When 1999 began, Iron Maiden had decided to fire singer Blaze Bayley and reunite with Bruce Dickinson. This was one of the most important turns in the band’s history. The major question is how Steve Harris came to the conclusion, and how the new line-up of Maiden would secure their longevity in the new millennium.
“I can’t see Iron Maiden ever becoming massive again to the same degree as Sabbath and KISS have become, as we don’t have an Ozzy or the make-up gimmick.”
Steve Harris, September 1998
“I’m not keeping the seat warm for anyone in this band.”
Blaze Bayley, September 1998
Blaze Bayley was certainly not intended to be a placeholder in Iron Maiden, a stand-in for the interim until Bruce Dickinson decided to return. And Steve Harris was right about his band not being as nostalgia-prone as either Black Sabbath or KISS, who had both reunited their classic line-ups to enormously successful effect in the 1990s.
But what did Iron Maiden have? It might not have been obvious at the time, and it might have been one of the least likely hard rock reunions, but there was a potential cracker of an opportunity on the horizon, and manager Rod Smallwood had glimpsed it: The chance to set up the return of Maiden’s best singer and greet the new millennium with both new music and powerful concerts that would no longer be restrained by a limited vocal range or poor production values. Dickinson had told Smallwood that he was open to the idea. Would Harris also be?
“That’s how it was for some time. Rod was being his bombastic, bullying best, ’cause he knew I wasn’t into it at all. […] But then I thought, ‘Well, if the change happens, who would we get?’ The thing is, we know Bruce and we know what he’s capable of.”
Slowly, Harris came around to the idea, and a meeting was set. “As soon as we walked in the room, we gave each other a big hug and it evaporated,” Dickinson told Maiden biographer Mick Wall about the immediately dissipating tension in his exploratory discussion with Harris. “Literally, like, boof! Gone.”
1998 was the year that saw Iron Maiden release their underwhelming Virtual XI album and come to the end of their Blaze period. As a disappointing year of touring wound down, Maiden and manager Smallwood were at the point where a major decision had to be made. Iron Maiden had stalled.
According to Wall’s official Maiden book, Run To The Hills, Maiden decided to part company with Bayley, and then set up a meeting with Dickinson to discuss the idea of a reunion in January 1999. But this sequence of events does not agree with a less official chronology in which Maiden mended fences with Dickinson in late 1998, before giving Bayley the boot. In fact, it seems likely that everyone else in the band new that Bayley would be going when they played their final Virtual XI shows in South America in December 1998.
In February 1999, Iron Maiden announced their reunion with both Dickinson and guitarist Adrian Smith in a six-man line-up that also retained guitarist Janick Gers next to original member Dave Murray. All was set for a summer 1999 reunion tour and a new album to be released in 2000. Most Maiden fans were ecstatic at the news, but what had happened behind the scenes that took everyone to this point at the end of the 1990s?
The painful truth is that Iron Maiden were in bad shape in 1998. The loss of Adrian Smith in 1990 and Bruce Dickinson in 1993 had hurt their creativity and ability immensely. Both Smith and Dickinson had left because of heartfelt frustrations with their creative environment, and band leader Steve Harris drove Maiden on with The X Factor in 1995. Recruiting Bayley and producing Maiden in his own studio, displaying that trademark grim determination, Harris attempted to build a new beast.
Despite what Bayley sometimes says to defend his time in the band, Maiden were not “bigger than ever” anywhere at that point, not even in South America or Scandinavia. In countries like Argentina and Brazil they played stadiums, but mostly as part of classic rock and metal festival bills, and in countries like Denmark, Norway and Sweden they were playing smaller places and fewer shows than ever. In Britain and North America, Maiden were merely a pale shadow of their former selves, playing theaters and clubs most of the time.
Album and ticket sales had nosedived because Iron Maiden no longer appealed to anyone but their absolute hardcore fanbase, which itself had also dwindled to a size far smaller than it once was. Through no fault of Bayley or Gers, Maiden had lost three key ingredients that were needed to elevate them: a world-class singer and frontman, a sophisticated guitarist and songwriter, and a producer to fill the Martin Birch-shaped hole in Iron Maiden’s sound.
No doubt, Rod Smallwood knew this. The 1998 album and tour was a final roll of the dice, and it failed. For Maiden to return to power, drastic measures had to be taken. Smallwood had to get Harris to look back for once, and consider the importance of past members of the team in light of Maiden’s diminishing fortunes. In the event, Harris would prove to be a bigger visionary than many gave him credit for at the time.
To go forward would mean going back.
THE SLOW RETURN OF ADRIAN SMITH
Adrian had gone fishing, literally. After a decade in the spotlight as one half of Maiden’s incredible 1980s guitar duo, he quit the band in early 1990, when they started working on what would become No Prayer For The Dying. A quiet life in the countryside beckoned, and Smith got his fishing rods out.
“It felt strange at first, I admit, but at the same time it felt like it was a weight off my shoulders. The truth is, I was unhappy. […] I think I just needed a complete change of scene. I don’t think I even looked at a guitar for a while.”
It is therefore fairly surprising to learn that Smith auditioned for fellow British rock heroes Def Leppard in late 1991 or early 1992, with a view to replacing the recently deceased Steve Clark. Smith has never spoken in depth about why he considered a return to the spotlight in such a high-profile band just a couple of years after leaving Maiden, but Leppard drummer Rick Allen has stated that, “I loved the idea. It was a compliment that he was so into it.”
