Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson On The Shows That Made Him Who He Is
On December 14, 1994, Bruce Dickinson played the most dangerous gig of his life. For the previous 19 months, the city of Sarajevo, capital of the recently-independent state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, had been under siege from Serbian troops as part of an attempt to crush the state that had voted for independence and broken away from them in February 1992. It was a struggle that would last nearly four years – three years longer than the infamous siege of Stalingrad in World War Two – and leave some 14,000 people, many of them civilians, dead. The complex and fragile nature of Eastern European politics meant that the United Nations – including troops from Great Britain, America and Germany – soon became involved in an attempt to navigate the peace process. Hardly surprising, when the war was considered to be an act of genocide against the ethnic people of Bosnia, and after the conflict, high-ranking Serbs were convicted of crimes against humanity.
And in the middle of all this, in a city literally being shelled by an aggressor intent on wiping it off the face of the Earth, Bruce Dickinson stood on a stage in a small venue in the town centre, and yelled four immortal words: “Scream for me, Sarajevo!”
Over 25 years later, the Iron Maiden frontman remains bowled over by the reaction that night.
“It wasn’t about us,” he asserts, sipping a coffee in Iron Maiden’s management headquarters in London. “It was about the people of Sarajevo. We were there for a few days – they had to live with this shit going on around them. And the reaction at that gig was like nothing else.”
Unbeknownst to the singer, the show had been filmed by fans. Even more surprising, he discovered, was that fans who had been there had, years afterwards, begun work on a film, Scream For Me Sarajevo, documenting the show and, to Bruce’s mind, most importantly, the people who were there. It’s a powerful work that shines a strong light on just how much music can do to infiltrate even the most unbearable of situations. “We felt changed afterwards,” admits Bruce today. “Now I can turn on the TV news and see people in similar circumstances, and think, ‘I’ve been there. I know.’”
It was a gig that would alter Bruce’s life, and his involvement with the movie is testament to how deeply it touched him. But, massive and momentous as the trip to Sarajevo was, it is but one gig in a life full of them. Bruce has played literally thousands over the last four decades. But some nights onstage are more than just shows, they’re pinpoints in the map of a person’s life. And for Bruce, that’s a hell of a journey…
His Debut Iron Maiden Show
Killer World Tour, Bologna, Italy – 26/10/1981
“I’d already been playing gigs with my band Samson, but this was a lot different! The analogy I’ve always used is that it was like a football player going from Wycombe Wanderers to Manchester United. Suddenly you’re in the Premier League – or at least that’s what it felt like. With Samson, we never played outside the UK. I’d hardly been abroad myself, really. I went on a couple of school trips and a package skiing holiday with a girlfriend when I was at uni, but that was it. So all of a sudden going on a five-date trip with Maiden was huge!
“It took forever to get there, because we drove in a tour bus, which didn’t seem terribly reliable, but it was exciting to me because I’d never been on a tour bus before. After about 18 hours it did get a bit old, but I thought, ‘I’d better get used to this.’ At one point, the carpet down the middle of the bus started to levitate. I thought, ‘This is odd…’ and it turned out there was a hatch in the floor that went into the open road that wasn’t bolted down!
“I don’t think I actually opened my eyes for the first four songs of the gig. And of course, the road crew, who’d all been touring with Maiden for a while, were all looking at me and sizing me up. Everyone was looking at me like I had two heads! But I knew that’d happen, and I knew I just had to get on with it. I knew people had seen the band with Paul [Di’Anno, previous singer], so there was some baggage. But then there were those for whom it was brand new. So you were getting this frisson of resistance from some elements, but as I say, I knew I just had to get on with it. And we weren’t just introducing me, we were playing stuff from Number Of The Beast that nobody had heard yet, so it was very different to what they knew.
“After the show, I felt like we’d done a good job, but it didn’t feel like we’d conquered everything in one gig. I felt like things were still a work in progress. We were building up to things, and that carried on for a while, but we knew we were going the right way – the new material was giving us goosebumps, and we knew that when it hit, that’s when we’d feel that big shift.”
Going Behind The Iron Curtain
World Slavery Tour, Warsaw, Poland – 09/08/1984
“We started the World Slavery Tour in Warsaw, and toured in countries behind the Iron Curtain. Some bands had already gone into some of those territories, but we were the first really full-on, high-profile band to go. We were pretty much top of the pile for young, big metal bands, so for us to turn up and do it was a huge deal. I have no idea whose idea it was to start there. I think we just thought it was a good opportunity. And PR-wise, it was a great chance to spin the event. We were in the middle of the Cold War, and yet here we were, breaking down the virtual wall. Well, there was a physical wall in Germany, but not in Poland.
“I’d been in the band a couple of years by that point and we’d grown, but this was the first time I’d gone to a country Maiden hadn’t been to yet. So I felt like we were really picking up steam by that point.
