Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson calls British small music venues ‘absolutely shocking’

Bruce Dickinson has branded the state of British small music venues ‘absolutely shocking’ (Image: Getty images for Power Trip)

One of the most successful music spin-offs in rock history, heavy metal legends Iron Maiden’s own brand of beer has become a favourite tipple in pubs across Britain. More than 35 million pints of Trooper have been poured since it was launched in 2013, featuring the band’s in-famous demonic mascot, Eddie, as its logo. Respected in the beer industry, Trooper’s success is in part because Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson has become an expert in what makes a good pint and is passionate about Trooper becoming an established ale.

So it’s small wonder that Dickinson is in despair about the state of Britain’s pubs. The frontman is furious at the disappearance of so many boozers, which he sees as an important part of our community life.

In a rare interview, Dickinson tells the Daily Express: “Pubs are being closed down in a way that’s ignorant. Pubs are either being closed altogether or are being ripped out so that they become a drinking factory, instead of anywhere with a sense of community. They become soulless, so that there’s no love or character there any more.”

It’s a rallying cry typical of Dickinson’s everyman appeal. While Iron Maiden’s classic anthems including Run To The Hills, The Evil That Men Do and 2 Minutes To Midnight are full of fantasy imagery, away from the band’s theatrical concerts, Dickinson is a straight-talker.

Iron Maiden have been ever-present at stadiums worldwide virtually ever since Dickinson replaced original singer Paul Di’Anno for their breakthrough third album The Number Of The Beast in 1982. But, on the eve of a solo tour which returns him to more intimate theatres, the 65-year-old is equally heartfelt about the disappearance of the small venues he played when he started out in the 1970s with his first band, Samson.

He fumes: “The state of small venues in Britain is absolutely shocking. Once venues go, they’re seldom replaced. When I started, shows were super-cheap. Then, bands would earn their money from their records’ royalties.

“They don’t now and live music is the essence of everyone’s existence. We’ve got to the stage where it costs £100 to see even a low-level show.”

The Iron Maiden line-up in 1983

The Iron Maiden line-up in 1983 (Image: Wire image)

With streaming giant Spotify failing to turn a profit all these years on, Dickinson fears for the future of the music industry, saying: “Artists get paid basically nothing from streaming, yet the streaming companies still can’t make any money – so nobody is making any money. How this rotten old system still exists, I’ve no idea. It defies gravity.”

Despite his concerns for his industry, Dickinson is generally in good spirits. His first solo album in 19 years, The Mandrake Project, became Dickinson’s first away from Iron Maiden to reach the Top 10 when it charted at No 3 in March.

Dickinson began planning the album a decade ago, only to be diagnosed with throat cancer in 2015 after seeing a lump on his tongue.

He approached the illness with a typically straightforward determination, recalling: “The doc told me, ‘We’ll be able to move the radiation so that we miss your vocal cords completely, so they should be relatively unscathed.’ I thought, ‘Okay, that’s good,’ but of course everything else in my mouth was fried. I didn’t know when I went into treatment how I’d end up at the back end of it.”

Iron Maiden in 2020

Iron Maiden in 2020 (Image: John McMurtrie)

Viewing himself ultimately as a storyteller, Dickinson was able to come to terms with cancer partly because he wanted to carry on crafting tales in other forms if the illness had robbed him of his voice.

He explains: “The idea of losing my voice was one of the first things I dealt with in myself after I got the diagnosis. People asked me, ‘Are you worried about not having your voice back?’ and I’d say, ‘Actually, I’m not. What I’m worried about is losing my life, so let’s get my life back first.’

“If my voice had changed, I’d have sung appropriately to that changed voice. Singing stories in a different voice doesn’t change the story itself. I began thinking about singers like Leonard Cohen and Johnny Cash, who don’t sound like Pavarotti but are great storytellers. It’s only taken me 30-odd years to realise that’s all I do: I tell stories.”

Happily recovered from cancer, Dickinson is too modest in saying that “all” he does is to tell stories. He has a fascinating array of passions away from music. In addition to beer, Dickinson is a top fencer who competes for the British Veterans national side. He’s also a qualified commercial pilot, even flying the Liverpool and Rangers football teams to European games. “I’m guilty of jumping in with both feet in all the things I’ve done, for better or worse,” he smiles. But one pursuit Dickinson hasn’t quite mastered is gastronomy.

He admits: “The only reason I got into cooking was that there was nothing else to do during lockdown except to poison the missus. When I cook, I do very simple stuff. I can knock up a decent bowl of porridge. I can cook soup, steak, vegetables and eggs. That’s all you need, isn’t it?”

Bruce Dickinson holds a pint of his popular Trooper ale

Bruce Dickinson holds a pint of his popular Trooper ale (Image: Supplied)

Bruce and fitness instructor wife Leana divide their time between Paris, London and Los Angeles. It’s from the Californian city that he greets the Express over Zoom.

A glasses cabinet in the background, Dickinson has hair tucked under a simple black baseball cap as he explains how Iron Maiden have learned to get along easily in the 42 years since their frontman took the East Londoners to another level.

“We’re definitely an odd group of individuals,” he chuckles. “Being our tour manager must be like herding cats. Now, we all cut each other some slack, when years ago we’d have had a fight. We know each other’s foibles and what winds each other up, so we avoid those. We’ve been together over 40 years, which is longer than most marriages.”

Those early fights eventually helped lead Dickinson to quit Iron Maiden in 1993. He rejoined six years later, but the failure of his solo album Skunkworks in 1996 was his lowest ebb. “I felt very sorry for myself,” he reflects. “I thought I should maybe just stop music and do something else. I still had more qualifications to do before becoming a full pilot, but getting a job flying an aeroplane was a possibility.”

Instead, Dickinson gave himself a frank pep talk. He smiles: “When I feel sorry for myself, my best advice is to give myself a metaphorical slap to the side of the head and go, ‘Get yourself together. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Go out and do something. You’re alive, you’ve got a functioning brain, so do something with it.’ I know a lot of people who have a depressive tendency. That’s difficult for me, because no part of me is like that. Feeling sorry for myself, that’s not depression.”

Now, Dickinson’s band are famed for their spectacular shows, but the singer is looking forward to a far more stripped-back solo tour, saying: “We’re not going to have monsters or pyrotechnics. This tour will be old school: amazing musicians playing great music. It’ll be like it’s 1972.”

While Iron Maiden have enjoyed 13 Top 10 albums with Dickinson, including four No 1s, selling over 130 million albums, he remains ambitious.

As well as an ongoing 12-part comic book series, also titled The Mandrake Project, Dickinson would love to give Iron Maiden an orchestral makeover. He enthuses: “I really enjoyed doing some orchestral shows a year-and-a-half ago. It was a whole new world opening up to me. I’d like to do that again, with more planning, perhaps adapting some Maiden tunes crying out for that treatment.”

Whatever happens next, Dickinson hopes it will be a surprise. New song Many Doors To Hell depicts a vampire bored of immortality. It tallies with the singer’s own desire to live life to the full, as he grins: “I look at every day as being a new adventure. I get up every day going: ‘This is fantastic! What is today going to bring? What new surprise am I going to get?’ I embrace the uncertainty.”

Bruce Dickinson plainly has plenty more stories to tell.

Bruce Dickinson’s new album The Mandrake Project is out now on BMG. His tour runs from May 16 to 24. Visit themandrakeproject.com for full dates and tickets

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