Bruce on the Loose

We cruised through upstate New York, pulling into the biker bar at two o'clock in the morning. Our Volvo station wagon didn't exactly blend into the rack of Harleys resting in the lot. The joint was packed -- wall-to-wall leather and chrome -- and we might have felt out of place if everyone wasn't there for the same reason: Bruce Dickinson singing his ass off, covering the songs from his solo project, Tattooed Millionaire.

The show ended with the crowd turned to frenzy, craving just one Iron Maiden song. Myself included. So, to appease us Maidenheads the DJ threw on Number of the Beast. It was at that moment, in the summer of 1990, that I just knew Dickinson would soon embark on a maiden voyage of his own.

By the summer of 1993, Dickinson had left Iron Maiden (amicably) to work on his second solo effort, Balls to Picasso. He made the CD three times, used three different producers, and spent a wad of his own money before he handed it over to Mercury Records. "With Tattooed Millionaire, it was really a genre-based album and didn't tickle too many brain cells," says Dickinson. "With Balls, no pun intended, I wanted to push boundaries musically that needed to be crossed."

After twelve years and more than 30 million records sold, Dickinson says he felt he had to leave his old group to find the sound he wanted. "I saw Maiden differently from the way [bassist and founding member] Steve Harris saw it. My desire was for Maiden to get bigger than it got," says Dickinson. "I feel that with metal bands, they get to a certain number of album sales then hit a creative wall. They can either take a chance and bust out of their genre or stay where they're at musically."

Dickinson's choice was to see what was on the other side of that creative wall. In the spring of '92 he recorded thirteen songs with producer Chris Tsangarides, but they came up with still more traditional heavy rock. Dickinson scrapped the project. Then he recorded his last I.M. CD, Fear of the Dark, and launched a world tour with the band. In December he went back into the studio with producer Keith Olsen and wrote new music. They finished in February 1993, and this time the result was radical and dark, but lacking depth. The engineer on this second attempt was Shay Baby, a Vietnam vet who worked with Whitesnake and Foreigner.

Shay Baby played Dickinson demos from Tribe of Gypsies, a Los Angeles Latin metal band. Dickinson was impressed enough to begin writing music with Tribe guitarist Roy Z. Then Dickinson pulled the plug on the Olsen project and took members of Tribe back to his home in London to record what became Balls to Picasso, with Shay Baby as producer.

Various tracks were added at a couple of other studios, and for "Tears of the Dragon," the last track recorded, Dickinson had to call in Dickie Fliszar of Skin because the Tribe's drummer had already left London. (Fliszar was Dickinson's drummer on the Tattooed tour.) At the end of January 1994 the CD was mastered -- twice. But that still wasn't a wrap. Mercury's A&R rep asked Dickinson to add one more hard-rock song. So back in Los Angeles Dickinson and Roy Z wrote "Shoot All the Clowns" in two days and added that to the CD.

"The power of rock and roll is harnessing chaos and insanity and turning them into music," says Dickinson. "But there's no point in going to see a live rock band and getting a carbon copy of the record. Like with Hendrix, you never know what you're gonna get." And like a Whittman's sampler, Dickinson packs variety, taste, and crunch into the surprises.

Balls explores a different side to the singer, known from his Maiden days as metal's air-raid siren. But that's not to say that this CD doesn't sound like I.M. in spots. "When I was seventeen I used to do things without thinking about them," the singer says. "You try to sound like the people who influenced you, then eventually you hit on something unique and it becomes your own personal style. As you grow you start to make a conscious effort to create music that comes from deeper places within you."

On the first single and video release, "Tears," Dickinson unleashes soulful lyrics, electrically charged solos, and an acoustic intro and outro that help make it the strongest cut. Dickinson rewrote the words and the music for "Tears" six times before recording it three times.

One of the heavier offerings, "Gods of War," highlights Dickinson's vocal prowess and his drummer's percussive melodies. Another hard hitter, "Sacred Cowboys," combines guitar-muffled rhythmic chops with chant-style singing. The only disappointment is the last-minute addition, "Shoot All the Clowns." There's some fancy fretwork, but the choruses beam their commercial intent.

Dickinson has spent recent days shooting the "Clown" video and beginning a tour of the Midwest and Europe. Afterward he will return to the States to tour for an indefinite period of time with new backup. (Tribe of Gypsies are currently busy in the studio recording their debut record for Mercury.)

There won't be any of the twin-guitar harmonies heard in his previous incarnation, although Dickinson says he'll play guitar on a few live songs. "Playing with only one guitarist isn't a problem for me. I used to guess what the guitar players in Maiden were doing and hope they were at the same point in the song that I was at," he says with a laugh. Actually his days spent in the Maiden were the only time Dickinson dickered with dual guitars. While at Queen Mary College in London Dickinson was in a pair of bands, Speed and the Shots. His history finals put the Shots on hold, and the day after exams Paul Samson recruited Dickinson. In 1981, after two and a half years with Samson and the collapse of their label Gem Records, Dickinson joined Iron Maiden, replacing singer Paul Di'anno.

With his new project Dickinson is putting 100 percent into promotion, temporarily curtailing his passion for fencing and flying his six-seat, twin-engine plane. "I've cleared the decks to do this record," says Dickinson. "This is very much the beginning of an entire solo career."

As for his former mates, they've already recruited singer Blaze Bayley, formerly of Wolfsbane. And while Dickinson is running free Maiden is in the studio working on a new release. "In a sense, what Maiden does now is none of my business, but I think Blaze is terrific," says Dickinson. "I hope Maiden fans will give him a fair chance.

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Christina Henriques