"The paramedics said, ‘If it had been another 10 minutes, I don’t think he would be here": From having glasses thrown at him in Wolfsbane to trial-by-fire in Iron Maiden, Blaze Bayley is heavy metal's ultimate survivor

Blaze Bayley
(Image credit: Press)

Blaze Bayley is describing in graphic detail what it’s like to have major heart surgery. “They stop your breathing, they transfer all of that to a machine, then they cut you in half and they replumb you,” he says. “Then they stick a couple of pipes in your chest to drain off all the goo and put you back together.” 

The former Iron Maiden frontman has first-hand experience of this. He underwent quadruple bypass surgery after suffering a major heart attack at home in March. “Luckily, I live two minutes from an ambulance station and near four hospitals,” he says. “The paramedics said to my fiancée, ‘If it had been another 10 minutes, I don’t think he would have been here.’ I was very, very lucky.” 

The title of Blaze’s 2008 solo album, The Man Who Would Not Die, seems prophetic today, but even back then its defiant title summed up the indefatigable spirit of the man born Bayley Alexander Cooke in Dudley in 1963. His life and career have been marked by epic highs and crushing lows. He was the swashbuckling frontman of Tamworth livewires Wolfsbane, a band whose exhilarating take-no-prisoners approach was mirrored by the name their rabid fanbase gave themselves: the Howling Mad Shitheads. 

Then came his five-year, two-album stint as the singer with Iron Maiden, carrying the thankless task of replacing Bruce Dickinson on his shoulders. More recently, there have been long periods of professional struggle and personal tragedy, capped with the heart attack that could have killed him. Many other people would have given up the ghost long ago, but the Blaze Bayley talking to Hammer via Zoom today has lost none of his lust for life. 

He talks in exclamation marks, his voice frequently rising in volume and excitement as he waves his arms around with more vigour than a man still recovering from major heart surgery should. “I’ve had the shit kicked out of me several times by life,” he says. “But I’ve managed to stumble back to my feet every time.” 

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Your parents split when you were young and you spent your early years living with your mum in a caravan. What was your childhood like? 

“When my mum left my dad, we went to live with my grandparents. My grandfather had a small-holding and my mum rented a caravan off him on the land until I was 11. We had no telly, you had to get water from a tap outside, there was an outside loo, but I never felt poor – you don’t when you’re young. You opened the door to the caravan and you’re in the countryside – you never felt hemmed in. And my mum was a massive music fan. There was always music on.” 

You joined your first band, Wolfsbane, in 1983. How did you get the job? 

“I used to watch this sixth-form band rehearse at school, doing Sex Pistols covers. I thought, ‘I could take that singer on. I could do better than that.’ I got the job with Wolfsbane because I was the only person who turned up for the audition. I’d seen Dio on the Holy Diver tour and thought, ‘I can do that!’ I turned up at Jeff’s [Hateley, Wolfsbane bassist] garage and started singing: ‘RAARRAAGGHHHH AARRGGHHHH!’ I thought I sounded like Ronnie James Dio, but I sounded like a dog being murdered.”

What were those early days of Wolfsbane like? 

“It was absolutely crazy. We were playing all these rough pubs in Tamworth where people shouted at you all the way through your set. I remember I had this little Honda 250 motorcycle that I rode to gigs. At one gig, I was up onstage and my dad walked in. I’m singing and he goes, ‘I need to talk to you.’ I went, ‘I’m a bit busy, dad.’ And he goes, ‘Don’t panic, but somebody’s set your motorbike on fire.’ 

Literally, somebody had torched it while we were playing. I never found out who. In Wolfsbane, we always were always moving around and playing with our eyes open, because people threw things at us constantly. We spent half our gigs dodging pint glasses and empty vodka bottles! Nobody knew who we were, so my attitude was, ‘This is the roughest pub in town, these people don’t know me, I’m going to grab them by the neck and get a reaction.’ To be a singer, you have to have confidence, courage and stupidity in equal measure, and I had plenty of all three.” 

Wolfsbane caught the attention of Rick Rubin. You were the first British band he signed to his label, Def American. Did you think, ‘This is it, we’ve made it’? 

“Part of you does. The fact he’d produced Slayer and the Beastie Boys, and he was a hot ticket, that gave us a lot of confidence.” 

He produced Wolfsbane’s debut album, 1989’s Live Fast, Die Fast. What was he like to work with? 

“He was demented. I don’t mean this as a criticism, but he was a supremely confident person, bordering on arrogant, because of what he’d achieved. As far as he was concerned, if he liked something, it was good. If he didn’t, it was no good. I remember going to a gig with him, and he said, ‘What do you think of this band, Blaze?’ I went, ‘This sounds like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin combined, it’s amazing!’ And he went, ‘I don’t think they’re very good.’ That was Soundgarden! He didn’t sign Soundgarden!” 

