Like many Classic Heavy Metal fans, The Hawk woke up the other day to the jarring news of the Blaze Bayley heart attack. Yes, the former Wolfsbane and Iron Maiden frontman Blaze Bayley had been admitted to hospital after suffering a heart attack whilst at home – and at the age of only 58.
But there’s way more to Blaze Bayley than the 5 years he spent in Iron Maiden, where things didn’t quite work out, and he got tarred a little unfairly as ‘Not Bruce’. So here’s a blog about Blaze Bayley the man – not just the one-time Iron Maiden singer. Settle in and enjoy.
A Genuine Heavy Metal Legend
Luckily, Blaze has been stabilized in the hospital and is said to be in good spirits, just a little disappointed that planned tour dates will now have to be re-thought whilst he gets himself back to health. So, look, first off, let’s all wish Blaze best wishes with his recovery – he’s somewhat of a minor legend in our music, and has shown a great deal of resilience to get to be one too.
The Hawk (as readers may have noticed) is somewhat of an Iron Maiden fan, and so Blaze has cropped up elsewhere on this blog, especially the run down of Iron Maiden’s classic B-Sides, where Blaze’s rendition of UFOs ‘Doctor Doctor’ came in at number #4.
Something in the Water
First thing you should know about Blaze – he’s from Birmingham, England. As noted on here already, the birthplace of heavy metal, and home to the first proper metal band ever. A tough, grime-filled town which was the perfect inspiration for young guys to join bands, play aggressive and / or doomy music for escapism.
So that was a good sign. Add in that Blaze was born in 1963, meaning that for all of his teenage years, he was experiencing the birth of heavy metal first hand – in the right place AND at the right time. Young Blaze went to gigs at the Birmingham Odeon (1500 seats only), seeing Iron Maiden, Ozzy, Metallica, Anthrax, Ronnie James Dio – all the massive names we know today. In those days, of course, bands did play in mostly theaters, not just massive arenas, so you got up close and personal.
Life had been tough for Blaze growing up, in the sense that he lived in with a lone parent in a mobile home – outside toilet, no running water. But not knowing any different, he got on with it – he didn’t feel deprived at all and seems anyway to be one of life’s natural optimists – never letting any opportunity go to waste.
Hotel Management? Or Heavy Metal!?
After leaving school, he got a job as a night porter in a local hotel, and wondered whether he had what it took to be a manager there. But his heart wasn’t in hotels – he was immersed in the music. Watching a band of kids rehearse in the hotel during his night shifts, it got Blaze thinking about how great it would be to get a gig as a singer in a heavy metal band – and he soon got his chance, answering a newspaper advert – ‘Heavy Metal Singer wanted – No Experience needed.’
He called them, styled himself as a young Ronnie James Dio at the audition and got the job. Wolfsbane were up and running, with a clear ambition – ‘We want to be the biggest band in Birminham!’ This was in 1984.
It was a rough and ready, in-your-face act to begin with, obviously, but they worked on it and improved, managing to record three EPs as they went along: ‘ Wolfsbane’ (1985), ‘Dancin’ Dirty’ (1987) and ‘Wasted but Dangerous’ (1988). They scored better gigs too, supporting (among others) Motörhead, Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper, Anthrax, Overkill, Sepultura, Kreator, Sepultura, Dark Angel, King Diamond, Magnum, The Almighty, The Wildhearts, and The Quireboys during the 80s and early 90s.
That got them a break – after a gig supporting NWOBHM royalty King Diamond at the Hammersmith Odeon, they had the honour of a small right up in Kerrang magazine, right opposite a full page spread on Slayer. None other than Rick Rubin, producer of ‘Reign In Blood‘ saw the article, listened to one of their demos, and on the strength of that, offered them a recording deal with his Def Jam label AND a ticket to Los Angeles to make an album.
It all culminated in a slot supporting Iron Maiden themselves, who were touring their album, ‘No Prayer for the Dying.’ Blaze Bayley loved that tour – Wolfsbane pushed themselves to new heights trying to surpass the big boys, and he’d try out some Bruce Dickinson antics, climbing all over the monitors.
The wheels fell off a bit after that though. Wolfsbane’s second album, ‘Down fall the good guys’ did ok on the UK, and a single form it, ‘Ezy’ managed a chart high of 68 in the same country.
Maiden Come Calling
But commercially, there was no US breakthrough, and Def Jam dropped them. They carried on and even won a vote as the UKs best unsigned act in 1993, but the writing was on the wall. Grunge was breaking through, sales remained low-ish, and the future looked a bit bleak. When Bruce Dickinson quit Iron Maiden, Wolfsbane’s manager encouraged Blaze to go through the audition process to replace him.
Now, Blaze entered that weird phase of his career that few people can really relate to – stepping into the shoes of a well-loved singer in an established band. Think Ronnie James Dio joining Black Sabbath, or Tim Owens replacing Rob Halford in Judas Priest. It’s not only singers that suffer – Jason Newstead could never really hope to replace Cliff Burton as the soul of Metallica as well as their bass player – but the singer is front and centre and it can be a lonely business if everyone wishes the old frontman had never left.