It seems that the notoriously indecisive Adrian Smith was already in two minds about whether to enjoy retirement or get back on stage. The Def Leppard job would ultimately go to Vivian Campbell, but Smith showed up when his former band played Donington Monsters Of Rock in August 1992, and joined them on stage for a rendition of Running Free:
Hanging out backstage, Smith later admitted that he felt emotionally overwhelmed. “They were so good it felt bad, it really did,” he told Mick Wall. “To see the songs I used to play, that I had written, being played and I wasn’t there with them on stage… I felt torn in two.” The former Maiden guitarist gulped his whisky and eventually strode onstage to a massive reception, delivering a short and sweet performance that seemed to be his final goodbye to the Maiden fans.
“When he left the band in 1990, I think everybody was a bit surprised at how much we missed him. And certainly, I don’t think anybody had realised how much the fans would miss him – big time.”
It would not be long before Smith put a new band together for himself. He had enjoyed making his debut solo album back in 1989, the Silver And Gold record that was released under the ASAP moniker (meaning Adrian Smith And Project). During the course of 1992 and 1993, Smith formed a band called The Untouchables, with guitarist Carl Dufresne and former The Cult bassist Jamie Stewart. While playing clubs for fun, the line-up coalesced into Smith on guitar and vocals, Dufresne on guitar, bassist Gary Leideman, and former Bruce Dickinson drummer Fabio Del Rio:
Possibly realizing that he felt (and looked) uneasy as a frontman, Smith decided to recruit singer Solli, previously of Norwegian rockers Sons of Angels and Scott Gorham’s band 21 Guns. Solli had been recommended to Smith by Steve Harris after he submitted a tape for the Dickinson replacement auditions in 1993. When Del Rio was replaced by former a-ha and 21 Guns drummer Mike Sturgis, the band became Psycho Motel and started working on their first album. State Of Mind was released in Japan in 1995 and the rest of the world in 1996, and was the first recorded sign of life from Adrian Smith since his Maiden days.
Psycho Motel would support Iron Maiden on the British leg of their first tour with Blaze Bayley in 1995, meaning that Smith actually had a close view of his former band’s struggles at the time. However, Smith claimed that, “I thought The X Factor was quite good, actually. The sort of thing Maiden’s built on, really.” Certainly, Smith had always stayed on friendly terms with Harris. But it was his close ties with Dickinson that would soon send his career in an unexpected direction.
THE CONTINUING ADVENTURES OF BRUCE DICKINSON
Having released his debut solo album Tattooed Millionaire in 1990, Dickinson forged ahead with Maiden for a further two records before leaving the band in 1993. At that point he was in the middle of creating what would ultimately become his first post-Maiden album, Balls To Picasso (1994), but not until the third attempt.
After ditching a first attempt produced by Chris Tsangarides, Dickinson hired American producer Keith Olsen for a second attempt in late 1992, as Maiden were on tour with their Fear Of The Dark album. “I went on tour with Maiden and I called him from Sydney,” Dickinson would tell Kerrang! magazine. “I’d been up all night and I said, ‘Keith, I want to start the record again.” Olsen would explain to Dickinson’s unauthorized biographer Joe Shooman that the singer was searching for something completely different:
“He wanted to do something really radically different, and we did. He wanted to have it programmed instead of played, he didn’t want to have any metal in it at all. He wanted to be a hundred and eighty degrees away from Maiden. And all that I can say is that we tried. It was unique. It had some merit to it. But that’s not what he does best.”
The results ended up being too different, or as Dickinson would later say, “I learned an awful lot about what I didn’t want to do out of that record.” In 1993 Dickinson left Maiden and also ditched his second solo album attempt. Having turned too far away from his heavy metal roots, the singer started a third attempt, this time co-writing the songs with guitarist Roy Z, a talented player and composer that Dickinson had met during the Keith Olsen sessions in Los Angeles. Dickinson recalled the nearly megalomaniacal risk of his ever-expanding project to Metal Hammer magazine:
“By the time I got to the third album I used to get up in the morning and look in the mirror and giggle. The record company advance went about half-way through the second one, so from then on basically I was spending all the money that I had saved up from the whole Iron Maiden thing! I used to have occasional sudden panic attacks in the high street and have to go and sit down and give myself a good slap around the head and go, ‘It’s gonna be all right, your kids will not be sleeping under a park bench.'”
After the release of Balls To Picasso, Dickinson went on tour with the band that he wanted to be known as Skunkworks: himself, guitarist Alex Dickson, bassist Chris Dale, and drummer Alessandro Elena. In short order, the singer and the guitarist started writing the songs that were recorded for the Skunkworks (1996) album, the most alternative and possibly most artistically ambitious of all Bruce Dickinson records. Producer Jack Endino was brought in to give the music a grungy edge:
“He explained his whole solo situation, and how he wanted to make a modern-sounding hard rock record that didn’t necessarily sound like what he’d done before. He seemed to know a lot about what I’d been up to in Seattle.”
However, this was also the point at which Dickinson’s career stalled completely in commercial terms. The alternative crowd did not care for his metal credentials, and the metal crowd did not care for his alternative music. With Skunkworks opening for German power metal band Helloween on tour in 1996, the divided world of rock music left Bruce Dickinson disillusioned. When it also became clear that he and the rest of Skunkworks had very different ideas about where to go from there, he split the band up and considered retirement from music.
“Feeling sorry for myself is not my natural state, and I sat at home one night staring at the walls, pondering the life of a tube driver. The Metropolitan line seemed quite interesting: long trips, nice views, open countryside. The phone rang. It was 11.30 pm.”
The person who turned it all around was Roy Z. That night in late 1996 he rang Dickinson to tell him about a bunch of heavy metal riffs he had come up with and suggested they write new songs together. A very hesitant singer was eventually convinced to give it a shot when he heard the riffs for what would become the track Accident Of Birth, and he would later recall the liberating sensation to The Bruce Dickinson Wellbeing Network:
“And then it was like a big light went on in my head: ‘I can do this, I know exactly what to do on this record, exactly. I don’t know any of the songs yet, but I know I can write them.’ Then I thought, ‘If this fails it will be the last album I ever make,’ and I thought, ‘I don’t give a shit.'”
