I’ve just been on tour with Iron Maiden.
When I say ‘tour’ I mean ‘brewery tour’, and when I say ‘Iron Maiden’ I mean the lead singer, Bruce Dickinson.
When I was at school in South Yorkshire in the early eighties, music was tribal. As my generation reached musical awareness at roughly the same time as puberty it was simple: you were either a mod or a rocker. A fishtail parker with targets and badges or a denim jacket with sewn on patches.
I was a Mod – or at least, I imagined I was. I graffitied my desk in ‘O’ Level German with the logos of The Jam and The Specials. The following week my slogans had been defaced and shouted down by Motörhead and Black Sabbath logos. This graffiti war escalated until it covered the entire desk. At one stage I lost the moral high ground by defacing the inscription “Stairway to Heaven” with the words “are shit” underneath. It was years before I learned it was the title of a somewhat famous song and not the name of a band.
To this day I have never willingly listened to anything ‘heavy’, even though metal legends Saxon were from Barnsley and lead singer Biff Byford’s daughter was in the year below me at school. The first album I ever bought was this one:
Madness were associated with the Mod movement because of their early involvement with the 2-Tone label. And weirdly, and rather wonderfully, I’m going to be helping them launch their own beer next week.
But weeks before that, Stockport brewer Robinson’s gave me the exclusive beer trade interview with their latest collaborator, on the project that has turned very quickly into the most successful beer launch they’ve ever had:
A few weeks before the official launch of Trooper, I’m invited to Maiden’s press office. It’s a Friday afternoon and Dickinson, an affable and absurdly fit and healthy-looking bloke in his early fifties, is fussing about getting some bottles of Trooper cold enough for us to try. Every ten minutes he interrupts his flow to ask his friend and publicist, Iain Macauley, to check the fridge.
Like Madness, Maiden today are no eighties nostalgia circuit band: they’re selling more records than ever, and writing new material for every tour. It surprises me in my pre-interview research to discover an ethic of discipline and professionalism that would be impressive in any industry, let alone the supposedly sex and drugs-fuelled world of hard rock. And the polymath Dickinson takes this perfectionist approach with everything he turns his hand to.
“That’s something that was drummed into me by my Dad,” he says, after deciding his beer is not yet the perfect temperature and must be returned to the fridge. “He taught me that it doesn’t matter what you do – if you’re a road sweeper, be a good road sweeper. Take pride in who you are and what you are, whatever you are. That’s a good starting point. If you’re just in it to make a fast buck, you demean yourself at the same time as being fairly scornful of the rest of the human race.”
When Dickinson took up sword fencing, he ended up representing Great Britain in the sport. After qualifying as a pilot, he not only flies the band’s jet while on tour; he pilots commercial flights in his down time. And when he decided to brew a beer, he was very particular about the type of beer it had to be.
“I live in Chiswick, 600 yards from the Fuller’s brewery, and I’m an ESB drinker,” he says. “It’s a lovely beer, but you can only have a couple of pints. On the other hand, 3.5% beers don’t cut the mustard for me. I wanted a beer that’s full-flavoured and punches above its alcoholic weight.”
To test how serious Dickinson was, Robinsons put him through his paces with a blind taste test – “The first time I’ve had to audition in twenty years!” as Dickson puts it.
“We wanted to work with someone who was genuinely passionate about beer,” says Robinson’s head brewer Martyn Weeks. “So we set up this tasting, including some of his favourites. Out of ten beers he was actually able to name six of them, including the ones he said were his favourites, and he got them all right! He really took his time to work out a recipe he liked. He spent ages in the hop room picking out his favourite hops. The result is a genuine collaboration. Bruce likes his southern English, full-flavoured beers, and Trooper has turned out unlike any other beer we brew.”
Dickinson is also delighted with the result. “It punches above its weight in terms of flavour but sits just the right side of brain damage,” he says, “Everyone can have a good session and we can all go away friends.”
