal Gers and Bayley in the line-up. It seemed that the darkness and trials of the past couple of years were at last behind them, but there would still be some bumps in the road.
Starting in the virgin territory of Israel and South Africa, the tour spent more than three months in Europe before heading to North America. Maiden biographer Mick Wall writes that The X Factor “revitalised the band’s career in America”, which seems like an euphemism for Maiden being back to playing clubs and theatres. Their record and ticket sales had never been weaker in the USA, regardless of how the band and management framed this reality as them being “careful” when booking the tour.
“I think that Steve, Dave and Nicko were actually gutted to be in smaller places. They’d been playing in the big league for so long now, that to take that perceived step down hurt a lot. Staying in a cheaper hotel, playing a smaller gig, I sensed they weren’t happy and were probably looking sideways at me as the new guy, but nobody ever said anything.”
The only place where Iron Maiden had a similar drawing power to what they had enjoyed in their glorious past was South America, where countries like Argentina and Brazil embraced them as warmly as they had ever been embraced anywhere with any line-up. “I just looked back on the difficulties of the past few years,” said Harris. “And I tell you, it’s gigs like that that make it all worthwhile.”
One should bear in mind that Maiden did not shoulder this attendance success on their own. When The X Factour came to South America in late August 1996, Iron Maiden were part of a deliberately old-school Monsters Of Rock festival line-up that also featured Motörhead and Skid Row among others. Here is Maiden’s performance in São Paulo:
It would seem that Maiden felt more at home on such a bill, and with such a crowd, than they would in the contemporary rock climate of Europe and North America. And the tour ending on such a high note might explain the positive mood in Maiden as they released their first compilation album in September 1996: Best Of The Beast.
Smallwood conceived of it as a way to introduce Maiden to new fans, but it also seemed to be a natural point for summing up their history so far: From Paul Di’Anno, via Bruce Dickinson, to Blaze Bayley. From Doug Sampson (who plays on the Soundhouse Tapes tracks that are included), via Clive Burr, to Nicko McBrain. From Dennis Stratton, via Adrian Smith, to Janick Gers.
There had been a lot of Maiden Exits over the years.
The status in late 1996 was that the band were in good spirits, even if they were at their least successful point commercially since the breakthrough with The Number Of The Beast. Their new singer had been through a prolonged baptism by fire, struggling, but making it to the end of the road.
“Wolfsbane never toured outside of Britain, so this was something else. Sometimes I didn’t think I’d survive. Other times I wanted it to go on forever. It was an unforgettable experience.”
The energy spilling over from the tour was put into writing and recording one new track for the compilation album, Virus. It was written by Harris, Gers, Murray and Bayley, and recorded at the Barnyard, where Maiden also planned to write and record their next album at some point in 1997.
But first, nine months off. Until the Beast was ready to come out of its slumber again, Virus would be the sign of where Maiden was at, musically and emotionally, at the end of their first album and tour cycle with a new singer. Confident, but reduced. In control, but also at the point of shooting a cheap video in Harris’ empty swimming pool.
They seemed content for now.
Sources: Kerrang! issue 441 (May 1993), Metal Hammer (June 1994), Stockholm, 28 April 1996 (bookofhours.net, 1996), Run To The Hills: The Authorised Biography of Iron Maiden (Mick Wall,  2001), Metal Hammer’s “Iron Maiden: 30 Years of Metal Mayhem” (2005), Iron Maiden: 30 Years of the Beast (Paul Stenning, 2006), At the End of the Day: The Story of the Blaze Bayley Band (Lawrence Paterson, 2010), Iron Maiden in the Studio (Jake Brown, 2011), Classic Rock’s “Iron Maiden: Hope and Glory (Paul Elliot, 25 May 2011), Bruce Dickinson: Maiden Voyage (Joe Shooman,  2016), Classic Rock’s “The Story of Iron Maiden’s Forgotten Man” (Paul Elliot, 14 April 2016), Doogie White interview with The Metal Voice (March 2018), Blaze Bayley interview with Rockfiend Publications Scotland (2019), Jam Man Talks With Doogie White (August 2021).