Twenty years ago today (25th April 2017), Bruce Dickinson was reaching the end of his 'Accident Of Birth' promotional tour of the UK. He had with him writing partner and (at the time) former Iron Maiden guitarist Adrian Smith, and guitarist / producer Roy Z. Eonmusic's Eamon O'Neill was there, and jammed '2 Minutes To Midnight' with Adrian. Here's the story of how.
"Journey back to the dark side", sang Bruce Dickinson on the opening lyric of 'Accident Of Birth', the title track of his 1997 solo album. Released as a single on Monday 21st April, looking back now, the words are eerily fitting, as I recall a time when at twenty years old, with numerous out of my hands changes haven taken place in my life, I was in a pretty dark place. Still, out of the darkness came hope, and the love of music steered me through.
Back then I was a student, studying at the University of Ulster near Belfast. A life long Iron Maiden fan, I had been just a little too young, and more than a little geographically misplaced to catch them in their 1980s' heyday. The band first played in Ireland in 1990, and I did go to see them. I was only thirteen years old, and it was my first ever concert. It was on the 'No Prayer For The Dying' tour, and though I was blown away, it was of the bombastic, all conquering glory days that I was truly a fan; of 'Powerslave' and 'Somewhere In Time' and 'Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son'; in short, the Adrian Smith dominated period.
By 1997, Bruce Dickinson had, a few years earlier followed Adrian out of the band, and now a solo artist, he'd hooked up with Smith once more to record the 'Accident Of Birth' album. Working with producer, guitarist and collaborator Roy Z, the co-writers of some of Iron Maiden's most popular tracks; 'Flight Of Icarus', '2 Minutes To Midnight', 'The Evil That Men Do' were experiencing something of a rebirth themselves, and much was being made of the reunion in the music press.
It was while flicking through the pages of Kerrang! magazine on a bus journey home from Belfast to where I lived in the village of Moneymore, that I read about the pair's promotional plans for 'Accident Of Birth'. Hitting the road for a series of in-store appearances that would include a signing session and an acoustic set, the chance to catch Bruce in Adrian together in these intimate confines seemed a world away, as I sat on that Ulsterbus that Friday. However, among the list of seven stops on their planned trip (which included such unlikely locations as Chester, Derby and Lancaster), one caught my attention; Preston, Lancashire.
I knew that my mate Ray Best, a fellow Iron Maiden nut, would be up for the idea, so long as he could get a few days off work. Flying was out of the question, we decided, so there was only one way to make the journey; by coach. And so, a few weeks later, we found ourselves making our way to Preston, on a £39.99 National Express deal; first via boat (on the now retired Stena Line HSS hydrofoil), and from Scotland onward, by road. A groggy 6am start to get the early ferry from Belfast to Stranraer was followed by an arduous two hundred mile journey. Our route took us through the beautiful Scottish countryside, into Cumbria in Northern England, and then via the stunning scenery of the Peak District. Finally, we arrived at our destination; the monolithic concrete beast of Preston bus station, at the time boasting it was one of Europe's biggest, whilst keeping quiet about the fact that it was also one of its ugliest, and most soulless.
We arrived in the town at around 4pm on the Thursday, the evening before Bruce's appearance at HMV in Preston's Fishergate. We met up with my sister and her friends, and following a bit of catching up, finally ended our long day in the Hog's Head pub, over a pair of well earned pints.
Finally, the day was upon us; Friday 25th April. Bruce was due to perform at 4.30pm, but keen as we were, Besty and I decided to check out the venue in the early morning. We'd never attended an in-store before, and though artists will typically sign one or two items at such events - usually that which they are trying to promote - we were unaware of the norms, and had took with us most of our sizeable collection of Iron Maiden records and CDs across the Irish Sea. I must have had sixty or seventy items, and Besty had the same.
As we approached the counter to make our enquiries, one of the store's security guards noticed that with heavy Northern Irish accents, we sure as hell weren't locals. As we chatted, barely concealing our excitement, he was quite taken aback when he learned just how far we'd come to meet Bruce and Adrian, and for whatever reason, right there he promised to do more for us than simply show us the best spot from which to watch the band's acoustic performance. Advising to return closer the start of the event, we left the store for the few hours to kill some time. Strolling through a shopping centre, I spotted a nun collecting from charity, and decided to giver her some loose change.
As 3pm approached, we returned to the store and hurriedly sought out our security guard friend. Locating him, he had some news for us; Bruce Dickinson, Adrian Smith, and Roy Z had arrived , and having informed Bruce of our efforts, he'd agreed to meet us personally in his dressing room, both before and after the performance. We were to be taken upstairs where Bruce was waiting for us. He'd be conducting some interviews, but we were told that we were welcome to wait and chat to him afterwards. We'd also be invited to watch the band's performance from 'side-stage', as guests of Bruce Dickinson.
