Back in October, Music Week caught up with Iron Maiden’s singer Bruce Dickinson as he prepared to finally unleash his long-awaited autobiography What Does This Button Do? on the public. Published by HarperCollins, the book offers a brilliant insight into the many twists and turns of his career, from his early days singing in Samson to flying Iron Maiden around the world in their very own plane, Ed Force One. You can re-read the feature in full here:
The name Bruce Dickinson has already come to mean a lot of things over the years: Iron Maiden singer, solo artist, aviator, fencer, BBC radio broadcaster, author, filmmaker, award-winning beer brewer and entrepreneur. Today, he is adding the role of interviewer to his voluminous CV.
Sat down in Phantom Music Management’s London offices with a cuppa in hand, his sofa separated from Music Week’s by a looming bust of Maiden’s undead mascot Eddie in full pharaoh headdress, our interviewee begins proceedings by asking us a question.
“What did you think?” he grins.
The object in question is Dickinson’s long-awaited autobiography What Does This Button Do?, released by HarperCollins this month. Our answer is that, in the best way possible, it is a book that makes you feel like you’re sat in the pub, having a pint with a rock star who is regaling you with an intoxicating cocktail of brilliant, genuinely moving or else utterly bizarre snapshots of his storied career.
What Does This Button Do? is a revelatory read, charting his early days with Samson before his eventual union with Iron Maiden that would change heavy metal forever. There are many twists and turns from then on, Dickinson leaving the band in 1993 – without a plan – after a period of feeling creatively dissatisfied.
It runs from there through his “wilderness years” right up to the present day, Dickinson returning in 1999 to lead Maiden into their most triumphant phase that continues to date, quite literally flying the band around the world in their own plane, Ed Force One. Indeed, not many rock star autobiographies could have a chapter that begins, ‘It was 10 July 2007. I was a Boeing 757 pilot.’ Likewise few bands could hold a candle to the longevity of Maiden’s commercial record. Their last album, 2015’s The Book Of Souls, has sold 133,062 copies according to Official Charts Company data; their total tally exceeds 90 million albums.
Despite Dickinson explaining that some 60,000 words were excised in the editing process, it practically overdoses on stories, from the time he met Johnny Cash – who asked him for an autograph – to the night he counselled a dominatrix on how to build a sex dungeon (not for them to use together, just practical DIY tips, FYI). Perhaps it’s actually good, then, that Dickinson takes the lead in our conversation because, in truth, there is a certain absurdity attached to interviewing someone who has, quite literally, just written a book on their life.
Still, what the book gives us is a chance is to ask Dickinson not so much what happened, but what he learnt along the way. As the book’s curious title intimates, his career has been defined by an insatiable curiosity, taking in numerous extracurricular creative and business ventures along the way. One of the most impressive instances explored in the book – which has also been turned into the superb, often harrowing documentary Scream For Me Sarajevo – is the time Dickinson, then a solo artist, took up the offer to play war-torn Sarajevo. Riding in the back of a lorry across the Croatian border – running a gauntlet of snipers, artillery shells and landmines – he entered the bullet-riddled, burned-out city to play an intimate gig to war-ravaged heavy metal fans.
He could have written this autobiography at anytime from the mid-90s on, and indeed he has written books, including 1990’s spectacularly-titled fictional novel The Adventures of Lord Iffy Boatrace. Yet, for Dickinson it was his recent battle with cancer – retold candidly in the book - that provided the impetus.
“Sixty is not a bad time to have an autobiography,” he reflects. “You’re not done yet by a long chalk, but 60 is not a bad time to say. ‘Let’s have a big review’. And also the brush with throat cancer, I sort of went, ‘Hmmmm, that’s a really good end point for it’. It’s almost like there’s a new chapter starting.”
Said chapter arrives amid a flurry of Dickinson activity, be it the reissuing of his entire solo discography on vinyl by BMG on October 27, his multifaceted aviation work and the small matter of a book tour. Fortunately, Dickinson is psychologically hardwired for this kind of relentless pace.
“I am restless,” he smiles. “I’m eternally restless, except when I go to sleep. I can sleep for long periods of time quite happily.”
Before we lose him to either a well-earned nap or restlessness, let’s ask what he’s learned from putting pen to paper…
In writing this book, what did you learn about yourself that you didn’t already know?
