Paul Dickinson was expelled from Oundle boarding school for the amusing yet nauseating reason that he relieved himself into a meal he had prepared for his teachers.
The Evil That Men Do may or may not live on and on, but at the very least it will get them kicked out of private school.
It was a miracle Paul was at a private school, given his parents toured the U.K.’s least salubrious night clubs, his mum wearing a tutu, as the human half of a performing dog act, holding hoops for the poodle side of the act to leap through.
It turned out performing poodles was a less lucrative way to make a living than building and running a guest house and car dealership. Thankfully Paul’s parents had branched out from performing dogs just in time to pack Paul off to Birkdale school, then Oundle. This was partly in order to build his character – something that English private schools traditionally achieved through a healthy diet of humiliation, corporal punishment and bullying – and partly because his aunt was the cook at Oundle.
Dickinson took refuge in war games and theatre, performing in school plays. At Birkdale, the school vicar noted his powerful voice during choir practice, but he failed to make the Oundle choir, and was given a piece of paper after a compulsory singing test that described him as a “NON-SINGER”.
Dickinson got a place at university, despite scraping three E grades at A level. He formed various bands there:
Speed: a band that played fast, with a keyboard player called Noddy. None of them knew speed was a drug – a somewhat unlikely, yet true, state of affairs in the Punk era – and Dickinson would disembowel a soft toy during each performance of the song “Snoopy”. Despite appearances, they were not a comedy band.
Growing weary of toy torture, but enthused by his performing and singing Dickinson spent his grant money on a PA system.
Say what you like about Britain in the seventies, you could still get the government to pay for your gig equipment, as long as you didn’t mind living on baked beans and lentils for three years.
Shots was his next band. They had a song called Dracula. Dickinson styled his singing on (the Crazy World of) Arthur Brown. A manager mistook them for a comedy heavy metal band and got them some gigs. They didn’t realise they were supposed to be funny. It was 1978.
A year later, as Shots also began to flicker out, a man in a bowler hat and moustache came to Dickinson after a gig and asked him if he’d like to join his band. The man was Paul Samson. His drummer Barry called himself Thunderstick and routinely wore a gimp mask onstage, but despite that they weren’t a comedy band either.
Paul Dickinson, whose middle name was Bruce, agreed to join Samson, and became Bruce Bruce, mainly because Samson’s management were fans of Monty Python. He first discovered his stage name when he received his first £30 paycheck, written out to “Bruce Bruce” and which he had a hell of a job trying to cash.
Samson were swept up into the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, and delivered three albums, supporting Saxon, Iron Maiden and Ian Gillan. But they were always destined to be a trivial pursuit question, as the band that Bruce Dickinson was in before he joined Iron Maiden.
Shortly after Samson’s appearance at Reading Festival Dickinson was approached by Rod Smallwood, Iron Maiden’s manager, who asked him whether he’d like to replace Maiden’s existing singer Paul Di’Anno.
If you were in a band where the drummer wore a gimp mask, what would you have said?
Iron Maiden played loudly, sang epic tales and had their manager come onstage during the encore dressed as a murderous monster, but yet again, were not a comedy band.
Settling in to Iron Maiden wasn’t entirely smooth. The bass player and band leader Steve Harris liked to prowl across the stage front and centre, occasionally sticking the head of his bass guitar in front of his singer mid-flow. Bruce Dickinson (who had dropped the Bruce Bruce moniker when leaving Samson) took exception to this, considering it discourteous to have someone walk or cut across him when he was singing.
It’s comforting to know even rabid heavy metal types are big on etiquette.
Dickinson attempted passive aggressive tactics.
The legs of his mike stand got ridiculously large, impeding Harris’ progress across stage. It didn’t entirely work and they nearly came to blows in Newcastle, but it all got worked out.
Reviews of the shows compared Dickinson’s singing unfavourably to an air raid siren, so Maiden’s management nicknamed Dickinson the “human air raid siren”. That took care of that.
But it was during the recording of The Number of the Beast – the title track of Dickinson’s debut album with Maiden – where Bruce Bruce, singer in Samson really became Bruce Dickinson, Iron Maiden’s vocalist.
The opening lines are whispered, and on the face of it, relatively undemanding. Under the supervision of producer Martin Birch, Dickinson struggled for a day and a night on the first two lines.
After Dickinson had bashed a chair into a wall out of frustration, Martin Birch looked over and casually mentioned how Ronnie Dio had encountered the same problems on the recording of Sabbath classic “Heaven and Hell” which Birch had also produced.
Birch explained how he told Dio to sum up his entire life in the first line.
“Your whole life is in that line. Your identity as a singer”.
Dickinson learned, as Ronnie James Dio had before him, that although you need an ego to go out in front of a huge crowd, an ego developed in order perhaps to confront bullies and to wind up teachers in new and inventive ways, you couldn’t bring that ego in to the studio.
In the studio you had to lay yourself bare, and allow the song to possess you. Paint a picture for the listener. Iron Maiden’s songs of Icarus, Troopers, war games and (doomed) soldiers have done that ever since – every Iron Maiden record truly tells a story…
Dickinson went back into the studio, and nailed the performance. The song remains a classic example of Maiden’s best qualities.
For vinyl lovers, Maiden’s early albums are great items to hunt down as they are generally inexpensive. Target a price of £10 for a used but immaculate copy of perhaps their most consistent album (and certainly the one with the most unsettling cover art), Piece of Mind, complete with black inner sleeve and gatefold. Go for the ones without the Fame logo in the top right corner (these are reissues). The classic stretch of Maiden’s LPs from Number of the Beast to Seventh Son saw the band rise to exalted status in the U.K. with each release between 1982 and 1988 reaching the top 5, and all are worth picking up at the right price.
Since then, Dickinson has left and rejoined Maiden, fitting in a solo career, airline piloting, novel writing, fencing and recovery from throat cancer. His tale is entertainingly captured in his autobiography “What Does This Button Do?”, which is available from all good bookshops.
Iron Maiden’s North, South and Central American leg of their “Legacy of the Beast” tour began in July 2019.