Paul Bruce Dickinson was born on August 7, 1958, in the small mining town of Worksop, Nottinghamshire. His real first name is Paul, although everybody, except his parents and grandparents, insisted on calling him 'Bruce' from as early as he can remember.
His mother worked part-time in a shoe shop and his father was a mechanic in the army. "I was a bit of an accident", he reflects. "Mum was sixteen or seventeen when she became pregnant and my dad was seventeen or eighteen." Bruce's imminent arrival hurried the young couple into the kind of make-do-and-mend union common in pre-abortion fifties Britain. To begin with he was brought up by his grandparents. His granddad was a coal-face worker at the local colliery (and a pretty cool tap dancer) and his grandma was a housewife.
By the time Bruce was about to start school his parents moved from Workshop to Sheffield, the nearest big city, where jobs then were plentiful. "I didn't really feel like I had a mum and dad. My Granddad was the closest thing I had to a dad. He was great. In many ways, I think, I was the son that he never had. But to my grandmother, I was always going to be the little bastard that had taken her daughter away from her."
Bruce's first school was Manton Primary, a notoriously tough place in a fairly run-down area. He remembers his granddad teaching him to stick up for himself and don't let anybody push him around. "I grew up in an environment where it struck me that the world was never gonna do me any favours. And I had very few close friends, because we were always moving. I think that's partly why I grew up feeling like such an outsider. I didn't have an unhappy childhood, but it was unconventional, to say the least." A positive side of this unconventional upbringing was that Bruce grew up very independent and self reliant.
Bruce's first musical experience was dancing in his grandparents front room to Chubby Checker's "The Twist". The first record he recalls owning was the Beatles single "She loves you" which he managed to persuade his granddad to buy him. "I was still only four or five but I really loved that whole Mersey scene, like The Beatles and Gerry & The Pacemakers. I used to try and collect all their singles. Then I noticed they had B-sides, and that sometimes I liked them even more than the A-sides. That was when I first began noticing the difference between 'good' music and 'bad'. I didn't know it at the time, but that was the first time I began to think like a musician."
When Bruce was six he moved in with his parents in Sheffield who had set up a house and had regular jobs. He found it difficult to adapt himself to the environment. "They never listened to music, they would be totally focused on making money". His dad did have an acoustic guitar though, and although it was virtually unplayable, Bruce used to have a go at "playing" it making this terrible noise and making his fingers blister.
When moving to Sheffield this meant Bruce had to change school. He was sent to Manor Top which turned out to be sheer hell for young Bruce, so tough, in fact, that after six months, his parents decided to move him out to a small private school called Sharrow Vale Junior. His parents would make money by buying a house, do it up, sell it, then buy another house somewhere else and start again. A lot of his childhood he spent living on a building site. But his parents had got to the stage where they were actually making money. They had bought a boarding house his dad was selling second-hand cars off the forecourt.
This gave them the opportunity to offer Bruce, then 13 year old, to go to boarding school. His secondary education would take place at Oundle public school near Northampton, Shropshire.
Bruce fancied the idea of getting away from home. "I didn't particularly enjoy being with my parents, so I saw it as an escape. I think it was because I hadn't built any real attachment to them when I was very, very young." It was also the classic case of parents wanting their kids to have everything they never had.
Once he got settled at Oundle it's fair to say that he didn't fit in very well. Bruce was picked on and routinely bullied by the older boys. "Like systematic torture", is how he describes it now. "You couldn't get away, that was the thing. At Manor top, at least you got to go home at the end of the day. I knew I could have called mum and dad but that would have been bottling out so I didn't do it." Bruce was determined not to let people get the better of him. "Even if you're lying there with all your guts kicked in, you can still go away saying; 'All right, you're bigger than me, you can beat the shit out of me if you want, but you're not superior'. That's me, mate".
Bruce gradually started to become aware that he was an outsider. That's when he started deliberately doing odd things, like getting in charge of the school army-cadet course that everybody hated. "Me and this other kid who was terminally uncool, too, decided that we would have our little revenge every Wednesday afternoon by blowing the fuck out of people. Oh God, we used to do stuff that was so dangerous! Setting little booby traps for people. Not to hurt them, just to scare them."
At fifteen Bruce joined the school amateur dramatics society. "The first time I stepped on a stage, I loved it. I felt really comfortable straight away, and so I started volunteering for every play going. I even ended up directing some in fact. I loved it. It wasn't so much the dressing up, it was the language, and trying to get inside the head of what was going on, on the page."