Did you enjoy working with him? 

“No, not really. I learned a lot, and he’s a great producer, but you’ve invested so much in your songs and then someone comes along and goes, ‘No, that doesn’t make sense, that doesn’t work, try it like this.’ You think, ‘Hang on, this is our song, we’ve been playing this for hundreds of people every night, and it’s worked for them.’ That was challenging. But I did get to meet Ronnie James Dio when we were in the studio.” 

What was that like? 

“It was incredible. I was making a cup of coffee and he comes in. I just went, ‘Hello Ronnie, I’m Blaze. Want a cup of coffee?’ I’m not scared of talking to anybody, so we just started having a chat. I’m standing there thinking, ‘I am talking to God!’ And we saw strippers for the first time in LA.” 

Surely they had strippers in Tamworth? 

“Not like the ones they had in LA.” 

Wolfsbane released three studio albums between 1989 and 1994, but you never really broke through. Why not? 

“In those early days we were in a van, touring the UK, playing to hundreds of people a night, selling our demos. When we got signed, they spent a fortune on making videos for MTV, but we just weren’t that band. We wanted to live on a tour bus. And a bit further down the line, grunge came and practically killed us. I’d heard that Bruce had left Maiden and they were looking for a singer. My manager at the time said, ‘You don’t want to hear this, but there’s nothing happening for Wolfsbane. If you get a chance to audition for Iron Maiden, you have to take it, because there’s nothing happening for Wolfsbane.’ And that’s what I did.”

How did the rest of the band take the news? 

“It was a dark time for everybody. It split the band up. It broke my heart, but I got in touch with Maiden and said, ‘I’d love to have an audition if I can.’ Wolfsbane had supported Iron Maiden in 1990, so they knew who I was, but I still had to audition twice. People say I walked into it, but I had to audition the same as everybody else.”

 What was it like playing Iron Maiden songs with Iron Maiden for the very first time? 

“Amazing. I was a Maiden fan, so I didn’t just know the songs, I knew every drum fill as well! The first thing I did was pick up my monitor and move it into the middle of the room. The guys were like, ‘What’s he doing?’ I was like, ‘I don’t care, I’m going to stand right here. No matter what happens, I’ll be able to say that at least I’ve been in Iron Maiden for an hour whether I get the job or not.’” 

You did get the job. Is it true that Bruce sent you two yellow bricks after he read an interview where you said joining Iron Maiden was like being Dorothy in The Wizard Of Oz? 

“It’s true. I kept them at my house. Unfortunately, I moved five times and they just got lost. Somewhere, someone’s sitting in their house going, ‘What the fuck are these yellow bricks doing here?’” 

How intimidating was it being in Iron Maiden? Did you think, ‘I might have bitten off more than I can chew?’” 

“No. I just dove right in. I was so confident at that time, I really thought I could do it: ‘They auditioned 12 people, and I’m the one who got it!’ One of the things Steve Harris said early on was, ‘I don’t care who writes the music, it just has to be great.’ That puts you under a really positive pressure. Coming up with Como Estais Amigos, doing Futureal with Steve, When Two Worlds Collide with Dave Murray… it was amazing.” 

You got a lot of criticism during your time in Maiden. How did you tune it out?

“I had a lot of support from the guys in the band: ‘No, this is who were are, this is what we’re doing, you’re the singer.’ One time we were onstage in Italy, and there were signs in the audience saying, ‘Come back, Bruce!’, people were going, ‘Bruce! Bruce!’ And as we finished a song, Steve walked over and said, ‘Just fuck ’em. They said the same about Bruce when Paul [Di’Anno] left.’ But listen, I’d been in Wolfsbane – we’d had empty vodka bottles thrown at us, I’ve had fist fights onstage, I’d had my motorbike set on fire! A couple of signs saying, ‘Come back, Bruce’? Fuck off! Ha ha!”

In retrospect, it felt like you were on a hiding to nothing with Maiden. 

“You’re so right. Let’s face it, Bruce Dickinson is the absolute benchmark of what it is to be a heavy metal frontman. He’s one of the greatest singers and performers in any genre of music, and he’s just left your favourite band and they’ve got this idiot from Tamworth in? A lot of fans hated me on principle. There is a percentage of fans that still hate me. There are some people who have never even heard me, but still hate me because I’m not Bruce.” 

You left Iron Maiden in 1999, after two albums. How did that affect you? 

