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Iron Maiden: The Band That Refuses To Die

In their most candid ever interview, the metal legends discuss Bruce Dickinson's cancer battle, their 40th anniversary and what the future holds - if there is a future...

Nobody had seen it coming. At the end of 2014, just a few weeks before Christmas, the six members of Iron Maiden should have been celebrating. In Paris, they had just finished recording a new album, The Book Of Souls. The consensus within the group was that this album would be one of the best they had ever made. It was also going to be a first for Maiden: a double studio album. And for its grand finale, it had the longest and most ambitious track this band has ever recorded, an 18-minute epic named Empire Of The Clouds, written by singer Bruce Dickinson.

It was while mixing the album in Paris that Steve Harris said something strangely prophetic. Harris, the founder, bassist and leader of Iron Maiden, was with guitarist Adrian Smith. It was just the two of them in the studio. Harris turned to Smith and said: “If this was our last album, it would be a good one to go out on.”

It was only a few days later that Harris received a call from the band’s manager Rod Smallwood. He was told that Dickinson had been diagnosed with cancer of the head and neck. Only after the initial sense of shock and disbelief had subsided did Harris remember what he had said in Paris. “I was scared,” he says now. “I mean, Christ, it was really scary for Bruce, obviously, but there were implications for all of us. First, you had to think about how Bruce was feeling. But for the rest of us it was like, well, is this it then?”

It's exactly 40 years since Steve Harris formed Iron Maiden in the East End of London, and in all those years, it is he and Dickinson who have been the dominant figures in the group. It's Harris’s vision that defined the band, and it's his leadership that has driven them on to huge success, and kept the group together through good times and bad. Equally, it's with Dickinson that the band have reached their greatest heights: in his first tenure, from 1981 to 1993, and following his return to the band in 1999.

The two men have had their battles: Harris the working-class hero with a quiet authority, Dickinson the outspoken former public schoolboy. The split, when it came in ’93, was acrimonious, and in Dickinson’s absence, the band struggled during the ensuing years when Blaze Bayley was their singer. But when both parties bowed to the inevitable in 1999 – Dickinson rejoining Iron Maiden, along with Adrian Smith – it led to a comeback that was astonishing for the scale of the band’s renewed popularity, and for how long it has continued. This late-career renaissance has rolled on for 15 years, completely untroubled, until Dickinson received his diagnosis.

News of his condition was only made public in May, after he had been given the all-clear following a course of chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment. His full recovery was confirmed on August 25 with the announcement that Iron Maiden will embark on a world tour in 2016, on which the singer, a qualified airline pilot,
will be flying the band’s chartered Boeing 747, a role he first undertook in 2008 on the Somewhere Back In Time tour. For Bruce Dickinson and Iron Maiden, it marks the end of a period in which nothing was certain. 

It is four weeks before the announcement of Iron Maiden’s 2016 tour that Steve Harris speaks to Classic Rock. It is a warm evening in Bristol, and Harris is at the Bierkeller, one of the city’s many small venues. Here, the entertainment mostly involves tribute acts or oompah bands and the aroma of stale beer permeates the place. “Nice here, innit?” he says.

For the bassist, it’s a place that evokes memories of the band’s early tours in the late 1970s. What brings him here today is a tour with British Lion, his other band, which he operates during his downtime from Maiden.

Over the following eight days, all six members of Iron Maiden will be interviewed separately: Bruce Dickinson in London, the others calling from their homes in the UK, Florida and Hawaii. Harris chooses a quiet place to talk, away from the noise in the Bierkeller. The tour bus in which British Lion are travelling offers a degree of luxury in contrast to the venues in which they're playing, a luxury Harris can easily afford. For all that he is, a rock star and multi-millionaire, he has no airs and graces about him. He’s dressed down in T-shirt and shorts. His East End accent hasn’t softened, nor the straightforward manner in which he talks.

There's only one discernible difference between Steve Harris now and in past interviews. For a man who has never been easily given to speaking of his personal life and emotions, Harris is now more open, less guarded. This comes, in part at least, from his experiences in the past year: not just the fear that Bruce might not make it, but also the realisation that the future of his band had to a great extent been taken out of his hands.

Can you describe the moment when you were told that Bruce had cancer?

It was such a shock. It was a shock to him, a shock to everybody.

You feared not only for Bruce but also for the future of the band. Did you think it might be the end?

There was the realisation that it might be. It was very depressing all round.

How soon did you contact Bruce?

I left him alone for a while. I sent him a couple of texts wishing him well, but I waited until he wanted to speak to me. He started the treatment very quickly, so I wasn’t going to call him asking how he is. I thought he probably wouldn’t be able to talk anyway. I just sent him a text saying, “Call me when you’re ready.” And eventually he did.

Was that a difficult conversation?

I was surprised, because his voice sounded the same as ever. He wasn’t groggy. But he told me he’d been through the hoop with the treatment. It was tough for him to talk about it.

And now, after Bruce’s treatment has proven successful, what’s next?

Hopefully I’m not talking out of turn, but the biggest problem now is that his mucus membranes are really dried up. From what I’ve read, I don’t think they come back a hundred per cent. But knowing Bruce, I wouldn’t bet against it.

When did he start singing again?

The last time I spoke to him, he told me he hadn’t been singing, but I know he was telling me porkies. Someone told me he’d been singing, and that it sounded okay. We don’t want him to run before he can walk, and Bruce will be very impatient to get back to where he was, but he’s not daft. That’s why we’re not touring this year. He needs time to recuperate.

Would Iron Maiden have committed to another tour even if Bruce had not fully recovered his voice?

It’s about whether the fans would accept it, and I think they would because Bruce, even at seventy per cent, is still better than most people out there anyway. That’s how I feel about it.

Is that your decision, or his?

It’s totally his decision. I can’t tell him he’s got to get himself in shape and do a bloody tour!

The orders of Führer Harris?

That’s probably what certain people think I’m going to do! [Laughs] But it’s not my decision to make. Maybe you can ask him that question because I haven’t spoken to him for about three or four weeks, and that’s a long time when you’re recuperating.

You and Bruce have had a difficult relationship in the past. In the 80s and early 90s there was an intense rivalry between you and him.

There were a few… debates, let’s put it like that. Since he came back, there’s been nothing that I can think of. He’s a lot more easy-going these days, and so am I. At least I like to think so.

Everybody changes over time.

It’s something you learn. I’m not all peace and love now, but you mellow out as you get older.

Has Bruce’s ordeal brought the two of you closer?

It doesn’t take something like that for us to be close. Our relationship has been great for years. But yeah, I think we’ll be even tighter after this.

When you were in conflict, how did you manage that situation? Did you simply ignore the problem?

The stiff upper lip, yeah. You get the hump for a few hours and you go quiet. That hasn’t happened for a long time. But it’s a weird thing, being in a band. You’re together for long periods of time and then you don’t see each other for ages. Maybe that’s what has kept this band together, because we all live in different parts of the world.

You’ve led Iron Maiden for 40 years now. Do you remember the exact moment when you realised: this is everything I ever dreamed of?

I’ve felt it several times. The first was when we sold out The Marquee in 1978. When we did Running Free on Top Of The Pops, that was a big thing for a metal band at the time. The most recent was when we had our own plane on the Flight 666 tour. I said, “Fuck me, it’s like being in Led Zeppelin!” But I never lose sight of reality.

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