To say that Bruce Dickinson’s solo career is the greatest of any vocalist in metal history is a bold claim, because you’re going right up against titans like Dio and Ozzy. The latter is a stretch, he’s made more mediocre to bad albums than good to great ones. Dio’s solo work however was consistent throughout his career, and legendary, iconic even, in its greatest moments. I will be making a case for Dickinson however, not so much based on his vast array of masterful songs and often fully realized albums — of which he has many, but on the incredible diversity found within his solo discography, his willingness to explore and expand into new sounds, and his lack of fear in experimenting in public. His discography ranges from bouncy, cheery hard rock to emotionally charged balladry; to proggy alternative-metal explorations; and onto dark, menacing metal records that shook with such vitality and earth-shaking heaviness that they made Iron Maiden’s 90s era albums seem tame in comparison.
I was late to the party in regards to Dickinson’s solo career, having only begun my own explorations of it after he had reunited with Maiden on 2000’s Brave New World. It was just one of those inexplicable actions of being a teenager, but at the time I held an innate prejudice towards solo material of any artist in any genre — my belief being that if the music wasn’t good enough for whatever band an artist was associated with, then it was probably not worth hearing. It was all justified in my mind, you see Holy Diver wasn’t a Dio solo album, it was the debut album of Dio, the band. What can you do about a mindset that attributes so much to one Vivian Campbell?! In retrospect I can see that it might’ve been a side-effect of that teenage need to identify oneself according to groups or brands — it was “(insert band name here) or GTFO”. As further testament to just how seriously I internalized this logic, I refused to listen to Dave Mustaine’s MD 45 until years and years later.
The catalyst for breaking free from such a close-minded view was my stumbling onto a Dickinson gem called “Tears of a Dragon”. It was a discussion on the Megadeth.com forums that prompted me to find this song, when a random post by some forgotten user name insisted that the song had Dickinson’s greatest vocal performance ever, above any Maiden songs. I searched around for it, found its music video streaming in Real Player (yes that existed, it wasn’t a dream), waited for it to buffer, and for the next few minutes I was mesmerized. I don’t need to convince anyone here do I? “Tears of a Dragon” was a watershed for Dickinson as a songwriter. It was a brooding, melancholic, wistful ballad that served as his confessional about his rapidly accumulating feelings about the possibility of leaving Iron Maiden. Its emotional resonance relied entirely on Dickinson’s lyrics and his approach to them. Never before had the Air Raid Siren sounded so pensive, hesitant, and vulnerable — nor sung words that lacked any semblance of blood and thunder bravado.
From there I plunged in head long, buying up his catalog in rapid succession, beginning with his just then released 2001 Best Of collection. It was both an imperfect and perfect starting place in that with the benefit of hindsight I can see how much its tracklisting was woefully inadequate, however it did work as a microcosm in illuminating just how wildly varied and diverse his catalog was. I listened to that collection to death, particularly its bonus disc of assorted rarities which enthralled me to no end due to its even more bewildering array of musicality. After a few months I had all of his solo albums, and devoured them, listening and re-listening and listening again. I scoured the internet for old interviews of Dickinson’s from every album release era, and wound up with a pretty decent collection of them, their collective contents threading together an undertold story.
What that story illuminated about Dickinson’s solo career is the sheer risk he wagered in reaching for it in an era of turbulent pop-cultural change; the emotional turmoil that ensued for him privately, and the tenuous nature of events that led him to soldier on instead of quitting music as a career altogether — the possibility of which was closer than anyone suspected. But lets start at the beginning, with the first two albums in his solo discography that were wildly different from one another, and exemplified the wild creative extremes he’d come to explore in many directions over the course of the 90s and beyond.
Tattooed Millionaire (1990, Columbia Records)
Dickinson’s solo career began in an inconspicuously innocent manner, as he himself describes in the liner notes to his solo Best Of collection as “a very enjoyable accident”. An invitation by his publishing company (Zomba Music) to contribute a song to a film soundtrack (1989’s cinematic masterpiece A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child) led to Dickinson getting in touch with an old friend, an out of work guitarist named Janick Gers formerly of Ian Gillan’s solo band. The ensuing song was “Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter”, a clunky yet endearing tongue-in-cheek howler that impressed Steve Harris enough that it was yanked off the shelves so Maiden could co-opt it for their 1990 No Prayer for the Dying album.
Long before the song received its unlikely UK number one hit status in early 1991 however, it had generated enough behind the scenes interest from Zomba and Sony/Columbia records to lead to another invitation for Dickinson, this time to record an entire album. Zomba had then just recently acquired a recording studio, Battery Studios (oddly enough, it was the newly christened half of the legendary Morgan Studios, where just about every major UK rock album in the 70s was recorded), and they needed someone to come in and give their new toy a spin. Dickinson received the studio time essentially on their dime, all while assuring them he had enough songs already in the can to complete a full length album. He didn’t.