Accident Of Birth (1997) was a massive return to form. And just to make Maiden comparisons inevitable, as well as to spark endless rumors of a reunion with the Harris crew, Dickinson took Adrian Smith along for the ride. Smith wrote songs and played on the record, and he became a permanent member of the Bruce Dickinson band, alongside Roy Z, bassist Eddie Casillas, and drummer David Ingraham. When Dickinson, Z and Smith followed up Accident Of Birth with the even more impressive The Chemical Wedding in 1998, they wiped the floor with that year’s dismal Maiden offering Virtual XI.
Bruce Dickinson had explored, he had searched, he had given his all, and he had ultimately arrived at a change of heart: “I think I have come to the conclusion that this metal thing within me runs deep. It is a true and sincere part of me.” On tour in 1997 and 1998, Dickinson proved that his true calling in life is that of heavy metal singer, as his band blazed through a scorching set that also included the Iron Maiden tunes 2 Minutes To Midnight, Powerslave, Flight Of Icarus and Run To The Hills:
Iron Maiden fans were beginning to sense that they could have a better Maiden than the one Harris toured the world with in 1998. And Smallwood had started working behind the scenes to facilitate a reconciliation, talking to Harris and Dickinson separately about the possibility of reuniting. While Dickinson quickly confirmed his interest, Harris was understandably less enthusiastic.
“I was aware that over in Maidenworld things were not quite so chirpy,” Dickinson writes in his autobiography. “It was hard for the band to adjust to their dwindling audience, particularly in the USA. There were only a few options open to Maiden, and one of them was to ask me to rejoin.”
Eventually, Harris came to accept the truth of what Smallwood was saying, that Maiden could be bigger and better than they were with Blaze Bayley.
In late 1998 he agreed to meet his former singer for a talk.
It was an early afternoon in Brighton in the south of England, sometime in the fall of 1998. Iron Maiden, minus their current singer Blaze Bayley, convened at the home of manager Rod Smallwood. They were waiting for Bruce Dickinson, their estranged former vocalist, to arrive for a tentative discussion with Steve Harris. Would it be possible for the two of them to bury the hatchet and agree to rejoin forces?
“Although a lot of people said they’d like to see it, never in a million years did I think it would actually happen.”
The timing of this meeting is disputed. The official Maiden biography states that it happened in January 1999, after Blaze Bayley had been fired, but this timeline is contradicted by much of what the band members themselves have said in retrospect. Indeed, Bayley recently told Rolling Stone that when he came into the January 1999 meeting where he was fired from Maiden, the return of Bruce had been sorted out: “That decision had been made quite a while ago. I was totally unaware of it.”
In a 2018 interview with Classic Rock magazine, drummer Nicko McBrain recalled that, “I was sitting in a sake bar in Roppongi, Japan, with Rod and Janick. And Rod turned round and told me that Adrian was coming back with Bruce and asked what did I think about it.” Provided that Nicko remembers correctly, which the level of detail strongly suggests that he does, this means that Bruce and Steve had at least agreed to discuss it when Maiden were touring Japan with Blaze in November 1998, and that manager Smallwood was letting McBrain and Gers know that a meeting was set up.
The present account is based on the most likely assumption that the meeting took place before Maiden finished their Virtual XI tour, as Nicko claims, “after we got back from Japan.” Bruce also remembers that he called his solo band in to tell them about the plans for a Maiden meeting, so it must certainly have happened while they were on tour in late 1998. An educated guess would be that the meeting was set for late November, ahead of Dickinson’s British tour and Maiden’s visit to South America, possibly Sunday 29 November 1998.
Dickinson was faced with a 180 degree career turn, rejoining Iron Maiden and essentially hanging up his solo boots, at least in terms of being a live act. But Roy Z and the rest of the band were in no doubt when Bruce told them of the upcoming meeting: “You have to do it. The world needs Iron Maiden.” Indeed, fate seemed to be calling him back to his former band, and the call would also change the course of the future for Adrian Smith.
Steve Harris had suggested to Rod Smallwood that if Dickinson was coming back, they should ask Smith to return as well. But first, that conversation between the singer and the bassist who had created such classic metal between them in the 1980s had to be navigated. Could they possibly patch things up and look ahead together?
“They all came down to my house in Brighton. It was important they both feel comfortable and not feel they had everybody’s eyes on them, so we did it in the lounge at my house. Bruce came down and explained why he’d left in the first place. Then Steve said his piece, which was basically, ‘Why do you wanna come back now?'”
Indeed, Harris and Dickinson had never had this discussion when the singer decided that he wanted to leave. Now, better late than never, they exchanged thoughts and experiences. The Maiden leader was wary that his former singer was simply acting the part of wanting to come back, that he would eventually leave again after a year or two, but Dickinson quickly put him at ease. The pair’s account to Mick Wall tells of a swift and constructive discussion:
“I hadn’t spoken to Bruce for five years or more. I thought we’d have the meeting and that it wouldn’t work. I thought we’d all be grown up about it, but that would be it. Then we actually had the meeting and it really changed everything. His enthusiasm was 100 per cent.”
“He was, you know, a bit like, ‘I’m still not sure exactly why you left,’ sort of thing. He said it a couple of times, and then he said, ‘But that doesn’t matter now.’ And I went, ‘Oh, but it does matter!’ And so I told him, like, ‘This is why I left.’ I can’t remember exactly what I said, but at the end I said, ‘Does that make sense?’ And he went, ‘Well, yeah.’ I thought, ‘OK, that’s all right, then.'”
The rest of the band – Dave Murray, Janick Gers and Nicko McBrain – were called in, and the lot of them headed out for the pub to celebrate a momentous occasion in Maiden history.