“I didn’t know what to expect. The reception was outrageous. It wasn’t just people who liked the band going crazy like at normal shows. I felt straight away that they weren’t just coming out for something to do on a Saturday night – there was real change in the air everywhere. We represented that feeling of, ‘Wow! We’re a free country!’ It was nothing to do with rock’n’roll, it was all about the freedom from communism. It was a moment of hope, and I felt like we were this beacon. The whole fucking country would have come to those shows. And every security guard, every soldier was like, ‘Yeah! This is what we want!’ And I thought, ‘This is not a place where the old regime can stand anymore.’ There was a sense that the whole place was ready to throw the whole thing into the bin – which it did, shortly afterwards. Obviously East Germany was still under the thumb [of communism], but in Poland it was really happening. It was an exciting time, and it was very uplifting.”
Rocking Rio And 350,000 Metalheads
Rock In Rio, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil – 11/01/1985
“It was a fucking great show, but I was so nervous. And afterwards, I couldn’t sleep. Normally after a gig it takes me a couple of hours to wind down, but this time I was so full of adrenaline that it wouldn’t wear off. Beer had no effect. I remember being up all night, seeing dawn breaking and still being, like, ‘Wurrrrr,’ just totally full of nervous energy. You can’t do shows like that too often, because you’d be fucking dead! I was so drained when I finally calmed down after it. I remember thinking afterwards that I couldn’t have done more, there was not a single cell in my body that wasn’t exhausted. And you can see it on the film we made.
“We conquered an entire continent overnight with that one show. And that was astonishing. To have the reach and profile we’d built up in South America was just extraordinary. North America was kind of done, Canada. Eastern Europe we’d kind of done – we still had Russia to go, but that would come later. We’d gone to Japan and Australia and New Zealand… We were a global band now! It was a long fucking way from Bologna, I can tell you!
“I felt like the world had just shrunk. We’d sort of conquered everywhere. Not just played, but really had an impact. But it was hard work. The World Slavery Tour was great, but on a personal level I thought, ‘Well, this is all well and good, but I can’t be doing with another 13-month tour.’ It did my head in. I ended up taking a back seat creatively on the next album [Somewhere In Time] because I was basically fried, and I thought, ‘Well, this is it.’ It wasn’t, of course, though that tour left me completely burnt out. But Rock In Rio was just fucking unbelievable.”
Conquering Donington For The First Time
Monsters Of Rock, Donington Park, England – 20/08/1988
“This was huge. It felt good to be considered a Monster Of Rock! We’d come a hell of a long way. I think what I felt had changed from when I joined the band was there was a great deal more certainty. Similar word to confidence. But you get confidence through that certainty in what you’re doing. In Bologna, I had no idea what I was trying to do! But gradually you find your own identity. We’d exceeded everything we could have imagined, and Donington exemplified that. There weren’t really any limitations on the site, so the capacity was bigger than anything before. Sadly, that was probably one of the problems, because we found out after we’d played that two people had died in the crowd [during Guns N’ Roses’ set earlier in the day].
“It was an amazing show and an amazing day, though. Did I wonder what was next after conquering something like that? No, funnily enough. When you’ve done something like that, where you go after that is really clear. In a way I felt, ‘Well, we don’t have anything left to prove, so we can relax now.’ When you haven’t got anything left to prove, you can just get on with what you’re doing. And that’s all people want. It was a huge relief to get something as big as Donington out of the way, to be perfectly honest with you. Before we did it, it was all, ‘This is the biggest thing you will ever do,’ and there was a lot of pressure and stress attached to that. And I’ll tell you what, the second time we did it was a lot better. Because we could just enjoy it. You always get nervous, but there wasn’t that weight of having to live or die by it.”
Screaming In Sarajevo
Sarajevo, Bosnia And Herzegovina – 14/12/1994
“It was literally in the middle of a warzone during one of the worst genocides in recent history. It was a seriously dangerous place. And it came about ‘cause I got a phone call saying an army sergeant major who had a radio show out there had the idea. ‘Would you like to play a gig in Sarajevo?’ And I went, ‘Sarajevo? Sounds like a bit of an adventure. But what about the war?’ And he went, ‘You’ll be helicoptered in, given UN protection with blue helmets, straight in, gig, out again.’ And I thought, ‘Fuck it, go on then!’
“We flew into Split [Croatia] on a military charter plane. We turned up, and our blue helmets and flak jackets were in the corner, and then they got taken away and a guy went, ‘Here’s your boarding passes – fuck off back to England.’ The UN didn’t want to upset the Serbs by cheering up the people in Sarajevo. But then some locals went, ‘Hey, we can get you in.’ We got abandoned by the UN, at which point the British army stepped in and went, ‘Well, you must be our guests, then, since it was a British army officer who invited you. Let’s see what we can do.’
“We ended up in the back of an open-topped truck, and drove eight hours through an active firefight to the top of a mountain, where we were supposed to meet armoured personnel carriers to take us down into the city – except that didn’t really work out. Was it scary? Not really, you couldn’t see fuck all! It was done by a company called The Serious Road Trip, a non-governmental organisation who did things like driving a red London bus up to the frontline to run a clown school.