Newstead and Blaze were also big fans of the bands they went on to join, so must have felt a bit overawed. One day, you’re watching your favourite metal band as a fan, with a tendency to hero-worshipping. Next thing, you’re in the band on an (apparently) level footing.
But Iron Maiden came from humble beginnings themselves, and went out of their way to make Blaze welcome by all accounts (including his own). He was encouraged to throw his ideas into the writing process, and the best ones made the album. He improved as a musician working with those seasoned performers – both as a writer and recorder, and in terms of finding new levels to his voice. He has a writing credit for (among others) ‘Man on the Edge’, one of the best songs on his first Maiden album, ‘The X Factor’.
He was now on the Iron Maiden treadmill, with all that entails, good and bad. And for the most part, Blaze enjoyed the ride. Here he was living the dream, singing great songs every night as part of one of the top heavy metal bands ever. What was not to like? And he got to mix with the type of high rollers that Maiden still attracted. His hero Ronnie Dio was a Maiden support act, and Blaze would stand at the back and listen every night, before following him on stage. Slayer were on a later tour – Blaze got to exchange vocal tips with Tom Araya.
But all the time, the nay-sayers were out in force. Blaze wasn’t Bruce. Could he really cut it? Could he perform some of those classic songs to the standard the fans expected?
Even today, Wikipedia describes Blaze as ‘ the lead singer of Iron Maiden during Bruce Dickinson’s absence from 1994 to 1999,’ as though Dickinson had just taken a sabbatical or something. In reality, nobody knew if or when he might return, and Maiden were pretty clear themselves that he was gone for good.
For all the sniping though, it was undeniable that there were issues with Blaze’s vocal stamina, which especially started to come to the fore after his second Iron Maiden album, ‘Virtual XI’. He tried to maintain his voice, but struggled, and a few of the shows had to be cancelled. Bruce Dickinson was famous not only for his vocal ability, but also for his extraordinary stamina – being able to perform at the same level night after night.
Not many people could manage the type of vocal performance demanded by Iron Maiden songs night after night, and Blaze summed it up well himself:
‘ You can’t go and buy a new set of vocal cords. No. It’s the equivalent of saying to the guitarist, “Here’s your strings. They have to last the whole tour.” At every show, you’ve got to try and give everything you can with just enough left to get you until tomorrow, when you give everything you have again.’Blaze Bayley
The gods pronounced judgement at Blaze’s last Maiden show in Argentina, with heavy rain and a dark sky. At a band meeting shortly afterwards, they informed him that Bruce Dickinson was to return.
Blaze Era Classics
Many people would have been bitter to be cast aside like that, but Blaze seems not to have let it get him down too much – as said, he strikes The Hawk as a very ‘glass-half-full’ kind of guy. He had 5 years as the lead singer of Iron Maiden – most people would be willing to take that as an experience. And the Blaze-era catalogue contains some treasures – think of ‘Sign of The Cross’ or ‘The Clansman’, which still get rolled out regularly at Maiden shows.
One Door Closes
Anyway, Blaze wasn’t finished with music, not by a long chalk. He embarked on a solo career right after Iron Maiden, under the names of Blaze or Blaze Bayley Band. There was plenty of churn in band members, but most important, plenty of heavy metal music being churned out.
And touring. Always touring. The facilities are a little spartan post-Iron Maiden, with Blaze back to touring in a van, just like in his Wolfsbane days. As well as his own band, he’s toured with fellow ex-Maiden singer Paul Dianno, and briefly made all-star appearances with Judas Priest reject Tim Owens and Queensryche’s Geoff Tate in Trinity. In between all that, there was time for a Wolfsbane reunion.
The Hawk is giving only a very short taste of Blaze’s post-Maiden career here, it should be said. He has kept himself immensely busy, even continuing to tour after the death from a stroke of his wife Debbie Hartland. He’d only married her a little over a year earlier, but played on to honour her memory.
10 and counting…
By The Hawk’s count, Blaze has released 10 original studio albums since his departure from Iron Maiden, on top of the 2 he made with Maiden, and 4 with Wolfsbane. So, to say Blaze is a Classic Heavy metal legend is not to blow smoke up his ass by any means. Since being cast aside by Maiden, he’s had easily the most productive spell of his career in terms of output, and had a blast along the way.
He’s done it the hard way, risen to the peak of the industry, gone down the other side, but continued to get out there and perform for the sheer love of it. People like Blaze Bayley really are the backbone of our music.
The Hawk is gonna play out with his favourite Blaze era Iron Maiden number, ‘Sign of the Cross’. Get well soon Blaze – the fans can’t wait to see you out there again. And if Blaze’s work ethic in the past is any guide, he’s already plotting his comeback from hospital.
What did you make of the Blaze era in Iron Maiden? Was he better off working his own projects instead of trying to fill impossibly big shoes? What’s the best Blaze material from the three eras of his own career – Wolfsbane, Iron Maiden, and the solo years?
Share your thoughts in the comments below, or send feedback direct to The Hawk.