Steve Harris and Bruce Dickinson had decided to reunite.
Dickinson would later recall that, “There was also the question of how to handle Adrian’s rejoining, to which Steve replied, without hesitation, ‘I always wanted three guitarists anyway.'” Harris walked out into the pub car park and phoned up Smith, and he would remember that, “I laid it all on the line. I said, ‘I want you back, ’cause it takes Maiden somewhere else, musically.'”
“Rejoining Maiden would be restarting the music of the spheres. If the universe had been frozen for a few years, I felt we could walk through the walls of ice and into a world of fire and passion. I knew that we could be so much more now than we could ever have been before.”
Dickinson found that a clearing of the air was fundamentally important in going forward. After the upheaval of his painful exit from the band in 1993, he was well aware that wounds needed healing. “It would have been silly to have continued with any bad feelings,” he said a couple of years later. “The two people that were the most upset with me were Nicko and Steve. And I suppose I’ve discovered Steve’s sense of humor for the first time, really. In some ways, Steve and I are more similar than either of us would probably care to admit.”
McBrain recently gave some further insight into the honest clearing of the air that started at the 1998 meeting at Smallwood’s place. The celebratory pub visit in Brighton would continue in London in the evening, when some of them got back there together, as Nicko told TVMaldita:
“And I remember standing in the bar with Bruce, and I put my arm around him and I said, ‘You know I love you, mate.’ He said, ‘I love you too, Nick.’ And I said, ‘But I’ll tell you what: I can’t change what I felt and what I said about what happened.’ And he looked me in the eye, looked up at me actually [laughs], ‘I know, Nick.’ And so we made our peace. I think he said, ‘We won’t talk about this again.’ And we never have.”
The remainder of 1998 would be spent finishing their respective tours while keeping the reunion news under wraps. Bayley has indicated this orchestration through his two different accounts of the events. In Maiden’s official biography by Mick Wall, he states that he came into the office in January 1999 and was told to leave the band. Blaze asked Smallwood “if that meant Bruce was coming back”, and says he got a non-committal answer, that “nothing had been sorted out yet.” However, in Lawrence Paterson’s official Bayley biography, the ex-Maiden singer says that Smallwood’s answer had actually been “Yes.”
Iron Maiden did not fire Blaze Bayley before figuring out what to do, without a firm plan for what would come. Maiden’s situation was dire, as Steve Harris himself would later admit:
“In many parts of the world we were still very strong. But it’s true that in Britain and America we’d lost fans. And we had to do something to get them back.”
What that “something” would be was never really in question.
The groundwork for Iron Maiden’s return to prominence in 1999 and 2000 was actually being laid at the end of 1998. The strange vibe that Bayley felt at the end of the tour wasn’t just from the fact that the band wanted him out, but that they had decided to get his predecessor back in. Harris would later say that, “Bruce was really irreplaceable.” And not only did Maiden switch back from Bayley to Dickinson, but Harris also directed the realization of an old dream: a three-guitar line-up.
THE THREE AMIGOS
Back in the 1970s, Steve Harris had wanted to expand the early Iron Maiden line-up beyond two guitars. It never worked out at that time, but as 1999 dawned he took another stab at it.
“At first, I thought that Jan and I would do half a set each or something. But Steve came up with this mad idea. He suggested to them to have three guitarists. I’d like to have been in the room when he said that.”
When Adrian Smith accepted the invitation to rejoin Maiden along with Bruce Dickinson, there came a period of nervous uncertainty for both him and the man who had replaced him in 1990, Janick Gers. In fact, Janick offered to resign from the band on several occasions. When Rod Smallwood had broken the news to Gers and Nicko McBrain, in that sake bar in Tokyo, Gers had reportedly said, “Three guitars? I don’t get that. I’ll step down.” But Smallwood had gotten the three-guitar pitch from Steve Harris and told him he wasn’t going anywhere.
McBrain, for his part, did not like the idea initially.
“I said to Rod, ‘If that’s the case, then are you going to take less commission so we can afford to pay for another fella?’ And that went down like a fart in a two-man submarine. So I went to see Steve, and said, ‘I’ve heard about Adrian and I don’t think it’s a good idea.’ But Steve looked at me and said, ‘Think about it. It’s dangerous! We’ll be able to recreate live all the stuff we’ve recorded on albums with lots of overdubs.’ And the more I thought about it, the more I realised I hadn’t been thinking about the bigger picture.”
After the subsequent meeting with Dickinson confirmed that the reunion would happen and Smith would come back too, Gers was still unsure and later recalled to Rock Candy magazine that he received a visit from his boss:
“I thought to myself, ‘Well, I could go.’ And I was genuinely thinking that maybe I should leave. Maybe I was thinking that there was no need for three guitars in Iron Maiden. But Steve came to see me and he said, ‘If you go, then we’re back to Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son, and if Bruce comes back but Adrian doesn’t come back, then we’re at Fear Of The Dark. But if you stay and Adrian comes back, then we’re going somewhere else, somewhere new.’ That convinced me to at least give it a go, so I said fine.”
Gers’ offer to step down speaks volumes about his lack of ego. Indeed, as Smallwood would later say about the three-guitar team, quickly labeled The Three Amigos, “Their combined ego is zero.” As an example of this non-ego approach to redressing the Maiden sound, Smith wasted no time slotting in with his old sparring partner and also trying to facilitate his successor:
“Because Dave is one of my oldest friends — we’ve worked together for years — we know the score. Janick is a lovely guy. But I have to say Jan wasn’t going to change what he was going to play. He’s just very set in his ways. I sensed that immediately, so I started looking at different ways of doing things. When we first joined up, we played Wrathchild, I played it in drop-D tuning. Run To The Hills was in D, so again, I tuned it down. It gave it a slightly different sound. I was bringing that in, playing lower octaves on the harmonies and stuff like that.”