“Errrr… I did a series of very risky things that made no financial sense whatsoever [laughs]. And then had the temerity to be stubborn about it! People said, ‘This is a really daft thing you’re doing, you’re losing loads of money!’ and I’d go, ‘Yeah, so? And? What’s your point?’ Including things like us all going into Sarajevo. People said ‘Why would you do that?’ and I said, ‘Why would you not?’”
As the book and the Scream For Me Sarajevo film demonstrate, you actually put your life on the line for your music and fans. Do you still identify with that version of yourself or did you have to try and figure out his motivation?
“No, I am that guy. If there was something that I thought was worthwhile doing, the only problem would be that I would have to find someone else who was mad enough to do it with me. I’m not one for sponsored bungee jumps and things like that. If it’s at all possible, I think it’s better to do something as opposed to jumping off a mountain and have a load of mates give you money for it. The Serious Road Trip guys that took us into Sarajevo, they were the real deal. They drove us onto the frontline.”
Given the emotional content of some of the book, such as Sarajevo and battling cancer, did you have to maintain a sense of distance to put your life into perspective?
“Getting diagnosed with cancer is an out of body experience to begin with. You don’t feel sick, you might be a little bit, like you’ve got a cold or flu, but you’re told that you’ve got throat cancer. You do almost distance yourself, there’s another you listening to yourself talking about it going, ‘Is this real?’ You walk outside, ‘It’s cold tonight, that’s real’. You’re told, ‘You have cancer’ – is that real? Shit. It’s the same thing as when you’re bouncing around in a truck on the way into Sarajevo and you go, ‘Hmm, this is real, we’re going somewhere where there are real bullets, real landmines and people really get killed’. Then you get into the city and you realise how real it is. You go there, you come away and think, ‘Wow that was intense’ – and I was only there for three days, four days, something like that.”
Coming up with business ideas is very similar to writing songs: you look for a good hook and then you put the process around it
You are also reissuing your solo catalogue with BMG - were you wanting it back out there to tie in with the book?
“I’m incredibly proud of it. I could pick the flaws in it better than most critics. Because I know what they are, I could go through every bloody song and go, ‘Ah, that was a bit filler, this could have been this, or that,’ but I’m equally brutal about my work in Maiden as well. What I wanted to do, I suppose, was give people a chance to have another look at the solo work because there’s great stuff there. Skunkworks [Dickinson’s 1996 solo album], I love it, because it is the vexatious one where people go, ‘Oh, I don’t like that’ and some go, ‘It’s brilliant!’ It’s great to have music that has people fucking arguing. When I put Skunkworks out, I have to say, I was feeling sorry for myself and a bit depressed. It was very much the idea that I wanted to bury this bloke Bruce Dickinson and submerge into a band, and the world wouldn’t let me do that because they went ‘You can’t do that! You’re that bloke out of Iron Maiden – you’re Bruce! You can’t get rid of yourself!’”
What do you think would have happened if you hadn’t left Maiden in 1993?
“I think we would have flatlined and slowly declined to where we were a subculture within a niche. That’s what I think would have happened, personally. I wouldn’t have been happy with that.”
Why in particular?
“Because, unless you’re growing and expanding, unless you’re living, you’re dying. So, I just felt that there was so much more to Maiden than looking inwardly. Any band that starts to look in on itself is on its way to isolating itself from people. I thought that Maiden had the chance to really reach out beyond just the traditional Maiden fans without sacrificing our credibility and everything else. [It’s] difficult to do, but if you want to do it you’ve got to take a few chances. Obviously I am into taking chances – because that’s my life.”
As well as taking artistic chances, you career has also been marked by constantly trying new things...
“Yeah, I like the idea of creation. I’m a creative addict. The idea of putting two or three disparate groups of people together and creating something interesting, or just creating an enterprise or something that works and perhaps does it in an innovative way. In that sense, coming up with business ideas is very similar to writing songs: you look for a good hook, then you look to put the process around the hook. Sometimes you don’t even figure out what the idea is about until you’re halfway through writing the song – then you go, ‘Oh, I know what this song’s about!’ It’s the same as creating a business idea, you sometimes start off going down one track and then suddenly, halfway along, you learn some bits of information and go, ‘I know what this is – it’s that!’ You come up with a better idea than your original idea, which might have been quite a boring, prosaic, nuts and bolts idea. All the while you’re thinking, ‘This is kind of boring this idea, what would really make this pop?’ A prime example being, I’m involved in a drone company at the moment, and people go, ‘Yeah okay, drones are the flavour of the month, what’s interesting about your drone?’ And I say, ‘Well, you can eat it…’ It’s an edible drone with a 9ft wingspan and each drone feeds 50 people for one day. And it costs $500. So you throw the drone out of the back of a C-130 Hercules, 25 at a time, it’s a glider, and it glides by GPS to within 10 metres of where it needs to be, and in a hurricane, flood or earthquake scenario, [the ramifications] are massive. The glider itself, the structure, is made of compressed plant material.”