“It was horrific. I’d be making all these plans for my solo career: ‘I’m going to come back with a new project, I’m going to use everything I learned from Maiden and from songwriting with those guys, it’ll be incredible.’ And then a couple of hours later, I’d be sobbing. I couldn’t say so at the time, but I was destroyed.” 

Did you ever listen to Bruce’s Iron Maiden comeback album, Brave New World? 

“Yes, and I’ll admit that I cried my fucking eyes out. It’s a really good album, but I knew that if things had worked out differently, I would have been working in the studio with those guys, I would have been singing some of those songs. There was this sense of great loss that hit me really hard.” 

Blaze Bayley onstage with iron Maiden 1995

(Image credit: Getty Images/ Brian Rasic)

You formed the band Blaze in 1999. What was life like outside of Maiden?

“Oh, it was tough. I thought, ‘I’ll get a band together, there’s loads of guys in the UK that are great musicians who never get a chance.’ And my first two solo albums [2000’s Silicon Messiah and 2002’s Tenth Dimension] were stillborn. There was all manner of record label stuff going on behind the scenes, but they never got a chance.”

How tough did things get for you?

“Really, really tough. I didn’t want to go out and do covers or become a tribute band. I’d rather work a real job than shit on what I did before. At one point I was working a driving job to make ends meet. I finished the job, then went into the studio to record [2004’s] Blood & Belief. I was on the edge, I was having suicidal thoughts, I was eventually diagnosed with depression, even though the medication the doctor gave me didn’t work. If you listen to Blood & Belief, it’s all in there. That album is full of truth.”

What kept you going? 

“The fans. They’ve always been there for me. At one point, I had to get a job in a shop because I was so broke. One of my fans managed the shop. He said, ‘If you need work, just come and do it, you can work any hours you want.’ That kind of thing. And my wife, Debbie. She believed in me. We’d gone to school together and went our separate ways, then 19 years later we met again and it was like, ‘Why didn’t this happen before?’ 

She was the love of my life, and she believed in me 100%. She was the one who kept me going, she was the one who reached out to the rest of Wolfsbane and built the bridges for the reunion [in 2007]. I didn’t even know it at the time, but she told them, ‘You lot should be talking.’” 

Your wife passed away in 2008. How do you deal with a tragedy like that? 

“That was my darkest time. When she passed, it was the end of the world. She had a severe stroke, a horrible bleed on her brain. She went into hospital and never came out. She died in my arms, in hospital. That’s when part of me thought, ‘I should stop now, just give up.’” 

But you didn’t. 

“She wouldn’t have wanted that. She believed in me so much. I’d have been betraying her if I didn’t at least try. We managed to get [2010’s solo album] Promise And Terror together, which is a fierce, fierce record. There was a lot of emotion that went into that record.” 

And then there was the heart attack earlier this year. How is your recovery going? 

“I’m so lucky to be here. I was eating badly, not looking after myself. I feel like the universe has smacked me around the head and gone, ‘Oi! Sort yourself out, get yourself in shape!’ I’m working on solo stuff, I’ve just started rehearsing with Wolfsbane for shows later this year. I’m weaker at the moment, and I’ve still got to be careful while the bone in my chest that they cut open heals properly, but I’m getting there. We’ve still got that bloodlust we had when we were 25 years old.” 

Do you think you’ll ever get a chance to go onstage with Iron Maiden again? 

“Oh, I’d love it, I’d absolutely love it. I’m still friends with everybody. It’d have to be some mega-special event where it’s Paul, Bruce and me, each singing a few of our songs. But you’d have to have extra security ’cos there’d be fights breaking out between the fans: ‘Paul’s the best singer!’ ‘No, it’s Bruce!’ It’ll never happen, but I wish it would.” 

What do you want to be remembered for: Wolfsbane, Iron Maiden or your solo material? 

“Just for my songs, not for any one band. All I wanted to be as a kid was a full-time heavy metal singer. I’ve sung with Iron Maiden, which is the very pinnacle of this job, and I’m still out there doing it. I’ve lived the dream.”

Blaze Bayley's new album Damaged Strange Different And Live is out now on Blaze Bayley Recs

Dave Everley

Dave Everley has been writing about and occasionally humming along to music since the early 90s. During that time, he has been Deputy Editor on Kerrang! and Classic Rock, Associate Editor on Q magazine and staff writer/tea boy on Raw, not necessarily in that order. He has written for Metal Hammer, Louder, Prog, the Observer, Select, Mojo, the Evening Standard and the totally legendary Ultrakill. He is still waiting for Billy Gibbons to send him a bottle of hot sauce he was promised several years ago.