Steve Harris was adamant that this was the opportunity he had waited for, to have an Iron Maiden line-up with three guitarists, something that would enable the band to perform their material live in a way that more closely resembled the sometimes intricate arrangements of the album versions. When he first suggested to Smallwood that Smith should follow Dickinson back to Maiden, the manager asked if that meant Gers should go.
“I said, ‘No, I don’t want Janick to go. But why don’t we have a three-guitar thing?’ When Davey first joined we were a three-guitar band. Then the other two left and we ended up bringing in other people to partner Dave. And I’ve always valued Adrian’s writing. I think maybe Maiden lost something when Adrian left. He adds a different dimension to the band.”
Adrian himself would return the compliment to Steve, saying that the Maiden leader is “unorthodox in his thinking, which has always been Maiden’s greatest strength.” More than 20 years after he first envisioned it, Harris would have his three-guitar Iron Maiden line-up.
On stage, the extra guitarist would lead to the return of three-part harmonies in songs like Powerslave, as on the album version, and newly invented three-part harmonies in songs like The Trooper, unlike the album version. And as Harris points out, Iron Maiden now had more songwriters. The different dimension that Adrian Smith brings to the band would be immediately apparent when they started rehearsing and writing songs for their next album.
BACK ON TRACK
In the 1980s, Steve Harris had bought a villa in the Algarve region of Portugal. He set up his own pub nearby, predictably called Eddie’s Bar, and generally enjoyed his own peace of mind there when he escaped from the Maiden madness. When the new line-up of the band had to get ready for the 1999 tour, as well as write a bit for their next album, this is where they headed.
It might have been an opportunity to fix memories too, since the previous time the band had rehearsed there was ahead of the 1993 tour that seemed to be Dickinson’s last. Back then, it was complete gloom. This time, it was a case of shaking loose and proving to themselves that the new band could be the best Iron Maiden ever.
The final dates for the Bruce Dickinson band were done in Brazil in April 1999, immortalized on the Scream For Me Brazil (1999) live album, and then Bruce and Adrian joined the rest of Maiden in Portugal.
“Steve had a house in Faro, Portugal, and we all decamped to holiday villas and apartments in a tourist colony to live together and write. Janick and I shivered under piles of overcoats at night. Golf was on the agenda, mainly because it was almost free, and also because other than drinking in the deserted local pub, life outside of songwriting was desperately boring.”
The band set up in a warehouse, or possibly a defunct aircraft hangar, standing around in a circle and nervously feeling their way in the process of being a brand new six-man Iron Maiden.
“We were all standing and looking at each other, and someone said, ‘Anyone got any ideas?’ So I said, ‘I’ve got a riff.’ I had The Wicker Man, and we started playing it, and it just clicked.”
“We all just threw ourselves into it,” Dickinson would recall. “That was when stuff like The Fallen Angel and Ghost Of The Navigator came up.” The business of writing the new Maiden album was off to a good start, and the band were planning to record right after the end of the upcoming tour, in November and December 1999. On the way there, they were going to prove to the world how good they could be on stage.
“I don’t think we ever doubted our own abilities for a second, but it wasn’t until we did actually get up and have a play together in Portugal that it really hit home to us how right this was. It was so good to be all together again.”
Smith acknowledged that the personalities in the band still carried the potential for conflict that had always been there in the 1980s, but insisted that each member’s personal maturation also made for a much better dynamic in this second go-around. Rehearsals for the tour were more enjoyable than in the past, as he explained in the official Maiden biography:
“I’ve come back with a different perspective. There were some disagreements, but it turned out to be a positive thing. Opinions differed on the tempos of certain songs. But, whereas before we might have brushed them under the carpet, this time we faced up to them and resolved them. Everyone was happy and nobody was left brooding in the corner.”
To be sure, there seemed to be a new sense of brotherhood and cameraderie about the reformed Iron Maiden, a shared feeling of gratitude for the adventure that they made possible for each other. And this collective state of mind would also translate to the stage.
The Ed Hunter Tour of 1999 was short by Maiden standards, basically teasing the future potential of the new line-up with four weeks in North America and three weeks in Europe. The reception was intense, as this writer can testify from seeing them in Stockholm on 17 September, an electric roar greeting the opening of Aces High, and another roar (mixed with joyous relief) greeting the returning Dickinson when he ran out on stage to grab the mic.
There was zero doubt that Maiden had turned their own fortunes around completely in the space of less than a year. For the fans, 1998 already seemed like a lifetime ago. Indeed, the vibe in and around Maiden was so positive and energetic in 1999 that many observers couldn’t help but wonder if it was real or not. Journalist Dave Ling spent some time with the band in the USA and asked a seemingly happy Dickinson, who also flew some of the band and crew between shows in a twin-prop Cessna plane, if it had been hard to bury that hatchet?
“Honestly, no. All these things have resolved themselves. We’re actually talking to each other now. We’re having real conversations about things that matter. Sure, it can get a bit lively at times, but constructive argument is a good thing because it shows that people care.”
Harris would be equally pleased with the way things were going, stating in the official biography that, “It just feels right, at this point. […] We get on now a lot better personally, too.” Everyone who peeked behind the scenes of the 1999 tour would report a warm atmosphere between Dickinson and Harris, often to the observers’ surprise. And the magic on stage was undeniable.
Seeing Bruce back on stage with Maiden, one was struck by how right it was. This was quite simply the right singer in the right band. And he clearly relished being back on a big stage, much bigger than he could ever find with his solo music. Club tours? “I can’t say I would mind giving that up,” Dickinson admitted. “It’s like performing in a jam jar. You feel like an angry wasp.”
Dickinson was built for the kind of show and audience that Maiden provided, and the 1999 tour was a triumph. Songs like Aces High, Wasted Years, Powerslave and Run To The Hills had not been performed in ages, while Dickinson also delivered excellent renditions of Blaze era tracks like The Clansman. Somewhat ironically, the Paul Di’Anno era tunes Killers and Phantom Of The Opera were also returned to the set, songs that might have given Blaze an easier time than most Dickinson era tracks, had he ever gotten to sing them…
Safe in the knowledge that the new line-up worked, that their fans had welcomed them enthusiastically, and armed with a bunch of new songs, Iron Maiden then set about creating their comeback album.
IN A BRAVE NEW WORLD
A major reason why Bruce Dickinson left Iron Maiden in 1993 was his frustration that their albums were written in a conservative manner and recorded in Steve Harris’ own studio in England. In other words, these must have been points he would not concede upon his return to the band in 1999, so how were Maiden going to make a new record?
“When we had our initial get-together – myself, Steve and the band – my concern was, how did I know we were gonna make this great record? And Steve immediately said, ‘Well, I think we need a producer, and I don’t think we can do it in the same studio. We’ve got to do it in a state-of-the-art studio, the best studio we can possibly get.’ By which point you could have picked me up off the floor!”
A lot of Maiden fans would obviously hope that the producer in question would be Martin Birch, responsible for nearly all of their great work in the 1980s, but this was not to be. Birch was retired, spending his days outdoors on golf courses and such, and was never going to be tempted to return to the darkness of the recording studio. At the time of making the choice, Rod Smallwood said that, “The band definitely see this as a chance for something fresh.”
The band talked to several potential producers and decided on Kevin Shirley, at the time best known for having produced Silverchair, The Black Crowes, Aerosmith and Dream Theater.
“I had really liked the stuff he had done before. And then when we had a meeting with him, it was just the vibe and the way he does things and the way he talks about stuff, it was great.”
Maiden liked Shirley’s easy-going manner and the way he described his intentions for the work ahead, and offered him the producer’s chair for their 2000 reunion album to be recorded at the end of 1999. But Shirley was not initially convinced he should take the job, as he would later tell Metal Hammer magazine:
“To be honest, when I got the call I was less enthusiastic than I should have been, because it appeared to me that they were a band that had maybe lost their way. I was concerned because I’d had a look at where they’d been and the trajectory of the albums. It seemed like there was a pattern emerging and it didn’t look good.”
In other words, Shirley had the same apprehension about Maiden that Dickinson originally had. The years of home-made albums produced by Steve Harris in the 1990s had created the impression of a band unwilling to do the work that would distinguish their records the way they had done in the 1980s.
But Shirley did accept the challenge, and maintains to this day that a challenge it was: “They were a band that were really on their knees when we went in to record Brave New World.” Yes, there was the album title, taken from a new track with music by Murray and Harris, and lyrics by an Aldous Huxley-inspired Dickinson.
Iron Maiden entered Studio Guillaume Tell in Paris, France with Kevin Shirley in November 1999. The producer had picked the studio because it was a converted movie theater, which means that it had plenty of space and a high ceiling, suitable for working up good acoustics. Shirley also suggested a change to the Maiden recording method, which was actually a throwback to their first album with Birch, Killers in 1981.
“I could see how there was this intangible energy you’d get, just from having musicians playing together. So I was dead keen on Maiden doing that. Steve, in particular, was very hesitant about it.”
Being set in his established way of recording Maiden piece by piece in his own Barnyard Studios in England, Harris reluctantly allowed his new producer to give it a shot. Maiden set up together and played their new songs live, everything being recorded and potentially kept, with overdubs of guitars and vocals to follow as needed. Sparks were flying, the vibe was thick, and Harris turned to Shirley and said, “I never want to work another way again!”
Dickinson was also enthusiastic about this way of working, sensing that it created an energy you can never replicate alone in a room while playing or singing to a backing track already recorded: “I could do my vocals completely live and be separated from all the racket. We rehearsed all the songs up as if we were gonna go and do a gig, and then we did a gig, basically, for each song, but in the studio.”
Some of Iron Maiden’s fans have been continuously critical of this live aesthetic in their album productions ever since 2000, claiming that the records sound too unpolished. For this writer, such a notion is hard to fathom in light of the immense leap of sound that took place from Virtual XI in 1998 to Brave New World in 2000. Their first of six studio records with Shirley, Brave New World was all that the title implied: Better songs, better performances, better production, better times.
Smith remembers the first tentative steps involved in creating not only a new Maiden album but also a whole new way for Maiden to be working in the studio:
“The first few days of recording were a little tense, to be honest. Was this going to even work? Three guitarists? Also, our new producer, Kevin Shirley, was trying to establish his authority, so there was a bit of ‘cock fighting’ going on. After a while, though, things settled down. I think the first thing we recorded was The Wicker Man. […] We did several takes of the song, then all trooped into the control room to have a listen. […] We were all knocked out with what we heard. The drums sounded huge and the guitars sounded powerful. We knew then that things were going to work.”
Perhaps an underrated aspect of Shirley’s work as Maiden’s producer is the way he has facilitated a six-man band from their 40s to their 60s, with very little to prove as the years went by, and helped them create six new records of music along the way, even managing to placate the band’s three wills: Harris, Dickinson and Smith. Whatever you think of Shirley’s productions, they have certainly played a major part in Iron Maiden’s longevity, helping to keep them happy and together and productive for much longer than anyone had the right to expect.
As for Shirley’s view of his responsibilities, he has stated in later years that it would be folly for someone to come in and presume to change Maiden in this direction or that. In many ways, he seems to share the late Martin Birch’s intention of simply holding up a mirror to the band.