Holed up in the front room of Gers airport-adjacent Hounslow home, Dickinson and his new guitarist wrote the entire album in two weeks. It was a complete departure from the sophisticated complexity of Maiden’s preceding Seventh Son of a Seventh Son album in both tone and structure. Tattooed Millionaire was a wild, loose, no frills rock n’ roll album that owed more to AC/DC than anything resembling Maiden’s progressive influences. Dickinson would comment, “We took all our favorite rock and roll cliches, bundled them all together, and recorded it”, a fitting summation of the album, but it was still filled with inspired performances. Featuring the aforementioned Gers as the lone guitarist, along with Andy Carr on bass, and Jagged Edge’s Fabio Del Rio on drums, Dickinson’s band was in essence a three piece in purely instrumental terms. Gers would record both rhythm and overdubbed lead parts on the album, but as heard on the Dive Dive Live! concert video this lineup was downright aggressive, raw, and dare I suggest punky when playing live.
That rawness began on some of the deep cuts on this album, on songs such as “Dive Dive Dive!” with its almost Guns N’ Roses-ish snakey riffs and Dickinson’s half raspy / half snarled vocal delivery, as well as on “Son of a Gun” and “Gypsy Road” where he dips down into roots-y Aerosmith territory. On those and other songs where this strange British take on Americanized guitar rock really works, they come across as a batch of a fun, light-hearted, feel-good rock n’ roll songs sung by a vocalist who’s far too skilled for them. That’s not a critique on Dickinson’s vocals, but I’ve always felt that Tattooed Millionaire was an unusual sounding album because of that disparity. A song as zany as “Zulu Lulu”, or “Lickin’ the Gun” for example sounds like it would work better if performed by ZZ Top or Steven Tyler, more than the man who so epically sang “Hallowed Be Thy Name”. Dickinson himself would point out in the liner notes of the album’s re-release, “Some of the tracks hold up extraordinarily well… Some of them maybe not so much… In general, I think the stuff that has some really good melodies is the stuff that holds up”.
Essential Cuts: There’s little to link this rather inauspicious debut with the drastic musical experimentation he’d come upon in his next two solo records, but the seeds for those future outings can be detected in Dickinson’s success at writing a pair of breezy, excellent hard rock singles in the title track and the poignantly autobiographical “Born In ’58”. As a song, “Tattooed Millionaire” is directed at the era’s Los Angeles rock stars and their entourage/groupie fueled lifestyles (there are rumors that its about Nikki Sixx specifically, but I’ll let you Google those). Its perhaps the album’s smartest moment, a bit of satire that perhaps Jonathan Swift himself would approve of, as Gers and Dickinson crafted a pop-metal gem in the musical vein of those very bands the song’s ire is directed towards. So well crafted is the song that even its verses are in perfectly catchy lock-step, “He got a wife / She ain’t no brain child / ex-mud queen of Miami”. When Dickinson cuts loose on the high register, layered vocal chorus, he tonally shifts the song from angry judgment to that of liberating, blissful contentment.
Where “Tattooed Millionaire” is full of brash indictment, “Born in 58” is more concerned with contemplation — in many ways this is Dickinson’s first attempt at writing something personal, well, ever. Using his grandfather as a framing reference, Dickinson’s lyrics here deal with a pointed criticism of modern society and its lack of values. It can almost be viewed as a companion piece to “Tattooed Millionaire” in its dissatisfaction with something external, but here Dickinson seems to be speaking from some internal sense of loss, “On and on, we slept till dawn / When we awoke, we hardly spoke”. Whatever the song’s true meaning, its been a criminally underrated tune, and Dickinson’s vocal performance here demands some extra attention, particularly in how effortlessly he nails the verse segue into the chorus, “And men were still around / who fought for freedom / stood their ground and died!”. That explosive vocal is my favorite part of the song, one of those classic Dickinson moments that would never exist were the song in the hands of a lesser singer.
Though I’m not featuring the song or its fantastic music video among the clips below, I would be remiss not to talk a bit about the excellent David Bowie cover of “All The Young Dudes” on the album. Actually, its a Mott the Hoople song, but Bowie wrote it, you know how these things worked in the seventies… artists were songwriters or performers or both. Dickinson had performed the song cold at a charity show at Wembley Arena, and surprised by his own success with it on stage decided that the band would tackle it for the record. Frankly its a brilliant, inspired cover, and risking blasphemy I’ll say its the definitive version of the song, even nearly twenty years removed from its written era. The key lies not just in Dickinson’s flexible yet strong vocal delivery, but in Gers far more melodic and rounded treatment of the guitar motifs throughout the song. The original has guitar figures that sound incomplete and unfinished in comparison, Gers just seems to own this song and he’s really the star of it, delivering his best individual performance on the album.