I wanted to bury this bloke Bruce Dickinson and submerge into a band, but the world wouldn't let me
When did the business world become interesting to you?
“It’s all an extension of the same thing. You can’t tell me that Elon Musk – I mean, I’m not in the same league as Elon Musk – doesn’t secretly go away and play guitar at night. Of course he does. You can’t create something if you can’t dream it, and if you can dream it, you should be able to do it – I’ve always believed that. I really believe creativity is a really valid force in society and I think it’s under-represented. There are far too many people who only dream about money and spreadsheets, who I think really hold back entire cultures. I think it’s a great shame.”
As a radio broadcaster, what’s your take on modern radio?
“I think you have to reassess the whole pattern of music because the boom that music had in the ‘60s, ‘70s and into the ‘80s was all based, by and large, on a massive demographic bubble in the United States and Europe. It was similarly based on a lack of any competing media, you have a shitload of young adults that had nowhere else to go except record companies and vinyl, and that created an expectation that that was a normal state of affairs. Now what you’ve got is that bubble passing through and eventually, in the next 20 years, 30 years, will be dead and gone.It leaves behind a massive fragmentation of media, and everyone segmented into niches and what I would term oversupply and over-stimulation, because people haven’t figured out where the off button is on their social media, but they will. Because we’re still human beings, still cavemen. Eventually, if there’s 5,000 releases a day, people will go ‘Where’s the filter?’ If it’s not radio [that’s the solution], it’s some other manifestation of it – because people need a filter, that’s why people still read newspapers and blogs, they want somebody to filter their lives. And they need integrity from that.”
And how about the way music is being consumed right now?
“At the moment everything is divided up into niches, the disruptive technologies have been very successful – they’ve disrupted, and continue to disrupt, the old methods of delivery. But the disrupters themselves will be assimilated and they will then go back to the boring old models. People are going out paying ridiculous amounts of money for sneakers and bits of apparel, but they won’t pay the price of beer for a bit of work that’s probably taken almost six months to a year to create – i.e. an album. Is that worth the price of a pint? It must be, surely? What’s happened is the disrupters need to be in some way morally held to account for the devaluation of music. What they did was trade on the value of music to the consumer – they traded on that value to claim that they were somehow the good guys, and in the meantime they destroyed the economic basis of the industry and they’re now busy monetising it on a much lower basis, so they take a much bigger chunk at the back end.
“Well, I think the artists have to, not just for their own sake but for the sake of future generations, start to limit themselves in terms of just pandering to people. I think that, actually, when big money comes in and buys these organisations – which is when the people that started the organisations get worried – the big money will say, ‘You’re not making enough money, we want to make more money, we need to start to jack the prices up.’ And in that, hopefully, the artist will participate. Because let’s face it, music effectively now is for free. It is. If you buy a pint of beer in London, it’s four and a half quid. Would you pay that for a beer or [help] support an artist? Somewhere there is a massive moral disparity. It’s just wrong. I’m not saying that because we’re Iron Maiden and we’ve sold millions of records, I’m thinking about the smaller bands, if they could go out and have something on the radio and sell 50,000 albums. They can eat. That makes a huge difference.”
Finally, amid all the restlessness, the impulsive actions that have guided you throughout your career, what was the best decision you ever made?
“God almighty. Purely in terms of musical creativity, commercial success and future independence: re-joining Iron Maiden. Because when I re-joined Iron Maiden we set ourselves onto a new tack. The Brave New World album we did was one of the best albums we’d done in years in my opinion, it was also the most varied album we’d done for years, with the most amount of input from all the songwriters in the band. We’re a much more reliable band live, I think we’re better live than we were. I have to say, sometimes I hear some of the stuff by accident on the radio – because I don’t go around listening to myself all the time – and think, ‘God that sounds good’. That’s quite nice.”
You can watch a video of Bruce Dickinson opening his own autobiography for the first time below: