In the excerpt below, Dickinson – then vocalist with Samson – describes the moment he was approached by Iron Maiden manager Rod Smallwood at the Reading Festival in 1981, and asked about auditioning to be the band’s new vocalist.
We started to rehearse for some shows; I was hoarse after half an hour. We played the Marquee Club; I couldn’t speak for two days afterwards. I was in despair. I had sung on an album that was getting great reactions, but I felt like a fraud. My voice couldn’t do it. I moped around for a couple of days, crying into my beer, before my subconscious drew my attention to some sage guidance I’d received from my dentist ex-girlfriend. As an ex-pupil of the very prestigious Cheltenham Ladies’ College, she’d had quite extensive singing lessons, and she kept a notebook.
‘I think you’ve got a jolly nice voice, but it needs a bit more control,’ she said, lecturing me in her plummy tones.
This made me grumpy – but interested. ‘For example?’
‘Well, can you do this with your tongue?’
I peered down her throat. Anybody watching might have thought I was trying to retrieve a goldfish, but I was in fact examining her ability to flatten her tongue like a squashed toad.
‘Hmm.’ I borrowed her exercise book, and took to the library in search of the voice and how it works.
Remember the little singing notebook, and the hours researching breathing and resonance in the library? my subconscious said. Remember stupid exercises with candles, holding chairs in front of you, squashing your lower back against walls and a multitude of other bizarre things to do to strengthen your diaphragm and develop resonance in your chest voice and head voice? it said. I started to pay attention to it.
Technique is just empty unless you apply it. You have technique to apply to your new voice. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and be smart. Learn how to be you. Teach yourself.I started to enjoy my new-found pipes. I began to see that a whole new landscape had been opened up. If I was a painter, it would have been like being given a massive canvas and a whole palette of new colours.
Theatre of the mind was becoming very exciting, but I wasn’t sure if it would be with Samson. A&M Records were now interested in us. Rather more specifically, they were interested in me, which was made abundantly clear at a photo session in which I was certainly in the foreground, the band consigned to the middle distance.
Reading Festival that year was much more straightforward, but with a different drummer. Barry had left; Paul wanted him gone. I liked Barry but had to concede that in the actual business of drumming, there were certain shortcomings. Mel Gaynor stepped in. He was in about four bands at the same time and had a very active social life.
He was an unbelievable drummer. Our swansong at Reading was rather good. I rolled out my new voice, everybody cheered and no one seemed to miss the gimp mask.
The festival was awash with gossip and rumour that night. There was no mud – it was fine and dry – and alcohol and chemicals were doing a fine job of creating mental instability and inability. In the middle of a clearing, surrounded by hospitality chalets and beer tents, was a single large pole, with bright white lights on top.
I was in a corner of a beer tent when Rod Smallwood approached me, saying, ‘Let’s go somewhere quiet where we can talk.’ We walked out and stood, illuminated for all the world to see, under the pole in the middle of the backstage area. I felt sure he was working up to something.
‘Do you want to come back to my room for a chat?’ he said. I felt sure he didn’t have any etchings for me to see. Reading Holiday Inn became a low-ceilinged rabbit warren of debauchery for a week around the festival if, of course, you could get a burrow.
Back in the room, away from prying eyes, Rod laid out his cards. ‘I’m offering you the chance to audition for Iron Maiden,’ he said. ‘Are you interested?’
There had been enough beating around bushes and tap-dancing around issues, I decided, so I told him what I thought: ‘First of all, you know I’ll get the job or you wouldn’t ask. Second, what’s gonna happen to Paul, the current singer, and does he know he’s going? Third, when I do get the job, and I will, are you prepared for a totally different style and opinions and someone who is not going to roll over? I may be a pain in the arse, but it’s for all the right reasons. If you don’t want that tell me now and I’ll walk away.’
The speech was a combination of pissing in beans, injustice, sleeping on floors, bravado and genuine invention. If Iron Maiden wanted to play with the hammer of the gods then bring it on. If not, take a hike and get someone more boring instead. As the saying goes, we should all be careful of what we wish for because we just might get it.
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