Balls to Picasso (1994, Mercury Records)
The pivotal album of Dickinson’s career not only as a solo artist, but as a member of Iron Maiden, Balls to Picasso has a long and tortured history in terms of development and what it meant in the greater scheme of things for the man himself. Where to begin discussing such things? Well, the album’s gestation itself seems a good place to start, and for that we go backwards from its 1994 release date all the way to pre-June 1992, while Dickinson was still a member of Iron Maiden and on the verge of going on the road for the Fear of the Dark World Tour. Seemingly picking up where he left off, the first iteration of the album in its rudimentary state was not much different from the feel and style of Tattooed Millionaire, reinforced by bringing aboard that album’s producer in Chris Tsangarides and this time the entirety of Jagged Edge as backing musicians (by this point they were known as Skin). Dickinson immediately felt that he was just going through the motions and not really challenging himself, an important tidbit to point out because that’s also precisely what he was beginning to feel within Maiden.
Those initial sessions were immediately broken up, and upon the advice of Maiden’s manager, the infamous Rod Smallwood, Dickinson got in touch with famed producer Keith Olsen of so many platinum/multiplatinum albums in the 70s and 80s (most notably, Olsen produced the now classic self-titled 1975 Fleetwood Mac album that introduced Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks into the lineup). The first thought was that Olsen would be able to work the same reconstructive magic he used for Whitesnake’s pair of late 80s albums that were waylaid by personnel changes and delays. The tapes were brought to Los Angeles, but it soon became obvious that simply re-edting material wasn’t a viable strategy in this case. It was decided that the tapes would be shelved and a new album created entirely from scratch, and Dickinson saw this as the perfect moment and opportunity to try something daring. He explains in the Best Of liner notes that he would begin by “taking a radical new direction, away from big-hair-metal and 80s cliches towards something dark, scary, joyful, intense, except I wasn’t quite sure how to do it”, and he adds, “This was a terrifying moment.”
It was January of 1993 by this time, and for six weeks Dickinson toiled, working on material that select chunks of would later surface as future b-sides that showcased a very “Peter Gabriel-y vibe” (Dickinson’s own description). The album was finished but Dickinson wasn’t satisfied, feeling that “deep down I know it wasn’t right and bits of it were downright embarrassing, but nevertheless it had the seeds of something good, and they were contained in a track called “Tears of a Dragon””. Those Los Angeles Olsen sessions also introduced Dickinson to a band called Tribe of Gypsies that was recording their album down the hall in the same studio. He stepped into their recording room one night to hear what they were doing and was blown away by their Latin infused take on hard rock. It was also the beginning of his long friendship and working partnership with Tribes guitarist Roy Z, the man whose presence launched the third iteration of what would become Balls to Picasso.
What Dickinson saw in the Tribe of Gypsies’ musical approach was an emphasis on a gritty rhythm section, playful percussion, with a melodic core that was simultaneously authentic and emotional (and he’s right, seriously, everyone owes it to themselves to check out the band’s excellent debut album). In the 1994 Kerrang! interview for the album’s release, Dickinson affirmed, “I wanted to use percussion and different rhythms in a way that’s never been done before… What’s been lacking in this form of music for so many years is groove. Things just became regimented into what’s now become the Maiden gallop or the AC/DC plod.” So he asked for the Tribes’ help and they agreed to be borrowed and together Roy Z and Dickinson discovered a writing partnership that resulting in an immediate outpouring of new songs. These new songs replaced everything written for the previous two failed album attempts, except for the aforementioned “Tears of a Dragon”, which Roy Z loved and managed to improve upon with a heartfelt, note perfect guitar solo.
The resulting third-times-a-charm Balls to Picasso is still a mixed bag to this day — to be praised for its uninhibited sense of ambition and its massive leap from the “AC/DC plod” rock n’ roll of Tattooed Millionaire, but with the acknowledgement that some of its ten cuts simply fell flat. Personally I suspect the lackluster production (courtesy of Olsen’s engineer Shay Baby) is at fault, because a song like “Laughing in the Hiding Bush” sounds absolutely massive when heard on the 1998 Scream For Me Brazil live album, but oddly muted and wet-ragged here. Fans and Dickinson himself agree in retrospect that the album should’ve been produced by Roy Z himself, given what he’d bring to the table in the future as a producer. That being said there are some moments where I think the songwriting itself is at fault, such as on back to back album openers “Cyclops” and “Hell No”, songs that seemed to either be in need of editing or some extra tempo based punch in their verse sections.