At 4.15pm, we were taken into the store's back area, and following a short trip in a large industrial lift, we were ushered into Bruce's green room, which was nothing more glamorous than the HMV staff's kitchen and locker room. We were introduced to Bruce's assistant - a guy named Joe Munns - who warmly welcomed us, and apologised as he explained that Bruce had just nipped out for a coffee and would be back soon. Clearly, apologies were not necessary, and anyway, my attention was fixated elsewhere, for sitting a short distance from me on the other side of the room with an acoustic guitar on his lap was that iconic guitarist; Adrian Smith.
I cannot overstate how important Adrian Smith was to me as a guitar player, even back then. It was him, Dave Murray and Angus Young that had been the very reason that I ever picked up the instrument, and now here I was sitting opposite him, with guitar in hand. There's no way you can prepare for a moment like this. I can scarcely believe I actually had the balls to even ask him. But now was the tricky part; what the hell do you play when sitting opposite (arguably) one of the greatest players in one of the greatest guitar duos of all time? Well, we did what most guitarists do when they first jam; we played some twelve-bar blues.
Picture it for a moment; the fan and the former guitar hero. Not many people get to live out this fantasy, but it was happening. What an utter thrill it was, to sit there making eye contact and giving the nod, trading solos with Adrian, like it was the most normal thing in the world.
Blues jams can be great, or incredibly tedious. This one fell into the former category, however, if you're going to play with Adrian Smith, you'd be mad not to at least ask about doing an Iron Maiden song. So I asked him if he'd mind doing one. "If you like", he casually replied. You dream about moments like this. But they never actually happen, not in real life, do they? But this time it was happening, and I suggested '2 Minutes to Midnight'.
As unbelievable as it is to even me today, I then asked him; "Do you mind if I play the solos?" Without hesitation, Adrian replied; "No problem". I'm honestly not sure that I would be so bold today, even if my skills as a soloist have improved considerably. I'm glad I did however, and as we proceeded to play, with me attempting to replicate his smooth lead licks on a not-built-for-this-sort-of-shit acoustic guitar, in walked Bruce Dickinson.
Besty meanwhile, had introduced himself to Bruce Dickinson, who was now frantically making his way through the pile of vinyl the Ray had produced for him to sign. Caught up in what had just happened, I'd almost forgotten about my records, so I reached for my bag and asked Adrian Smith to get signing too. Despite the beastly number of items, the pair of them happily signed the lot.
Soon, Besty and I switched places, and I introduced myself to Bruce Dickinson. As I began chatting to Bruce, the press arrived to interview him. I stepped aside for a moment as the Lancashire Evening Post's journalist and photographer got to work, with Bruce sill signing his way through my collection as he talked. Catching our breath, I took the opportunity to catch up with Besty. It was our first chance to reflect on the events that had just unfolded, and as we chatted, for the second time our out of place accents caught the attention. The journalist who had been quizzing Bruce Dickinson now turned to us: "How do you come to be here?", she inquired, and as we began to tell our story she started taking notes. "I'd like to get this in the newspaper", she said; "Can we get a group shot of the four of you?"
Disbelievingly, Ray and I could scarcely believe what was happening. Now we were suddenly part of the story. "Do you want to hold an album?", the photographer directed Bruce. Reaching over, I grabbed a copy of 'Powerslave' and gave it to him. Seizing the opportunity however, as any professional would, Bruce instead riffled through my pile of covers and pulled out the new single instead; that's my 12" of 'Accident Of Birth' that he's holding in the photo at the bottom of this article.
As promised, we got to watch the performance from close quarters. Bruce, Adrian and Roy played a short set, featuring, from memory 'Accident Of Birth', 'Tears Of The Dragon', and a few others, as well as a rare outing of Iron Maiden's 'Children Of The Damned'. We then hung around whilst Bruce and the band did their signing, before following them back upstairs to collect our things, pose for a few more photographs, and say our goodbyes. Joe Munns thanked us and gave us his number, in case we ever decided to make a similar trip.
We made the evening paper the next day. There we were, on page seven; two fanatics who took a chance and got a whole lot more than they'd ever anticipated.
Nowadays of course, both Bruce and Adrian are back in Iron Maiden. The pair rejoined less than two years after 'Accident Of Birth', following one more album under Bruce's name; the excellent 'The Chemical Wedding', which sowed the seeds of the reunion that fans longed for.
Me, I now run this website that you're reading, as well as a YouTube Channel that specialises, fittingly, in Adrian Smith guitar lessons. Ray and I are still good friends. He's still big into his Maiden, and if you're in the fan club you may have come across him.
By the way, almost every guitarist I see playing '2 Minutes To Midnight' plays the pre-chorus wrong, in the same way that I once played it. It sounds right, but it's not. I play it correctly now. Adrian Smith showed me how to do it.