“The show itself was great, because the reaction was unbelievable. These people literally lived in a war, and they’d all come out to the show, and when they cut loose it was like, ‘Holy shit.’ But it was still a war, all around. The day before we left, the Serbs decided to shoot down one of the two Sea King helicopters the British army had there. The commander in chief of the British army and his wife were on there, and the Serbs put five 50-calibre anti-aircraft rounds through the thing and nearly took it down.
“When we flew out, it was like Apocalypse Now – there was a guy in the back with a belt-fed machine gun with the hatch open. I was up in the front with the pilots, and one of them went, ‘We’ll be going operational in a minute.’ What’s that mean? Going down. And fuck me, did we go down! It could all have kicked off, though, because if they’d shot down that other helicopter, bang goes the peace process. That was reality.
“What I found astonishing watching the film back was the passion of the people in it, the talking heads. What’s so moving about it was what it meant to everyone else. Bugger what we felt. Even though we had a lot of experiences there and it was a genuinely life-changing event for us, this was about the people who it was for. We went there, we saw that shit, and we’d been changed by it, because we understood how it was to live somewhere where war is going on.”
Striking Out On His Own With Skunkworks
Struik, Holland – 20/04/1996
“It was like going back to the beginning, in a way – I hadn’t felt under the microscope in front of people like that for a long time. I think people had assumed that when I left Iron Maiden [in 1993], I had a plan. But I didn’t! I did it very spur of the moment, I had a realisation, and I decided quite quickly that I had to move on and do something else. And I think people assumed I’d do something like [1990 debut solo album] Tattooed Millionaire again, which was done while I was in Maiden and as kind of a laugh quite quickly. It was almost a pastiche, really. But going out on my own properly after Maiden, I was taking a blind plunge into the dark.
“The first solo shows were cool, if a bit daunting, because I was out on my own for the first time and people were looking at me more than they had done for a long time. But it was when I did the Skunkworks album  and toured that, people went, ‘Whoa! This is really weird! He’s gone mad!’ But what that did was, it burnt all the bridges. And that’s what needed to happen. Because when people came and saw me doing that stuff live, they realised, ‘Oh, this isn’t Maiden – this is Bruce.’ People didn’t know what to make of it, truthfully. But that felt really good and liberating, because I suppose I wasn’t having to live up to anything I’d done before, because it was nothing like it. And when people came to see it, I quite welcomed that feedback. It was a fascinating period, I learned a lot, but those shows were, frankly, pretty odd! If you listen to the Skunkworks material, and listen to the band – shit-hot band, as well – would it be obvious for us to play with Lynyrd Skynyrd? Naaah. Helloween? Again, not reeeaally. So consequently there was this mismatch between expectation and outcome.”
Making His Maiden Return
Ed Hunter Tour, Saint John, Canada – 11/07/1999
“Most bands don’t even have careers that last that long. We’ve had two! Honestly, once we’d decided I was going to come back to the band, I could detect that Steve was thinking, ‘Is this all serious?’ And I was going, ‘Of course it is!’ When I told the rest of the guys in my solo band, they all immediately said, ‘Well, you’ve gotta go back.’ And I said, ‘You know this means I can’t play with you guys the same anymore because my feet aren’t gonna touch the floor, right?’ And they went, ‘Nah man, you’ve gotta do it. The world needs Iron Maiden!’ And I thought, ‘Fuck. I never thought of it like that. But you’re right – the world does need Maiden. Bring it on!”
“When I went onstage for that first show, it was in the back of my head: the world needs Iron Maiden, and here we are. Boom! And you get that feeling underneath you, that you can move mountains. I felt a lot more confident about who I was and how I was performing. I’d learned a lot in that intervening period. I was never able to step back at any moment when I was in it and go, ‘What’s this all about?’ But coming back to it was a bit of a revelation.
“I think the atmosphere amongst all of us was just amazing. I think the relationships coming back were, and still are, so much better than in the ‘80s. Back then we were in our 20s and jockeying for position, full of piss and vinegar and adrenaline. Everything had calmed down a little bit, though. I always used to say, all this blood is thicker than water nonsense, there’s no earthly reason why you should have to like your siblings just because you came out of the same birth canal. And when we got back together again in ’99, we kind of became family, on the basis that we could look at Maiden and go, ‘Actually, that’s the mothership. We are all sons of Maiden.’ I don’t think that was quite the case in the ‘80s.
“Did that cooling off period in the ‘90s help? Did it ever! The band are bigger now than they would have been if I hadn’t left. But I didn’t know that at the time – 20/20 hindsight is a wonderful thing. But I think the drama of leaving, then coming back, and coming back with an album like [2000’s] Brave New World, and continuing like that, has catapulted us into a completely different league. We’re in a pretty good place!”
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