This easygoing sessionability has proved surprisingly subtle for commentators who were expecting more of a punch after being by charged by a demented zombie on the pump clip. It may lead to accusations of blandness from some. But the whole point of this beer is that it is a genuine passion rather than a gimmick constructed by marketers aimed at a specific group of fans. I mean, if it were that, wouldn’t you expect a metal band to maybe brew a lager instead, like Lemmy did?
So we get it – Dickinson is a real ale fan. As well as Fuller’s ESB, he namechecks Doom Bar and Wadworth 6X as two of his favourite beers (and picked them out successfully in the blind taste test). It would be easy to infer from this choice that Dickinson knows only safe, familiar, established real ale brands – easy, but completely wrong.
“I’m a big Belgian beer fan as well,” he says, “I love the Trappist beers – they have such a great tradition over there. Their beers are unique as well, like our real ales. I just hate bland beers. I can’t stand Budweiser. They’re the Great Satan, and they’re trying to shut down one of my favourite Czech breweries. There’s something I instinctively dislike about Budweiser. I won’t have it in the dressing room when we’re touring.”
Has he had a chance to try American microbrews then?
So Dickinson’s firm preference for trad English real ale is an informed choice. And it’s a liking that goes hand-in-hand with that symbiotic partner to beer, the Great British Pub.
“I’m quite traditional in terms of pubs – always have been. Even as a kid, I always liked the idea of a country pub in the city, a haven from racket and noise and jukeboxes and people being loud and boorish. A sanctuary where you can just sit and talk.”
Can he still find such sanctuary now he’s a world-famous rock god?
“Absolutely! I mean, it varies geographically. Brazil? Forget it. But I’ve got my local pub in Chiswick and I go there all the time. Sometimes metal fans ask for my autograph but they’re always so polite!”
Like so many bands, Iron Maiden started playing together in pubs. Is the pub still important to bands on the way up?
“My son is in a band now and the scene is exactly the same as it always has been – people want to get together to do some gigs with their mates somewhere. The number of places they can do that has been decimated by endless pressure from the government. It’s fine if you want to have three hundred football hooligans watching telly, but if you have even a folk group in corner, suddenly it’s a massive health and safety issue, you need a special licence and all that nonsense. It’s done a massive amount of damage to the idea of live music in pubs, which is taking ages to recover. And the world is full of NIMBies now. As soon as you open a pub door and there’s a bit of noise coming out – especially if it’s live music – people complain. There needs to be a concerted effort to get live music back in pubs.”
He becomes increasingly passionate as he warms to his subject.
“And then there’s the bouncers and doormen who look like the anti-terrorist squad standing outside pubs. It’s a pub! We should all be friends here. I find it intimidating and loathsome to be honest. Beer and pubs are the centres of out communities and those communities are being decimated. We need to do more to protect this great British institution.”
Bruce pulls the first pint of Trooper on cask, and I’m surprised to find it much better than the bottle, because the bottle wasn’t bad. The cask is hoppier, with a building dryness that makes it naggingly drinkable, a pint that seems to evaporate from the glass.
Bruce insists on conducting the collected journalists, trade people and liggers around the new brewery himself. He talks confidently and knowledgeably about the history of the brewery and the intricacies of brewing process, without notes.
Dickinson repeatedly says “we” when referring to Robinsons. By the end of the tour, I’m convinced he’s angling for a permanent job. Forget the adulation of fans across South America: I think he’d rather be mashing in every morning in Stockport.
Would he like to do another brew?
Back at the end of our interview weeks before, as I pack up my tape recorder and notebook, Dickinson mentions offhand that for his next trick, he’d like to get some decent beer onto planes. I mention one or two practical difficulties with this and he fixes me with a cold stare. And there we are for another twenty minutes, trying to solve the problem.
I’d sort of half-expected a chat about beer with someone going through the motions on the latest example of an increasingly vogueish marketing stunt between brewers and musicians. Instead, despite the protests of my inner Mod, I’ve enjoyed spending time with one of the most passionate beer enthusiasts I’ve ever met.