But music was never far away. They were only allowed one hour of television a week, so the only outside entertainment they had was music, and people were always swapping albums or selling them second hand. "You'd go down the corridor and there'd be music coming out of every single study. I was 13 when I first heard Deep Purple's 'In Rock' album, and it just blew me away! I heard this thing coming out of someone's room one day, and I went in and said 'Whoa! What's that?' And they just looked at me disdainfully and went 'It's "Child in time" by Deep Purple. Don't you know anything?' But I was too amazed to care. The first album I ever bought was Deep Purple In Rock, all scratched to fuck, but I thought it was great."
That and the end-of-term concert was what started Bruce off on buying albums. "The first gig I ever saw in my life was a band called Wild Turkey. They were great and I tried to climb inside the bass bins, took most of my clothes off and went into a mad Fanta-inspired frenzy. It was great and my ears were ringing for the next three days." There were other moments when Van Der Graaf Generator played there and when Bruce saw Arthur Brown he thought it was the best singer he'd ever seen. And after that, everything else went out the window and he started getting into bands and buying the music papers. "I had everything. My favourite was always Deep Purple, though. I wanted to be a drummer like Ian Paice."
He "Permanently borrowed" a couple of bongos from the music room and bashed away. Bruce remembers trying to learn 'Let it be' and the guy who was singing couldn't hit the high notes. "I started trying to encourage him by singing along - only I could sing the high notes." It wasn't long before Bruce became bold enough to push his way to the microphone. "I always sort of knew I could sing, because someone had heard me yelling away to 'Jerusalem' in the school choir and said; 'You've got a really good voice'. I sort of went; 'Bollocks!', you know, but it made me think."
Eventually Bruce was expelled from Oundle for urinating in the headmaster's dinner. "Somebody informed on me. It was only half a cupful slipped into the frozen beans and I knew from biology that a bit of boiled urine wouldn't do him any harm. Ill judged though, I admit."
Returning home to Sheffield in 1976, he enrolled at a local Catholic Comprehensive school. "It was brilliant. Everybody was, like, 'normal' and there were girls there - which freaked me out at first."
In the summer 1976 he joined his first band. He had overheard two kids talking about their band and that they needed a singer. Bruce volunteered to do the vocals, after a couple of seconds of hesitation. They used to rehearse in the drummers dad's garage and they were really impressed by Bruce's singing. "And that started me thinking; 'I'll have to buy a microphone'."
The first gig he did was at a place called "Broad Fall Tavern" in Sheffield. They were originally called "Paradox" but, upon Bruce's suggestion, changed the name to "Styx", totally unaware of the American act with the same name. "We got into the headlines in the local newspaper when we got attacked on stage by this shift-working steelworker we'd woken up. He bottled the guitarist and chucked the drums off-stage"
Soon after the band split up and that was that - except now Bruce had a mike and an amplifier of his own.
After leaving school Bruce didn't really know what he wanted to do so he joined the Territorial Army for six months, just to discover that there was just as many, if not more, idiots in the army as anywhere else. "I'd never seen men get that drunk and do such horrid things, and I'd never seen so many 'loose women'. I mean, I didn't do anything with them, I had no idea what to do. I remember this one woman trying to pull me and all I did all evening was play darts. I had no idea how to deal with it."
As army life was not what Bruce necessarily wanted to do, he applied for a place at University. He had somehow managed to scrape the minimums for getting in and found himself taking History at Queen Mary's College, in London's East End.
His parents were a bit suspicious in letting Bruce go down there and he told them he was still gonna join the army, but that he wanted to get his degree first. "That was what they wanted to hear so that was my cover story. When I got down there I started immediately finding and playing in bands."
Speed (London, winter 77 - Summer 78)
At college Bruce got involved in the Entertainment's Committee. "One day you'd be a roadie for The Jam, the next you'd be putting up the Stonehenge backdrop for Hawkwind or whatever." In the winter of 1977 Bruce met a guy called Paul "Noddy" White. He was a bit of a multi-musician and he had a PA and all sorts of equipment. Bruce suggested that they'd form a band together, which they did, and this would eventually evolve into the band Speed, described by Bruce himself, as sounding like a crossover between Judas Priest and The Stranglers with a Hammond organ on top of it. "It had nothing to do with taking speed, we were a completely drug-free band, we just used to play everything ridiculously fast. Like Speed Metal, but ten years too early." Bruce was the vocalist and, occasionally, played a bit of guitar. "I got Noddy to give me a few guitar lessons and I just started writing stuff straight away. He showed me three chords and I'd write stuff just from those three chords."
Then they started playing a few gigs. They used to nick the college minibus, (under the pretence of borrowing it for a course outing) rip all the seats out, cram the gear in and go down to the Green Man pub, in Plumstead. This gradually gave Bruce the on stage experience he would need to crack at the big time.
Shots (summer 78 - summer 79)
Speed was just one of those bands that didn't last very long, but it gave Bruce the belief and encouraged him to delve even further into musicianship. One day Bruce spotted an ad in Melody Maker saying "Singer wanted for recording project". Since he had never been near a recording studio he replied immediately. He "wailed, wolfed, hollered and made noises" onto a tape and with it went a note that read; "By the way, if you think the singing' s crap, there's some John Cleese stuff recorded on the other side you might find amusing." They liked what they heard and Bruce came down to the studio. The band was called "Shots" and were formed by two brothers, Phil and Doug.
They were amazed by Bruce's vocal abilities and they started talking about what music they liked. "I started saying Ian Gillan, Ian Anderson, Arthur Brown, and Doug goes, 'That's it! Fucking Arthur Brown, man! Sometimes your voice is a dead ringer for Arthur! We've got to form a band.' This guy's got a studio and he wants to from a band with me! I was like 'Yes'."
Bruce started playing pubs with Shots but nobody was really interested, until one night, when Bruce all of a sudden stopped in the middle of a song and started interviewing a guy in the audience, making fun of him for not paying enough attention. He got such a good response he started doing it every night until it became a regular routine. "Suddenly everybody was paying attention, cause they might be next. The first time I did it, afterwards the landlord of the pub was like ' Great show, lads, See you next week'. So we started sort of building this bit into the show. And that was when I first started to get the hang of, just not being a singer, but being a frontman, too."
The next step in Bruce's career was taken in a pub called the Prince of Wales in Gravesend, Kent, where Shots were playing regularly. One night a Mr Barry Graham (known to others as "Thunderstick") and a certain Paul Samson paid a visit. The legend says that Thunderstick, who was there in his every day guise, became the victim of Bruce's gimmick. "He looked a bit weird so I did a spiel on it".
Obviously impressed with his stage-act Thunderstick and Paul had a chat with Bruce & co after the gig. A couple of weeks later Paul called and asked him if he was willing to join their band, Samson. Bruce was of course interested since this meant he could play all these big gigs in London. Bruce really wanted to "do things with a bit of a weird edge to it". By then Shots had almost become a heavy metal comedy act. The show had completely taken over the music.
The next stage was that Bruce went along to see a Samson show. "I said, well look, the only problem I have with that is that I'm taking my degree examinations and I said can you wait for three weeks whilst I do these exams? They said yeah, that's alright."
Actually getting his degree had never seemed important - until he realised he might not get the chance to even take his final exams until he put his extracurricular activities to one side, at least for a short time. "They tried to throw me out for non-payment of rent, because I spent all my college grant cheque on buying a PA for the band. I used to hide when the rent inspectors came round. Also, I'd failed all of my second year exams, so they had a pretty good case really, But I was Ents Officer for the Student Union and in those days it carried a bit of weight. So they relented and in the end, I did six long essays in the space of two weeks, that normally took people six months to do, and got great marks in all of them, and they just let me stay in." He managed to secure a 2:ii, which is what everybody else got, anyway.
Formed by Sidcup-born guitarist Paul Samson in 1977, the band had already been established with their debut, "Survivors", released on an independent, receiving raving reviews. The band toured quite extensively in the UK along side with the other fore runners of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal. Bruce finished his final exams in the morning and in the afternoon he went down to Wood Wharf Studios in Greenwich to rehearse with them.
Since he was not sure of what to expect from a professional rock band - Samson had a record deal and a management - he decided just to jump in and make the best of it. "In fact, the first rehearsals I went down to with Samson pretty much set the scene for my entire time in the band. I left my girlfriend who I had been with for three years at University. I told her I was gonna turn into a complete arsehole. I thought it was what I was gonna have to do, frankly. Because it was not at all what I expected. In my naivety I thought people who were in rock 'n' roll bands were great artists, and it was a huge shock to the system to realise that they weren't, that they didn't even aspire to be, really. Some of them did, maybe, but some of them, like Samson, were very frightened of the idea, some of them just wanted to have a good drink, a good shag and take some drugs, and I found that really, really difficult to relate to. I thought 'I've got to find out if I'm gonna work with these guys and we're gonna make music'. And as soon as I sort of accepted that, I thought 'Right, I'd better go down and find out what all this drug-taking and shagging's all about then'."
He did smoke a bit already and he had even tried dope at college. And in Samson it was more of a habit. "I discovered quickly that if you were straight you couldn't actually communicate with anybody. It was impossible. So I just thought I'd have to smoke a joint, otherwise I wouldn't be able to write anything, and that's pretty much how it went. I more or less resigned myself to it. I thought it was just part of the price that had to be paid. To be honest, every single thing I ever did at that time, I believed it was just a step towards my goal, of just wanting to be a singer in a rock 'n' roll band."
Bruce nowadays refers to his time in the band as "a blur of chemicals". But he was never into the hard stuff. When it came to illegal highs, marijuana was his biggest personal vice.
During the first rehearsals they wrote a bunch of songs that would be recorded and released on the album called 'Head on'. "I had loads of stuff kicking around and they had loads of bits so we just glued it all together." The songs were slipped into the live set on the coming tour, which was to promote the "Survivors" album. This was quite a step forward for Bruce as his first real tour was third on the bill with Randy California and his all time hero Ian Gillan.
During his time in Samson Bruce was, bizarrely, billed as 'Bruce Bruce' (derived from the Monty Python sketch about the Australian philosophers), a nick that was forced upon him by their management. They insisted on making all the checks out to "Bruce Bruce" which had the effect that Bruce had to go through enormous trouble to cash them in.
The management was one of Samson's reoccurring problems. They booked the band on rather ill matched support tours and had them playing a place and then come back one week later to play the same place but with another act. Eventually it all ended up in high court leaving the band unable to play gigs and get paid. And when the legal side of things were settled and the band left their management in 1981 they discovered that their record company was going bankrupt. "We made every mistake in the business" Bruce acknowledges.
Frustrated with the fact that the band never seemed to get anywhere, Bruce had contacted guitarist Stuart Smith with the idea of forming a band. They had a few rehearsals and wrote some material together but then Samson seemed to get a better deal and the obvious thing for him to do was to stick with them.
The state of the artistry in itself in the band wasn't the best either. "We actually had a lot of really good ideas but we were pretty limited. I mean, Thunderstick had great drumming ideas, but was really short on the ability to execute them." Thunderstick, the mad drummer, was wearing a mask, pouring beer over his head on stage and refusing to utter human sounds in public. He also wanted a cage bout round him on stage. "We actually had this cage built and in the true Spinal Tap fashion we couldn't get into any of the gigs. The only place we could use it was the Reading Festival where he insisted on it. It was like a budgie's cage actually. He insisted on it being covered with a cloth so people wouldn't know what it was".
"But Samson worked together as this crazy, fucked up set-up. We used to play some terrible shows and we used to play some brilliant shows and you never know what you're gonna get. I was the heavy rock, Heavy metal end of Samson and Paul was a traditional rock blues boogie guy and we glued the two things together and got this exciting sound." As the band developed it became more and more obvious that the main men were evolving in very different directions. "The 'Shock tactics' album I did with them and in many ways the best. It had a clear direction but it wasn't a direction Paul was happy with. He wanted it to be more bluesy guitar orientated. But it was the first time I discovered a voice that was really my own."
During the Shock Tactics tour (nicknamed the "We don't give a f**k about the petrol bill tour" due to the appalling routing) Thunderstick left the band and was replaced with Mel Gaynor, a black Funk/Rock drummer who was in the band very briefly and later ended up in Simple Minds(!). "When you took Thunderstick out of the equation and replaced him with Mel, this phenomenal drummer, there was no excitement in it there anymore. When he played he played everything perfectly. Everything was in time, there was no mistakes, there was no danger anymore. So I got bored. I had time to think about the shopping list on stage and that's not good. And I realised that this was what Paul wanted. It enabled him to go into more ZZ top, boogie sort of areas."
Bruce's last gig with the band was at the Reading Festival in 1981, a gig which was immortalised by the BBC and subsequently released on the album "Live at Reading 81". "Listening to some of these old tracks they stand up really well" says Bruce. "Certainly all the stuff on 'Shock tactics' does. When you hear the Reading Live album the band was really cooking. And the songs don't sound dated at all."
Around that time, Iron Maiden had began considering change of vocalist due to of increasing problems with Paul DiAnno. Steve Harris says: "Right from the very first time I heard Bruce singing on stage with Samson, I remember thinking, 'Blimey, that singer's fucking great!'" So Steve Harris and manager Rod Smallwood came to Reading to check Bruce out for the job. Samson went down by storm and Bruce was asked to come down to auditions for the band.
To be continued, with the days in Iron Maiden, the time around leaving, his solo-career, and the reunion.
Back to main