As a massive Iron Maiden fan, I always bemoaned the fact that none of the band members ever wrote an autobiography or ‘behind the scenes’-style book on their 45-year career. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to see this title released in 2017; the autobiography of singer Bruce Dickinson, who has performed lead vocals - barring a brief stint away - since 1981. As a frontman, Dickinson is to many the Freddie Mercury of heavy metal, such is his command of a crowd and tremendous vocal range. Even today, the 61 year-old Englishman still hits virtually every note in a live concert. Unlike most other bands of their generation it has to be said, who typically downtune their guitars and vocals to make the songs vastly diluted from the studio versions. Hats off to you Brucie.
Iron Maiden have sold over 100 million albums worldwide and are one of the most successful heavy rock acts of all time. Yet the band are known for their modesty and relatively quiet lifestyles off the stage, declining all of the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll cliches. It is summed up well in this book’s pages, when Dickinson recounts the group touring America near the height of their fame in the 1980s. He states they ‘disliked limousines’, ‘hated the cult of celebrity’ and were more likely to be ‘seen playing darts than smoking crack’.
If you are looking for a warts-and-all story of rock ‘n’ roll excess, you may want to head to Motley Crue’s The Dirt or Status Quo’s co-autobiography XS All Areas. Bruce Dickinson’s memoirs are written in a consciously different style, paying more attention to the music itself and his other business activities. It is well known that rich rock stars like to have different hands in different pies away from the studio, but few compare to him. Dickinson describes in the text how he now - incredibly - makes a second living as a pilot, flying ordinary passengers for an airline company, graduating from getting his initial aviation licence as a hobby. He even flies the band on tour in a Boeing 757.
On top of this, Bruce talks in the book about how he spent time on world tours learning to become an international fencer, having his own novel published, working as the presenter of a BBC 6 Music show and bringing about ‘Maiden’s ‘Trooper Ale’ seen on the shelves of Asda or Tesco. Some pretty impressive stuff by anyone’s standards.
One distinctive feature is that Dickinson, amazingly, makes no reference whatsoever to his wife and children throughout the entire book. In a blurb at the end, he makes the point that this was a deliberate attempt to stop the book becoming ‘overkill’ and he chose to focus mainly on the music, which is commendable, though it would have been interesting to hear a bit about what life is like at home.
The most candid description of life at home is towards the end, where the ‘Maiden frontman describes his traumatic experience of being treated for throat cancer; surely the ultimate crushing blow for any vocalist. Thankfully, he made a full recovery after being told he may never sing again. This is possibly the part of the book which captivated me the most, as Dickinson describes the lonely routine he faced for the best part of a year, in almost grotesque detail as his health slowly failed. It brought a smile to my face when he explained how his appetite and lifestyle gradually returned back to normal upon recovery.
Dickinson also had a successful period as a solo artist, mainly during the 1990s. He gives some nice background to the making of some of these underrated albums and recounts when him and his backing band made an unprecedented trip to war-torn Sarajevo to play a concert. Bruce and his pals were barely able to make the gig as bombs and bullets tore through the city around them.
It would have been nice if Dickinson had given a bit more background to the production and touring behind 'Maiden's highly successful albums of recent years, but the end part of the book seems rather rushed. For most of the second half, he goes into great detail, page after page, about aviation work, which though often interesting, gave me the temptation to skip through to a part where he returns to the music. That being said, I have had a tendency to do this with many great biographies in recent years, such is my poor attention span. As someone who reads a lot of books - and writes my own - sometimes I just think 'Can I really be bothered with this?'
On the whole though, I found What Does This Button Do? to be a very enjoyable and humorous read. Bruce seems a very down-to-earth and likeable guy, the sort of bloke you would enjoy sitting down for a few pints with. Although there are other rock stars who have written great, hilarious memoirs, some of them just aren't very endearing characters. Gene Simmons springs to mind.
After this, I'm sure many fans would love for 'Maiden's bassist and main songwriter Steve Harris to follow suit and write his own book. Come on Steve!