“Maiden is just different – you can’t change Maiden. I tried to introduce new elements, like the orchestra in Blood Brothers, to give things a very grand feel. But you can’t say, ‘Look, I think gallops are passé! Let’s go with something else…’, because that’s what Maiden is.”
And creating the first Maiden album of the 2000s was a collaborative effort. The band not only played together in the studio, but the songs were also written in collaboration to the largest extent since Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son in 1988. Only one track, Blood Brothers, was written by Harris alone. The band leader co-wrote songs with all three guitarists, and some of them included Dickinson’s contributions as well. Bits of The Mercenary, Dream Of Mirrors and The Nomad were left over from Blaze’s time in the band, but most of the material was brand new.
“It was a band finding their feet in the studio again,” remembers Shirley, “finding that natural chemistry.” So they did. Brave New World was released to critical fanfare in May 2000, and Iron Maiden were soon back on the road with the Brave New World Tour that would stretch through the year and into early 2001.
The new production was easily Maiden’s biggest since the Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son show in 1988. There was a conservative amount of pyro, but the set design and the Wicker Man Eddie was more eye-catching than anything they had done in a long time, particularly when the local Wicker virgins dragged Bruce into the burning Wicker Man at the climax of Iron Maiden.
“I was lucky to survive intact in Norway. The female stagehands were somewhat robust and took their sacrificial duty rather too seriously. I emerged with bite marks and scratches, which looked like I’d had an argument with a barbed-wire fence.”
In contrast to the 1999 reunion tour, the new setlist was light on nostalgia. It featured six songs from the new album, kicking off with a rousing The Wicker Man, and also made space for the recent Blaze era tracks The Clansman and Sign Of The Cross. The older material in the set was fairly inescapable staples like 2 Minutes To Midnight, The Number Of The Beast and Hallowed Be Thy Name. Some fans bemoaned the lack of one or two deeper cuts, but this complaint would be adressed very satisfactorily on tours to come.
A European leg in June and July was followed by the longest North American leg that Maiden had done since the 1991 No Prayer On The Road tour. And while that tour had skirted around New York City, the 2000 expedition landed at the prestigious Madison Square Garden on 5 August, a clear sign that the reformed Maiden were commercially stronger than any incarnation of the band since the 1980s.
“Maiden had nailed it. Brave New World was not just an album title, it was now our very existence.”
The tour ended triumphantly at Rock In Rio in Brazil on 19 January 2001, one of Maiden’s biggest gigs ever with about 250 000 people attending. Rod Smallwood would later claim that this is one of the very best Iron Maiden concerts he has ever witnessed, and it doubtlessly brought home the power of the reformed line-up:
To add to the performance pressure, the show was preserved for posterity on the 2002 Rock In Rio live album and DVD. Kevin Shirley was in charge of mixing the sound, while Steve Harris reluctantly had to step up in the editing. The early edits done by director Dean Karr and his team were, according to Steve and Kevin, in disastrous shape.
“I was pretty burnt out and ready for time off, but it just didn’t look right. Some of the shots they were using were just bizarre too, like deliberately out-of-focus shots of the lighting rig! […] The reason I didn’t offer to do it in the first place was because I specifically didn’t want to. I was after someone else’s input and direction over my style.”
But ‘Arry knuckled down to work and spent about seven months getting the DVD into shape. And so the Iron Maiden reunion cycle ended with another irony: Bruce Dickinson applauding Steve Harris’ editing of a concert video, something he had earlier wanted Harris to stop doing.
“In the process he taught himself incredibly complex digital editing systems. He taught himself software that people take year-long courses to learn, and I give him total respect for that.”
A fitting coda.
THE BEST OF ALL WORLDS
For the first time since recording Virtual XI in the latter half of 1997, Iron Maiden were set for an extended break from activity in 2001 and 2002. As soon as the live album and DVD were in the can, Bruce said, “Steve’s made it very clear that he wants a complete twelve-month break.”
While the members of Iron Maiden were taking a well-earned rest and recharging their batteries, there were a couple of releases to fill the gap in activity. The first was the less-than-interesting compilation album Edward The Great in November 2002. The only note-worthy novelty on this release was the inclusion of Bruce and Adrian’s American hit off Piece Of Mind (1983), Flight Of Icarus, which had been so stubbornly absent from the previous collection Best Of The Beast in 1996.
The other release in November 2002 was Eddie’s Archive, a box set of three double CDs that charted Maiden’s history in the form of B-sides, rare performances from the BBC archives, and a full presentation of the 1982 Hammersmith concert in London, now to be known as Beast Over Hammersmith. This box was much more interesting to the dedicated fan, and an early glimpse of what is hopefully on the horizon when Maiden inevitably decide to open their vaults with the type of massive reissues that all legacy bands do these days.
One important break from taking a break came in March 2002, when Iron Maiden performed three nights at London’s Brixton Academy to raise funds for their ex-drummer Clive Burr. It had recently become known that Clive was suffering from an aggressive form of Multiple Sclerosis, and Maiden flew in from around the world to set up Clive Aid.
“For me it was, ‘Tell me when and where and I’ll be there.’ There was never any question of us not doing it once it was raised as a possibility. It’s looking after one of your own, and that’s important. I remember being backstage before the first gig with Clive and we were just swapping memories like it was yesterday.”
In late 2002, Iron Maiden finally moved on to their next album project. Material was worked up by many different combinations of songwriters, as on the previous album, and the record would take its title from a song that Janick Gers and Steve Harris collaborated on: Dance Of Death. Retaining producer Kevin Shirley was a no-brainer, but this time the band opted to record in London’s SARM Studios in Notting Hill in early 2003.
Gers was rightfully proud of the title track, his original idea for the song coming from Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film The Seventh Seal. Harris turned the idea into an old-fashioned horror story that gave Gers shivers: “It’s that old sea dog telling horror tales back in the days when people didn’t have computers or TV, when they would get together and tell stories to frighten each other.”