As a result, the album is ascending in quality, starting off sluggishly only to get increasingly better and better as it goes along, culminating in the glorious “Tears…” finale. But “1000 points of Light” has a sharp chorus that sounds somewhat similar to early 90s Queensryche (if only the verses weren’t so ho-hum), and I’m big on the steady burning “Fire”, with its almost funky hook line in the chorus. One of the most underrated cuts is “Sacred Cowboys”, which boasts a pulse pounding chorus with lyrics that could’ve been the basis for a rather interesting music video. And then of course there’s “Shoot All the Clowns”, a song that Dickinson was arm-twisted into writing at the behest of Mercury Records, who were interested in releasing the album. Bruce tells the story best (check out his Anthology DVD for his funny recounting of the tale) but suffice it to say his “guidance” on the song was a cassette copy of Aerosmith’s Rocks shoved under his door with a sticky note on it saying “something like this would be good”. Its actually a rather hooky, groove-laden song with nice musical moments but marred by godawful lyrics. I agree with Dickinson’s take that its music video was actually better than the song.
Its worth emphasizing that without a solo record deal in place in 1992, Dickinson birthed this difficult album at great personal expense, in fact he paid for all of the recording sessions plus travel expenses himself, including the massive costs of flying out the Tribe of Gypsies to England to complete the album proper. It made his early 1993 decision to announce his departure from Maiden all the more risky, because although he still had the financial benefit of fulfilling his upcoming last tour with Maiden (the fraught Real Live Tour) he was effectively an unsigned artist with a much lighter bank account hoping that a good, pro-active label would pick it up. Dickinson and half of Mercury Records roster was dropped a mere three months after the album’s release, enough time for them to pay for a pair of music videos and some basic promotion, but the album was not a commercial success. It wasn’t even a complete artistic success in its own right, but it certainly was a victory for Dickinson in proving to fans and media that he could do something different apart from Maiden.
Essential Cuts: The most vivid examples of what that something different could be are found in the album’s two best songs; the Latin-flavored ballad “Change of Heart”, and the epic “Tears of a Dragon”. The former is an overlooked gem on this album, and one of the moments where Roy Z’s Tribe of Gypsies flavor really shines through with his dazzling touches of acoustic guitar flourish and flamenco-styled runs. The lyrics lament the end of a relationship, a relatively sedate topic, but they’re written from the perspective of a narrator that seems both able and unable to accept what’s happened. From sitting “alone at a window”, depressed to no end of course, he affirms that he’ll “be there, catching your tears / Before they fall, to the ground” — all while acknowledging that she’s had enough of their relationship: “You, you’re walking away / You couldn’t stay / You had a change of heart”. Dickinson’s vocal in the chorus is simply magnificent, particularly when backed up by harmonized vocals in specific moments. But the star of the song is Roy Z with his utterly gorgeous Latin-rock styled guitar solo, the kind of thing I wish he did more of on this album.
Then of course there’s “Tears of a Dragon”, and what else needs to be said about this song? Its not just one of Dickinson’s finest moments as a vocalist overall, but it would rate serious consideration for being one of the greatest metal ballads of all time. I’ve always appreciated just how personal Dickinson went here, essentially laying out his emotions for all to see like the “blood on the tracks” Bob Dylan once spoke of. Its a song about Dickinson’s dawning realization that he needed to leave Iron Maiden, but while that’s specific to him — it’s universality makes it a song about facing your fears and in fact surrendering to the fear. Regarding the song’s spiritual essence, Dickinson was fond of a Henry Miller quote that declared, “All growth is a leap in the dark, a spontaneous unpremeditated act without benefit of experience.” It was this encapsulating quote that stayed in his mind as he wrote this song and as he made the decision to leave Iron Maiden, feeling that it was the only way for him to grow as an artist and as a person.
I’ll admit that its a song that hits my emotional center when I’m receptive to it, which is also why I’m very judicious about when and where I listen to it. Its one of those songs that’s so powerful that I actually avoid listening to it when I’m in a frivolous, music hungry mood — it’s meant for more than that. The odd drunken, emotional sing-a-long with friends has happened a few times with this as our rousing soundtrack, but even in that hazy state, I’m still left punctured by its dagger sharp subtext. I think there are things in all of our lives that we’re afraid of, and most of it usually concerns the fear of taking a risk or plunging into that darkness headlong. In that regard “Tears of a Dragon” can often be uncomfortable to listen to, a reminder of what hasn’t been done yet — but we need these reminders. I’ll be remiss if I don’t mention just how well its music video has held up over the years, some of those panoramic hill-side shots are still stunning. They could lose the goofy, bald fat man and his mid-nineties computer generated pixie dust scenes, but everything else really works in an almost dreamy, nightmarish vision kind of way. If you haven’t already, also check out the two other versions of the song found on the re-issued edition of the album with a second disc of bonus tracks, they’re special in their own right.