The best moment on the album is Adrian Smith’s first stab at writing the patented Iron Maiden epic. Featuring haunting lyrics by Steve Harris, Paschendale stands tall as one of the best songs Maiden ever recorded, quite an achievement thirteen albums into their career. It would be a dramatic centerpiece of the following tour:
Dance Of Death was the album that proved the reformed Maiden was here to stay, and the 2005 live album and concert video Death On The Road simply reinforced the point. Paschendale in particular, both on record and on stage, showcases all the confidence and ability of the six-man Iron Maiden line-up, and also how well they were getting on with their producer by the time of their second album together.
“When Martin left we were at a bit of a loss really, and I think that to replace someone that you’ve worked with on that many albums is very, very hard. But in Kevin I think we finally have found that person.”
The complete integration of Maiden as a music machine at this point was underlined by the fact that drummer Nicko McBrain got his first, and only ever, proper songwriting credit on the track New Frontier, co-writing with Smith and Dickinson. On the one hand, it was obvious that Maiden’s creativity was peaking. On the other hand, some tracks might have been better left off the album in the interest of cohesion.
In the summer of 2003, Maiden broke routine by touring ahead of the new album’s release in September. From late May until late August they traveled through Europe and North America on a trek named Give Me Ed ‘Til I’m Dead, premiering only the new track Wildest Dreams but digging out some deeper cuts: Die With Your Boots On, Revelations, 22 Acacia Avenue and Bring Your Daughter…To The Slaughter had not been performed in ages. When the proper album tour got underway in the fall, Can I Play With Madness and Lord Of The Flies would be surprises in an otherwise Dance Of Death-centric setlist.
A new kind of touring cycle was now being established. Maiden, and possibly Dickinson in particular, sensed that there was adventure to be had by alternating album tours and history tours. Iron Maiden had reached a point where their massive catalog could be utilized to sell a tour without the need for a new album.
This approach to touring would be central to Maiden’s activities in 2005 and beyond. At the end of 2004 they released their first retrospective DVD, The Early Days, which they would use as set-up for a 2005 period tour featuring material only from their first four studio albums. Down the road there would be DVD reissues of Live After Death (1985) and Maiden England (1989) that were ideal for building productions and setlists around. New albums could be issued at intervals of approximately four years, and tour concepts could alternate between the old and the new.
All of this would have been unthinkable with the previous line-up of the band. The return of Dickinson in particular, but also the addition of Smith to the ranks, was essential in rebuilding Maiden’s immediate popularity. It also proved to be decisive in enabling Maiden to vary their setlists and heighten the quality of their records, something that in turn would be the very platform for their longevity.
If Brave New World was lightning in a bottle, Dance Of Death proved that it was not a fluke. Maiden could make solid new albums if and when they wanted to. Their future was secured, particularly when the public interest in their history tours was taken into account. What a difference it all made.
Both Harris and Dickinson have at times seemed genuinely surprised that they got back together. They have both described the other as a changed man. And they are both probably right.
Dickinson left the safe harbor of Maiden to take risks and explore his art, struggling through Balls To Picasso and Skunkworks before concluding that heavy metal is very much his thing. Harris, for his part, struggled through a lean run with Maiden on The X Factor and Virtual XI, and also divorced his wife and lost his father during that same period. “I think we’ve grown up,” Harris would reflect, “on both sides of the fence.”
The fact that the 1999 line-up of the band is still together, going strong and releasing their sixth studio album in 2021, speaks volumes about how right it was for Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith to rejoin Iron Maiden. 24 years and counting without a line-up change is a Maiden record by extremely far.
When the Dance Of Death tour concluded in Japan in February 2004, Iron Maiden were in for another year-long break from touring and recording. But there was no end in sight for the revitalised band: In late 2004 they would release the Early Days DVD that provided the concept for their 2005 tour, and beyond that they would record and release A Matter Of Life And Death (2006) and continue to build their reputation and drawing power into a second golden age, or as Adrian Smith put it, “A second bite of the cherry.”
Sources: Kerrang! (Issue 487, 26 March 1994), Metal Hammer (June 1994), Run to the Hills: The Authorised Biography of Iron Maiden (Mick Wall  2004), “Bruce Don’t Bullshit” (Adrian Bromley, 1 October 1998), Bruce Dickinson Interview (The Bruce Dickinson Wellbeing Network, 31 October 1998), Metal Hammer (Dave Ling, September 1999), Metal Hammer presents “Iron Maiden: 30 Years of Metal Mayhem” (edited by Joel McIver, 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), “Adrian Smith, as known by Bruce Dickinson” (ironmaiden.com 2011), “Iron Maiden: Hope and Glory” (Paul Elliott, 25 May 2011), Bruce Dickinson: Maiden Voyage (Joe Shooman  2016), What Does This Button Do? (Bruce Dickinson 2017), Nicko McBrain Interview (Classic Rock Issue 257, 2018), Rock Candy (issue 8, June-July 2018), Classic Rock Platinum Series and Metal Hammer present “Iron Maiden” (edited by Dave Everley, May 2019), Adrian Smith Interview (Talk Is Jericho, February 2020), Rock Candy (issue 19, April-May 2020), Nicko McBrain Interview (TVMaldita, July 2020), Adrian Smith Interview (Eon Music, August 2020), Adrian Smith Interview (Planet Rock, August 2020), Monsters of River and Rock: My Life as Iron Maiden’s Compulsive Angler (Adrian Smith 2020), “21 Years Ago: Iron Maiden Release Brave New World“ (Loudwire, 29 May 2021), Rick Allen Interview (Eon Music, June 2021), Blaze Bayley Interview (Rolling Stone, 12 August 2022).